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)

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