It would explain a lot

by John Holbo on March 27, 2015

The daughter: So, was J.R.R. Tolkien saved by eagles in W.W. I?



Niall McAuley 03.27.15 at 4:57 pm

Eagle is from the Latin Aquila, deriving from the word Aquilo, the North Wind.

This is further evidence of Tolkien’s cultural prejudice, in which the saviours in each story are Northern, Evil lurks in the South and East, and Heaven is in the West.


William Berry 03.27.15 at 4:58 pm

Is there supposed to be a link?


Phil 03.27.15 at 4:58 pm

J. R. R. Tolkien saw several close friends killed, more or less before his eyes, in WWI. On his own account it gave him a lifelong fascination with the problem of death – how can it be the one human universal, the one thing absolutely everyone is certain to undergo, and yet at the same time be utterly unthinkable and impossible to accept when it happens? This in turn gave rise to the idea of the eternal being in love with mortal life, which – as well as being a way of thinking about the Incarnation – is at the root of the story of Aragorn and Arwen: the story of the tragic love of an immortal being for a mortal. And this (again, on his own account) was the story that gave rise to The Lord of the Rings.

So yes, the Great War does explain a lot. But eagles don’t come into it.


William Berry 03.27.15 at 5:00 pm

OK, your daughter. Sorry.


Niall McAuley 03.27.15 at 5:01 pm

If Tolkien was saved by Eagles in WW 1, I would expect some bitterness in that no-one saved any of his friends. I would certainly think that Thorin’s group and the Fellowship would have suffered more losses.


Brett 03.27.15 at 5:08 pm

Tolkien was asked about the Eagles in a fan letter. He basically said that they wouldn’t stand a chance if they just tried flying straight into Mordor without the element of surprise, and that the birds can’t actually be commanded to do anything by anyone except the setting’s Zeus.


oldster 03.27.15 at 5:23 pm

Niall, I am sure you are right about JRRT’s cultural (not to mention racial) prejudices.

I’m also pretty sure you are wrong about the derivation of “aquila”. So far as my sources go, the answer is “origin unknown.”

Of course, if JRRT believed the same false etymology, then his belief that eagles are symbols of the north might still be evidence of his cultural/racial/geographical prejudices. But I already granted you that stuff.


rea 03.27.15 at 5:24 pm

Tolkien’s cultural prejudice, in which the saviours in each story are Northern, Evil lurks in the South and East, and Heaven is in the West.

Is this really cultural prejudice? Or just a reflection of Tolkien being a scholar of English, German, and Scandinavian literature and myth, and incorporating elements of those in his own mythology?


Harold 03.27.15 at 5:44 pm

C.S. Lewis also has a phrase about the swarthy garlic eaters (I believe) in one of his Prince Caspian books. I noticed it when I happened to observe my child’s teacher reading it aloud to her class on an overnight school trip.

I think this was just the standard ball-park racism of the time.

Frankly, I greatly prefer Lewis’s other books (Allegory of Love, Discarded Image), which are actually good, to his fiction. Tolkien (hope I don’t offend anyone here) I just consider a bore. The movies struck be as both boring and racist. Movie (I should say), since I only saw the first one. You couldn’t pay me to see the others.


TM 03.27.15 at 5:44 pm

You mean Tolkien just copied the nasty cultural prejudices he encountered without sharing them?


Harold 03.27.15 at 5:51 pm

I think an author can share prejudices unthinkingly, without malevolence.
And this is probably more true of a popular author, who writes according to formula. Such an author is not in the business of questioning the status quo. Such an author would by definition not be popular. The question is how much does this detract from the enjoyment of readers in an era with different values.


Cranky Observer 03.27.15 at 5:51 pm

Great observation by your daughter.

One of the reasons I like LoTR, and dislike The Silmarillion, is that LoTR leaves many things unexplained. The Appendices fill in some but again nowhere near all of the missing pieces, leaving the reader (me at least) believing they have been allowed to observe a small piece of a real world rather than all of a small fictional terrarium.

As an adult reader with more experience in analyzing literature it was clear in text that the demigods and magical creatures were abandoning Middle Earth to humans and their kin (hobbits, Smeagol’s people, dwarves all being related to humans), that some of them felt a fondness and/or responsibility for events or specific humans and occasionally took action to help out a bit, and that the eagles darn well did what they pleased for reasons of their own but weren’t biddable or commandable.

In terms of fictional reality it was also clear that the problems of air defense penetration and battlefield intelligence available to Sauron made it virtually impossible for anything – eagle or not – to fly directly to Mount Doom. Elrond and Gandalf were risk takers but they were also highly intelligent and foresighted (Gandalf also having occasional flashes of divine inspiration); they wouldn’t have sent Frodo in the long way if there was an obvious easier way.

Or perhaps they might have: that whole “humans take responsibility for their world” thing. YMMV.


Stephen 03.27.15 at 6:13 pm

Rea: Heaven being in the West is an element also of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Irish mythology. I’m not sure that make it particularly racist.

Incidentally, in Irish mythology Ulster, in the north, is the province of valour, haughtiness, strife, boasting, battle and death. Query whether that was entirely a matter of cultural prejudice.


bianca steele 03.27.15 at 6:21 pm

I think Heaven is always in the West, for obvious astronomical reasons. Except in Wordsworth.


Andrew 03.27.15 at 6:32 pm

#1 Tolkien was self-consciously writing an epic for northern Europe, which was the place where his philological knowledge was based. So the heroes are Northerners, and heaven is to the west, over the (stand-in-for-the) Atlantic Ocean. I’m not sure this is particularly racist, any more than the fact that the characters in the Arabian Nights are all Muslim is an example of religious bigotry, or the fact that Marvel’s superheroes all seem to live in New York City is evidence of bias against Chicago.


Bloix 03.27.15 at 7:29 pm

It seems to me that the languages of the South are perhaps modeled at least phonetically on Turkish and Arabic. They are much more guttural than the languages of the heroic races (the Dwarves, as always, have a leaning to the dark side on this point).

I’m not aware that Tolkien ever said this, but he did say that the Black Speech of Mordor is an agglutinative language and Turkic languages are agglutinative, while European languages are not.

Some efforts have been made to identify the Black Speech with one or another of the ancient languages of the Near East, which were the subject of excitement among linguists in Tolkien’s day, and Sauron does bear a resemblance to a figure like Tiglath Pileser III.


Hogan 03.27.15 at 7:30 pm

They were all saved by eagles–American eagles! U! S! A! U! S! A!


bianca steele 03.27.15 at 7:33 pm

Also, wouldn’t the West signify not America but Ireland and so on, where (sorry) the little people had gone?


Barry B. 03.27.15 at 8:37 pm

I’m not aware that Tolkien ever said this, but he did say that the Black Speech of Mordor is an agglutinative language and Turkic languages are agglutinative, while European languages are not.

So are the Uralic languages, of which the best known and most spoken would be Hungarian. Origins point to Central Asia. Personally, I don’t find anything harsh or guttural in them, but from a Romance language perspective they might come across that way.


nnyhav 03.27.15 at 8:38 pm

The daughter’s ready for Bored of the Rings … which would explain a lot.


LizardBreath 03.27.15 at 8:40 pm

I wouldn’t have thought of it myself, but a WWI veteran might have been thinking of the Angels of Mons. Not that angels are eagles, but it seems like the sort of thing that could spark an idea.


Val 03.27.15 at 8:59 pm

From reading Lord of the Rings (many times), I think Tolkien, was patriarchal and racist, and his attitude to sexuality – charitably one could say his unconscious was a deeply murky place. His writing was quite often sentimental, and so on.

Nevertheless I really enjoy LoR – it’s a totally epic quest, and I love quests. I don’t know how to deal with all the other stuff, except to put it down to the fact that he was probably educated at “English public schools” (was he? I could google, but someone here is sure to know) and brainwashed as a child, and that sometimes his stories read exactly like the nightmares of schoolboys who have been taken from their homes as little children and made to live in a weird all male world.

Probably a perfectly nice man in real life!


Stephen 03.27.15 at 9:12 pm

Val: sorry, but Australian speculative interpretation of English facts is, as I’m sure you realise, not infallible.

JRRT was educated at day grammar schools in Birmingham.


Bloix 03.27.15 at 9:22 pm

Tolkien was orphaned at 12 (his father had died when he was one). The family’s priest – his mother converted to Catholicism after her husband’s death – looked after him after she died. The family had no money to speak of. He was a “scholar” – that is, a boy attending on a scholarship – at Edward VI School in Birmingham, a public school but not a prestigious one. From there he went to Oxford, again on scholarship.


Stephen 03.27.15 at 10:00 pm

Bloix: in English usage before WWI, Edward VI School and King Philip’s School, Birmingham, where JRRT was educated, were not public schools (the confusingly-named private boarding schools). They were grammar schools: day schools, where a large proportion of the pupils were scholars, and all lived at home with their families. Val’s belief, founded on a fallible intuition about the far side of the world, that JRRT might have been one of those “taken from their homes as little children and made to live in a weird all male world” would have been accurate if he had been sent to a public school. He wasn’t.

What his Oxford scholarship – an acknowledgement of his academic merit – has to do with anything, I don’t know.


Bloix 03.27.15 at 10:00 pm

#22 – as I understand it, in Tolkien’s day, grammar schools were considered public schools – after WWII, they were assimilated into the state system. But there’s a lot about the English educational system that I don’t understand. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he was a scholarship boy at a private school a step down in prestige from the public schools.


Bloix 03.27.15 at 10:10 pm

Tolkien didn’t live at home as a young teenager because he didn’t have a home. He lived in a boarding house. Although he did not live in an all-male environment (when he was 16 he fell in love with another boarder, also an orphan, and married her as soon as he turned 21) his schools were all-male.

I mention the scholarships because there is a tendency to think that Tolkien must have been a toff from a wealthy family. He wasn’t – he was fatherless almost from birth and an orphan from age 12 and his family had no money. HIs scholarship at Edward VI was earned by merit as was his scholarship at Oxford.


clew 03.27.15 at 10:17 pm

Also, he had strong family ties to Germany and South Africa and held to them imaginatively and philologically.


TM 03.27.15 at 10:19 pm

That “the heroes are Northerners” (15) wouldn’t be so bad in itself if it weren’t for the fact that most of the bad guys are associated with the South and East and the descriptions of both heroes and villains – including the languages – clearly corresponded to racial stereotypes. And what makes it worse is that most characters are determined by their racial character, which they hardly ever transcend. In particular, Orcs are bad from birth and killing them is always a good thing. These stereotypes are pretty blatant even for their time. I for my part found my enjoyment of reading Tolkien considerably diminished once I was old enough to question such things. And btw the movies suck badly, especially the Hobbit (I only watched the first – enough is enough).


Bloix 03.27.15 at 10:19 pm

BTW, the story of the young Tolkien and Edith Bratt is so romantic that someone should make a movie of it.


clew 03.27.15 at 11:04 pm

Seconding 29.

I’m currently reading _The House of the Wolfings_, having worked my way through the more popular Morris*, and the protagonists are Dalesmen and Markmen vs the Burgundians, the latter said to be backed, or displaced, or both, by the Romans.

*_Well at the World’s End_ doesn’t remind me much of either Bunyan or Rowlings. Possibly Marie de France but with the wonderful events written out.


Harold 03.27.15 at 11:08 pm

@28 TM. Exactly right. I would add that the writing style is exceptionally flat and uninteresting and the writing style is exactly what ought to distinguish an epic work.


Sasha Clarkson 03.27.15 at 11:30 pm


“as I understand it, in Tolkien’s day, grammar schools were considered public schools ….”

Well you understand wrong.

Women complain about mansplaining – this seems like an example of Yanksplaining – Americans correcting us about our own culture and history without doing the proper research because they have to know better! Since Victorian times working class people might get to go to grammar schools if they “passed the scholarship”: the scholarship being originally a grant to pay the school fees if the examination was passed. Although they were far from uniform in constitution, many, including the one I attended, were created and funded by local government and were overwhelmingly day schools. A few former grammar schools, including King Edward VI school, became independent schools when and where selection by examination was abolished in the state sector, but Eton they are not. The “Public Schools” are a handful of ancient charity schools which were founded for the benefit of the poor, but subverted and stolen by the ruling classes and the wealthy elite.


Sasha Clarkson 03.27.15 at 11:32 pm

BTW Evil came from the north too: Angband, Angmar and Mount Gundabad.


clew 03.27.15 at 11:58 pm

True, and I think there are witchy wormy icy precedents in Morris and the actual source eddas.

Hesperion XXI had a concert based on those, with names now only found in Tolkien (attached to different characters & events). Also a swans’-bone flute, more piercing than clear in tone.


Bloix 03.28.15 at 12:05 am

Sash Clarkson, do me a favor and take a look at this 1911 illustration showing the coats of arms of the major public schools of England. In the third row down, just to the right of Malvern, and two over from Eton, you will find King Edward VI School.

You may want to look at this book, which explains that in there were both public boarding schools and public day schools.

I am aware that in modern usage “public school” is a boarding school, and a grammar school (of the post-WWII variety) was not a public school, but that was not the usage in Tolkien’s day.

You may apologize to me nicely now.


medrawt 03.28.15 at 12:11 am

28: Orcs aren’t people, at least in the sense that they aren’t humans and don’t represent a particular human culture.

I mean, I know it’s fun to play the “let’s look at things from the Orcish point of view” game and talk about Orcs as a marginalized people subject to racial discrimination trying to win some better farmland from the Europeanish oppressors who are trying to exterminate them … but within the context of LOTR, Orcs aren’t really people. What they are is kind of complicated (I’ll get to it in another few paragraphs), but they’re literally supposed to be Morgoth’s (Lucifer’s) perversion of life.

Other races of humans are represented in LOTR by … other races of humans. The Southrons and Easterlings are problematic! They simultaneously reflect Tolkien’s conscious decisions about world-building and whatever prejudices we tend to assume he had as a culturally and politically conservative person born in the late 19th century. The whole corpus of Tolkien’s mythology wound up being structured as a self-consciously “English” legend and the geographic orientations, including who the good and bad guys are, follow suit from the conceit that Middle Earth is literally our world, some unspecificed ages ago. And yet Tolkien does have room to have Sam (I think) reflect on a fallen swarthy foe that he probably had his reasons for taking up arms in Sauron’s service, and could he really judge him any more harshly than he would a Gondorian soldier? It’s a small window into a more even-handed point of view, and perhaps not enough to excuse the rest, but it’s there.

And FWIW, the Orcs thing really bothered JRRT. His post-LOTR writing includes some essays where he struggles to reconcile his spiritual beliefs, and the way he ported them into the books, with the fact that he basically treats the Orcs as soulless arrow-fodder. (As I recall, he was stuck between the position that as creations of evil the Orcs didn’t have true spirit or intelligence and the fact that he had the Orcs talking and making jokes and so forth in the books; the difference-splitting suggestion that the Orcs were not manufactured but somehow bred out of captured and tortured elves especially makes them tragic in origin.) Of course, that’s not in the actual novels, and the novels shouldn’t get credit for stuff that’s not in them, but when judging Tolkien as a guy, I think it’s fair to point out.

And maybe the Black Speech had something to do with some or other Middle Eastern language, but Dwarvish definitely had something to do with Hebrew, and so far as I know where Tolkien encountered blatantly politicized racism (Nazism, apartheid) he expressed opposition.


dn 03.28.15 at 12:57 am

Yeah, Tolkien probably had a lot of prejudices, typical of his time and place, but everything I’ve heard indicates that he aspired to an honest anti-racism insofar as he was capable of it. He apparently hated and avoided the word “Nordic” precisely because of its association with racist pseudoscience. I believe his conception of the Dwarves also evolved over time. In earlier incarnations they were portrayed as soulless creatures – because created by Aule the Vala, rather than being true children of Iluvatar like Elves or Men – but later he downplayed those aspects, most notably in the character of Gimli, who not only manages to one-up Legolas repeatedly (something the movies badly missed) but even got to sail into the West somewhere in the appendices of LotR.

Much more bothersome to me is his reactionary Catholicism, which deepened as he got older and was an obvious source of his blatant sexism. He was deeply and immovably opposed to some of the Vatican II reforms, and also expressed support for Franco.


Bloix 03.28.15 at 1:50 am


Omega Centauri 03.28.15 at 1:51 am

I’m always willing to extent some artistic license. Its common in epic fiction to want to have badguys, who clearly have no redeeming qualities, so we (the readers) have no compunctions about seeing them slaughtered, our only concern is, are they killing enough of them fast enough. So in our mental universe they have the moral standing of a pathogen.

I think he made them different enough from humans, so we wouldn’t project our most disliked ethnic group onto them.


Harold 03.28.15 at 4:35 am

In Homer the bad guys had flaws and virtues just like the good guys — and also in Virgil. Manicheanim, perhaps deriving from fairytales, is a flaw in popular fantasy, and I think, a reprehensible one in modern cinema. I feel that it is the very fascistic tendencies in Tolkein, which are somewhat veiled in his novels, that is hyped in the film version — and I suspect it was done for propaganda purposes, frankly, because of the Iraq war.


gianni 03.28.15 at 4:53 am

I had a similar reaction as Harold in 41, esp. wrt Homer’s treatment of the death of Hector. But I do not follow Harold’s last bit about the Iraq war – I think those elements you see in the film are all there in the books, there is just less ‘other stuff’ to fill in the margins so it is right there in your face (presumably all left on the cutting room floor).

As an aside, this aspect of the LotR series is part of what makes it a great source for endless video game spin offs. You’ve got an entire race of clear ‘bad guys’, who can only be avoided or killed, never reasoned with. And you don’t feel any remorse or discomfort about killing them by the droves. Like zombies, in the sense that they let your hero commit wanton violence without it impacting their moral standing in the audience’s eyes.


medrawt 03.28.15 at 5:13 am

Fascist? I think monarchist suffices.


Harold 03.28.15 at 5:38 am

The heroes in Homer and Virgil were also monarchists (I meant to write Manichaeism, above). It is true about the video game shoot-em-ups, but I still think it’s a flaw in a drama — worse than a flaw — it’s dumb and boring. It may not have been directly related to the Iraq war but it certainly reflects a debased zeitgeist.


TheSophist 03.28.15 at 7:10 am

Maybe it’s just me, but I have some doubts that a film whose shooting was largely concluded by October 2000 was designed to be propaganda for a war that started in March 03, never mind the minor detail of Peter Jackson being a New Zealander, and…



Harold 03.28.15 at 7:47 am

Well, it was released in December of 2001, a month after the terrorist attack, which is perhaps why I got that impression when I went to see it. Pearl Harbor (I missed that one), made I understand, with the cooperation of the Defense Dept., was released in May of that year and the PNAC people released their manifesto claiming that a new Pearl Harbor was needed to galvanize the rebuilding of the Defense Dept. in 1996s. But looking back there was already a lot of Manichaeism about in the late 90s — Mel Gibson’s films spring to mind, so perhaps the zeitgeist of hysteria about evil enemies and cuts in defense and enemies preceded the Iraq war more than I remembered.


P.M.Lawrence 03.28.15 at 7:54 am

Sasha Clarkson, Bloix, English public schools are public in the public telephone sense, i.e. accessible to the public as opposed to provided free at point of sale to the public, which private education was not – that was done at home, by tutors and family members – and which education in religious institutions before the Reformation was not.

The public schools were not, in general, founded for the benefit of the poor, except incidentally; they were founded – or reworked, in some cases – a generation or so after the Reformation, when a shortfall of educated people began to show up. They were primarily intended to remedy that, though it was also understood that they would benefit those educated there. At that late Tudor stage, they were the grammar schools, and were called that. That general usage continued at least as late as the opening scenes of Lorna Doone, and was known as something nominal even in Tolkien’s early days.

However, the charitable foundations running public schools were not simply co-opted and their purposes subverted by wealthy elites. In at least some cases they deliberately set up grammar schools in the nineteenth century, deliberately to fill the niche that changes to their earlier public schools had left vacant – a shift that was barely a generation old, as it only came to pass when railways made wider catchments realistic for schools that could build up their reputations enough. So grammar schools never were necessarily state run and/or established, right up until state involvement increased under various twentieth century initiatives. In Tolkien’s early days, they would have been fully understood to be successors of both the original grammar schools and the original public schools, and might have used either term depending on where they fell in a spectrum; the whole thing was much more a continuum than a divide (even full blown public schools had day boys, and separate boarding arrangements might be made at almost any school – hence “houses”, which originated from masters doubling as boarding house operators).


bad Jim 03.28.15 at 8:17 am

So I was sitting outside a cafe with my elderly mother when a passer-by chanced to greet her, and for some reason I brought up the joke about the disconsolate girl whose grief some well-meaning but misguided sort sought to assuage by assuring her that her cat was with Jesus now. The little girl screwed up her nose and asked, “What would Jesus want with a dead cat?”

My mother’s friend had a better story. A pet had disappeared, and the parents, after some deliberation, informed the child that it had been eaten by coyotes. The parents were so impressed by her nonchalant response that, later on, they didn’t elaborate when they told her a beloved elderly relative had died. So of course she asked, “Was she eaten by a coyote?”


Val 03.28.15 at 8:52 am

Stephen @ 23
“Val: sorry, but Australian speculative interpretation of English facts is, as I’m sure you realise, not infallible.”

Don’t quite know what to make of this.
Speculating is wrong?
Speculating is ok, but speculating while being Australian is wrong?
Speculating and being Australian are both wrong, so it’s a double whammy?
I’m a colonial upstart who shouldn’t speculate about my superiors?

Cmon Stephen, we all know which it is.

When I was young, many years ago, I taught in an English school. One day the Bishop came to bless us with his presence, and said to the children, apropos of nothing in particular, that they should be glad they were English not Australian, because Australians dont have any folk songs!

I should have denounced the old fool, but I didnt, partly because I’m a lousy singer and I was scared someone would ask me to sing an Australian folk song (which would have brought shame on me and my country). Anyway Stephen I think you’re a good substitute for the Bish, and you can’t make me sing on the Internet, so I denounce you.


Walt 03.28.15 at 9:26 am

Sasha, who pissed your Wheaties? Bloix went out of his/her way to emphasize limited knowledge: “as far as I understand it… there are many things I don’t understand…” It is as far from any analogue of mansplaining as it possibly could be.


Robespierre 03.28.15 at 9:45 am

Val, calm down. You left out the possibility that the words simply meant: pre-supposing is not the same as knowing, and presupposing from afar is usually less than pre-supposing from somewhere nearer.


Val 03.28.15 at 9:51 am

Robespierre @ 51
Not really serious you know. One of those occasions where you (ie me) think you’re being funny, but alas …


Val 03.28.15 at 9:53 am

Also Stephen has form on this.


Stephen 03.28.15 at 9:55 am

Val: I will have to bear your denunciation with such fortitude as I can muster. That will be easier because, as I hope you will realise if you consider the matter calmly, you’ve missed the obvious interpretation of what I wrote.

To say that “Australian speculative interpretation of English facts is, as I’m sure you realise, not infallible” does not mean that speculation is automatically wrong. Nor does it mean that being Australian makes you automatically wrong. What it means is that, raised and living in Australia, you do not always understand things in England (or Ireland) as well as those who were raised and live there: and that sometimes your speculations about English matters may be wrong.

As you were wrong in this case. You speculated that JRRT may have been taken from his home as a little child and made to live in a weird all male world. I pointed out that he wasn’t.

How you get from that to your being a colonial upstart who shouldn’t speculate about your superiors, I don’t know. I do not regard Australians as being necessarily inferior or superior. However, many of them are imperfectly informed about things in England or Ireland, just as many people over here (myself among them) are imperfectly informed about things in Australia. But I don’t claim to be otherwise.

You obviously had a bad experience with the bishop. It does not surprise me that some, not all, bishops are bloody fools.


Adam Roberts 03.28.15 at 10:39 am

The Old English for eagle is earn or ern, which has a direct etymological link to the Ancient Greek ὄρνις, ‘bird’. What this says to me is that, unlike common English birds, for which the Anglo Saxons had specific names, eagles were rarely-enough encountered to carry an essentially generic name. Consequently, it’s possible that Frodo and Sam are saved not by eagles as we think of the bird, but by some other Big Ernie, Big Bird or other Sesame Street-ish entity.


Peter Erwin 03.28.15 at 10:50 am

TheSophist @ 45:
I think you’re missing the true brilliance of what Harold was suggesting. The fact that planning for the movies started in the mid-1990s, preproduction work started in 1997, principal filming took place between 1999 and 2000, etc., etc., with release of the first movie “coincidentally” barely three months after 9/11 — well, all that just proves that the whole The Lord of the Rings film project and the 9/11 attacks were all part of the same master plan!

(Which leads to the question: were the New Zealand co-conspirators just puppets of Cheney and Co., or are we missing deeper truths about the secret Antipodean influences on world affairs? Why is it that people never seem willing to discuss the possibility of Kiwi Conspiracies?)


Lameen 03.28.15 at 11:28 am

: “So, was J.R.R. Tolkien saved by eagles in W.W. I?”

In a sense, yes he was. The US entry into WWI is arguably the most important cause of the Allies’ victory, and the internationally recognised symbol of the US is an eagle. I don’t personally claim this is what Tolkien had in mind, but if we insist on interpreting the Lord of the Rings as a WWI allegory, it’s certainly tempting to see the US as the Eagles of the Lords of the West, who show up and save things at the last minute when all seemed lost, without giving any clear reason for their absence from the first 3/4 of the narrative.

Proximately, however, he was saved by trench fever, or so a quick search informs me.


Rich Puchalsky 03.28.15 at 11:57 am

gianni: “As an aside, this aspect of the LotR series is part of what makes it a great source for endless video game spin offs. You’ve got an entire race of clear ‘bad guys’, who can only be avoided or killed, never reasoned with. ”

There must be an entire sub-genre of Orc Reevaluations about this now, because it’s so clearly where contemporary sensibility conflicts most harshly with JRRT’s world building, (and as medrawt writes @ 37) JRRT himself saw this. I’ll just pick the most pop-culture example: R. A. Salvatore’s AD&D-setting series features orcs under a charismatic orc strongman forming a kingdom, turning from raiding to farming, etc. and goes on about the difficulties that the “good” races have in dealing with a long-term orc presence as fellow sentient humanoids that have politics, including elf/dwarf death squads that murder orcs near the border.


Rich Puchalsky 03.28.15 at 12:02 pm

Peter Erwin @ 56: “are we missing deeper truths about the secret Antipodean influences on world affairs?”

Put me down for “missing deeper truths”. Clearly the point of the whole plot is to depict Muslims as orcs. This will mean, inevitably, that New Zealand becomes the world center for anti-Muslim tourism. Whenever Jeffrey Goldberg writes another screed about Muslims in Europe, he’ll have to make a ritual trip to Hobbiton to talk about the simple lives of the good people in the Shire and how they are all under threat. Finally New Zealand will become a state somewhat like Saudi Arabia, based on its guardianship of a holy shrine, but with milk instead of oil.


James Wimberley 03.28.15 at 12:06 pm

Kiwi conspiracies, no. But kea conspiracies, quite possibly.


deliasmith 03.28.15 at 3:17 pm

The definition of public school that was generally accepted in the late nineteenth century and thereafter – accepted by the schools themselves – was membership of the Headmasters’ Conference.
Membership was not restricted to fee-paying schools, and KES Birmingham, like Manchester Grammar School, or my old school in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and many others, admitted students by examination at age 10, without charging fees. These schools were funded by local authorities but retained a fair degree of autonomy.


SusanC 03.28.15 at 3:25 pm

It’s a pervasive flaw in much of the fantasy genre that the hero can massacre the settings “bad guys” without any ethical qualms.

But I wouldn’t blame the Iraq war for Peter Jackson’s LotR films; it’s just that real-world military propaganda and fantasy novels have this flaw in common.


medrawt 03.28.15 at 4:21 pm

Rich Puchalsky @57: and whatever one feels about the way Christopher Tolkien has managed his father’s legacy over the past couple of decades (my eyebrows go a little higher with every new release of “hey, we found this bit of story scattered amongst three different boxes, and all Chris Tolkien had to do was some VERY LIGHT editing to make it a cohesive text!”), he’s been rather contemptuous of the way the movies turned the books into action flicks, and I suspect he finds the notion of the video games, being even more violence-mad, deplorable.

Also this.


William Berry 03.28.15 at 4:43 pm

Jackson’s LOTR film treatment actually humanized the orcs somewhat. At least the leader of the Uruk-Hai and the orc commanding general in ROTK were real characters in the story.


Charles R 03.28.15 at 4:58 pm

The Last Ring-bearer, an alternative account of the other side of things. In this story, we learn more of the political and social situation from the point of view of the cosmopolitan and technologically-progressive Mordor.

A second edition translation from the Russian into English: here.

Yeskov himself explains his motivations and ideas in the writing in this article. A specific quote:

However, a diversity of opinions doesn’t mean that those opinions lack clarity; quite the contrary. I see fantasy as a genre with very strict rules (only the classical “closed” detective story has stricter ones). Among those rules (such as medieval space-time structure of the world and medieval structure of the spiritual world, meaning a conflict of Absolute Good with Absolute Evil) Pereslegin lists this one: “A consistent romantic ethic – a romantic attitude of the author, the characters, and the readers toward war, love, heroism, and death.” It follows inexorably that the characters have to be classified as “good guys” and “bad guys” – it is precisely this “black-white” contrast that makes fantasy so appealing to teenagers. In other words, the very canon of fantasy forbids moral relativism – sort of like having a classical tragedy in more than one place or having the detective be the murderer in a classic detective story.

Tolkien adheres to this rule perfectly, which is why for many readers, especially older ones, LOTR has forever remained a kind of an American action movie – a bunch of good guys goes to wipe out a bunch of bad guys, who are bad if only because they are on the other side. In reality it’s not quite so, and possibly not so at all, but this view is very common. So when it was time to set up the pieces in LRB, I have decided that although I have to have “black” and “white” (as per the canon), at least I would draw the boundary between them in a line somewhat more meandering than the Anduin – more like it usually lies in real life.

Perhaps this is one of those works we can say is the fantasy analogue to hard sci-fi, given how Yeskov describes working off a geological model of Middle Earth to refashion its political and social realities, whereas Tolkien began with a linguistic model. Both, though, are doing geography, literally.


Harold 03.28.15 at 5:02 pm

All I can say is that at the time I went to see the movie with my kids, it had been hyped endlessly on NPR by commentators and news reporters as the greatest epic movie ever made, a movie for out time, with beautiful music and wonderful scenery. I was interested in film music and I naively expected it to be at least of some interest. At that time I used to listen to NPR all day and had some vestigial respect for it. But with the Bush administration, as I was discovering, it had apparently been taken over by a new, conservative executive board. What we saw was a bloated, Hollywood movie with no plot and just one boring monster after another, really bad generic music that appeared to have be written in three days by a computer, and schlocky scenery apparently inspired by the works of Thomas Kinkade. Peter Jackson may be from New Zealand, and I have seen some very nice movies from New Zealand, but this was not one of them.

I also had an experience, around that time, of commenting on NPR’s website on a story puffing C.S. Lewis — I mentioned the “swarthy garlic eaters”and my preference for the scholarly books, just as above — and I got an enraged personal e-mail from someone on the staff — seriously — for having dared to question their hero. They were embarked on some kind of right-wing crusade, make no mistake.


Rich Puchalsky 03.28.15 at 5:10 pm

Harold hears a puff piece on C.S. Lewis on NPR, writes a comment dissing C.S. Lewis on their site, gets an enraged personal Email from a staffer, and from this concludes that they were embarked on some kind of right-wing crusade. I also once said that Harry and Hermione should have been a couple but got an enraged personal Email, so there must be a world feminist plot of some kind.


mattski 03.28.15 at 5:40 pm

Nice Jewish Polish-American (?!) insults his playmates again.

Fwiw, Rich, NPR’s ritual centrism, embodied for example by fawning treatment of people like Alan Simpson, could just probably and even possibly have something to do with fonsors and spunding.



JimV 03.28.15 at 5:53 pm

H and H should indeed have been a couple according to J.K.Rowling.

I would be tempted to apprise the outraged emailer of this fact.

I found “The Hobbit” pre-high school in a back shelf in the basement of the county-seat loaning library, to which my mother, the town librarian of my small home town, made bi-weekly visits. I loved it. Then the LoTR’s came out in the USA (due to its copyright having expired) when I was in college, and I read it about 12 times. The sheer depth of consistent detail about a strange world was the main attraction. My sense of wonder has long since atrophied and I wouldn’t get the same pleasure from it today. I tolerated the commercial, hollywoodized movie versions of the LoTR, but hated the first Hobbit movie and haven’t seen (won’t see) the others. Car chases and comic-book superhero elves, forsooth.

I couldn’t get past the first few pages of the first Harry Potter, but it made readers out of some of my nephews and nieces who might not be otherwise. So here’s to Tolkien and Rowling, and others who make up imaginary worlds which expand the minds of youngsters.


Donald johnson 03.28.15 at 6:13 pm

I think the passage medrawt mentions, where Sam sees a dead soldier from Harad and wonders if he would have rather stayed home, represents Tolkien’s considered opinion on the subject–he had racist views and some passages in LOTR are cringe-inducing, but he was more of a cultural bigot than a racial one.

If he wrote this stuff today I’d be less forgiving but the fact that the political right adopts his fantasy as something you can map onto today’s world says more about the political right than about Tolkien.

And some of the material in the Silmarillion and in Unfinished Tales shows Tolkien wasn’t quite so black and white even in his own world. One of the signs that the Numenoreans were turning evil was that they started to become imperialists in their dealings with the people of Middle Earth.


Donald johnson 03.28.15 at 6:18 pm

OTOH, his poor reputation on feminism seems mostly deserved. There is an account of a bad marriage in Numenor in Unfinished Tales. I was mostly on the woman’s side, but Tolkien clearly favors the man and in the end has the Numenorean king and son agree on how badly she was behaving. Even in Atlantis people were mansplaining.


TheSophist 03.28.15 at 7:12 pm

@ PeterErwin: How could I have been so dense? You’re obviously right. There is one counterargument I’d like to make, though: The actor who played Sauron is IRL a Wellington police officer. (Yes, boys and girls, that’s right – it is possible to be speeding around the streets of Wellington and be pulled over by Sauron!!) Clearly at that point Jackson is equating the Cheney security state (albeit avant la lettre) with absolute evil.

I think it’s also important to notice that Sam’s thoughts about the soldier from Harad are one of the very few examples in the movies of displaced text. It seems to me that the only fragments of text that Jackson can’t put in their original places but moves in order to include them anyway are fragments that he considers very important. There are three examples: 1. (As noted above) Sam’s thoughts on the dead Haradrim are put into Faramir’s mouth, 2. “Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand…” moves from The Shadow of the Past to Moria, and, perhaps most importantly, the description of Frodo’s first sight of valinor is put into Gandalf’s mouth during the Siege of Minas Tirith.

Lastly, and complete OT, @Deliasmith: When you were going to school in Newcastle-Under-Lyme, was your Headmaster by any chance Bill Donaldson? (He’s my godfather, and still alive and well in Edinburgh.)


Rich Puchalsky 03.28.15 at 7:21 pm

“Fwiw, Rich, NPR’s ritual centrism, embodied for example by fawning treatment of people like Alan Simpson, could just probably and even possibly have something to do with fonsors and spunding.”

The curse of our times is that people will supposedly agree with you for all sorts of weird reasons. I could write “Obama shouldn’t be assassinating people with drones” and someone else could write “Yes, he shouldn’t, but what else can you expect from a Kenyan Islamofascist.” I don’t think that we are actually in agreement in this case. Similarly, I could write something about NPR’s ritual centrism and their funders and having Harold chip in “Yes, and when I dissed C. S. Lewis a staffer sent me an enraged personal Email” is not really agreement.

Getting back to JRRT, he is critically invaluable IMO in studies of fantasy because of his idea of subcreation. This provides a positively-valued version of creating a fictional world in the imitation of God, as opposed to the neutrally valued “worldbuilding” or the generally (through ironically) negatively valued use of “demiurgy” by James Branch Cabell.


Stephen 03.28.15 at 8:01 pm

Val@52: I think that you overstepped the mark, enormously, on the St Patrick’s Day thread @293 where you wrote “Maybe because the IRA bombs were a bit close to home for some people”.

I did not reply to that immediately since I thought that, in justifiable anger and revulsion, I might write words I could subsequently regret.

Yes, the IRA bombs were often too close to home (or to town and city centres where people were going about their everyday business) for some people in England, and even more so in Northern Ireland.

Far too bloody close.Often, far too bloodily close. Have you any idea how bloodily so?

To have someone living in safety ten thousand miles or more away sneer at the victims, on the strength of her knowledge of Ireland derived from her great-grandparents having left County Armagh, is hard to bear.

However, this being a LOTR thread, I will take comfort from Gimli’s words: only little wit can excuse you.


Rich Puchalsky 03.28.15 at 8:43 pm

Stephen has to append “And my axe!” to all of his comments here from now on.


Donald johnson 03.28.15 at 8:50 pm

I thought part of Val’s point was that Western war criminals have done the same sorts of things as the IRA on a vastly larger scale and though we may get angry or outraged about it, it doesn’t hit us as hard as if it were closer to home. Maybe so–if I can drag 9-11 into this, that happened 20 odd miles from me and for a day or two I didn’t know if I had lost any friends that day (no, I didn’t). But I personally am fine with whatever criticism someone living 10,000 miles away might have of America’s reaction, since in our case several hundred thousand more people died.


Harold 03.28.15 at 8:51 pm

I seem to have a talent for getting people’s goat!


Harold 03.28.15 at 9:24 pm

I have nothing against Tolkein as a children’s book author. But if I’m going to have Christian allegory I much prefer the Christian socialism of George MacDonald or E. Nesbit — even Charles Kinglsey – who was mostly insufferable – yet occasionally luminous. The Tory version of fantasy leaves me rather cold.


Sasha Clarkson 03.28.15 at 9:27 pm

Walt @50 you are right. I apologise unreservedly to Bloix for being a grumpy curmudgeon – I would buy him a drink in recompense if I could! :)

There are the few real Public Schools, which were investigated by the Clarendon Commission in 1864. Then there are the pretend public schools (sometimes known as minor public schools if they are boarding schools) of the Headmasters Conference (HMC) of Independent Schools. Some HMC, schools, like Manchester Grammar School (MGS), are former Direct Grant schools which accepted a proportion of pupils from the local authority. This no longer happens because of various educational reforms and reorganisations. MGS is NOT a Public School and does not describe itself as such. Note that there are also some rather prestigious independent schools which aren’t members of the Headmasters Conference because their ethos is not compatible. Bootham, a Quaker School in York is one such.

The real poison of the Public School system is that so many state schools try to ape them and their habits, but a discussion of this is irrelevant to a thread about JRRT.

Of course Tolkien was a creature of his time and upbringing, and LOTR no doubt reflects some of his experiences and prejudices. But some critics seem to think it ought to have been a work of realism; it was not: above all, it is a work of created mythology, reflecting the Norse Anglo-Saxon and Celtic traditions he knew and loved. I like to interpret the tales in terms of Jungian ideas; if one is going to apply sociology to Tolkien, then one ought to do it to the myths which inspired him first.

BTW here is a rather nice piece of short LOTR fanfiction which does push the boundaries somewhat.


Matt 03.28.15 at 9:44 pm

I couldn’t get past the first few pages of the first Harry Potter, but it made readers out of some of my nephews and nieces who might not be otherwise. So here’s to Tolkien and Rowling, and others who make up imaginary worlds which expand the minds of youngsters.

I re-read all of Harry Potter in a couple of weeks last year. The first 3 were not very good IMO. I started to question how I’d enjoyed them at all previously. Then with Goblet of Fire the stakes and the writing seemed a lot more gripping, and the improvement carried through to the end. I don’t know what happened at book 4, nor how it became a cultural phenomenon before that breakthrough fourth book. I think the series acquits itself of the earlier books though I would definitely understand how people could give up before it really gets good.

This commentary on the background of The Last Ringbearer:
I see fantasy as a genre with very strict rules (only the classical “closed” detective story has stricter ones). Among those rules (such as medieval space-time structure of the world and medieval structure of the spiritual world, meaning a conflict of Absolute Good with Absolute Evil) Pereslegin lists this one: “A consistent romantic ethic – a romantic attitude of the author, the characters, and the readers toward war, love, heroism, and death.” It follows inexorably that the characters have to be classified as “good guys” and “bad guys” – it is precisely this “black-white” contrast that makes fantasy so appealing to teenagers. In other words, the very canon of fantasy forbids moral relativism – sort of like having a classical tragedy in more than one place or having the detective be the murderer in a classic detective story.

seems to have a rather dated, narrow view of fantasy. I was surprised that it was written in 1999. More World Fantasy Award winning fiction seems to defy these “strict rules” rather than work within them. There is a lot of fantasy that matches that description but I would hardly call it a genre-defining characteristic. FWIW I can no longer enjoy fantasy that does adhere to the black-white contrast described above. Tolkien originally read before the age of 15 gets grandfathered in as an exception.


Val 03.28.15 at 9:53 pm

Stephen @ 72
I think you are taking my comment about the bombs in a spirit that it wasn’t intended. I was actually living in England between 1972 and 1974. My comment wasn’t in any sense intended to be offensive.

I think we had better let this go.


Omega Centauri 03.28.15 at 10:05 pm

The black-white contrast, makes writing of pure entertainment easy, compared to trying to be nuanced about things. I’m sure this is one of its attractions for the writer (and movie director), its low risk. And for audiences looking for an afternoon of escapist fantasy it usually fits the bill. Its when it become such a cultural artifact, that its (mis)lessons about how things work in the read world begin to take their toll. I wonder how much of the recent tendency to migrate towards towards the Manichean worldview is simply collateral damage from the tendency of commercial entertainment to follow themes that sell well? In that respect its not so different from the heightened fear of crime brought to us by the “if it bleed it leads” mentality of local news.


medrawt 03.28.15 at 10:16 pm

Matt @78 –

It seems to me that about once a decade some new crop of fantasy gets lauded for finally moving past the “cliches” of Tolkien, and once anew writers are to be congratulated for discovering nuance and moral complexity of exactly the same nature as every other notable fantasy author of the last fifty years, excepting the people whose book covers really do look like Dragonlance spinoffs.

Tolkien is certainly grandfathered in for me – LOTR was one of my two or three favorite books as a child, and unlike some of my other childhood fascinations (Star Wars, alas) it hasn’t diminished in my estimation as I’ve gotten old and jaded. But I also think a lot of supposedly Tolkienish stuff that is understood to be calcified cliche in the genre doesn’t really apply to the genuine article.


Robert 03.28.15 at 10:59 pm

I hope it’s obvious that somebody who states that a genre-defining rule is that the detective cannot be the murderer knows that books in the genre may violate the rules. So citing such doesn’t means the rules don’t exist. When the rules are violated, is the author doing it self-consciously, with a wink at the reader? I suppose if not, then those are not genre-defining rules.


mattski 03.28.15 at 11:07 pm

The curse of our times is that people will supposedly agree with you for all sorts of weird reasons. …Similarly, I could write something about NPR’s ritual centrism and their funders and having Harold chip in “Yes, and when I dissed C. S. Lewis a staffer sent me an enraged personal Email” is not really agreement.

A Curse? My Kingdom for a curse. Or possibly just a data point. And btw, we need our data points.

As a JRRT virgin I will now shut up.


Collin Street 03.29.15 at 12:54 am

@Robert: I prefer prototype semantics.

[a genre is defined by its core, not its periphery]


dn 03.29.15 at 1:33 am

Some critics seem to think it ought to have been a work of realism; it was not: above all, it is a work of created mythology, reflecting the Norse Anglo-Saxon and Celtic traditions he knew and loved.

Bingo. He was quite explicit about what he intended to accomplish in his writing.


JimV 03.29.15 at 1:40 am

I appeal to authority (China Mieville):

“There and Back Again: Five Reasons Tolkien Rocks (Guest Blogger China Mieville)”


Stephen 03.29.15 at 8:10 am

Val: OK, I accept there was no offence intended. Let’s leave it be.


Norwegian Guy 03.30.15 at 12:35 am

The Modern English word eagle comes, through French, from Latin aguila. According to Wiktionary, aquila is probably related to aquilus (“blackish, the color of darkness”.)


Bloix 03.30.15 at 2:08 pm

#77 – Sasha Clarkson, you’re quite right, I AM a grumpy curmudgeon. :-)


Rob Barrett 03.30.15 at 6:03 pm

The eagle is the symbol of John the Evangelist; their arrival beyond all hope to save the heroes from certain doom is the grace of the (Catholic) Divine.

So your daughter was right, John: Tolkien would definitely have attributed his survival of the horrors of WWI to the grace of God and not to any merit on his own part–even if he wasn’t literally spared by giant raptors.


Matt_L 03.30.15 at 6:06 pm

John Holbo, you have a perceptive and empathetic daughter. That is a charming story and I hope you have many years of reading and talking about books together.


ragweed 03.31.15 at 5:18 am

What makes LOTR wonderful, and also why the movies fail to live up to it, is because of the depth of the world-creation. Things like Aragorn telling the Hobbits the tail of Tinuviel, or the whole story of Tom Bombadil, or Sam singing the song about Bombadil and the Troll – the story comes to life because there is a sense of fullness and history to it that few other writers are capable of. And, of course, that is why the movies did not work so well – to make the story fit into a movie, they had to cut out all of the depth of the world and fall back on time-honored movie tropes and cliché’s.

The good kings and loyal servants are, of course, a little hard to take.


ragweed 03.31.15 at 6:42 am

Ursula LeGuin on Tolkien:

“Take his handling of evil: his villains are orcs and Black Riders (goblins and zombies: mythic figures) and Sauron, the Dark Lord, who is never seen and has no suggestion of humanity about hi, These are not evil men, but the embodiments of evil in men, universal symbols of the hateful. The men who do wrong are not complete figures, but complements: Saruman is Gandal’s dark-self, Boromir Aragorn’s; Wormtonge is, almost literally, the weakness of King Théoden. There remains the wonderfully repulsive and degraded Gollum. But nobody who reads the trilogy hates, or is asked to hate, Gollum. Gollum is Frodo’s shadow; and it is the shadow, not the hero, who achieves the quest. Though Tolkien seems to project evil into ‘the others,’ they are not truly others but ourselves; he is utterly clear about this.”

I think this rings true to a great extent. I still find it a little disturbing the utter dehumanized evil of the orcs, and where that can lead – but throughout the quest, the biggest challenge is not to defeat the enemy in battle, but to defeat the temptation and greed for power that is embodied in the ring. After all, they do not, in the end, defeat the armies of Sauron. They are facing utter defeat at the gates of Mordor, and only saved when Gollum inadvertently destroys the ring.


ragweed 03.31.15 at 6:48 am

errata – “humanity about him. These”

Also – reference – U.K. LeGuin, “Review of The Dark Tower, by C. S. Lewis” in Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places, 1989, Grove Press, p243-244.

LeGuin rather strongly disliked Lewis, I should add.


Trader Joe 03.31.15 at 2:47 pm

Sometimes an orc is just an orc.

Isn’t the point to keep evil at bay and hail the proposition that sometimes the few can defeat the many despite the odds? Seems like all the rest is letting overthinking detract from an awesome read.


bianca steele 03.31.15 at 3:20 pm

Le Guin is correct, but raises the question whether 21st century readers are capable of not automatically assuming characters are sentient and think and feel the way we do, and whether this isn’t a moral advance (regardless of whether it harms our ability to understand ancient allegories and epics); if not, Lewis is arguably less different from Tolkien than he appears (though IIRC her beef with Lewis was that his adult SF novels were bad SF).


Sebastian H 03.31.15 at 4:15 pm

Some of the comments by those who don’t like Tolkien seem oddly forced. Heaven is in the West is a sign of cultural prejudice? Huh? That isn’t quite a universal cultural understanding, but it is damn close. (If forced to guess I’d assume it is because that is where the sun sets).

Focusing on evil being in the South misses the rather important concept of temptation being everywhere. The whole series is largely about the importance of people resisting the temptation to gather dangerous power–even for ‘good’ reasons.

A big part of the problem with Tolkien for the modern reader is that he doesn’t use the omniscient narrator style. He doesn’t let you into interior thoughts about things. That is hard for a modern reader who has been trained to be given and then judge the thoughts of the characters. What many readers experience as a lack of complexity is really them only being shown complexity rather than being told how complex things are from the inside. Tolkien is actually quite good at exposing inner turmoil entirely from outside a character’s mind. In a more modern novel we would be endlessly told about Frodo’s struggles with the ring from the inside. In LOTR we have to witness it largely from the outside. Huge portions of the criticism of Tolkien are because of this–especially those based on the alleged lack of complexity.


ragweed 03.31.15 at 4:30 pm

Her beef with Lewis in that review was his misogyny, elitism, and self-righteousness. Elsewhere she takes issue with the way he looks down on his readers, always above them and more enlightened. I found that aspect to be far more insidious about Lewis, at least in all his Narnia books past the first. The whole bit in Prince Caspian – that Asian can sort things right if he wants, but he would rather see us fight a bit, with all the bloodshed and death that would cause, because God.

I think China Mieville is right where he says (I can’t remember where, maybe in the CT book event, that the problem with Tolkien is not his writing so much as its many imitators and the rules of that particular form of the genre that it inspired.


Rich Puchalsky 03.31.15 at 4:42 pm

ragweed: “The whole bit in Prince Caspian – that Asian can sort things right if he wants, but he would rather see us fight a bit, with all the bloodshed and death that would cause, because God.”

But Lewis has to do that, because from Lewis’ point of view, God does that.

This thread is too soon to be dead for me to go into a long digression about subcreation vs demiurgy. But subcreation generally reflects the actual theological / moral questions that people think about, like the problem of evil. Demiurgy assumes that the problem is humanly flawed author, and that the problems of the author aren’t necessarily those of the Author. James Branch Cabell did give a devastatingly understated bad review of God’s reality in connection with the death of JBC’s wife, though.


bianca steele 03.31.15 at 4:57 pm


Is it Cabell who says Lewis posits a demiurge? I recently read Alan Jacobs’s biography of Lewis and I very much did not get the sense that this was part of his worldview.


Trader Joe 03.31.15 at 6:19 pm

@98 Rich

If you can be persuaded to pen your long digression about subcreation vs. demiurgy, I for one would avidly read, respond and as necessary critique your thoughts….its a far more attractive prospect than endless ramblings elsewhere on thread concerning the demiurgy of the Israeli (and or Palestinian) states – a debate which seems to involve no eagles whatsoever.

That said, I don’t mean to impose upon your time…but should you have the urge….


Rich Puchalsky 03.31.15 at 7:34 pm

I really don’t have time, but I’ll try little bits in a highly foreshortened form. The fantasy author stands as a kind of metaphor or figure of God, right? Unlike typical fiction authors, who create characters and plots, fantasy authors have to in addition create entire worlds. But authors self-evidently are makers of illusion or flimflam while God creates reality. If the fantasy author, or the fantasy reader for that matter, takes God seriously even as a metaphor, how are they to handle this implied relationship?

Tolkien theorized (and Lewis at least in part agreed with) the idea of subcreation: that if you did it right, the author’s creativity was a kind of celebration or participation in God’s, at a lower level of course. God created us in his image, so we like to create images of our own, and by doing so we re-affirm a kind of activity that God evidently valued. Authorial creativity as the reflection of God’s tools in a kind of toybox tends to produce the characteristic failure effects that ragweed complained about in Lewis. Lewis thinks that the problem of evil has a certain kind of answer, and his fantasy world reflects that answer with Lewis visible as a kind of authorized stand-in for God within his world.

Cabell preferred the Gnostic image of the Demiurge: the author as the flawed, not really divine creator of an illusion that masquerades as reality. Here the problems are finally blamable on Cabell himself: his human limitations as a writer become the limitations of his creations. The characteristic failure of this kind of fantasy writing is the suffusion of the author into the text: characters tend to be versions of the author, speak in a characteristic way, etc.

The classic example I can think of of Demiurgical problematics within a book is China Mieville’s _Iron Council_. (Spoilers.) Mieville has built up to the socialistic revolution, one which he believes in and hopes for in real life. But (according to an interview) he doesn’t believe that a writer who lives in a pre-revolutionary society can really depict post-revolutionary society. So the revolution in his book can’t fail — that would be defeatism — but it can’t succeed because of Mieville’s necessary limitations as writer. So he has to solve the problem by freezing it, ending the book with it forever in a liminal state halfway between success and failure. But within the book Mieville can’t take the blame for this within the book, so he has to blame it on a character, who promptly gets executed as the fall guy.


Trader Joe 03.31.15 at 8:19 pm

Thank you. Quite interesting.

Sticking primarily within the authors mentioned, its interesting the Tolkien and Lewis both interject characters into their worlds (Galadriel and Azlan) who possess their own God-like qualities. To some extent this allows the author to ‘play God’ as author and then more directly influence the action though those characters (bringing people back to life or curing otherwise mortal injuries seems to be a popular use).

I’ve always been a little confounded by Mieville (I’ve not read all, but have read the series that ends with Iron Council). Your explaination provides me a good clue as to why I tend to be a little dissatisfied with some of the conclusions/endings. If I wanted to be critical I’d say Mieville refuses to imagine the “better ending” that I might like to envision. The Demiurgical explanation might be that he’s not refusing to imagine, but is bounded by his own limitations in being able to imagine….I don’t know that I’m excited about that as a reason, but its a stronger literary stance than I had credited.

Have you by chance read the fairly recent Magicians series by Lev Grossman? If you have, I’d propose that he actually manages to straddle both a subcreation world and a demiurigical through a particular plot devise – I’ll not say it in case you (or others) haven’t read the books which I found pretty interesting on a number of levels (the first and third ones were the best).


Harold 03.31.15 at 9:32 pm

In classical aesthetic theory, the poet, especially the epic poet, was a standin for God, exactly as Rich Puchasky says. C.S. Lewis’s book The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature has quite a bit about the demi-urge as creator. But the Narnia books are children’s literature and by definition sort of trivial, as opposed to real epics like Paradise Lost, for example, so I suppose Lewis didn’t feel he had to be especially consistent or profound.


clew 04.01.15 at 12:37 am

Richard Burton on Romance vs the novel is good, too. Presumptively classist, but in a way that can be reused for other purposes.


bianca steele 04.01.15 at 2:01 am

Oh, OK, that kind of demiurge.

I liked the second Magicians book, in part, because it wasn’t just another School of Magic plot. Probably there’s a whole genre I’m just unaware of, I guess.


Sasha Clarkson 04.01.15 at 1:14 pm

dn’s (@87) reference to Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories is rather interesting. When I read this as a young teenager 40-odd years ago, I didn’t understand it: indeed I find that Tree and Leaf is the only Tolkien book which seems to have escaped from my library. However I do like this Wiki quote: “… he (Tolkien) defends fairy stories as offering escapist pleasure to the reader, justifying this analogy: a prisoner is not obliged to think of nothing but cells and wardens.”

Tolkien’s fantasies were written for his own and others’ pleasure. Although they reflect his outlook, there is no deliberate attempt to convert others to his worldview.

I read CS Lewis too, but as I got older I found that I greatly resented his attempts to brainwash/proselytise. I read a book of his poetry once and found the misogyny cringeworthy – especially in a poem where he excoriated some poor girl/woman who was obviously the object of his unrequited passion. In The Last Battle, Lewis’ denunciation his character Susan for being interested in nothing but“… nylons, lipstick and invitations” and for being “a jolly sight too keen on being grown up” was similarly rather uncomfortable reading. It is not unsurprising that his principle of Evil was female. Lewis killed off his other child heroes rather than allow them to grow up. Even though he could tell a good tale, there are threads running through all his stories which are rather unwholesome.

On the other hand, Tolkien’s Sam is stopped from going West by Frodo, because Sam’s destiny and reward was to have a full and happy life with Rosie. It might be necessary for some people to be heroes, but but this is not an end in itself: the justification of heroism is to enable others’ carefree enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures.


Rich Puchalsky 04.01.15 at 2:07 pm

“Tolkien’s Sam is stopped from going West by Frodo, because Sam’s destiny and reward was to have a full and happy life with Rosie.”

So… Sam doesn’t get to go to the Blessed Realm because of Rosie? I don’t think that the interpretation you offer is really the first one I’d think of.

The whole escape / escapism series of quotes is a major battlefield for left/right conflict in fantasy, and I should research what was actually said at some point. It’s usually presented that Tolkien wrote “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” in _On Fairy-Stories_. But I’ve also seen him quoted as writing “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!” Plus Lewis is quoted as saying something similar and having gotten it from Tolkien. Followed of course by Moorcock’s “Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape.” later re-quoted I think by Mieville.

But I’d have to get back into the original context to see just what Tolkien’s original use of “escape” actually meant. Why do ordinary people figure as soldiers imprisoned by the enemy? This sounds frankly Gnostic to me, where all of reality is considered to be jailers and prison-walls.


dn 04.01.15 at 2:53 pm

Sasha Clarkson: “Although they reflect his outlook, there is no deliberate attempt to convert others to his worldview.”

Someone upthread mentioned Tolkien’s aversion to allegory; building on that, here’s from the preface to LotR:

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and have done so ever since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse “applicability” with “allegory”; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.


Sasha Clarkson 04.01.15 at 3:23 pm

Rich@110: Sam does eventually get to the blessed realm, but that’s not the purpose of his (or anyone’s) life. Even for Legolas, the call West means the end of what he has loved.

“Legolas Greenleaf, long under tree,
In joy thou hast lived. Beware of the Sea!
If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore,
Thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more.”

dn@111 Quite! and the “the purposed domination of the author” is what makes Lewis so objectionable to me and to others – be tries to coerce our thoughts along predetermined grooves “not even a bus, but a tram”!


bianca steele 04.01.15 at 3:32 pm

There’s a long tradition of writers wondering whether an author has to respect the free will of his or her creations, and in what way. David Lodge has an essay about Muriel Spark, in a collection my library no longer has, about this. But Tolkien’s ideas about doubles and character types and myths seem to come from Jung. I don’t see how imposing a scientific theory on characters is better than imposing a socially, traditionally, or individually imagined pattern on them. There’s a kind of allegory I don’t like either, the kind that excuses bad writing by claiming it has to be that way because of the secret meaning, but there’s no denying Tolkien was doing allegory (though usually in the good sense).

IOW I’m not sure allegory is the problem with the most annoying parts of Lewis.


bianca steele 04.01.15 at 3:34 pm

The Blessed Realm seems to promise a kind of ineffectuality and decadence, not quite the usual idea of Heaven.


bianca steele 04.01.15 at 3:59 pm

Apropos of nothing really but OP interest (and probably this was already well known), I learned from the Jacobs bio that Lewis attempted, vehemently, to mansplain philosophy to Elizabeth Anscombe. Which seems in retrospect not especially wise.


dn 04.01.15 at 7:00 pm

“The Blessed Realm seems to promise a kind of ineffectuality and decadence, not quite the usual idea of Heaven.”

As I understand it Valinor was never supposed to be an eschatological heaven; just a place where Elves, and occasional other lucky souls, go to while away the millenia before the actual end of the world. In the meantime, the souls of the dead of Middle-Earth go to the Halls of Mandos to await the Tolkienian equivalent of Ragnarok.

(In general, Tolkien doesn’t really seem to have much interest in heaven. I suspect that’s partly why even people with diametrically opposed worldviews still often find him strangely sympathetic; he may be reactionary, but at least he’s earthbound, and generally good at avoiding the obnoxious air of smug certainty. One of the features of LotR that I’ve always found striking is the repeated use of the phrase “not wholly vain” to describe the deeds of his greatest heroes. In Middle-Earth, anything that manages to rise above the low, low bar of total fucking disaster is something to celebrate.)


Sasha Clarkson 04.02.15 at 8:49 am

My impression has always been that Tolkien loved life, and that his attitude helped him live a long and full one. Having accepted his mother’s and guardian’s faith, he did not waste his energies by torturing himself with religious doubts.

Lewis on the other hand seems to have a much more troubled individual, which is reflected in his work, both fiction and non fiction. I don’t know whether either Tolkien or Lewis read, or cared about, Jung, but the Jungian interpretations of aspects of both their work are obvious. Lewis’ Anima archetype is however much darker and less nuanced than Tolkien’s.

The disagreement between Lewis and Anscombe was about his attempt to justify miracles philosophically: it was she who criticised him and not vice-versa. Her account of their debate is given in the link below. It was nothing to do with “mansplaining”, and she was actually quite complimentary about him.

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