I can’t really call this a Coldhome blog I guess, because we’re still living at Cottarton, kindly loaned to us by Paul & Amber. And my, what a pocket of civilisation it is! We’re gradually bedding in, clinging on like limpets, creeping to the back of our crevice like hermit crabs…. Insulated & anaesthetised against the ill winds of fortune, or whatever we can see blowing out there. The oil-fired warmth, the brightness, the non-stop TV, the ease of charging up our portable devices! Where does all this energy come from? And the washing! I think I spend half my day trotting between the washing machine & the washing line. Did ever so much washing get washed? Were we so dirty at Coldhome? Actually, I have a suspicion it may be related to something we used to call Parkinson’s Law – these days I prefer to call it the Law of Turin’s Sword in memory of Professor Tolkien, but I’ll explain about that some other time. But Prof. Tolkien is clearly behind the answer to my question about all the energy: it comes from Mount Doom, like my title suggests – and ok, The Lord of the Rings is a bit of a sore point just now….
All right – yes, I’ll spit it out, starting at the beginning. It was all Yoyo’s fault, she who set off the argument. Did I mention our much TV? Yes, I see I did. Anything as old-fashioned as organising what appears onto our screen is naturally beyond us, so The Hobbit (film) kind of insinuated itself into our midst without our realising…. Anyway, I can guarantee from our experiences with Maddy that eighteen months of age is about right for getting mesmerised by these works of Mr Jackson’s, and so apparently it was with Yoyo. Drowsiness eventually overcame her and she turned her attention to the more routine fare of Peppa Pig, but not before she had surprised us all with the deep concentration she lavished on Thorin as he strode about tragically and the Elf-king was a right snooty bastard. Why would anyone be mesmerised by that stuff, you might ask (that ridiculous elvish army like a bunch of mechanised stormtroopers?!) – well, I did ask, upon which everyone (ie the younger generation) jumped to “that stuff’s” defence and on top of me. Upon which I went over to the attack – ha, a generation that expected to survive a Scottish winter in t-shirt & slacks (you turn up the heating, duh), and anyway in the ensuing brawl no-one came out very justified but I definitely came out feeling – yes, I admit it, I’m not proud – strangely offended with Abi for her assertion that she had never read The Lord of the Rings and never intended to, but that she loved the films.
“Never intended to”? Why should this offend me? Well, with no right at all, of course. Why should anyone have to read a very-long-book about stuff that no devotee of English Literature (as in High Culture) could take seriously, which still represents an important part of what makes the hippy generation ridiculous, and why should the genre of fantasy have any relevance to this age of seriously pressing collective concerns?
The genre of fantasy? Ah, there you go… What’s wrong with me, that the very mention of such innocent entertainment should make my toes curl? Can’t I just give honour where honour’s due & have done? Don’t I understand what it means that the entertainment industry accounts for x per cent of GDP? (sorry, numbers not my strong point, but I’m sure it’s a lot) and fantasy is the stuff of entertainment? …And surely, surely what was marvellous about LoR was that this little professor-chappie invented an imaginary world, right down to its details, and in doing so single-handedly founded a whole new literary genre, not to mention its vast spin-off in films and Games? Can’t I let it go at that? Wasn’t that achievement enough?
Well, no it wasn’t, and no I can’t, and no he didn’t. I thought there was something suspect about this notion right from the start (I mean Tolkien the founder of the wondrous Fantasy Genre) – that, in some way I couldn’t put my finger on, they seemed to be missing the point about LoR (hate the acronym – just trying to reduce my word-count, but shit there it just went….) Then Frank Herbert’s brutish Dune stories got published and the rave was all about how “it was just like the Lord of the Rings (only sci-fi)” – suddenly LoR was the bench-mark of quality! Meanwhile superannuated fantasists like Eric Eddison and William Morris were getting wheeled on, stories re-published, because – believe it or not – they preceded Tolkien!
I do not, and never have, cared about such things. What was best about LoR was primarily its subversiveness (think Alice or Edward Lear). It subverted our notions of civilisation and empire, of victory and power and control, and indeed of struggle and justice. Individual characters were invested with luminous, quick-stab comments on the political and moral and spiritual condition of the West, which the story-mass led up to and contextualised. This tended to be done by-the-bye (by-the-bye is naturally of little interest to a harassed film-maker), and furthermore was done in a way which made it look entirely unintentional – which it may have been (we in the West still have a lot to learn about the unintentional, despite Nietzsche and Freud and the widespread interest in the I Ching.)
Subversiveness underpinned the converse of that whole group of highly educated Oxford chaps who called themselves the Inklings and honoured a storytelling tradition carried by Scottish (or part-Scottish) writers like Hogg, Stevenson, Barrie, Bridie, Conan Doyle, but more particularly David Lindsay and George MacDonald, who in turn reached back in a direct line to the German Romantics of the early nineteenth century, including various Schlegels, Eichendorff, Brentano, the Grimm brothers etc, authors whose creative genius frequently rested on significant work as collectors of products of an ancient cultural heritage – oral or foreign – which they perceived as being under increasing threat from the new thinking that was busily fashioning the Scientific Age: what a contemporary, Friedrich Hoelderlin, called the “pitch-dark Enlightenment”.
Tolkien, who once declared that one of his greatest fears was the thought of students conscientiously writing learned theses on his work, has always reminded me, with his obsessive playing-around with language (not unlike the Rev. Charles Dodgson, of twas brillig, and the slythey toves fame) of some shy old-time vicar who devotes his spare Mondays to the wondrous model train-set he keeps hidden away in his attic, and who one day – not thinking about it too much – creates a little branch-line which takes him wandering off across the floorboards to a hole in the skirting, through which he glimpses a lonely height which affords an intense vision of what is wrong at the heart of his world and what must be done if it’s to be put right. It’s a glimpse that needn’t have concerned him too much, but for some reason – an obsessive nature, maybe – he couldn’t leave it alone.
Abduction – yes…. Hoelderlin, in his 1802 poem “Patmos”, describes his abduction from his home by a Genius which whisks him off “faster than I expected and far / to where I never thought to come”. …Indeed alien abductions have been the stuff of human experience for many a long millennium. The profundity of the vision vouchsafed through such events may depend on the abductee: Homer Simpson understood in a blinding flash that “things that are nine ninety-nine are really ten dollars”, but we assume that someone less tangled in the necessities of everyday might see a bit farther. It could depend on the abductor, of course: it used to be well understood that the world was full of many different spirits, of many different sorts. Or of course it could depend on something else entirely, something ineffable, resistant to any inquiry.
The point being that in Tolkien’s case, or my old-time vicar’s, it was all a bit accidental. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer chap, but hardly vision-material, not some lone Himalayan sage or a St John shipwrecked on the Island of Patmos. In fact anything that could fall into the category of literary pretension was not in favour with Tolkien’s circle: products as they were of the Empire’s most privileged stratum of education, who included among others writers like Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Roger Lancelyn Green, Adam Fox and of course C S Lewis, these chaps happily thumbed their noses at current “high” art and literature, which may have been short-sighted but which brought with it the advantages of naivety and smallness which have now become so much the rage in so-called popular culture: they were very much “half-grown hobbits…, the laughing folk, the little people”, who liked to meet over a pint (or two) and who never purposefully meddled in the affairs of the Great. Tolkien in particular did not seek to travel by the highways:
Still round the corner there may wait
a new road, or a secret gate;
and though I oft have passed them by
the day may come at last when I
shall take the hidden paths that run
west of the moon, west of the sun.
(don’t know why those lines so far apart – no control over template apparently, now that really has spoiled my day….)
Since the time I and my brother first had The Lord of the Rings read to us – the winter of ’59-’60, it must have been – I’ve watched as that most significant aspect of Tolkien’s work, its subversiveness, steadily, step by step, got the treatment that’s always most successfully been employed against subversion: it got drawn into the mainstream. Eventually, of course, Frodo came to Hollywood, introduced by a fellow who was a lifelong devotee of Tolkien’s work and who, I actually believe, did thoroughly understand where the man was coming from, but who was naïve enough to forget that Hollywood is an unstoppable force with an ethic of its own and wielding a destructive power the cultural equivalent of a nuclear device.
But isn’t it great, people say, that those films introduced so many people to The Lord of the Rings? No it isn’t. All that happened was that the underground message was dissipated into over-stimulating images, the moments of poetry were “translated” into modern colloquial, the little cameos of wisdom were – well, overlooked, because they were simply too hard to represent in film. The subversive had been dragged into the centre of the mainstream and there – guess what? – it drowned.
So, I’ll mend my attitude – no more taking offence…. I’ll remain sniffy about t-shirts and central heating (& anti-draught devices and high-tech glazing systems for that matter), but I don’t actually care if my children’s generation never experience the true LoR. Some will, some won’t. Some of those who do will see what’s really going on there; others will laugh it off. Tolkien’s story belonged to my generation, and for now it’s outlived its shelf-life. Perhaps my grandchildren will pick him up again, turn him over, and make some new use of him. If they don’t, I trust they’ll find something else equally useful.