Master of Middle-earth: The Fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien
by Paul H. Kocher
Houghton Mifflin, 248 pp., $5.95
by J.R.R. Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin, 315 pp., $.95 (paper)
The Lord of the Rings, Vol. I: The Fellowship of the Ring
by J.R.R. Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin, 423 pp., $22.50 boxed set
The Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers
by J.R.R. Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin, 352 pp., $2.85 boxed set (paper)
The Lord of the Rings, Vol. III: The Return of the King
by J.R.R. Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin, 440 pp., $7.50 deluxe set (paper)
“FRODO LIVES!” The message is still printed on buttons, chalked up on subway platforms, though it is years since the first explosion of the campus cult. Does Tolkien live? Are his tales more endurable than the cult? Mr. Kocher is sure that they are, and his study will help readers to see why: not readers who, like Edmund Wilson, are resistant to fairy tales and think them fit for children only, but those who, like Coleridge, believe that such tales can nourish imagination and extend human sympathies.
Mr. Kocher marks out the ground on which we should take Tolkein seriously. He is a sensible, unpedantic guide to the Middle-earth; not for him the excessive symbol-hunting or structural analysis of some academic hobbit-fanciers. He points out patterns and correspondences which might be overlooked when the stories are gulped down at a first reading. He discusses the ideas of morality and social order which underlie The Lord of the Rings, and the characteristics of the different kinds of beings (hobbits, elves, dwarves, etc.). He describes Tolkien’s minor works, some hard to come by, and shows how they relate to the trilogy. He is sure that in telling his tales Tolkien is telling us something about ourselves and our world that we ought to hear—and that this particular form was the right way to tell it. Fresh from the 279 pages of The Hobbit and the 1,069 of The Lord of the Rings, I agree with Mr. Kocher’s general estimate, though here and there I have reservations.
The Hobbit, first published in 1937, was avowedly a children’s book: the tale of Bilbo, who went on an adventure with dwarves and a wizard and came back with a ring and a load of treasure. (Hobbits are shown as pretty much like humans, but half the size, and nicer—keen on food and with deep fruity laughs.) The tone of the story is confidential and friendly, very much like that of The Wind in the Willows: a grownup unfolding marvels to a child, sometimes stopping to explain or comment (“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations”), often sharing a joke.
The prime joke of course is the contrast between commonsensical, home-loving hobbit Bilbo and the awful happenings he is involved in: some dread event is presented in high style—”with that the messengers departed swiftly”—to be instantly deflated: “Bilbo, of course, disapproved of the whole turn of affairs.” When, almost accidentally, he picks up the magic ring in a dark and dangerous cavern, all he can think of is frying bacon and eggs in his own kitchen back home.
There are games with language, riddles and parodies. Bilbo on his dignity can sound like a pompous committee-man; Thorin, leader of the dwarves, like a patronizing company president handing out gold watches to staff with long service. The purpose of the quest for the dragon’s hoard is outlined in a business letter (“Terms: cash on delivery, up to and not exceeding one fourteenth of total profits”). The sly monster Gollum talks to Bilbo in the false baby talk some adults think will ingratiate them with a child or animal: “What has it got in its pocketses?” The narrator nudges the child a little so that he is sure to see the jokes.
Much is made of the comfort of the hobbits’ home life: the cosy fireside, the lovely food—raspberry jam, apple tart, cold chicken, and pickles. The terrors of Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains are set off by the wholesome pleasures of the Shire. The tale begins with Bilbo smoking his pipe and ends with him reaching for his tobacco jar. Food and tobacco can be used and enjoyed; but owning things for owning’s sake is the sickness of the dragon who sits on his mound of treasure. So Tolkien in his children’s book introduces one of the main themes of his Rings.
Long meditated and worked over, The Lord of the Rings appeared in 1954 (Vol. I) and 1955 (Vols. II and III). Tolkien was no longer talking specially to children, but he had taken a good deal over from his earlier tale. The reluctant hero is again a hobbit, Bilbo’s heir Frodo; but the world he is launched into is far more complex and mysterious. There is nothing in The Hobbit as frightening as the Black Riders who appear early in Frodo’s quest, with their dead faces and wailings on the wind. With his companions—wizard, dwarf, elf, two men, and three other hobbits—Frodo encounters a greater variety of creatures and landscapes. Among the best new inventions are the Ents—treemen fourteen feet high with deep woodwind voices. (There is, by the way, a splendid photograph on the cover of Mr. Kocher’s book of Tolkien asprawl among the gnarled and spreading roots of an antique tree, for all the world like Tree-beard the Ent.)
Frodo’s enemy is far worse than a dragon sitting on a pile of treasure, it is Evil itself. The Ring, which in The Hobbit was a stock fairy-tale property that could make its wearer invisible, has in The Lord of the Rings become a thing of vast and ambivalent power: catastrophic if it is allowed to fall into the hands of the dark lord Sauron, but corrupting if used by the good. Frodo’s quest is to lose it in the fire in which it was forged on Mount Doom.
In this larger world of the Rings, possessiveness is the great evil: the wish to have power over others. The free people in the book “belong to themselves”—a phrase that often recurs. They do not wish for domination; they wish to use things properly, and not exploit them; when Gimli the dwarf speaks of the magical caverns of Helm’s Deep and the beauty that could be made from their stone, he says, “We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them.”
When The Lord of the Rings appeared in the mid-Fifties, many readers took it as a parable of the awful power of the hydrogen bomb, which, like the Ring, corrupts its owners; one of Saruman’s devilries is “a huge umbrella of cloud.” Today, with Gimli’s concern for the rocks, and the Ents’ for the trees—the Dark Lord cuts down trees and does not care for growing things—one could as plausibly read it as a parable of the environment. Or—with Théoden’s words to Saruman, “Were you ten times as wise you would have no right to rule me and mine for your own profit”—as a parable of anti-imperialism.
That it can offer such different interpretations is one of the strengths of the saga. Tolkien’s Sauron and Saruman and Gollum embody perennial forces of greed, cruelty, and aggression; readers will tend to pick out the manifestations of these forces which are most in their own minds.
The moral world is not black and white. The questers can be tempted and fall, the evil Gollum can at the climax be an instrument for good. But none of this would count if Tolkien were not also a superb storyteller: keeping the reader in cliff-hanging suspense, rewarding him with a rescue, a victory, or a homecoming; now displaying armies and battles, now following a solitary hero. His world fits together—as with Stevenson’s Treasure Island, one suspects that the maps came first. (A complaint about the paperback edition is that the maps are too small, and you are deprived of the pleasure of following the journeys in detail.)
Whatever his metaphysical preoccupations, Tolkien’s physical perceptions are acute: the cliffs Frodo climbs, the thorny brakes he battles through, are almost painfully real to our imaginations. Tolkien believes in his world, and convinces us that there is far more of it than has found its way into his books. He is not stretching his invention; he is writing from abundance.
He is of course writing with any army of allies behind him, from the anonymous makers of the sagas and Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon to Macaulay and William Morris. These, with Malory and Spenser and countless others, have been his familiars and he has taken from them as he needed. Spotting “sources” and tracking echoes will not add to the value of reading The Lord of the Rings, but it can give an extra pleasure: the saga becomes a journey through the literature of Western Europe (sometimes it seems like a journey through the Oxford English School), as well as a journey through Middle-earth to Mount Doom.
When the men of Rohan muster, it is to an Anglo-Saxon (or early Auden) beat:
From dark Dunharrow in the dim morning
with thane and captain rode Thengel’s son:
to Edoras he came, the ancient halls
of the Mark-wardens mist-en- shrouded….
When Frodo’s strength ebbs under the Barrow-wight and he thinks he has come to the terrible end of his adventure, “the thought hardened him,” like the warrior at the Battle of Maldon whose word when the shieldwall broke was
The will shall be harder, the cour age shall be keener,
Spirit shall grow great, as our strength falls away.
When the swords flash, Guthwine and Anduril, we are with the Chanson de Roland; when dead warriors float out on a barge to sea, with Malory (and is not Mordor, the country of the Dark Lord, linked with Malory’s Mordred, King Arthur’s betrayer?). The beauty of the restored city Minas Tirith—
It was filled with trees and with fountains, and its gates were wrought of mithril and steel, and its streets were paved with white marble—
recalls the medieval hymns about Jerusalem; the timeless enchantment of the land of Lórien, or the spring valleys of Ithilien, make one think of paradise gardens from the book of Genesis to William Morris. The dying land that Frodo passes through on the last stage of his journey might be the waste traversed by Browning’s Childe Roland on the way to his Dark Tower.
There are less lofty echoes. Early in the saga there is a chapter called “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony” which, with a jolly innkeeper, a dark stranger in the corner, sinister wayfarers peering round doors, is in the key of Stevenson’s St. Ives or Buchan’s Midwinter or many another historical romance with mysterious encounters at lonely crossroads inns.
About this last mode, I feel an uneasiness that extends to much of the hobbit element in The Lord of the Rings. The device of the hobbits—small people, peaceful, merry, unheroic, who can’t live long on the heights—is excellent. They stand for stability and commonsense, as necessary to life as enterprise and discovery. The happy humdrum life of the hobbits in their Shire is a necessary counterpart to the magical and heroic happenings in the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor. But to my mind Tolkien’s imagination fed on thinner stuff when he created the Shire than when he created the world beyond its borders.
Behind that world is epic and saga, legend and fairy tale; behind the Shire is a sort of Chestertonian myth of Merrie England, a much thinner affair. With their tobacco and their ale, their platters and leather jerkins, their wholesome tastes and deep fruity laughs, their pipe-smoking male cosiness and jolly-good-fellowship, hobbits can be as phony as a Christmas card with stagecoaches and lighted inns.
Auden, reviewing The Fellowship of the Ring, observed that in their thinking and sensibility hobbits “closely resemble those arcadian villagers who so frequently populate British detective stories.” He is quite right: particularly when they talk. Far the worst is Sam Gamgee, Frodo’s servant. Here he is addressing the wizard:
“Lor bless you, Mr Gandalf, Sir! Nothing! Leastways I was just trimming the grass border under the window, if you follow me.”
Here, describing the lady of Lórien:
“You should see her, indeed you should, sir. I am only a hobbit and gardening’s my job at home, sir, if you understand me, and I’m not much good at poetry—not at making it: a bit of a comic rhyme, perhaps, now and again….”
“Mr. Frodo, Sir,” is Sam’s address to his master at even the most desperate moments of their adventure together. It is grating.
Yet—even with wrong notes like this—Tolkien’s own beneficent ring of power is that he is a master of language. As the quotations will have shown, he can command a host of styles, though not all with equal ease. He suits the language to the scene—tough Anglo-Saxon and saga words and rhythms for battles and forays, softer romantic ones for enchanted Lórien and Rivendell. He cherishes words that have fallen out of use, and he brings stale figures of speech to life: as Frodo comes to the chasm on Mount Doom where he is to throw the ring on the fire—and for an instant hesitates—suddenly we realize he is standing at the Crack of Doom. Tolkien invents, brilliantly, “good” language—
A Elbereth Gilthoniel
o menel palan-diriel….
and “bad”—”Ash nazg durbatuluk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatuluk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.” (The prevalence of k and l in the “bad” language made me wonder if these are always evil combinations—such as Ku Klux Klan—but then I thought of Tolkien, and ceased speculating.)
Tolkien’s attitude to language is part of his attitude to history (here, if we like, we can find parallels with Eliot and Pound and David Jones of the Anathemata): to recapture and reanimate the words of the past is to recapture something of ourselves; for we carry the past in us, and our existence, like Frodo’s quest, is only an episode in an age-long and continuing drama.
To name things rightly is to have strength: the evil Lieutenant of the Dark Tower has forgotten his own name. Words are power so evil turns them upside down. When Saruman, trapped in his stronghold of Orthanc, speaks seemingly gentle and reasonable words, the hobbits and men are half-persuaded; but Gimli the dwarf spots the falseness of tone as sharply as if he had been to school with a New Critic:
The words of this wizard stand on their heads…. In the language of Orthanc help means ruin, and saving means slaying.
In days like ours when help can still mean ruin and saving mean slaying, when evil and horrible acts can be given wrong names—”redevelopment” for people losing their homes, “defoliation” for forests and fields blasted with poison—a book which sharpens a sense of words, their power and proper meaning, is to be praised. For all the excesses of the Tolkien cult, there could be many a worse one.
Small Furry People February 22, 1973