Wednesday, May 25, 2011

History and Middle Earth

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.



  1. As a history major, I was delighted to see this Tolkien class listed under History. But I had the same reaction as you—I had never before thought of LOTR as historical. As you point out, there are some definite links through medieval tradition and I guess at some level it qualifies as historical based on the very fact that it is a piece of literature that emerges from a specific period in the past. However, through the course of this class, and primarily from our discussion regarding History and Place, I’ve begun to consider a deeper and rather intriguing association.

    I believe Tolkien’s stories, in the manner in which they are constructed, reflect the historical process. He draws upon the primary methods of assimilating history through oral storytelling (the songs), the use of place names, variations on the same languages and essentially this idea of weaving together a story based on bits and pieces of evidence. In doing so, he compels us to reflect on the values and limitations of how we construct history, with all our biases and incomplete information. Tolkien’s work falls under the category of “History” because of the very fact that, as written in The Notion Club Papers, “myth dissolves into history”.


  2. It may interest you to know that Flieger's essay on Frodo and Aragorn was drawn from the work that she did for her Ph.D. thesis on the LotR, which is to say that she began her studies of Tolkien with the problem of the characters, specifically the heroes, and has gone on from there to explore other themes (like the movement of the Elves towards and away from the light in the Silmarillion or the way in which Tolkien thinks about time). All good literary analysis should have the effect of making you want to read the text analyzed again; that you responded to this essay rather than her others (or any of the others that we have read this quarter) is interesting. Perhaps you are simply more interested in character and motivation?


  3. It’s funny to me that even some of you taking the class had that initial reaction of wondering why it was a history course rather than an English course. Almost every time I’ve mentioned to someone that I’m TA-ing this class and mention that it’s a history course, they baffled. And, honestly, I’ve always been baffled by their bafflement! It never occurred to me that this class we be in any department but history! And it wasn’t until now that I thought to ask myself why that is. Possibly because, as much as I love language, I’m a history person at heart, and something that has always intrigued me about Tolkien’s work was the way it tied into primary-reality-history while having its own deep and incredibly elaborate secondary-reality-history.

    I completely understand what you said about fearing analysis would ruin enjoyment. But, that said, I’m glad you have seen the light (pun intended). I’m one of those people who find things more enjoyable for the analysis; in the words of Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

    You make a good point about Aragorn being the ‘safe’ character, while Frodo is the more uncertain one. I had not considered them this way before, but you’re absolutely right: Aragorn cannot help but inspire confidence, and Frodo, especially is such an overwhelmingly bad situation, cannot help but inspire sympathy, even pity. Which I think is why I identify with and feel more for Frodo, because a part of me wants to be the one on Mount Doom carrying him when his strength finally fails. But on this point, I think we can agree to disagree, seeing as we both came to our favorites the same way!


  4. I think that I generally have the opposite problem to the one that you’ve identified (and that we spoke about on the first day of class), “that understanding the literary mechanics would compromise the story as a story.” When I read a text, my first instinct is usually to pick out themes, allusions, etc. It’s possible that that’s just because I’ve spent the last few years as a student of literature, but it seems to pre-date that. My point is, my default is sometimes looking at even a remarkable story like Lord of the Rings and not seeing the forest for the trees, or at least, not knowing how to connect the linguistic/analytical games of the text to the pure unfiltered joy of the reading itself. I felt that Flieger’s article did exactly what you said it did, though. It allows for an almost effortless unity between the two prongs of reading- analytic and non-analytic for lack of better terms. I came to what I think is a similar realization, which is that in certain circumstances, understanding a specific historical allusion (for example) can make the narrative itself more effective. That is to say, Aragorn is a remarkable character, with a well written context to motivate our identification with his story. However, the character and narrative can only get stronger with the historic weight of Arthurian legend behind it.

  5. Sorry, forgot to sign that last one.

    E. Moore