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.

Monday Mourning Coming Down
Five Reasons I Despise Listicles
Rest Among the Catholic Doodads
Lent and the Lame Evangelist
  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Okay, Max, you don’t realise the dangerous ground you are treading on when you invoke the wrath of the Tolkienists :-)

    First, the Hobbits never lived in Mirkwood. I’ll spare you the entire two Ages worth of history, but it’s the Silvan Elves who live there.

    Second, that part about Tolkien only sees the world in black-and-white is a criticism that goes all the way back to Edmund Wilson and his 1956 piece “Ooh, Those Awful Orcs”.

    Gríma Wormtongue does not lust after Eowyn; his temptation is a completely different one – to be a Quisling (something that the readers during the Second World War could have identified for themselves without needing to be told); the responsible counsellor, the trusted statesman, who makes a bargain with the forces that seem overwhelming in order to (as he conceives it) preserve his own land and people against the inevitable over-run and conquest.

    Yes, there are evilly evil characters in “The Lord of the Rings”: they generally are the gods/fallen angels who went astray through pride, wilful blindness, lust for power and their own choice. However, all the virtue is not on one side and all on the side of Good do not stumble. Boromir falls. Denethor falls. There is a long history of the ‘Good’ side being undone by their own pride and superiority.

    What Tolkien is talking about is the virtue of Hope, hope beyond everything, the kind of hope that is the counterpoint to the prudent, worldly, political calculation of Grima and Saruman. If I can quote an excerpt from my favourite of his other writings, the “Athrabeth”:

    “What is hope?” she said. “An expectation of good, which though uncertain has some foundation in what is known? Then we have none.”

    “That is one thing that Men call ‘hope’,” said Finrod. “Amdir we call it, ‘looking up’. But there is another which is founded deeper. ‘Estel’ we call it, that is “trust”. It is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being. If we are indeed the Eruhin, the Children of the One, then He will not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy, not even by ourselves. That is the last foundation of Estel, which we keep even when we contemplate the End: of all His designs the issue must be for His Children’s joy.”

  • lindenman

    What age are we in now? Already I need an Ibuprofen.

  • Brian Sullivan

    Max, like any author it’s never a good idea to read about Tolkien before reading Tolkien. What Wilde said about cynics applies.

  • mcrognale

    You NEED to read “The Hobbit” first. Make sure that you savor the poetry and songs in the order presented. When I first walked from Bag End to Rivendell and back I skipped the poetry and songs. Once I finished the book I realized that I was missing key information. So I went back and savored the entire book again, and again. I have the original Ballantine paperbacks, well thumbed and worn. I have all the other books. Sillmarillion and such. Have fun and remember, you can’t read the entire series just once.

  • Robster

    Modernist ambiguity and realist emotional ambivalence–we get enough of that in real life. What is the point of art that merely reproduces what we already know and dispise, without offering any solution or at least hope ?

  • df

    Augustinan sense of history with a strong dose of Thomistic anthropology. (And hobbitpology and elfpology– hard to join Anglo-Saxon roots to Greek trees.) In any case, nothing finer in the English language in the 20th Century, and it reads well in Spanish, too. I read it as an adult; it didn’t change the direction of my life, but it did make me sense a richness in the direction I was on that had previously escaped me.

  • hotboogers

    Ditto. Just read what’s there on the page in front of you and enjoy it as you may.

    Do you ever live first-hand? You seem really self-conscious most of the time. Try just enjoying something, regardless of anyone else’s opinions. I find it really freeing, but I’d be interested in your experience.

  • http://www.geeklady.wordpress.com/ GeekLady

    Wormtongue most certainly does lust after Eowyn. Gandalf references Eowyn as being one of the things he expected to acquire, “when all the men are dead”

  • http://www.geeklady.wordpress.com/ GeekLady

    If you want to understand how Tolkien wrote, I highly recommend Tom Simon’s Writing Down the Dragon. One thing is certain – The Lord of the Rings is not a marriage of the Prose Edda and Wind in the Wiliows. The very idea is either foolishness or knavery. Tolkien took a twee tone in the Hobbit, but that tone is almost entirely absent in The Lord of the Rings.

    There isn’t a lot of lust in this book, I’ll grant you. I think this is because lust makes for boring reading.

  • Calah Alexander

    Max, is she not the greatest commenter alive? I’m not kidding, she is just.the.best. So smart, so cordial, so unafraid. If she lived next door I’d be braiding a BFF bracelet for her and inviting her over for tea or something suitably domestic. (I’ve been informed that it’s not okay to offer guests martinis at 10:30 am.)

  • Calah Alexander

    Oh, I hate to say it, but The Hobbit kind of sucks. *ducks* I didn’t love Tolkien until I dove into the Silmarillion. Even LOTR wasn’t enough to win me over, and I took a class on it in high school. Plus, Orlando Bloom as Legolas… *swoon* But still, it was the extended mythology that did me in. Not the fecking hobbits. I kind of hate the hobbits. Why are they so stupidly content? It’s not normal. I’d like to punch a hobbit. The Valar and the Maiar, on the other hand…

  • http://www.geeklady.wordpress.com/ GeekLady

    (Ave Maria would not survive us!)

  • http://www.geeklady.wordpress.com/ GeekLady

    I did love both the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings in first readings, but they are vastly different books and I would never say one Must read the Hobbit first. All you need is a brief precisé of events.
    But I do love the Silmarillion best, I think its incompleteness somehow makes it more convincingly real. It breaks my heart how he got stalled up on the creation myth and the problem of evil.

  • Chesire11

    “Modernist ambiguity, or realist emotional ambivalence is unknown to Tolkien”

    Well, given that the Lord of the Rings is (among other things) a rebuke to modernist ambiguity, that is hardly surprising! The fact that it is a remarkable, and successful marriage of the Epic, which deals in archetypes and moral absolutes, pitting superhuman characters against finite challenges on the one hand,and the novel, which examines the stress experienced, and the choices made by the individual when pitted against superhuman challenges (two diametrically opposed literary forms) also shapes how moral challenges are expressed.

    It sounds to me as though he was just disappointed that the book wasn’t just a conventional novel.

  • Nicholas Haggin

    Twelve years ago when I decided to get into Tolkien, I started with the Silmarillion. My friends all thought I was crazy, but having grown up with Robert Graves’s _The Greek Myths_ and a couple different anthologies of the Norse myths, I knew I had to understand the mythos before the narratives. (The same strategy got me hooked on Homer and Virgil, BTW.) Having let the Silmarillion ferment in my mind for a bit, I then read LotR, followed by The Hobbit.

  • http://www.thewinedarksea.com/ Melanie B

    The Hobbit was written for children and I do think you have to be rather childish to fully enjoy it. I read it at the right age and loved it, but I can understand why adults meeting it for the first time wouldn’t. I couldn’t get into the Silmarilion at all until one night a friend put on an audiobook version. Then I was amazed, “What is this? I asked. I still love The Lord of the Rings most. I’m more into the story than the mythology, but I finally get The Silmarilion.

  • http://www.thewinedarksea.com/ Melanie B

    GeekLady and Calah both need to move next door to meeee! And we can have a absolutely lovely book club every single afternoon.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fr.petebarnabite Peter Calabrese

    I have to admit after avoiding LOTR in high school just because all my friends were reading them and the Hobbit, I tried a few years ago and could not get through the first part of Volume I. Well does Fr Robert Barron say that Tolkien needs the first “boring part” to draw you into the world of Middle Earth. Then the adventure starts. This year I have picked it up again. Intriniscally Catholic and very capturing. I reread the “boring part” slogged through it I should say. Now I am enjoying Volume Three and happy I made the effort Enjoy!

  • chrysalis fx

    “The Hobbit was written for children and I do think you have to be rather childish to fully enjoy it.” That seems to be an oft-neglected fact. However, it is a rather well written children’s book, so it does set up the scene adequately. It was well-written enough to make me give LotR a chance, and while Silmarillion is certainly the most epic one among his works, it also has to be said that his fairy tales for children were also quite enjoyable, somewhat moreso than The Hobbit.

  • PeonyMoss

    Can I come??

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    True, but it’s not his primary motivation. As with so much else, he gets more corrupted when he gives in to temptation and starts trafficking with Saruman (who in turn is being corrupted by his trafficking with Sauron).

    Gríma starts off as the sober, prudent councillor who sees (as he thinks) the facts of the matter and that it is better to make some kind of alliance with the enemy while good terms can still be had, rather than waiting to be over-run and only infuriating it by opposition. As he goes on, his ambition advances: not alone to be the power behind the throne manipulating Théoden, but to take the throne for himself (get Theodred and Eomer out of the way) and cement it by a dynastic marriage with Eowyn, daughter of the former ruling house.

    Lust enters into his motivations, but I can’t agree with Mr. Gopnik that his characterisation would be improved by making it his main motivation. I suspect what he means is that the ‘bad guys’ would be made more sympathetic if they were humanised by giving them recognisable flaws – we’ve all pined over a pretty girl/handsome boy, haven’t we, readers?

    He fails to recognise that in the much grimmer world of war-time Middle-earth, that tang of lust is all too easily twisted into rape. Is he really suggesting making Gríma a rapist (which in effect he would be, with a forced marriage to Eowyn) is a better way of drawing the character? I think he confuses the idea of ‘sin’ (which is what lust is) with modern misunderstanding of what sin means (what he calls lust, I imagine, he really means as a form of love).
    Wouldn’t that be making Gríma just as much a black-and-white simplified character if he was turned from a traitorous statesman in war-time to a creepy guy who has the hots for the pretty princess?

    Besides, I find it hard to take Gopnik’s reading seriously when he contrasts the LOTR with the Eragon books, breathlessly praising how much better they are for teens heading off to college. They’re okay books, but they’re your standard teenage power/wish fulfilment fantasy. Which message is better in the long run for your first experience of ‘real world’ wider life in college/leaving school – you are a special snowflake dragon rider wielding extraordinary powers and talents, with the fate of worlds and peoples in your hands, whom everyone wants on their side, or yeah, you’re ordinary and swept up by greater forces of life that you can’t control but what you can do is stick to your principles and do the best you can?

  • http://www.geeklady.wordpress.com/ GeekLady

    We are reading the Hobbit aloud right now, and are enjoying it very much.
    Tolkien, in general, is much better read aloud. Especially with a good reader. The Hobbit has proved to be surprisingly humorous this way.

  • http://www.geeklady.wordpress.com/ GeekLady

    Do you have a blog Peony? I hate that Disqus doesn’t allow/facilitate sharing where we blog.

  • PeonyMoss

    Been a little light on the updates lately, but

  • http://www.geeklady.wordpress.com/ GeekLady

    That’s okay, I’m not exactly the queen of daily updates myself. I’m at geeklady.wordpress.com

  • Meredith

    In Tolkien’s own words:

    The Lord of the Rings
    Is one of those things:
    If you like it, you do;
    If you don’t, then you boo!

    I happen to cherish it, but knowing that it will never be cool. (It’s not true, though, that all literati hate it; W.H. Auden and Sylvia Plath were big fans. I’m sure there are more, reading it guiltily under the covers.)

    It’s true that the tone, structure, and characterization are not that of a modernist or realist novel. That seems to be one reason for its popularity. It is a prose epic, really, rather than a novel. Different and long and very very beautiful. But I won’t try to hype it; you either love it or hate it.

    If you read LotR, does this mean I have to read that dirty old misogynist bastard Roth? Your recommendation of Portnoy’s Complaint may prompt me to try…

  • jasmine999

    Maybe you should read it knowing that it was extraordinarily influential in popular culture. It spawned pretty much everything we now consider “fantasy” in lit, films, and gaming(see Skyrim, World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, ad nauseam).

    I still think it’s the best of the fantasies. Do not look for ambiguity, as there is none. There is a great deal of racism. Despite all that, I love LoTR.

  • lindenman


  • http://Www.theirishatheist.wordpress.com/ The Irish Atheist

    Racism? The Lord of the Rings is a testament that people of all individual backgrounds can come together for a common good!

    Well, as long as they’re all white.

    I mean, even when they die, they come back whiter.

  • Alana de Kock

    My Grade 3 teacher read the class the Hobbit back in the 1970s. The impression has been indelible. To treat Tolkien’s work as novel is mistaken. His work is layered with meaning, emotion and personal dilemma as well as archetypes and pure humanity. Also he was South African born, a son of African soil. What more could you ask.
    And yes I am South African..