In response to:
'The True Epic Vision' from the March 9, 2006 issue
To the Editors:
I was much impressed by Jasper Griffin’s piece on Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh[NYR, March 9], and entirely in sympathy with everything he said about it, and especially about the new imaginative space opened up by the decipherment of forgotten scripts and the recovery of lost epics. Everything was fine until the last two paragraphs, which swerved suddenly, and much less authoritatively, into medieval and then modern times.
In the first place, as every reader of The New York Review must have noted, “King Arthur’s knights” were not “betrayed by Ganelon” but by Mordred: Ganelon is in the Song of Roland. A slip of the pen, no doubt. But in the next paragraph Professor Griffin adds himself to a line too long already of critics who have commented on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings on a basis, apparently, of hearsay—perhaps in this case mere wicked Oxford common-room gossip. It is true that the work ends in victory, and that a certain amount of poetic justice is “dished out all around.” The hobbits come back to the Shire, find it taken over by a rather seedy and second-rate gang of thugs, and carry out a moderate and nonvindictive “scouring” which might at a pinch be compared with Odysseus’ return, so supporting Griffin’s argument. Outside the Shire, though, more familiar epic themes are evident: the end of an age, and a very marked translatio imperii from the nonhuman species to men. With this goes a unique sense of loss, which as has been well said is the main theme of Tolkien’s work, more universal even than death. The Ents are doomed to species extinction, the Elves to the choice between departure and forfeiting immortality, the hobbits to physical and demographic dwindling. With them will go beauty, memory, mallorn-trees, and Middle-earth itself.
As for the central character, Frodo receives no honor in his own country and is increasingly alienated within it. In the end he too withdraws and goes over sea to the Undying Lands, very like Arthur departing to Avalon, and like him in order to be cured of his wounds; but unlike the “once and future king,” he will find neither immortality nor long sleep in the land over sea, and he will not come again. The last words in the book fall to Sam Gamgee, who comes home after seeing his master off, sits down by his own fireside, and says, “Well, I’m back.”
This is a very un-epic and Anglo-Saxon thing to say, being monosyllabic and so obvious as not to need saying: of course he’s back, if he weren’t he wouldn’t be there to say it. But like other Anglo-Saxonisms, it conceals a weight of meaning behind banality. Sam has come home to wife, children, a long and busy life, distinction as mayor of Michel Delving: also, having turned his back on the Undying Lands, to mortality, grief, final oblivion. It is true again that “off the page,” in an appendix, Tolkien later conceded that Sam would in widowered old age exercise his option as temporary Ring-bearer and like Frodo take the road to the Grey Havens and pass over sea. But this kindly softening of the ending may be counterbalanced by another scene “off the page,” the deaths of Aragorn and Arwen in another appendix, a scene which stretches past death to eternal loss and inconsolability.
Griffin’s view that “an older wisdom, and a truer poetry, sees that the highest nobility and the deepest truth are inseparable… from failure…from defeat, and from death” is perfectly correct, and if he needed examples of modern aversion from “the dark epic vision,” they are ready to hand in the increasingly weak and mawkish endings tacked on to Hollywood epics about King Arthur—or Hollywood treatments of Troy and Alexander, as Daniel Mendelsohn has repeatedly indicated in your pages. But when he applies the thought to Tolkien, I can only say, with the English farmer complimenting Queen Elizabeth I on her dealings with the Spanish Armada and Philip of Spain, “he got the wrong sow by the ear that time.” After all, Tolkien was an Oxford professor too, and no one knew as much as he did about Anglo-Saxon epics and endings.
Walter J. Ong, SJ, Chair
Saint Louis University
St. Louis, Missouri
May 25, 2006