The ancient world of Middle Earth runs into contemporary identity politics
Despite its frequent darkness, the work of J.R.R. Tolkien (1892 – 1973) rests on an underlying sense of joy. As he wrote in the essay “On Fairy Stories,” the fairy-story, with its happy ending, “denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat . . . giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” For many fans of The Lord of The Rings and his other books, this statement will come as no great revelation.
It might, however, surprise some of those speaking at the Tolkien Society Seminar 2021, taking place this July 3rd and 4th. Where is the joy, for instance, in such a lecture as Sara Brown’s “The Invisible Other: Tolkien’s Dwarf-Women and the ‘Feminine Lack'” Or in Nicholas Birns’s “The Lossoth: Indigeneity, Identity, and Antiracism”? Perhaps it’s interesting to some to take a scalpel to Tolkien’s tales of the encounters between the world of Men (as he put it) and of Elves (or of Faerie), and reshape them according to one’s own preoccupations. What that might really have to do with Tolkien and his work is another question.
Going back to “On Fairy Stories,” it’s plain that the answer is: Nothing. Tolkien approves of “Escape” as “one of the main functions of fairy-stories,” casting scorn on those within the world of literary criticism who speak of stories of escape in a “tone of scorn or pity.” To Tolkien’s mind, those critics who insist that works of literature directly apply to what they “are fond of calling Real Life,” are doing no more than requiring that no stories be on “other topics than jailers and prison-walls.” To bring contemporary concerns about identity-politics or even ecology onto the works of Tolkien, a man who loved a cloud more than he loved any modern artifact, not only misses the point, but commits butchery.
How, you might ask, did this happen? J.R.R. Tolkien himself is president in perpetuo of the Tolkien Society, and his daughter, Priscilla Tolkien, is its vice president. It describes itself as “an educational charity, literary society, and international fan club, devoted to promoting the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien.” How such topics as “Queer Atheists, Agnostics, and Animists, Oh, My!” apply to the life and works of a devout Roman Catholic, let alone promote them, is yet another question.
Something like an answer, though, might be found in the Society’s splash page for the seminar: “Spurred by recent interpretations of Tolkien’s creations and the cast list of the upcoming Amazon show The Lord of the Rings, it is crucial we discuss the theme of diversity in relation to Tolkien.” Translation: because it’s trendy nowadays to cast people of color in roles you’d expect to see white folks in, and because Amazon’s new series is going to bring even more attention to Tolkien, we’re going to go a step or two further with the trend, and offer you “‘Something Mighty Queer’: Destabilizing Cishetero Amatonormativity in the Works of Tolkien.” Because donors.
Tolkien’s son Christopher died last year, after devoting his life to safeguarding the legacy of his father and shepherding into publication as many works of his mythos as he could. Just as Tolkien labored his whole life to create a comprehensive history of that world, complete with invented languages, genealogies, and geographies, so did Christopher labor to preserve that world and bring it to light. As Christopher put it, “For me, the cities of Silmarillion have more reality than Babylon.”
It may have been a place of escape, but that made it no less real, a world bound by its own rules and laws, with a cosmology that, if never fully finished, was at least coherent. What cosmology, if any, might guide “‘The Burnt Hand Teaches Most About Fire’: Applying Traumatic Stress and Ecological Frameworks to Narratives of Displacement and Resettlement Across Cultures in Tolkien’s Middle-earth” is an open question. Christopher Tolkien must be beating at his coffin lid right about now.
As Tolkien put it, the fairy-story, or at least the good one, is “about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches,” that realm being the land of Faerie itself, which “cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible.” It’s not about your academic career or your social-political hobby-horse, or making money to promote the works and life of the man whose legacy you’re besmirching, or even about whatever cause you might find worthy down here in this prison we’re all stuck in together. It’s about wonder, and, God willing, it’s about joy.