Tuesday, February 11, 2020
February 11, 2020: Fantasy Stories I Love: Tolkien Takeaways
[Since I’m teaching the Intro to Sci Fi/Fantasy class this semester, for my annual Valentine’s series I wanted to focus on fantasy authors & stories I’ve loved. Leading up to a weekend post on an emerging community who deserve more love!]
On three AmericanStudies lessons from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
1) Cross-Cultural Transformation: In recent years Tolkien (like his peer and friend C.S. Lewis) has been critiqued for his portrayals of non-European societies and cultures, and rightfully so; Middle-earth’s darker/southern men are frustratingly under-developed and one-dimensional in comparison to his northern societies. But at the same time, the characters and relationship that undergo one of the most significant changes in the course of the story are Gimli and Legolas, a dwarf and elf who begin with the typical antipathy those races feel toward one another and end the best of friends. And characters like Boromir and his father Denethor, who focus solely on their own city/nation (Gondor) and its needs, are proven time and again to be dangerously narrow-minded and myopic. Cross-cultural transformation for the win!
2) Democracy, Ultimately: One of the questions that came up again and again from my sons as we read through the series a few years back was why Sam calls Frodo “Mr. Frodo”; the boys understood that Sam began the series as Frodo’s employee (his gardener, specifically), but still couldn’t get why, once they were on their journey together, he continued to address his friend as his boss or superior. There’s no doubt that Sam begins the series as a simple man who is in social status but also perspective and identity below Frodo, and perhaps he remains there in some ways throughout. Yet at the same time, I would argue that the series’ culmination—both in the final stages of Frodo and Sam’s epic journey and in the multiple aftermaths that follow it—both depends on Sam’s actions and heroism and comes to focus on him as the embodiment of the Shire’s and Middle-earth’s future. Tolkien might have begun his world-building with a sense of English prep school elitism, that is, but he ended it with a genuine and inspiring vision of democracy.
3) Gollum and Empathy: In one of the series’ most famous exchanges (and one of the moments that the film versions got exactly right, even though they shifted its setting entirely), Frodo expresses regret that Bilbo did not kill the creature Gollum when he had the chance, and Gandalf disagrees, noting both that “it was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand” and that this pity might decide the fate of all. Given Gollum’s prominent role in the quest’s denouement, it’s easy to focus on the second point, but I would argue that it is in fact the first which drives Tolkien’s development of his most complex and interesting character. And I would go further, arguing that it is not just pity but also and most importantly empathy that the series shows toward the seemingly monstrous Gollum. Tolkien certainly depicts a world with clear powers of good and evil, but also one in which many characters occupy a grayer area between those two extremes, include layers of identity that defy any one categorization and demand empathy if we are to understand them. That’s a very valuable takeaway indeed.
Next loving tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Favorite fantasy authors or stories you’d share?