Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sex and the Single Dwarf

#12 in the series 
"J.R.R. Tolkien--Smut Peddler!"

It's odd that critics who admire irony in literature might also insist on explicit literary sexuality. For when you think about it, sex is in many ways the opposite of irony. Irony separates; sex brings together. Irony is emotionally cold; sex is usually not. To adopt an ironic attitude is to step outside and contemplate from a viewpoint removed from the action; to be sexual is to step inside, to penetrate and be pene- trated, to get into the thick of things. The theme-song of the ironist is "I Am A Rock"; the theme-song of the romantic is . . . well, half of all the songs ever sung. Maybe more. Maybe all of them.

And no one is born an ironist. Children--especially young ones--have little self-consciousness, a lesser sense of separation from the world, and therefore scant capacity for irony. Irony is a learned behavior; one must be trained in it. But we are all born craving touch. Even Dwarves. And no Dwarf has ever been quite as touched as Gimli son of Gloin.

If you've been following the argument up to this point it should come as no surprise that the real Young Man Seeking His Fortune in the Lord of the Rings is Gimli. Irony may be the official emotion of modern literature, and Tolkien may be writing a fairy-tale, but human emotion is notoriously ill-inclined to pay attention to boundaries, literary or otherwise. So Tolkien makes no big deal of the irony of Gimli and Galadriel's relationship. We're given no indication that it's supposed to be funny in any sense, ironic or not. Instead, the Master of Middle-earth con- centrates on what modern novels and ancient fairy-tales do best: explore the secrets of the heart.

When we first see Gimli and Galadriel together the Dwarf's heart is heavy with the loss of Gandalf and the horror of the Balrog. To add insult to injury, Celeborn clearly doesn't approve of Gimli's presence in his realm and says so. Yet Galadriel clearly does approve of Gimli: not only does she stick up for him in front of her own husband, she then directly proceeds to seduce him.

Yes--that's exactly what she's doing. For to judge by Gimli's reaction there is surely something erotic going on here:
"Dark is the water of Kheled-zaram [says Galadriel], and cold are the springs of Kibil-nala, and fair were the many-pillared halls of Khazad- dum in Elder Days before the fall of mighty kings beneath the stone." She looked upon Gimli, who sat glowering and sad, and she smiled. And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and under- standing. Wonder came into his face, and then he smiled in answer. He rose clumsily and bowed in Dwarf-fashion, saying "Yet more fair is the living land of Lorien, and the Lady Galadriel is above all the jewels that lie beneath the earth!"
Base map by Karen Wynn Fonstad, from her wonderful "Atlas of Middle-earth." Note: contrary to the custom of Dwarvish map-makers, who place east at the top, this map is oriented northward.

Whoa--that was quick! And as fine an example of instant intimacy as any you'll find in a porn video. Come now, we've all seen 'em: two total strangers mosey into a bare room and in a twinkling are inserting Tab A into Slot B. Or, if you wish: two total strangers meet a hundred yards up a tree and at once set about penetrating each others' hearts. In the space of perhaps two minutes Gimli has gone from enemy alien to courtly lover. How'd Galadriel do it?

If you're going to score in the romance department like Galadriel does you've got to have that extra something: namely, the ability to answer riddles. And now you can answer mine. Remember? Name a four-letter word that: (1) is common in ordinary English, and (2) ends in "K," and (3) means "intercourse." And now . . . may we have the envelope, please . . . the answer is. . . .

to be continued

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Perp Walk

#11 in the series "J.R.R. Tolkien--Smut Peddler!"

So far we've seen Galadriel's sexual energy encountering--and recoiling from--two of the eight remaining members of the Fellowship. We've got six to go: rather a crowd. Tolkien could line each of them up in front of the elf-queen and give us their reactions (and hers) one by one. Instead, like any good porn-writer he streamlines the process so we can get to the good stuff quicker. What's the "good stuff"? Why, sex, of course: finding out who gets down and dirty with Galadriel.

 To understand Tolkien's streamlining strategy we must divide the Fellowship into two groups: the hobbits and the non-hobbits. Such a division is justified thematic- ally and stylistically, and not just in this instance but throughout the story. The hobbits talk and act very differently from their larger Fellows--they're more like "us," and are thus the point-of-view characters, the reader's portals into the tale. We see the Big People mostly from the outside, as sets of traits and behaviors; the hobbits are made more familiar, easier to identify with. It's hard to visualize Aragorn stopping by the side of the trail to piss on a tree, whereas it's easy to imagine beer-swilling Sam anointing more than his fair share of shrubbery.

Within each group there is, as they said in the Middle Ages, a place for every man, and every man is firmly in his place. Hierarchy is everywhere in Tolkien's writings: we find it even in the Fellowship, his closest approach to egalitarianism. Aragorn as king is the highest ranking non-hobbit; he is followed by Boromir (son of the ruler of Gondor), Legolas (son of a minor elf-king), and finally, as offspring of a mere nobleman, Gimli. The hobbits are similarly arranged, with Frodo as a member of the landed gentry at the top, Merry and Pippin as sons of prominent families next, and lowly Sam, our only peasant, at the bottom.

To the modern nose this insistence on rank smells . . . well, rank. But Tolkien has uses for hierarchy beyond a fondness for medieval sociology. In the Lord of the Rings rank serves, among other things, to structure the movement of libido, to direct our attention to where it "should" go. For example, Aragorn may have sexual access to Arwen only after he has become ruler of Gondor and Arnor, i.e., when he has a rank more or less equal to her own. (I'm assuming, of course, as Tolkien would have, that both are virgins at the time of their marriage.) Knowing a character's rank sets up certain expectations as to whom he or she will find attractive, as well as telling us that when such expectations are NOT met we should sit up and take notice.

And when we first meet Galadriel what we notice is that libido, like Jesus, prefers the hot and the cold. Erotic energy is attracted to extremes, which is why in the scenes featuring the elf-queen the least active, least interesting characters are those in the middle of the Fellowship's hierarchies. Legolas is, in his own words, "an Elf and a kinsman here," making him too incestuously close for comfort, so he's out. Merry and Pippin have not yet developed enough personality within the story to be interesting in much of any way, erotic or otherwise; their time as characters has not yet come. Boromir's macho makes him, ironically, off limits.

As for the extremes, Aragorn is easily identified as also being too close to Galad- riel (although in another way). Frodo as Ringbearer is in a position somewhat like that of Boromir: he's brought evil into Lorien with him, though it's not of his own making as Boromir's is. Boromir in fact grills Frodo about what Galadriel offered to tempt him (thus diverting attention from his own guilty conscience), but Frodo--unlike Sam or Merry--refuses to divulge even the tiniest hint. And this is a hint that

Frodo's sexuality is not going to be an issue. We'll see later what kind of relationship he establishes with the Mysterious Lady; for now we'll treat him as eliminated from consideration.

We've already seen how poor Sam reacts to the elf-queen's telepathic probing, and can easily deduce the sexual nature of his temptation. In fact, his reaction is so powerful we can imagine Sam running away from his own erotic instincts at full speed; the energy of eros is so strong that, though it would like to alight, it can't keep up with its moving target. (At least, it can't until Rose Cotton catches up with it.) For now, at any rate, Sam's also out of the picture.

So who do we have left? Who in the Fellowship does the Lady of the Golden Wood actually bond with on a sensual level? To put it more baldly: who's gonna get a piece of Galadriel? Here's another hint: it's not going to be her husband. . . .

(to be continued)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Confessions of a Macho Man

(#10 in the series, "J.R.R. Tolkien: Smut Peddler!")

Boromir is one of many characters in the Lord of the Rings well worth watching, and not just because he's interesting in his own right. For as we observe in the reactions of certain people to Michelle Obama or Hillary Clinton, Boromir walks among us. And not just the part of him that is envious of Aragorn and craves power and glory. I mean the other part: the part that can't stand even the thought of a powerful woman.

To be fair, Boromir's macho isn't entirely his fault. His mother died when he was young; he's spent his adulthood slaying monsters; his father has pushed him into the role of Gondor's savior. With this kind of background, it's small wonder he's never had the time or inclination to get to know women. (Hard for a fella to get a date while drenched in orc-blood.) Certainly the cause of True Love has gotten little encouragement from Boromir's stern, grim father, still in silent mourning for his long-dead wife. And Boromir's hostility to Galadriel is more than a response to deeply buried sexual drives, for he's so gynophobic he turns up his nose even at the harmless "old wives" who tell nursery-tales of Fangorn Forest.

It's interesting how many characters in the Lord of the Ribngs lead double lives. Gandalf appears to be a frail old man; Saruman appears to be kindly and wise; Aragorn appears to be a wandering scruffy. And Boromir? Listen to this descrip- tion from Appendix A: "Boromir was a great captain, and even the Witch King feared him. He was noble and fair of face, a man strong in body and in will." Sounds just like our man . . . except that this is a description of Boromir the First, a Gondorian general who died a half a millenium before the War of the Ring. Our Boromir is the second man in Gondor's history to bear the name, as Aragorn is the second Chieftain of the Dunadain to bear his. And what our Boromir shares with his long-ago relative--in addition to his qualities as a military leader, and a father also named Denethor--is suffering. "He received a Morgul-wound in that war which shortened his life, and he became shrunken with pain and died twelve years after his father." Boromir I is maimed physically; number II suffers emotional stunting, as Denethor II  seemed to foretell when he named him.

Boromir has a wounded heart, and it is this that makes him the outwardly tough, inwardly vulnerable man that he is. Macho doesn't come out of nowhere, as some feminists (Andrea Dworkin, Valerie Solanas, even Ursula Le Guin) seem to believe. Nor is it the fault of ideology, or the Y chromosome, or "testosterone poisoning" (an expression first made-up--as a joke--by Gloria Steinem). Macho has an emotional cause, and that cause is whatever awful thing it is that makes a man give up on love. Our intuitive knowledge of this cause is what allows us to feel sorry for Beowulf, Boromir, and Quaritch, even as we see that character is destiny and that their destiny is doom. Boromir's death-scene is genuinely moving, Aragorn's tears for him realistic and right (as Marion Zimmer Bradley recognized). It is easy to imagine Tolkien himself witnessing more than one such scene in the trenches of World War I. As Boromir floats off on his final journey we grieve with his companions, and wish him well.

And we can rest assured that his final journey will have a happy destination. Boromir's soul has been saved--and not just by his sacrifice for the sake of the hobbits. Aragorn is the last descendant of the kings of Numenor, who alone among the Men of Middle-earth had the authority "to call the One to witness." As the One is, in effect, the God of the Catholic Church, the kings of Numenor and their descendants are, in effect, priests. Thus, Aragorn is empowered to hear Boromir's confession ("I tried to take the Ring from Frodo. I have failed.") and to grant him absolution ("You have not failed. Be at peace!"). Boromir is well aware of Aragorn's status as priest-king (though those who haven't read Unfinished Tales may not be), and he dies with a smile, his tormented soul at ease at last.

Boromir's reactions to Galadriel are "realistic" in the sense the term is usually employed in modern fiction, and can serve us as a critique of the wall of separa- tion between "realistic" and "fantastic" literature. I've spent extra time on the poor guy to demonstrate that Tolkien is as ready to confront an Awful Truth of human sexuality as anyone working in the so-called mainstream--to wit, the Awful Truth of gynophobia. It's an truth all of us living under patriarchy have to confront at some point, and the guidance that Tolkien offers us on this subject can be profoundly useful. That the son of Denethor carries an aurochs horn and fights cave-trolls should not obscure for us a simple fact: Boromir is the kind of guy we could meet on any street, on any day.

Or, for that matter, the kind of gal. For if current events are any guide, men aren't the only ones who think we're supposed to be impressed by their ability to field- dress a moose. . . .

to be continued

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Macho Macho Man Man

(# 9 in the series, "J.R.R. Tolkien: Smut Peddler!")

Stephen Lang, the actor who did such a great job portraying Colonel Quaritch in Avatar, gives us a brilliant insight into his character's psyche. In an interview in Energy Times (Nov/Dec 2010) he says, "[Quaritch] comes [to Pandora] as a victim. He's been dehumanized. . . . In many ways [he] presents some very fine qualities . . . but it got so twisted in these filthy wars back on Earth that part of him has just been burned away, that part being is soul. What's left is pure function." Lang--who specializes in playing tough guys--has hit the nail on the head. "Pure, soulless function": a superb description of the Colonel, of Beowulf, of your typical orc . . . and very nearly of Boromir. It's also a perfect description of others less overtly violent, such as Avatar's corporate lackey . . . or of those Republican congressmen mindlessly forcing the government to give worthless tax breaks to billionaires. It appears the Nazgul walk among us as well.

"I don't think much about why I do things."--G. W. Bush
(A buddy of mine once had the opportunity to see a Nazgul up close and personal. He said that even from 100 feet away he could feel the Black Breath; it literally made him sick to his stomach. Pretend Nazgul have cool-sounding names like "Gothmog" and "Angmar." The real thing had a more prosaic name: George W. Bush.)

The Colonel's lack of soul is why it makes such perfect, poetic sense when Neytiri puts an arrow into his heart: she's only making up for what he's missing. Since he won't let female power enter him, he'll have to have it inserted by force. And to reinforce the message, Neytiri gives him two arrows: one for her beloved father, and one for the courageous young war-chief who would have been her mate. The Colonel dares to penetrate the Bush with evil in him--and the Bush penetrates right back.

For there is no evil in this Bush unless a man brings it there himself. Then . . .
let him beware.

(It would seem a lot of fantasists like tall women. Neytiri is nine feet tall . . . so how tall is Galadriel? According to Tolkien's precise calculations, she's two Elvish rangar, which works out to be 6 feet 4 inches. The Lady of the Blue Wood and the Lady of the Golden are both tree-top lovers, and in more ways than one.)

Lang's insight into the character of Miles Quaritch lends a depth to his portrayal that aligns it with the fairy-tale tradition. Lang, Tolkien, James Cameron, and the unknown author of Beowulf all agree: the warrior virtues, noble in themselves, are not enough --not for the man, and not for his people. They also agree that a society run by warriors is likely to function more like a baboon-troop--or a modern corporation--than a healthy human community. Through the artistry of his portrayal, Lang shows us both the seductive charm and the deadly brutality of the warrior, and helps us to see (as Tolkien's Boromir does) the fatal flaw at the heart of the warrior mystique: the warrior is not a whole man. There's a hole in the middle of him where his heart should be. To be a whole man the warrior must Seek His Fortune . . . and heed the advice of the Lady when he finds her. Jake does--and awakens to a new life.

(Incidentally: those are Lang's real muscles, not CGI. He worked out for eight months to get the right build for the role.)

It's important for our appreciation of the Lord of the Rings that we realize Boromir is a "good guy." He's not there just to be shadow to Aragorn's light, or to represent Aragorn's "shadow side," or even to show us what Aragorn might have become if the Ring had gotten to him. Boromir is a tragic hero in Aristotle's sense, a good man with a character flaw that leads to his undoing. But here's another way in which Tolkien gives us more than we might have bargained for at the fairy-tale bazaar: Boromir has two such flaws. He's no ordinary macho man--he's a macho-macho man. But there's one more thing about Boromir--and about Aragorn--that even the Village People may not have known. . . . .

(to be continued)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Everybody Wants to Be a Macho-Macho Man

What Boromir doesn't like is women--especially a certain woman named Galadriel. "I do not feel too sure of this Elvish lady and her devices," he says, just one of the many indications that Boromir has a problem in the female department. He never complains about Celeborn, eh? Fellow warrior Aragorn will have none of it: "Speak no evil of the Lady Galadriel! . . . There is in her and in this land no evil, unless a man bring it hither himself. Then, let him beware!" It is in the conversations between the two human members of the Fellowship that we see most clearly how the elf-queen is not only a character with a personality of her own, but a screen upon which the other characters--and the reader--can project some of their deepest emotions. Which is to say: their sexual emotions.

Boromir does plenty of projecting onto Galadriel, and what he projects is his deep anxiety about women and about his attraction to them. He's Tolkien's portrait of something Americans didn't have a name for until Hispanic culture become more prominent. He's a macho man: comfortable in the clash of combat, dauntless in deeds of strength and daring . . . and terrified of any temptress who might distract him from his task (in his case, saving Gondor). As Tolkien was the original expert on Beowulf--he's the reason we all had to read the story in high school--it makes sense the Old English tale would induce him to include a Beowulf-type in his own story. Boromir fits the Beowulf-bill to a T: both are mighty in war; neither ever has a relationship with a woman.

Another guy who fits the bill is Colonel Miles Quaritch in James Cameron's film Avatar. Like Boromir and Beowulf, the Colonel is a man with all the warrior virtues: courage, strength, loyalty, charisma. He leads from the front, inspires everyone around him, shows a fatherly interest in his troops. Quaritch is why I must disagree with those critics (I'm thinking of the reviewer in Rolling Stone) who would have us believe Avatar is a simplistic story of evil humans vs. good aliens. Pandorans are not noble savages--they are ignorant of the outside universe, have bad tempers, and suffer from sexual jealousy. The only truly evil human in the film isn't the Colonel but the corporate lackey: the guy who obsesses about unobtainium and his quarterly reports. We last see him being marched off Pandora at gun-point to face certain humiliation back on Earth. The resentful, playground-bully look on his face is very telling--and tells us that the real bad guys in Cameron's world aren't humans as such but capitalists.

(Perhaps it's unreasonable of me to expect those working for corporate media to talk about such things. It's so much safer for their careers to condemn Cameron for being "morally simplistic," and for giving the Oscar to a film no one ever saw or wanted to. Cheer up, James! You're in excellent company: namely, that of J.R.R. Tolkien, who took the same rap from Edmond Wilson. Edmond who?)

Miles Quaritch, in his own way, is an honorable character. De- spite his cruelty and arrogance he has too many positive qualities to write him off as a generic bad-guy in the manner of, say, your typical orc. Yet when his protege bonds with a native woman we see the central weakness in the Colonel's character. His words to Jake speak volumes: "So you're getting some local tail and now you forget who's paying you?" (The best line in the movie, especially as Neytiri actually has a tail.) The Colonel can't under- stand love--or doesn't want to. The sexist soldier-slang and the reference to Jake's paycheck make it obvious that, if the Colonel has ever been in love, he's never let it interfere with business. In other words: he's too much of a warrior to be a real man. And "how to be a real man" is the whole point of Young Man Seeks His Fortune . . .

(to be continued)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Teeth, Tolkien, and "Twilight"

Ask anyone who's read them what they find least satisfying about the Twilight novels and they'll likely tell you it's their utterly unrealistic view of human sexuality. You get a couple of teenagers making goo-eyes at each other for several hundred pages, and now the elders are out of town, they're in the bedroom together, half their garments have gone AWOL, and . . . nothing happens. First base, second base . . . the baseball diamond has gone straight-edge. Bella and Edward don't even have the condom discussion. Perhaps vampires are unusually sensitive to fluoride? 

Most of us assume that if you put a straight man and a straight woman in a room together, extraneous factors being ignored, it's likely there will be at least a tiny smidgin of sexual tension between them. And if there's more than two people in the room, or if the would-be sex object is for some reason inap- propriate or unavailable, then--like a fly bumping around in a bottle until it finds a way out--the sexual energy will hover until it finds someone (or something) it can fix on. Until it does, everyone involved is going to feel the buzzing of frus- trated libido.And as any human being who has ever had wisdom teeth can tell you, libido doesn't like being frustrated.

Tolkien knew this as well as anyone--even though he wore dentures. (Which, incidentally, he liked to give instead of money to unattentive cashiers at the grocery store, just to see their reactions.) Being a professional medievalist, the Master of Middle-earth tended to adopt at least some portions of the medieval world-view and its sundry symbolic displacements, so that his own sexuality, even in his private letters, tends to be skillfully and modestly hidden. Carpenter's Biography speaks of Tolkien's intense need for privacy in regards to his marriage, and there's no reason for us to speculate on the nature of his relationship with Edith. Unlike her beloved husband, SHE was no smut-peddler.

So here I'll just mention the simple fact that J. R. R. Tolkien was more than a scholar. Yes, he was a devout Catholic who got up at the crack of dawn to ride his bicycle five miles to church so he could take communion before early Mass. . . . but he was also a man who, after the birth of his fourth child, had to sleep in a separate bed because getting his wife pregnant again might have killed her. (Afterall, being a devout Catholic in his day meant he couldn't even discuss condoms, let alone use them.) Heavily sublimated as his feelings may have been, Tolkien knew about sex, and about sexual frustration. He also knew how to write about them.

Libido's need for a nesting place is especially obvious in literature. Authors can't just conjure up sexual imagery without doing something with the resulting emo- tional urgency, in either their characters or their readers. The "head" of pressure (as it were) must be released. Even the most skillful author can't make the pressure simply disappear, because they've used sex to arouse the reader's expectations, and it's answering the reader's "and then what?" that keeps them with the story. Copulation needn't be the only way to release the tension, but the power of libido must in some way be acknowledged, or the reader has been cheated. And I can't imagine that Mormon housewives approve of cheating any more than non-Mormon non-housewives--even when they're doing just that.

Tolkien has set up his own, fairy-tale equivalent of a bedroom scene when the Fellowship meets Galadriel. And (unlike some authors), he has no intention of cheating his readers. We've already seen how sexual tension is present, and thick enough to cut with a charmed knife forged by the Men of Westerness. The source of the tension is, of course, Galadriel; indeed, it's almost shooting out of her like a laser. But unlike the traditional fairy-tale, in which we get to see everything from only one point of view--i.e., the male's--Tolkien lets us also see the sexual energy through female eyes. That is: what is the goal of Galadriel's libido? Where should her desire come to rest? Who should she want?

According to the canons of the classical fairy-tale, the fixation object should be Aragorn. (Big Pointy Things--chick's dig 'em.) But as we've seen, Aragorn is engaged to be married. In a "modern" novel this would present no problem: gal and guy could do the wild thing or not, with plenty of soul-searching agony thrown in to make the encounter "realistic" (think Bridges of Madison Country.) But even within the "fantasy" setting Aragorn has a perfect reason to avoid Galadriel's libido, and she to avoid his: the elf-queen is the future king's future grandmother-in-law. Even in a "realistic" story this could be expected to dampen his ardor, and maybe even hers. (This isn't The Graduate.) So Aragorn, Big Pointy Thing notwithstanding, is out of the game. One down, seven to go. . . .

So who's next in line? It should be Boromir. Strong, handsome, courageous, noble, Boromir has the cajones to battle hordes of orcs yet is gentle enough to carry the hobbits piggy-back down from the Redhorn Pass. Well-connected, too: he's the heir of the cur- rent ruler of Gondor, and the leader of Gon- dor's army. There's just something about a man in uniform . . . particularly when he's got a great big horn. What's not for a (straight) woman to like?

Unfortunately for the cause of True Love, it's what Boromir doesn't like that's the problem. . . .

(to be continued)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Nice Hole!

Part Six in the series "J.R.R.Tolkien--Smut Peddler!"

Now our heroic Young Man has penetrated The Bush, along with his seven would-be-merry men. The seven buddies aren't in the script--the classic fairy-tale script, that is--but then, Tolkien isn't quite the "traditionalist" many would like to believe. Every so often he is wont to take fairy-tale tradition and mess with it. You could say that the whole of the Lord of the Rings is such a "messing": whereas in the typical fairy-tale the hero is trying to find the Magic Dingus, in Tolkien's tale the hero is trying to lose it. Such modifications of tradition--even reversals--come thick and fast when we get to the scenes featuring females. And no one in Tolkien's work is more female than Galadriel.

Ah: there she is! A vision of loveliness--if we so chose, and we do. But hold (as they say in Middle-earth)! The Mysterious Maiden we find in Lorien isn't your typical young virgin living in an enchanted forest with no visible means of support. For one thing, Galadriel isn't exactly young--unless the yonder side of 6,360 years old is considered "young." (I imagine immortals have a different standard for when a woman enters "cougar" territory.) And she's no virgin: she's married, and has been for literally ages. There's a vague implication that the lost elven-prince Amroth is Celeborn and Galadriel's son . . . and a quick check of Appendix B reveals that they also have a daughter named Celebrian--the wife of Elrond, and thus the mother of Arwen. And so . . . Galadriel, our supposed Mysterious Maiden of the Deep, Dark Wood, is a grandmother. Oops! So much for her maidenhood, and maidenhead.

It seems our fairy-tale expectations have been dashed on both sides of the gender wall: our Young Man is no gawky stripling, our Lady no blushing maiden. Yet at least part of the classic script IS adhered to: from the moment we meet Galadriel the sexual tension is there. How do we know this? Check out the fine gentlemen of the Fellowship for the classic symptoms: staring, stammering, blushing, head-hanging, general bashfulness, inuendo . . . and temptation.

One of the traditional functions of the Mysterious Lady is to serve as a temptress. Particularly in stories from Christian countries, the Lady acts to divert the hero from some appointed task such as finding the Holy Grail. And she does this, delicate and defenseless as she may appear, by wielding her sexuality as a weapon. The hero has his Pointy Thing, and she has hers. In LotR we see Galadriel perform exactly the function of temptress, using her telepathic powers to try to talk her guests into abandoning the Quest of Mount Doom. And the nature of the temptation is quite explicit. How "explict"? How do we usually use that word nowadays?
If you want to know [says Sam], I felt as if I hadn't got nothing on, and I didn't like it. She seemed to be looking inside me and asking me what I would do if she gave me the chance of flying back home to the Shire to a nice little hole with--with a bit of garden of my own.
Let's get this straight (and we are being quite hetero here): Galadriel gets Sam naked, and then she offers him a nice . . . little . . . hole.

A hobbit hole! That's what he means! Of course he does! Something to live in . . . I mean with furniture! And bathrooms! And a--oh, a "garden," is it? Yes, a garden. A nice, quiet, secluded garden. A nice fertile garden. A garden chock full of . . . roses. Maybe a particular Rose. Maybe the one who will eventually give her husband thirteen children.

You mean to tell me you've been reading the Lord of the Rings all these years and you didn't notice that "nice little hole"? Get thee to a Viagra factory!

Who'd'a thunk it? Samwise Gamgee, the baby of the bunch, is the only member of the Fellowship to have explict (very explicit!) sexual fantasies. And Aragorn, our Young Man With Pointy Thing, is the one least affected by Galadriel's wiles. But then, this isn't the only ironic twist on traditional themes that Tolkien pitches us. For despite his patriarchal upbringing, Tolkien was a lot more comfortable with strong women than many authors, traditional or modern. Though he was no feminist, the Master of Middle-earth seemed not to be disturbed that his female characters occasionally climbed down off their courtly pedistals and . . . wanted. Eowyn wants Aragorn, Shelob wants to eat up the world, Ioreth wants someone to listen to her, and Galadriel . . . she wants something, alright. She wants it bad. And it ain't the Ring of Power, bucko!

(to be continued)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

"Oh, It's Me and My Crew, We've Come For a . . ."

Awhile back, I talked about how some critics have had fits trying to encompass the works of J. R. R. Tolkien within their theories. The following quote seems to me to capture some of their difficulties with The Lord of the Rings quite nicely:
"Far from redeeming . . .  not fully satisfy . . ." Are these cool and cautious phrases what one really wants to say about this novel? If the question seems odd, perhaps it is because modern criticism does not fully encourage one to rely upon personal feelings when discussing a book. . . . [This book] raises no great problems of interpretation: most literate readers are likely to share a common view of its meaning. By now its impact is also a matter of common knowledge, those who detest the novel offering evidence as forceful as those who admire it. But when it comes to estimating the value of [this work], a notorious silence overcomes the critics, perhaps because they sense that here neither approval nor dismissal matters as much as recording faithfully one's primary response.
If you've been following me so far (this being post #5 in the series) you've got an idea that fairy-tales, pornography, and the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien all have something in common, and that this something is sex. Tolkien knew fairy-tales like the back of his hand: such lore was part of his job as a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. So of course he knew a dozen or more versions of Young Man Seeks His Fortune. And despite the way he's treated in various critical hagiographies, he knew about sex: he was a married man with four children, none of whom was conceived in a petri dish. As for his knowledge of pornography . . . let's just check out what he did with his own Young Man, and his Fortune, and find out for ourselves. But be warned! For in so doing we must now leave the cozy world of scholarly disputation and plunge headlong into a festering cesspool . . . of smut!

For behold! Here, in chapter 6 of Book II of LotR (that is, in the second half of The Fellowship of the Ring) we witness the approach of our handsome Young Man with his long, sharp Pointy Thing. And there right before him is the enchanted Forest, just begging to be--ahem--penetrated. So far, nothing you wouldn't find in Old Ethiopia, or Little Golden Books.

But hold! It seems our Young Man has brought some buddies along. Seven buddies, in fact. Whoa! That's not in the script! The story's gone kinky on us already, and we haven't even gotten to the penetrating part.

But then, this IS the modern world. As I pointed out in an earlier posting, modern writing just ain't the real thing unless it has at least one murder, orgy, cannibal feast, or rape. Faulkner's Sanctuary--what some regard as the first "modern" novel in this sense--was twenty years old when Fellowship was published, so the reader experienced in 20th-century literature should feel well-prepared to endure Tolkien's smuttiness. What's an eight-ply gang-bang compared to what happened to poor Temple Drake? And LotR is a fairy-tale, anyway: everything's symbolic. (Didn't Joseph Campbell say so?) We're not going to SEE anything. This isn't Cormac McCarthy we're reading here, let alone William Faulkner. Buck up, stalwart reader.

(Oh yes: the quote above, though it looks like it could be about LotR, is actually about Sanctuary. It's taken from Irving Howe's William Faulkner: A Critical Study, originally published in 1951, just after Faulkner got his Nobel Prize. And 1951 was the same year The Fellowship of the Ring was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.)

But hold, again! It seems that in Fellowship the fairy-tale script isn't just being ignored, but trampled into the dirt. For our Young Man isn't exactly young. In fact, he's 87 years old! And he's engaged to be married! And worst of all: only one of his seven buddies is even human! What kind of story IS this? Maybe it's just as well we don't get to see anything. Even on the "symbolic" level we're being set up for something rather beyond mere kinky.

And while we're preparing ourselves for the worst . . . have you solved my riddle yet? You're going to need the answer when we get to the part with the dwarf. . . .

(to be continued)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Into the Bush--And I Don't Mean Dubya

I read an anthropologist once who claimed that if you're parachuted into the middle of an isolated valley in, say, New Guinea, and you need to get in with the locals as quickly as possible, just strike up a conversation on any of these three topics: (1) death/disaster/dismemberment, (2) the wicked ways of those strangers yonder, or (3) sex. A quick glance at the typical blog (such as this one) reveals the wisdom of this advice. I'm "in" with you, correct? And not because of sliced-up eyeballs or those wicked strangers over the next hill.

The great theme of all story-telling---and Joseph Campbell wasn't the first to notice---is the human life-cycle. Whether it's a story about a young girl growing up, or of a young man finding a mate, or of a newlywed dealing with hostile in-laws, or of a child dealing with a parent's jealousy, or of anyone confronting sickness, old age, and death, the fairy-tales of every culture encode that culture's collective experience about the passage of the human personality through time. And some of the most popular stories in world literature are those that deal with the theme I'm calling "Young Man Seeks His Fortune."

Here's the standard scenario: a young man somewhere between puberty and full adulthood takes leave of his (often widowed) mother and, armed only with her blessing and a few ancestral gew-gaws inherited from his (usually vanished) father sets out in search of . . . well, the story-tellers are usually a bit coy about his goal. No sooner has our Young Man taken a dozen steps out the door, however, than he finds himself in a forest. A deep forest. A dark forest. A mysterious forest that professional mythographers writing for Parabola magazine would have us believe is a stand-in for the collective unconscious, but which an audience in, say, 25,000 BC Ethiopia---lacking a copy of The Portable Jung---would probably have thought was something more obvious. Namely, that universal non-archetype: The Bush.

A scary place, The Bush. It must be: otherwise, why does our Young Man need a sword? And if not a sword, some other ancestral gew-gaw from the long-and-pointy department. With the help of his Long Pointy Thing the Young Man penetrates into the farthest recesses of the deep, dark, scary Bush. And having reached the deepest, the darkest, the very scariest nook/corner/cranny/recess of The Bush, what does our stalwart Young Man discover?

(Cue voice of Goofy) Gorsh! It's . . . a lady!

And such a lady! Drop-dead gorgeous, of course. Tall, well-proportioned, pale . . . not a lot of sunlight in your typical deep, dark forest. Long hair, natch---unless she's from the Kalahari, or the Young Man is a young lesbian looking for the butch of her dreams. And why not? Fairy-tales can take place in the 21st century . . . and maybe they had butch-dyke goddesses back in 25,000 BC Ethiopia, too. Venus of Willendorf, anyone? At any rate, the story makes it perfectly plain the Mysterious Lady---or whatever we call her---can be any fill-in-the-blank sex-object you wish. The point isn't what she looks like (or even her gender), but where the story is leading us. And it isn't down the road paved with good intentions. Or maybe it is.

For it's inevitable (the story assures us) that something wonderful will happen: our Young Man is going to fall in love with the Lady of the Deep, Dark Wood. But to win even the finest love, as we all know, is a struggle. For the hand of his beloved, our Young Man must do battle. And Tolkien's young man? The Lady of his dreams is no ordinary Mysterious Lady. And he's no ordinary Young Man. And the Lord of the Rings is no ordinary fairy-tale. For Tolkien's young man isn't quite following the traditional fairy-tale script. Among other things, it appears he's brought along reinforcements. . . .

(to be continued)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

El Squanto vs The Zombie Pilgrims!

Happy Thanksgiving! On this, the most sacred day on the year for America's food retailers, let us pause to consider the life of the man who made that first Thanksgiving possible: Squanto.
     Most of us heard vague rumors of this Indian guy back in grade school. He was a gentleman of the Patuxet tribe who helped the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony during their first miserable year in New England. It was he who taught them the fish-in-the-hole trick to fertilize their corn, taught them to plant squash and pumpkins, served as ambassador to surrounding Native tribes, and navigated them around unfamiliar territory. By most accounts, it was Squanto who saved the Pilgrims' bacon and ensured the survival of Plymouth.
     Something that always bothered me as a kid was a question my history picture-books never answered. How did Squanto learn English? In those texts the Pilgrims were Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise landing on an alien world and encountering locals who all sounded like James Earl Jones. More modern textbooks say Squanto learned his English from passing fisherman. What they don't tell you is that those fisherman kidnapped Squanto and sold him into slavery. He spent nine years in England before a sympathetic master arranged for him to return. However, an English slave-raider than captured him and sold him in Malaga, Spain. Our hero escaped, made his way to England, and after one failed attempt to return home via Newfoundland finally made it back to his home village after an absence of fourteen years. . . .
     . . . only to find that his home was gone. A smallpox epidemic had annihilated the Patuxet, passing through their village so rapidly that recently planted corn was still growing in the fields--fields that had just been taken over by the Pilgrims. For Plymouth Colony was founded literally on the ruins of Squanto's home village. Sure, Squanto was all too happy to assist the Pilgrims: he had no choice. He had nowhere else to go, and his tribe was gone. He was the sole survivor.
     Comparatively speaking, Squanto was lucky. The Pilgrims could have treated him, and the other Natives with whom they came into contact, much worse. Afterall, the Plymouth colonists--by their own admission--merely engaged in graverobbing:
The next morning, we found a place like a grave. We decided to dig it up. We found first a mat, and under that a fine bow. . . . We also found bowls, trays, dishes, and things like that. We took several of the prettiest things to carry away with us, and covered the body up again.
At least the Pilgrims left the body alone. Had Squanto ended up down south in Virginia he'd have had an outbreak of zombies to deal with. Here's the description from that wonderful book, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen:
[The Virginia colonists] spent their early days digging random holes in the ground, haplessly looking for gold instead of planting crops. Soon they were starving and digging up putrid Indian corpses to eat. . . .
Me, I prefer mashed-potatoes. One wonders how many aristocratic planter families in the Old South are descended from ancestors who ate human flesh. It's the kind of thing you wish Faulkner had written about (and you thought "A Rose For Emily" was gross!). So as many of us in the next few days sit down to sumptuous meals, let us spare a thought for a man with strength, loyalty, intelligence, and courage to rival any luchador, and for the important role that zombies have played in American history. Take care and . . . eat well.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

She Says Whip It--Whip It Good!

If asked to name a character in the Lord of the Rings who could be called "sexy," most readers would likely reply: "Galadriel." Long before Kate Blanchet flared her nostrils for Peter Jackson, illustrators knew intuitively that the Lady of the Golden Wood was Tolkien's "It Girl," and were having a field-day trying to depict her Itness. The calendars produced by the Brothers Hildebrandt are infamous for their Disney-esque silliness; their renderings of clouds, for example, are visual analogs of purple prose. And their Galadriels make this war-veteran refugee from the First Age look barely past puberty, not elf-queen but prom-queen.

Yet the Hildebrandts' illustrations do capture something of her sexual nature, a smouldering Something we know is hiding in there somewhere beneath the virginal white bridesmaid dress. And after exposure to the imposingly lovely Ms. Blanchet, some film-goers might be tempted to think of Galadriel as a kind of Swedish porn-star: she is, afterall, beautiful, statuesque, pale-skinned, regal . . . and appealing to anyone with a blonde fetish. With dark hair instead of light and a whip instead of a Ring of Power, the Lady of the Golden Wood might make a good dominatrix. She even talks like one: "All shall love me and despair!"
     (The above illustration is a detail from the Tolkien Calendar for 1976, published by Random House. She's Ms. May, incidentally.)
     But when you read about Galadriel (vs watching the movies) the picture gets more complicated. For the fact is, LotR tells us almost nothing about what she looks like. We're told she's tall, blonde, "fair" . . . and that's about it. Critics take issue with Tolkien's lack of character description, but it seems to me this "lack" is really a cagey way of accomplishing his real goal. And that is NOT the goal of the good novelist--namely, to get you to identify with the characters. Rather, his goal is that of the teller of fairy-tales: the get you to project your unconscious. Galadriel is beautiful because Tolkien allows you to attach your own notions of beauty onto the meager scaffold of his description. Her sexiness is almost entirely in your head--which is where nine-tenths of all sexiness is, anyway.
     Tolkien's frequent use of the adjective "fair" is also part of his program. "Fair" translates the High Elven word vanya. This word's original meaning was "beautiful," and was applied in particular to the First House of the Eldar, who came to be called the Vanyar (the "-r" is a plural marker). As the Vanyar were all pale-skinned and blond, vanya eventually came to have the secondary meaning of "having a fair complexion." Unlike English-speakers, who believe beautiful people are blond, the High Elves believe blond people are beautiful--but so are brunettes. Aragorn calls raven-haired Arwen vanima (another form of vanya), and Tolkien's wife, Edith, had dark hair and dark eyes. The Master of Middle-earth can hardly be accused of having a blonde-fetish . . . yet he was well-aware than many of his readers did and do.
     Galadriel as a symbol or image is clearly intended to attract a certain amount of physical interest, curiosity . . . even longing. She's supposed to be pretty, though how much of "pretty" overlaps with "sexy" is up to the reader. The context in which she is placed, however, reinforces the notion that "sexy" is definitely part of the picture. For as a character in a fairy-tale---and that's what LotR is, albeit a very long one--Galadriel is the central figure in a literary scenario easily recognized in a thousand fairy-tales from all over the world. This is the scenario we may call "Young Man Seeks His Fortune." And the fortune our young man is seeking? In the immortal words of George Carlin: you don't gotta be Fellini to figure this one out!
(to be continued)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Monster (?) and the Critics

Mainstream critics have had a dreadful time trying to get a handle on Tolkien's work. Even a casual glance at the Lord of the Rings reveals an almost total lack of the characteristics that define serious, respectable writing in the 20th (and 21st) centuries. There's no ironic distancing, no agonized interior monologues, no verbal fireworks, no anti-heroes-with-heavy-emphasis-on-the-"anti," no monologues mascarading as dialogues (a la Hemingway), no convoluted symbolism. If your idea of literature is Jane Austin or Leo Tolstoy (and why not?) Tolkien is going to be a letdown. As one famous Austin/Tolstoy lover once wrote:
When it appeared in the library I avoided it. It looks dull, I thought. It's probably affected. It's probably allegorical. . . . Once I went so far as to pick up volume II and look at the first page. People were rushing around on a hill looking for each other. The language looked a bit stilted. I put it back.
And of course, any Tolkien fan knows of Edmund Wilson and his famous "Oo, Those Awful Orcs!" or Katherine Stimson and her "Frodo lives--on borrowed time," or Isaac Asimov's "the One Ring is not wholly evil," . . . or Ursula LeGuin, who wrote the above review. (Or rather: beginning-of-a-review. How her essay "The Staring Eye" ends is another matter.)
    How can any aesthete with street-cred possibly take Tolkien seriously after reading a real heavyweight like Cormac McCarthy? Tolkien only hints that Gollum eats babies--in Outer Dark we get to see it done. Now there's serious writing for you! Yet in choosing non-modern modes of expression for his work, Tolkien appears to have abandoned modern themes as well. In addition to a lamentable lack of baby-eating, rape with corncobs, and sliced-up eyeballs, in LotR there is no alienation, no class warfare, no existential torment, no grappling with Important Social Issues of Our Time, no moral ambiguities. And certainly no sex.
     That last one is the clincher: the final proof of Tolkien's status as a lightweight. EVERY modern author writes about sex. You just can't have a modern novel without a potpourri of adultery, rapes, incest, bestiality, and--if the writer is a Mormon housewife--hormonal awakenings triggered by sparkly corpses. Someone once defined the plot of the Great American Novel as "aging college professor contemplates adultery." I never could figure out why the contemplative had to be a professor and not, say, a lawyer (Atticus Finch?) or a sharecropper. Aren't sharecroppers, well . . . hunkier?
     Refusal to "confront" adultery, or any other Awful Truth of human lust, is prima facie evidence of authorial cowardice: so say the Guardians of the Literary Canon. And--volunteering to face the cannons of World War One notwithstanding--a coward is what Tolkien must have been. For the Lord of the Rings contains no adultery, no rapes, no incest, no bestiality, and (a laita i Valar!) no sparkly vampires. Therefore, the Lord of the Rings contains not even the tiniest bit of sex.
     Or does it?
     I would like to suggest that that those who have found no evidence of sex in the Lord of the Rings are victims of either the Evil Fluoride Conspiracy or saltpeter in their mashed potatoes. For the Awful Truth is that Tolkien's masterpiece is loaded with sex, dripping and oozing with sex, pulsing and pounding and panting with sex, growling and grunting and groaning with sex, sex, sex! That's right: sex, my friends! SEX!! Stop looking at me like that!
     You don't believe me? Your primitive earth-minds cannot comprehend? Then let facts be presented to a candid world. . . .
(to be continued)

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Greatest Pornographer of the 20th Century

Quick! Name a four-letter word that:
   (1) is common in ordinary English, and
   (2) ends in "K," and
   (3) means "intercourse."
Give up? Probably not--most native speakers of English (and many non-speakers) can name this word fairly easily. Or rather: one such word. For there are two words that fit the above criteria. Can't think of the other one? Don't be embarrassed: only a genius is likely to be able to. A genius like . . . J. R. R. Tolkien.
   Tolkien is now so much a part of global culture that he seems almost a part of the landscape. Scholar speak of him in the same breath as Shakespeare; scientistics casually call a new-found species of short-statured hominins "hobbits"; legislators quote Gandalf against capital punishment; "elves" are no longer cute little sprites who hide in buttercups but knife-wielding death machines with perfect hair.And the literary movement that Tolkien spearheaded--"high-fantasy"--has made possible everything from A Wizard of Earthsea to World of Warcraft.
   According to Publisher's Weekly, by the year 2000 The Lord of the Rings had sold 100 million copies in 40 languages. By 2008, according to UNESCO, Tolkien's works had been translated 1,198 times, making him more frequently translated than Poe, Plato, or Perrault. Mind you, those 100 million copies were sold before Peter Jackson's movies were released, and before LotR's translation into Mandarin. Following publishing's general rule of thumb that every book has a minimum of three readers, and assuming that at least half of the people alive in Y2K could read, Tolkien was familiar to roughly one out of every ten literate people on the planet.
   Of course, J. K. Rowling has by now far surpassed Tolkien in terms of popularity. But unlike Tolkien, the worthy Ms. Rowling had the advantage of being carried by the world's largest publisher of children's books--and they had and still have the advantage of a captive audience in every elementary school in America. Thanks to Scholastic's marketing department, Rowling may never know if her work is really as good as her sales figures attest, of if her appeal is merely the result of saturation advertising. Which is a terrible pity: I'm sure she'd rather be known as a good writer than as "that lady who's richer than the Queen."
   But perhaps it's just as well that Harry Potter is more popular with the kids than Frodo Baggins. Rowling by all account is a sweet Scottish lady you'd invite to your mum's for tea. Tolkien, on the other hand . . . Tolkien was more than he seemed. For John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was in cold fact two very different people in a single form a flesh: a veritable Jekyll and Hyde of high fantasy. By day: tweed-suited Oxford don, staunch Roman Catholic, war veteran, loving husband, doting father. But by night . . . .
   smut peddler!
   That's right: the greatest pornographer of the 20th century was none other than J. R. R. Tolkien--and I can prove it. Don't believe me? Tune in again next week--if you dare. . . .
(to be continued)