Wherein I Finally Try Tolkien

“You sound gayer than the gayest elf in Mirkwood,” an angry reader once wrote me. I didn’t mind being reminded how waspish I can get — I do work pretty hard at it, after all. But the “Mirkwood” part really hurt. Like most New Yorkers, I hate L.A.

Now, at last, I see how far over my head her line had sailed. Turns out Mirkwood isn’t squeezed between Santa Monica and the 405. It’s where Hobbits used to live before the falling of some great shadow and the multiplying of Men. Or so I just read in the paperback copy of Fellowship of the Ring I just picked up. It’s right there on Page 4, in the prologue. I haven’t even made it to Chapter One, and already I feel like a prize dumbass.

A Catholic who’s never read Tolkien’s trilogy might as well be a cargo cultist who offers blood sacrifices to crosses made from Spam cans. He may grasp the basics, but he’s missing a lot of vital stuff. Since I’m not lucky enough to live on a desert island — since communicating is my business — I’ve got no choice but to make up that deficit. But I have my doubts Tolkien’ll take with me.

“There are two novels,” writes blogger Kung Fu Monkey, “that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” KFM’s list is shy by at least one: Portnoy’s Complaint. Philip Roth’s novel, which scandalized America in 1969, had achieved enough respectability by 1986 that neither parent minded when I began nicking their copies.

Portnoy is basically a rake’s progress, told from an analyst’s couch by a singularly self-conscious rake. Alexander Portnoy, eponymous antihero, wants to shed the stifling, provincial values taught him by his parents, who are the children of Jewish immigrants. For the crowbars in his great escape, he chooses altruism, in the form of left-wing political activism, and hedonism, in the form of sex. Neither quite serves Portnoy the way he hopes. He ends up fighting for social justice as a minor civil servant under New York mayor John Lindsay (a Republican!), and his sexual misadventures, for all they may look tame by today’s standards, fill him with self-reproach. Unable to smother either his appetites or his conscience, Portnoy reports to analysis an impotent wreck.

Roth himself refused to take a side in his character’s dilemma. Quoting Chekhov, he once told George Plimpton that the artist’s obligation was to depict human problems faithfully, not to solve them. Consequently, Portnoy the narrator is at his best when he’s at his least repentant. By turns witty and allusive, hyperbolic and grotesque, often boastful and never entirely honest, he’s clearly trying to charm the analyst out of judging him too harshly. Unsaddled by an analyst’s responsibilities, those reading strictly for pleasure lose nothing by surrendering to Portnoy’s guile. We want the guy to keep misbehaving just because hearing him tell about it is so damn much fun.

At least that’s how I reacted when I was 14. And, though age and experience make it impossible to enjoy Portnoy’s comic brilliance untroubled by revulsion and pity, I still read fiction pretty much the way I did back then. Picking out antic characters, or narrators with an engaging and recognizably human voice, I let them take me for a ride. Jennifer Weiner would love me. Even now, I retain a soft spot for scoundrels, braggarts, and losers, especially when they tell their own stories, however unreliably. It’s no coincidence Harry Flashman is my favorite genre fiction hero and Jonathan Ames my favorite gonzo essayist. Hindus believe their gods incarnate themselves on earth in avatars — in my theology, these guys, and even the Vicomte de Valmont, are avatars of Sri Portnoy.

So what, if anything, familiar awaits me in Middle-earth? If Adam Gopnik’s ominous New Yorker essay from December, 2011 can be trusted, not much. It’s not that Gopnik slams Tolkien’s trilogy — far from it. He admires the author’s “arranged marriage of the Elder Edda and ‘The Wind in the Willows’ — big Icelandic romance and small-scale cozy English children’s book.” That’s alchemy at least as impressive as what Roth pulls off by dumping Sophocles into bed with Kafka, and in New Jersey, of all places.

Now down comes the boom. “Modernist ambiguity, or realist emotional ambivalence,” Gopnik warns, “is unknown to Tolkien—the good people are very good, the bad people very bad…Betrayal and temptation happen; inner doubts do not.” Worse still, he adds, in parentheses, “(There is also, in Tolkien, the complete elimination of lust as a normal motive in daily life. The wicked Wormtongue lusts for Éowyn at the court of Rohan, but this is thought to be very creepy.)” So far, Tolkein’s world sounds just like the 20/30 ministry at my old parish, the one I judged myself a little too old, and a little too brutalized by real life, to join. Che palle.

Alan Jacobs wouldn’t let Tolkien take that lying down. In his American Conservative blog, he parries Gopnik’s reading, arguing that Gopnik, like so many critics, is purblind when it comes to navigating Tolkein’s moral universe. Certain characters do, in fact, swing between good and evil, or are torn between conflicting goods. However, Jacobs says, “Tolkien, not being a modern liberal, thought it more interesting to explore situations when people know what they need to know but may lack the strength of will to act on that knowledge.” With a worldview like that, who needs cold showers?

But maybe, just maybe, the very pre-modern quality of Tolkien’s outlook is what will make it resonate. Valmont, Flashman, and Portnoy had all grown up immersed in a world of grim duty — they just couldn’t stand it. Without ancient social codes oppressing them, their transgressions make no sense; they come off looking like a bunch of dumb frat boys.

I wonder whether their rebellious stances didn’t, collectively, form part of the via negativa that led me into the Church in the first place. More probably, the archetype of the individual who bangs his head against tradition so attracted me that I ran right out and found a tradition to bang my head against. At worst, the Rings books will provide me with a brand-new surface. I’ve got all day, and my head’s hard.

Still, I know I’ll feel more at home if the elves in Mirkwood really do turn out to be gay. Maybe in the fanfic.

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