Apr 4, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 19: The Last Stage

It was on May the First that the two came back at last to the brink of the valley of Rivendell, where stood the Last (or First) Homely House.

The last chapter of the Hobbit starts with Bilbo and Gandalf arriving in Rivendell. They hang out with the elves for a bit, and there's a couple of songs. We're told in passing that Gandalf and some of his pals kicked the Necromancer out of Mirkwood, but other than that, Rivendell again serves as a brief pit stop. The hobbit and wizard make their way back toward the Shire, stopping to collect the trolls' gold on the way, and when they spot the Hill of Hobitton in the distance, Bilbo suddenly breaks out in poetry.

His actual homecoming turns out to be anything but poetic, as it turns out he's been declared dead, and arrives in the middle of an auction where his effects are being sold. After some confusion, Bilbo manages to recover most of his things, and settles back in at Bag-End. However, the impeccably respectable middle-class gentlehobbit he left as is long gone; not only has he been away on an adventure and had the gall to return, but now also entertains bizarre visitors like elves and wizards, and writes poetry. As a result, he's shunned by his peers and neighbors as mad - and is quite happy. In the end, the adventure has succeeded in rescuing Bilbo from the bourgeois respectability lampooned in the first chapter, although he conveniently retains its material trappings. In the very last scene, Bilbo is happily entertaining Balin and Gandalf for tea, bringing the whole story to a full circle from its beginning.


So, that was the Hobbit! Let's sum up.

Apart from the memorable dragon, the chief enemies of the story are orcs. When we first meet them, they're quite categorically characterized as evil and wicked, and hardly exist in the narrative at all except to be killed. After the brief dialogue with the Great Goblin, the only interaction anyone has with a goblin is violent. Mostly because of that dialogue, they're not utterly dehumanized into mindless automatons. More importantly, their killing isn't exalted and glorified as a moral good, except by Beorn, who clearly represents a more atavistic morality. So they're slightly more nuanced and interesting villains than zombies. Maybe.

Moving from the goblins to their enemies, Tolkien himself apparently made it clear several times that his dwarves are some kind of extended fantasy allegory of the Jews. I find this fascinating, because it's never once occurred to me. In my mind, the avarice of the dwarves did always have an uncomfortable similarity with antisemitic stereotypes, but other than that, I've always seen Tolkien's dwarves as thoroughly Norse.

I maintain this is because the Jewish allegory Tolkien attempted completely fails. Sure, the dwarves in The Hobbit are wanderers seeking to reclaim their lost homeland. But it's not the divinely ordained eretz khazad of all dwarves; some others seek to reclaim Moria, while most are apparently quite content to live wherever it is they live. Damningly, the theology of the dwarves makes them the complete opposite of the children of Israel: far from being the chosen people of the covenant, the dwarves are descended from a separate creation by one of the lesser divine powers. Worst of all, the professor's philology seems to have completely deserted him when inventing dwarvish, because the few place-names and phrases we get do not, pace Tolkien, succeed in conveying anything remotely Semitic. It's hardly a coincidence that his massive linguistic acumen didn't, as far as I know, extend to any of the Afroasiatic languages. The kh's and z's that one deduces from his interview comments were intended to suggest Semitic all just come off as pseudo-Germanic. With only basic studies in philology behind me, it's impertinent of me to second-guess a professor, but surely if a Semitic air was desired, maybe even a desultory attempt at a definite article might have been made? Or at least one decidedly non-Indo-European vowel sound?

So in my opinion at least, Tolkien's conception of the dwarves as Jewish entirely fails on any level except the vulgar stereotype of greed. This failure is kin to the way in which Tolkien's Christianity and Biblical allusions in general mostly fail to make their way into the text for a modern reader: the allusions are contradicted by the internal logic of Tolkien's Arda, the theology mostly doesn't work, but above all the Scandinavian influence is so overwhelming. With every dwarf name straight out of the Edda, and Norse dwarves being famous above all as miners and craftsmen, there is simply no need to look for a Semitic allegory. Even the avarice of the dwarves can just as easily, and far more charitably, be traced to Fafnir and the Volsunga saga, rather than antisemitic prejudice. I would certainly rather consider Thorin's appalling behavior as King under the Mountain a Fafnir-analogy than a meditation on the Jewish character. Unfortunately, denounciations of Nazi Germany notwithstanding (most prominently Letters, 29), Tolkien's publicly stated preference for the latter suggests that if you want to call him a racist on the basis of his novels, you'd best add antisemite as well.

Tolkien was reportedly annoyed that his work was characterized as "Nordic"; in this case, as in many others, it might have helped if he hadn't made it so thoroughly Scandinavian. It's quite possible that the root of the problem is that Tolkien the Christian wanted his stories to fit into a neat Christian framework, but Tolkien the philologist couldn't bring himself to do such brutal violence to the essentially pagan world of the Norse. The euhemeristic Christianizing prologue of the prose Edda must have rung even more profoundly false to the philologist Tolkien than it does to a more average reader. Personally, I strongly believe that the Nordic dimensions of Tolkien's work are essential to its success; the heroism and worldliness of the Norse sagas is absolutely crucial, and fundamentally incompatible with Christian pathos. Even though Tolkien the Christian might not have liked to admit this, we're lucky that the philologist realized it in writing the stories. One wonders if some inkling of this is behind Tolkien's angry rejection of analogy. It's certainly fascinating that he can effortlessly shift between the modern world and the Norse sagas, and this combination remains immensely popular, but struggles to convey his Christianity - food for thought for those who insist that our culture is somehow especially Christian.


The other glaring question of representation is the complete lack of women in the Hobbit. The entire novel doesn't include one single female character. There's an online list of women in Tolkien's Middle-earth, according to which there's only one named female person in the book: Belladonna Took, Bilbo's mother, in Chapter 1. Like all the other women mentioned in the text, she's defined solely by her relationship to a man - with one exception.

"Dear me!" he went on. "Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures? Anything from climbing trees to visiting elves - or sailing in ships, sailing to other shores!"
- The Hobbit, Chapter 1, p. 7; emphasis mine

Given the rest of the book, this is an extraordinary passage. So adventures are something women can go on as well, but when Tolkien sets out to write one, it ends up not including so much as a single female character. This is one reason why I think Tolkien's attitudes to gender are a bit more complex than they're usually treated as. Despite the complete lack of women in the Hobbit, you won't find anything as blindly, categorically misogynist as, say, Ursula Le Guin's insistence in the early Earthsea books that only men can have real power - and yet Le Guin is the exemplary feminist, and Tolkien is a horrible woman-hater. (do read Jo Walton's comments on Le Guin)

By our standards, Tolkien almost certainly was a misogynist, and his inability to actually include a single female presence in the Hobbit is testimony to it. But it is interesting that even though he's a devout Christian, he doesn't actually ever feel the need to preach gender roles at us. Given the passage quoted above, it isn't quite so surprising any more that the man who couldn't conceive of women having any part to play in the Hobbit would go on to create the character of Éowyn. Still, though, the thoroughly masculine exclusivity of the Hobbit is very striking. I'm tempted to suggest that this is another victory of the philologist: Tolkien knows that there are valkyries and shield-maidens in the Norse tradition, and it's they who stop him from making the kind of blanket essentialist declarations of gender that the vast majority of later fantasy seems to find compulsory, but his faith and background still demarcate adventure as an entirely male arena.


So yes, the Hobbit is a somewhat racist, definitely misogynistic Boys' Own adventure, where dwarves and elves and dragons can all be very marvelous and thrilling, but in the end, real life is the serene middle-class peace of the imaginary English countryside. Epic Pooh, as Michael Moorcock had it.

Yet at the same time, it's more than that. Moorcock, for instance, is completely wrong when he claims that unlike epic, Tolkien and his imitators "ignore" death. It's deeply puzzling to read this right after Thorin's death-bed scene, let alone the Lord of the Rings. I also can't help being somewhat jarred by Moorcock interrupting his criticism of Tolkien's reactionary longing for the pseudo-feudal countryside to bestow plaudits on, of all people, J.K. Rowling! Similarly, while David Brin had the right idea in seeing Tolkien's works as a battle of Romanticism against modernity, his caricature of world history is unforgiveably stupid and massively racist in its Eurocentrism: everything was terrible until heroic white men invented liberty. Crucially, his description of Tolkien's stories as "lacking...a role for individual champions" and as a clash of a side that's "100% good" with one that's "100% evil" simply cannot be reconciled with the actual texts. So having said that I fundamentally agree with the view of Tolkien's works as racist, misogynistic and deeply reactionary, the fact remains that the critics' Tolkien isn't quite to be found in the pages of his books, either.

Just last year, Moorcock took on Tolkien again in the New Statesman, and had this to say:

“In Tolkien, everyone’s in their place and happy to be there. We go there and back, to where we started. There’s no escape, nothing will ever change and nobody will ever break out of this well-­ordered world.”

As anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with Tolkien's works knows, this is pure nonsense. Neither the end of the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings can possibly be considered a return to an unchanged beginning, and the idea that Tolkien's Middle-earth is permanent and unchanging is shockingly tone-deaf and completely unsupportable. So sadly, while Tolkien's most vocal critics do make some good points, they also seem to have decided that they're enlightened enough to be exempt from actually bothering to read him.


There are several things going on here, perhaps the most important of which is that Tolkien has come to stand for all modern fantasy, especially at its most racist and misogynistic. There's a strange way in which fantasy has become the imagined history of the worst aspects of our society, clearly seen when "historical accuracy" has replaced verisimilitude. "Historical accuracy" can now be used to demand ridiculous fictions of a racially pure white Middle Ages, or a disgustingly misogynistic prolonged rape fantasy rather than, say, actual history, let alone fantasy. Certainly in producing foundational works of fantasy that were racist and misogynistic, and had pretentions toward being an imaginary history of our times, Tolkien stands on the path that led us here, but especially on returning to the Hobbit after all these years, I strongly believe it's quite unfair to lay all the blame on him. Bigoted though it is, Tolkien's text is still light-years from the leering torture porn and thoroughly racist caricatures of a George R.R. Martin. Again, returning to the text itself is what makes both the heritage and the distance clear.

Another factor in the critical disdain for Tolkien is pure literary snobism, which fairly oozes from Moorcock's essay. His sheer indignation at the commercial success of the Lord of the Rings is just the latest installment in a long, long tradition of bashing Tolkien as "not real literature". I have very little to add to Tom Shippey's treatment of this in the deliberately provocatively titled Tolkien: Author of the Century, except to highly recommend John Carey's seminal The Intellectuals and the Masses. It's hardly without irony that in his deep contempt for Tolkien's popularity, Moorcock begins to edge quite close to the hatred of the "ignorant proles" he sees in Tolkien's works.

Speaking as a fan, I absolutely decry any attempt to explain away the many and deep problems of Tolkien's works. To write an entire novel supposedly set in a world to some extent analogous to our own and not manage to include a single active female character is simply monstrous. To insist on framing individual qualities in terms of race and blood, and even worse, insisting that his dwarves are a meditation on Jewish racial characteristics, is pure racism. My point in bringing up counter-examples, either of the more nuanced treatment of the "evil races" - stop for a moment to consider that in modern fantasy, this is still considered a reasonable phrase - or the lads and lasses who go on adventures, is not to make excuses for him. It's to point out that the actual text of his works is steeped in all these problems, but at the same time more complex than the critics so often make it seem. There is a constant tension in Tolkien's texts between the misogyny and the racism on the one hand, and counter-impulses on the other. Like the tension between the pagan and the Christian elements, this also allows for a subtler reading of the text, or even a subversion of it. Quite simply put, Tolkien is not ideologically dogmatic. To borrow his metaphor of the Beowulf poem as a tower, all the pieces of Tolkien's building don't quite fit together, and if you like, those are the cracks where the light gets in.

To me, this is why so many of us have managed to read, re-read and thoroughly enjoy his work and not see it as a sexist, racist paean to a quasi-Fascist past. Much of it has been our blindness; I, for instance, had never realized that the Hobbit genuinely cannot bring itself to depict a single female character. But some of it has also been that when these cracks showed up between the clear ideological structures of the text and the subversions and exceptions, we took to the latter rather than the former. I hope to continue my series of posts into the Lord of the Rings, which will hopefully give me the chance to explain why it's been a cornerstone of my personal feminism and anti-racism. The general point I want to stress is that one of the main reasons I wanted to do this close reading was to illustrate how the text is manifestly guilty of the oppressive, othering ideologies it stands accused of, but also that a close reading will display that Tolkien wasn't as consistent with these as his critics imagine. This is a point I will be particularly returning to in the Lord of the Rings posts.


If the Hobbit is no gleeful celebration of rape and slaughter like some of its prominent contemporary descendants, it doesn't shy awy from the darker sides of its story, either. People die so the dwarves can get their dragon-gold: not only some of Thorin's company and Thorin himself, but most notably, many of the Lake-men, who have their homes and livelihoods completely destroyed by the dragon the dwarves have roused. Again, if Middle-earth really was populated by only the 100% good and the 100% bad, it would be impossible to conceive of the squabbling over the dead dragon's hoard, where the Lake-men's reasonable requests are met with violence by the dwarves. It's not really made particularly clear in the narrative if, on the whole, the Lake-men wouldn't have been better off in the end if the dwarves had never showed up at all. In the modern jargon, high adventure and dragon-slaying does considerable collateral damage.

On a more personal level, Bilbo may seem like a happy-go-lucky accidental hero, but he also goes through quite a gamut of emotions and experiences. From the very beginning of the story, the epic romance of songs and tales is contrasted with the physical misery of actual "adventure", from the pouring rain and the trolls to the thunderstorms, orcs and wolves of the mountains, and the bleak near-starvation of the dwarves and Bilbo in Mirkwood. This contrast between the glorious, heroic world of the stories told at second hand and the miserable physical reality in which they happened at the time is present throughout, with the narrator at times remarking on how particular episodes would get re-told later. So not only is the experience of the adventure hardly all fun and games, but the text also shows an awareness and even a mild subversion of the way in which terrible experiences will become heroic epic, stripped of all reality. So to say that the prose of the Hobbit "coddles us" requires, again, very deliberately omitting a large part of the actual text.


A final point on which I don't quite agree with Moorcock is the quality of Tolkien's prose. I like it; I've gained distinct pleasure from reading it out loud. At times it's clunky, at times it's beautiful. On the whole, I find the Hobbit a distinctly enjoyable book, despite its glaring flaws. It deserves to be read on its own, not just as a prequel to the Lord of the Rings. The elements that later come to dominate the whole fictional world - the Ring, the Necromancer - are, respectively, a key prop and a shadow on the horizon of the story, but nothing more. I would urge everyone to read the Hobbit as a story in itself, without the massive weight of epic-to-come weighing it down. So many passages, like the riddle-contest with Gollum, the gradual arrival of the dwarves at Beorn's hall and Bilbo's repartee with Smaug are simply excellent. The dwarves' complete unpreparedness for any part of their great adventure that's at such complete odds with their bombastic songs and poetic declarations that it's irresistably funny to me. This is just a really good story. I honestly can't think of many works of fantasy I'd rank above it.

If someone's actually read through even one of these posts, you have my genuine gratitude. I've had a great time writing them; I hope I've managed to produce something that's been of some kind of value to someone else as well. Next time, I'm moving on to the only fantasy book I'd unhesitatingly say is better than the Hobbit: the Lord of the Rings.


Leon said...

I'm definitely reading your Hobbit posts and enjoying the analysis. I'm very much looking forward to your analysis of LOTR (and about to re-read them for the umpteenth time myself).

I see Tolkien as a man of his time, imbued with a male-centric and racist tones, yet he seems to try to rise above it (certainly in his condemnation of antisemitism). He's like that grandfather who's staunchly against racism but occasionally blurts out embarrassing racist statements at family gatherings.

Michael Halila said...

Thank you! I'm happy you've enjoyed reading these; I've had a lot of fun writing them, and even more with the Lord of the Rings ones.

I have to be honest, having read Tolkien's letters, most of his fiction and even a bunch of the non-fiction, I still can't quite work out what he thought about racism. Certainly he didn't like Hitler and the Nazis, but I'm actually not entirely sure why. On the one hand, he did condemn anti-Semitism, but on the other he regards Thorin going berserk over gold as a meditation on the Jewish character, so, you know. I'm not sure that he made any real effort to rise above the racism of his time, but rather, to me, fairly faithfully reflects both that and the sexism. I'll try to talk some more about this with the Lord of the Rings posts!