This blog post will be a bit different from most: it focuses mostly on my reaction to the class and to the Flieger reading in particular. It’s fitting, then, that I start with a personal observation: Flieger’s reading on Frodo and Aragorn was by far my favorite reading of the quarter.
Throughout the past weeks, I have been somewhat puzzled as to why Tolkien: Medieval and Modern is listed as a history course. Although I knew intellectually that The Lord of the Rings tied in to medieval tradition and drew upon literary precedent, somehow this did not really resonate with me. I accepted the connection, but thought it was something of chief importance to literary critics and interpretation – not to appreciation of the story. I see LOTR chiefly as a story to be enjoyed and relished, rather than something to be analyzed, picked apart, and ‘understood’. I always felt that somehow analysis was at odds with enjoyment; that understanding the literary mechanics would compromise the story as a story. Magic tricks can be ruined by understanding.
Somehow, the Flieger reading impacted me quite differently: it gave an understanding which reignites rather than diminishes my interest in LOTR. Having read it, I want to reread the book, paying close attention to the parallel yet dichotomous characters of Frodo and Aragorn. Even more so, I want to read LOTR’s literary ancestors, like Beowulf and legend of King Arthur.
Aragorn is one of my favorite characters and Flieger illuminates the reasons that he resonates with me. He is a larger-than-life hero, secure and unflappable. He inspires confidence, both in the characters and in the reader. As a reader, I feel secure in any scene that involves Aragorn. Even when he is attacking the Black Gate - a truly hopeless diversion, saved only by (divine) providence - as a reader I feel relaxed and secure.
Meanwhile, Frodo's narrative provides the tension in Lord of the Rings. He is vulnerable and the reader shares this sense of vulnerability. Aragorn's final trial is just as bleak as Frodo's, yet because Frodo is so unready for the difficulties, the emotional impact of Frodo's journey is far stronger. As Sam (I think) notes, the trek through Mordor is the part of the book that readers will *want* to skip.
In short, Flieger draws into focus the aspects of Lord of the Rings that impacted me the strongest, without my realizing it, and enhances my appreciation of the story both on its own and as a part of a broader literary tradition. It focuses on the foreground of the story – the characters and their epic quests – rather than on the background, the canvas. From my perspective, that is an element that has been missing from the class. The languages, the poems, the songs, the family trees, were all elements in LOTR that I tended to skip over. They don’t speak to me or hold my attention. In truth, I found discussion of these subjects discouraging. To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that these elements are unimportant or unworthy – just that they didn’t resonate with me personally.
Cycling back: The Flieger reading not only showed me the connection between Tolkien and Medieval history, but also showed me that appreciating the history could magnify and build upon one’s appreciation of the story, rather than diminishing it. The other course reading which had a similar effect on me was Shippey’s analysis of the Council of Elrond. I remember as a child, the Council of Elrond was always my favorite chapter, and I’ve read it far more often than any other part of the book. However, I never understood why I enjoyed it so much, and, indeed, it never occurred to me to wonder what made that chapter so special and so memorable. Shippey revealed the magic without suffocating it. Quite the contrary, I now love the Council of Elrond more than ever. Flieger has done the same for a much larger part of the book: the central heroic quests of Frodo and Aragorn. Thus, his essay on the heroic was my favorite reading of the quarter.
I look forward to hearing what you guys think.