Sunday, April 15, 2012

Feature Week: JRR Tolkien

Hello and welcome to another Feature Week here at Vintage Novels! This time we'll be looking at the works of the author of my favourite book of all time—JRR Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings.

What Tolkien did in The Lord of the Rings and its surrounding mythology is unparalleled in the history of literature. Singlehandedly, he did the work of a whole culture: he constructed languages, legends, and cosmology. It was a gargantuan effort—he began work on the legendarium in his late teens or early twenties, and was still hard at work when he died. The extraordinary brilliance of his mind, combined with a disciplined and ardent love for languages of every kind, and a reverent wish to give glory to God in his subcreations, formed the foundation for a life's work that has never been equalled. Tolkien's masterpiece—the epic novel The Lord of the Rings—has spawned a thousand imitators which succeed in reproducing little more than the volume of the story. The imitators do not, or cannot, reproduce Tolkien's overriding concern with what he called True Myth or the evangelium—the Gospel; they cannot even begin to think about using words in the same way that Tolkien could; and they do not have the lifetime of discipline and knowledge to try. We are, after all, talking about a man who, as a young boy in high school, disdained Latin as too easy and opted for Gothic instead.

This week I will be taking a look at some of Tolkien's major and minor works. There is no time to review everything, but we'll cover the basics and some of the additional material. Before I begin, I should let you know two things. One, I have probably spent more time thinking about these books than about any other books—and they do reward the study—so there are some very long posts ahead. Two, if you are looking for a critical discussion of the books, you have come to the wrong place. Discussion there will be, but little or no criticism. I have spoken to people of every persuasion, from Christians who sincerely believe that Tolkien's work demonstrates a pagan worldview to postmodernist literary snobs who will never be happy as long as someone thinks that The Lord of the Rings is great literature. I cannot join them in their objections, but maybe, as I discuss these books this week, I can demonstrate the underlying worldview and the immense literary skill that went into them. I hope that you enjoy this series.


Lady Bibliophile said...

So looking forward to this, Suzannah! I must confess, I'm constantly thrown back and forth in these books on how I should be looking at them--favorably or unfavorably. I think with a little background info, it will greatly help my evaluations. :)


Suzannah said...

I'm also looking forward to your eventual review of LOTR. I'll try not to drop too many spoilers...

As I've mentioned, I'm pretty firmly pro-Tolkien. I'll be looking at the Middle-Earth cosmology and the assumptions underlying it (eg, does sheer dumb luck, or something more specific, drive the narrative?). If you are interested in Tolkien's foundational theory of story itself, you cannot do better than to read the following:

On Fairy Stories (essay):
Mythopoeia (poem):

The essay covers a few different topics; the discussion of mythopoeia, eucatastrophe, and the Gospel comes right at the end. I particularly like the poem, though I'll have to admit that it took me a couple of re-reads to understand completely what he's saying. It was written just after the famous late-night conversation with CS Lewis and Hugh Dyson (IIRC) that was instrumental in leading Lewis to Christ. In the conversation--enlarged upon in the poem--Tolkien argued that myths and stories are reflections of True Myth--the story of Fall and Resurrection, which unlike every other beautiful story in the history of mankind, actually happened.

I won't be tackling these aspects of Tolkien's storytelling philosophy this week, though I had a stab at it here:


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