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Posts tagged J.R.R. Tolkien

From the geek archives: Jews, Tolkien, and a parting note to some ruddy little ignoramuses

Here’s a side note on Old is the New New’s interesting post on the origins of Superman (the origins of the fiction, that is, not Superman’s origin story within the fiction):

I??m also curious about the importance of Jewish identity to this story. Jones and Chabon remind us, if we need reminding, that most of the key figures in the origins of the superhero are Jewish. I sometimes wonder how much all of geek culture is a discourse on Jewishness in America. Not just the superhero thing, which is pretty obvious–nebbishy immigrants transforming into Nordic supermen to fight crooks and Nazis. I mean the whole cultural edifice of nerddom, from Amazing Stories to The Matrix. A man is not a man until he owns land, Duddy. The suspiciously Wagnerian epics of Tolkien and Lucas. Jewish-American Henry Winkler in Italian-American juvie-face as the Fonz. The insult that made a man out of Mac. The whole geek-jock just you wait until our 25th high school reunion baggage that so many skinny (and fat) bespectacled kids carry around in their psyches. Is it all a secularized, de-ethnicized mastication of Philip Roth?

It’s an interesting point, and one which certainly needs to bear in mind the tangled knot of connections between Jewish identity and gender — the baggage carried along from the cultural association of Jewishness with effeminacy and femininity. In any case, though, in the provinces points out in a comment:

J.R.R. Tolkien was neither American (an eminently English academic and Oxford don) nor Jewish–but an Englishmen of partially German (and eminently Christian German) descent. I’m not quite sure what he’s doing in an otherwise interesting commentary on Jews and geek culture in America.

Of course, how Tolkien’s work was received within the American geek culture being discussed is at least as interesting and relevant to the story as Tolkien himself. But, in any case, Rob replies in a comment:

Yes, you are right of course. And I knew writing it that Tolkien is quite the opposite of American or Jewish (he comes by his Wagnerian echoes much more honestly than George Lucas, you might say), so it was probably sloppy of me to toss him in there. He’s just so central to the geek mythos as I see it that any half-baked theory on geek culture has to find some way to accomodate him. I did try to keep that paragraph speculative, since my thinking on these subjects is very tentative.

Thanks for reading, though, and thanks for the comment.

And added the following in an update to the original post:

[Edit: I??ve been chastised, in comments below, for tossing J.R.R. Tolkien into that melting pot of American Jewish geekery, a fate he would have found more horrifying than Mount Doom. Obviously, Tolkien was neither American nor Jewish, and my half-baked theories about geek culture probably need some more baking before they can accomodate him. In the meantime, maybe I should revise that sentence to say the epics of Asimov and Lucas, though Asimov??s epics were really less Wagnerian than? what should I say? Thucidydean? Gibbonian?]

But while Tolkien certainly would have been alarmed to be confused with an American, mb points out in a later comment:

Speaking of Tolkien, in his collected letters there is a fine letter from the late 1930s, when the Hobbit was being translated into German. As I recall it, he was asked to certify for the German publisher that he was Aryan, ie non-Jewish, to which he replied that he had no idea what the term Aryan meant linguistically, and that he’d be quite proud to be Jewish, though he wasn’t. So Tolkien would probably be surprised to be lumped in with the folks discussed above, but not necessarily horrified.

The letter that mb is referring to is a letter to the Potsdam publishing house, Rütten & Loening Verlag, dated 25 July 1938. Tolkien’s English publisher, Allen & Unwin, had agreed for Rütten & Loening to publish a German translation of The Hobbit; soon after, Tolkien received a letter from Rütten & Loening asking if he was arisch (Aryan) descent. Tolkien sent a letter (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #29) to Allen & Unwin with two drafts of possible answers to Allen & Unwin enclosed:

… I must say that the enclosed letter from Rütten & Loening is a bit stiff. Do I suffer this impertinence because of the possession of a German name, or do their lunatic laws require a certificate of arisch origin from all persons of all countries?

Personally I should be inclined to refuse to give any Bestätigung (although it happens that I can), and let a German translation go hang. In any case I should object strongly to any such declaration appearing in print. I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.

You are primarily concerned, and I cannot jeopardize the chance of a German publication without your approval. So I submit two drafts of possible answers.

In one of the drafts, Tolkien refused to make any answer to the question (that’s the one which was probably sent to Germany); the other one is the only one preserved in Allen & Unwin’s files. Here’s the excerpt published in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (letter #30):

Dear Sirs,

Thank you for your letter …. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to wear my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its suitability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung.

I trust you will find this reply satisfactory, and
remain yours faithfully,
J. R. R. Tolkien

Tolkien, of course, would have been far more horrified to see how he has been appropriated, quite against his will, by illiterate fascist revivalists such as the National Vanguard and Prussian Blue; for those folks, here’s another one (to his son Michael; Letters #45), for them to chew on:

I have spent most of my life, since I was your age, studying Germanic matters (in the general sense that includes England and Scandinavia). There is a great deal more force (and truth) than ignorant people imagine in the Germanic ideal. I was much attracted by it as an undergraduate (when Hitler was, I suppose, dabbling in paint, and had not heard of it), in reaction against the Classics. You have to understand the good in things, to detect the real evil. But no one ever calls on me to broadcast, or do a postscript! Yet I suppose I know better than most what is the truth about this Nordic nonsense. Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge — which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler (for the odd thing about demonic inspiration and impetus is that it in no way enhances the purely intellectual stature: it chiefly affects the mere will). Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.

–J. R. R. Tolkien to his son Michael, 9 June 1941

Further reading:

A Moment for Geekery, and Beauty

J.R.R. Tolkien had a lingering suspicion that The Lord of the Rings was fundamentally an un-filmable story; he expressed the opinion that it was peculiarly unsuitable to dramatization and found himself disappointed (and a bit bewildered) at several attempts that were made at radio and film versions of his work. A couple of days ago, L. and I received Peter Jackson’s extended edition DVD of The Return of the King in a package on our doorstep. Tolkien was certainly right to worry–just look at the god-awful mess Ralph Bakshi made in The Lord of the Rings Part One (or better yet, don’t). But Jackson’s recut film (which we watched, of course, the first night that we had it) is just the last of a series of reminders that what is long hoped for can be fulfilled against all odds, that magnificient things really are possible in film, and that there is real beauty in this world, that there are things worth caring and raving about not because of anything that they are good for, but just because of what they are.

(Minor spoiler alert: don’t read the next four paragraphs if you don’t want to know what was added to the Extended Edition yet.)

The Extended Edition of ROTK is, much like the other two extended editions, a notably better version of a film that was already fantastic; whatever Jackson’s (misguided, I think) worries about the constraints on film being shown in a cinema, the DVD format gives him the leisure that he needs to draw out the tale and the characters as they deserve to be.

One of the chief beneficiaries is Denethor, whose increased screen time leaves him still noticeably more brutal and less fiercely-noble-but-despairing than you find him in the books, but who still has the time now to fully work out his pride, his heartrending grief, his despair, and his fall into madness. There is a moment, in both the cinematic release and in the Extended Edition, in which Faramir suggests that his father wishes that he had gone to Rivendell instead, and died in Boromir’s place–and Denethor clenches his jaw as he sips his wine, and quietly says that yes, he does wish that. I thought at the time that the scene was masterfully acted by John Noble, who showed both how brutal Denethor’s honesty was, but also how it cost him to say it at last; but when I saw Return of the King at the cinema, a lot of the audience just couldn’t seem to believe it. But the more chance we have to see Denethor, his despair in the war, and his mourning for Boromir, the more (I think) that moment resonates–to the point of being almost drawing tears. (As for Faramir’s suicidal charge on Osgiliath and Denethor’s descent into madness, there was no “almost” about it.)

The pacing of the Battle of Pelennor Fields is also less harshly abbreviated; the arrival of the Black Ships is still lamely anticlimactic, but Jackson does take the chance to draw out the siege of Minas Tirith in all its intolerable tension, to finally make some real reference to the day without dawn, and to place Gandalf in his confrontation with the Witch-King moments before the arrival of the Rohirrim at an unexpected sunrise. That moment, which had been little more than a transition to the next scene (albeit a fantastic next scene) in the cinematic version is now feels heighted to a genuine eucatastrophe in the depth of the darkest hour (just as Tolkien had intended it). Roger Ebert pointed out (in a review that I fear mostly missed the point) how Jackson has the will to show marvellous things on film and to use the entire screen doing it that has not really been seen since the great silent directors (Fritz Lang, in particular). What the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings have also shown is that he has the will–unlike almost any other filmmaker today–to take what he is doing absolutely seriously, and to slowly build (over the course of a good twelve hours or so of film!) to moments of real intensity, of terrible sadness and exuberant joy, without either smirking at the camera or indulging in Spielbergian sentimentality. Very few people working in film today, and almost certainly no-one who has worked on big-budget Hollywood productions in many a year, come anywhere near to making anything that is either so gloriously cinematic or so earnestly dramatic.

There are flaws of course–I might mention Jackson’s obsession with people falling unnecessarily from very high places, or the scriptwriters apparently complete misunderstanding of Valinor (all the evidence points to their having confused it with Heaven)–but these are rarely anything new and they don’t come anywhere near disrupting four hours of brilliant, emotionally exhausting, and simply beautiful film work. I don’t care what anyone says; the multiple endings and their real sense for the joy, beauty, and sadness of Tolkien’s denouement are one of the best things about this film, and although I think that the extended Fellowship remains clearly Jackson’s best work, Return is as nearly perfect a climax and farewell to the journey as you could hope for.

If I’m indulging in a bit of stridor for Strider and the rest of the gang, forgive me. I don’t, really, know how to write criticism without either making snarky remarks about lame moments in a film or else coming off as a raving fanboy (which I do, sometimes, and which I certainly am, in some cases). But what I want to say is this: the films that Jackson has given us really are some of the great works of film in our time, and if we take film seriously as art–and if we take art, and beauty, seriously as part of the good life–then it should be a delight to see something so sincere and so genuinely good available to us. We live in a media rich age, and all too much of what that means is that a lot of crap is now easily available 24/7. But it does also mean that Peter Jackson was able to make something that is genuinely and unabashedly great and beautiful, and to do so with a remarkable amount of thought and sensitivity to the text that Tolkien wrote and the intent behind it. That’s something remarkable, and if we are going to talk about human life in civilization, the usual bullshit that we dish about and get bunched up over is really only the dark and empty shadow cast over what is really meaningful. If Tolkien has only one thing to say to us about our times and his, it’s this: it is the builders, not the destroyers, who are worth remembering in history, and the reason that it’s sometimes worth the fight and struggle is the hope that it can free us–that we can live our lives together free to make things fit for everlasting memory, to seek, with wisdom and humility, the truth, and to behold, with love, the beauty that is in and the beauty that is beyond this world. Or, as Tolkien put it (in a scene that Jackson has delightfully restored to the Extended Edition):

Frodo sighed and was asleep almost before the words were spoken. Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo’s hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell. Then at last, to keep himself awake, he crawled from the hiding-place and looked out. The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he lookd up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep and untroubled sleep. (199)



Some more from Tolkien’s letters, to go along with his comments on the horrors of war:

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically conceived, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) — or to unconstitutional Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance at recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to King George’s council, Winston and his gang, it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy. Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.

–letter to his son Christopher Tolkien, 29 November 1943. Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #52

I suppose that Hans-Hermann Hoppe would like the kind words for unrestrained Monarchy. Otherwise, though, a lovely statement.

Humor for Hawks

(The link is courtesy of Aeon Skoble on Liberty and Power, who got it from Fark.)

Among the wits who brought you such straight-to-DVD cinematic masterpieces as FahrenHYPE 9/11 (which is advertised as a rationalization for your preconceived conclusions about Michael Moore) and Celsius 41.11, this, apparently, is the sort of thing that passes for sophisticated satire:

Fellowship 9/11

. . .

Michael Moore’s searing examination of the Aragorn administration’s actions in the wake of the tragic events at Helms Deep. With his characteristic humor and dogged commitment to uncovering — or if necessary fabricating — the facts, Moore considers the reign of the son of Arathorn and where it has led us. He looks at how — and why — Aragorn and his inner circle avoided pursuing the Saruman connection to Helms Deep, despite the fact that 9 out of every 10 Orcs that attacked the castle were actually Uruk-hai who were spawned in and financed by Isengard.

… and the film goes on like that.

Fighting the War on Evil

Now, I don’t have any problem with a good send-up of Michael Moore; but as satire, this is as artless as a MAD Magazine comic, and ends up making warhawks look an awful lot sillier than Michael Moore.

If George Bush were personally going into battle to lead the fight against a massive assault already launched against all the strongholds of the civilized world, by monstrous armies of vile, inhuman goblins, directed by undead great lords of men, and bent to the unholy will of a supernatural Dark Lord who desires nothing less than the complete desolation and domination of the whole Earth, then I don’t doubt that Michael Moore would not have had quite the same objections to Mr. Bush or to his policies.

Misunderstandings of Tolkien’s work abound.

Do warhawks actually think of the war against Iraq like this? As much you might be inclined to say, Come off it, it’s just a stupid joke, the fact is that much of their rhetoric outside of this silly little film seems to indicate that they honest-to-God do. And if they do, it would be very funny–except for all the people who have died because of such childish conceptions of the world.

J.R.R. Tolkien, for his part, put it this way:

The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict, both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.

. . .

An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous. It is also false, though naturally attractive, when the lives of an author and critic have overlapped, to suppose that the movements of thought or the events of times common to both were necessarily the most powerful influences. One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.

–Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings

And this way:

Life in camp seems not to have changed at all, and what makes it so exasperating is the fact that all its worse features are unnecessary, and due to human stupidity which (as planners refuse to see) is always magnified indefinitely by organization. . . . However it is, humans being what they are, quite inevitable, and the only cure (short of universal Conversion), is not to have wars — nor planning, nor organization, nor regimentation.

–from a letter to Christopher Tolkien, 6 May 1944, Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #66

And I didn’t even have to mug anyone in a Gandalf suit…

Blogging today has been postponted. Also sidelined have been academic concerns (revising an essay on Hume) and even the important task of getting the apartment cleaned up into a livable condition. Why?

I’m going to Trilogy Tuesday.

Yes, L. and I got advance tickets–I called ahead, to avoid the lines and the campers–and we will be spending the next 14 hours or so reveling in Tolkien goodness, rendered in marvellous Peter Jackson spectacle.

I love the world.

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