"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)