Friday, April 4, 2014

Rissik and the Literary Value of Creation

            I was fascinated by most of Wednesday’s class. In fact, I think that it would be perfectly possible to hold a ten-week course on about a third of the material that we covered in 80 minutes—Tolkien responds absurdly well to the kind of scholarly reading that we are doing. Anyways, upon reflection I decided that I wanted to respond to the discussion surrounding the Guardian’s two critiques of The Lord of the Rings.
            Eyre’s review, ironically enough, is very much the junk food of literary criticism, and the selections that Professor Fulton Brown read aloud seemed to give the class enough context to appreciate this. He never seriously attempts to respond to Tolkien’s work as such, preferring to toss out a few zingers and a few pieces of cliché culture snobbery. The closest he gets to addressing the book which his review is supposedly concerned with is when he calls the prose “as inert and clogged as thick clay - stick your spade in it and you never get it out.” Having proved his own prose mastery beyond all doubt with that simile, he then returns to literary name-dropping. 
           Andrew Rissik’s review, however, is not an obvious piece of hack work—he is reviewing Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, which means he has been exposed to a fairly heady draught of Tolkien scholarship, and his piece, short though it is, demonstrates that he has at least seriously considered The Lord of the Rings (the same, alas, cannot be said for Eyre, who obviously had trouble with the “extraordinarily difficult” text). The class seemed ready to dismiss him, understandably enough, and as I recall his contention that LotR lacks a “remotely convincing treatment of… religion” drew a particularly general laugh.
            Was he wrong, though? While the cosmology of Middle Earth certainly incorporates a fascinating and brilliantly conceived spiritual dimension, Eru is never mentioned in The Lord of the Rings, and the Valar get short shrift as well; the closest that Tolkien’s magnum opus comes to a treatment, convincing or otherwise, of religion, is in Gandalf’s occasional hints at a power behind events (as in Chapter 2, where he says that there was “something else at work” behind Bilbo’s discovery of the Ring) and in the rare, acontextual references to Varda that various elves make.
In my mind, Rissik’s point is worth addressing, if only because it represents the consensus of the literary establishment. He claims that “Almost no one [accepts Tolkien as one the greatest writers of the last century], except the hard-core Tolkien addicts,” and while the class (composed, I think we can agree, of the addicts he mentions) disagreed with that assessment, that same class is not cross-listed in English Literature, and does not approach the series from a literary perspective. While Tolkien continues to be an incredibly popular writer, I would argue that Rissik’s characterization of him as merely “popular” would be supported by the majority of “literary” commentators.
What, then, are they missing? A number of things, of course, many of which we will no doubt address in the class, whether or not a literary understanding of Tolkien’s works is our primary goal. One particularly interesting argument against him, however, comes from the supplemental reading assigned for Wednesday’s class, and, in fact, from the very work that Rissik dismisses en route to a more general repudiation of Tolkien as a “serious” writer, that is, Shippey’s Writer of the Century. The section assigned examines “Leaf by Niggle” as an autobiographical allegory (Shippey 268)—a risky endeavor, given Tolkien’s well-known animosity towards allegory, and the fact that he specifically denies an allegorical reading of “Leaf by Niggle” in a letter (#214 from Letters) to his aunt. Nevertheless, Shippey makes a convincing case. In doing so, he also highlights the obvious Catholic allegories present in “Leaf”—the mysterious journey as death, the workhouse as purgatory, and the distant mountains as paradise—and puts them in the context of a further creative allegory, wherein Niggle’s eternal reward is to have his “sub-creation,” as it exists in its ideal form, recognized by the great Creator (Shippey 276).
Here, then, is a convincing treatment of religion, of the sort that critics like Rissik would accept as “real literature.” In fact, Rissik does acknowledge the religious aspects of Tolkien’s work as “not ignoble,” writing that he and Lewis “Locate their image of God in the same emotional places: in the sensuous, pre-industrial beauty of an invented natural world.” What he evidently does not understand, even after reading Shippey’s book, is that this same faith in fact suffuses The Lord of the Rings, providing not only the inspiration for the story’s forests but the raison d’être for the act of creation itself. Rissik calls Middle Earth a “maze of whimsical fantasy,” but it is by no means whimsical. Tolkien’s genius, or much of it, lies in his invention, and the mode of invention which he pioneered in The Lord of the Rings—that which he discusses in “On Fairy-Stories” and which we analyzed in our examination of that text—is the result of a complex and involved philosophy, and constitutes a very serious engagement with religious issues. If the criterion for literary merit is, as Rissik claims, a treatment of “fundamental human concerns” like religion and philosophy, his evaluation of The Lord of the Rings is sorely lacking. As for his claim about its failure to address “the conduct of sexual relationships”—he has a point.

--Charlie Bullock


  1. Charlie,

    Thanks for the terrific post. Your instinct to treat critics’ arguments serious is an excellent one. You're right that while Rissik may be wrong, he's not *obviously* wrong in some ways. The "maze of whimsical fantasy" is by no means whimsical, but it is labyrinthine and fantastic, without a doubt.

    And, as you note, while Tolkien (mercifully) skips over 50 Shades of Gandalf the Grey or what have you, Rissik isn't wrong to point to the obvious lack of, say, religion in the work (I don't know how he misses the politics, though). While it's there, it's either so deep in the background or highly encoded in utterances like “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow!” that the average (one-time) reader can only have the foggiest clue, mostly from the Important Majuscules, that something metaphysical is going on—much less what it is.

    Good job at engaging the criticism.

    Bill Walsh

  2. Something that always strikes me about such literary criticism is the perfect balance that they demand from writers. One cannot be too obtuse and abstract in one’s inclusion of certain desired aspects of “serious” works, but if one is too up front and direct about the representation of such subjects one is derided instead as simplistic and overly blunt. It is certainly a valid point to question the inclusion or lack thereof of certain elements like religion and politics in the Lord of the Rings, but I wonder at the necessity of such categories themselves in literature. There is a certain element of fantasy that generally remains familiar to the reader such that one can connect personally to the work, but is it necessary for society to reflect the exact same organization as real life? What if this were simply a world without religion, with people who believe abstractly in some greater powers and perhaps fate, but no organized religion in particular? I fail to see how a lack of such subjects renders a work without literary merit.
    On the other hand, even were such aspects necessary points of inclusion for a “proper” literary work, Tolkien certainly does embed such aspects inside his work, even if they are not mentioned explicitly. As you mentioned, Charlie, there is something inherently reverent to the very act of Tolkien’s creating and shaping this world in his mind, and that reverence flows through his work and infuses many aspects of one’s reading. I certainly did not find the lack of explicit worship in Tolkien’s work to have detracted from its authenticity or impact, and wonder what exactly including it in a more explicit fashion would have added to the tale.


  3. I have to say, I kind of agree with the idea that Rissik had a point in some parts of his review. Your idea made me go back and reconsider the rest of the review. It’s in the paragraph I’ve quoted below that I think Rissik’s review can be set aside as missing the fundamental point of The Lord of the Rings and those who love it:
    “People read the tales of Middle Earth the way they've always read cunningly wrought fantasies - the way they read Sherlock Holmes or James Bond or Dracula - drinking in the excitement of the atmosphere, revelling in the hypnotic detail. They don't read them the way the 19th-century public read Nicholas Nickleby or War and Peace, feeling that these books were somehow inseparable from the life and thought of their age.”
    What Rissik is missing is that the books he mentions are not fairy-stories. Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy weren’t trying to write Fantasy. Their books take place in the primary reality and are intended to be relatable in that way. Rissik doesn’t understand that the entire goal of a secondary creation is to be separated from “the life and thinking of the age” and, by doing so, to make a comment on it or make the reader think about the primary reality in which they live. It is this that sets Tolkien apart and makes him an exceptional author—the ability to write effective Fantasy better than nearly anyone else.

    --Micah Sperling

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  5. In response to Micah's comment, and in response to the notion of fantasy as a way to look at our primary reality in a different way, I would agree and disagree. I agree in that the goal of fantasy is to be very different from "the life and thinking of the age," but I don't think fantasy exists solely so that it can make us think about primary reality differently. I know Tolkien discussed how fantasy and the extraordinary can make us appreciate primary reality even more when all seems dulled and ordinary, which no doubt is one of its functions, but I think fantasy has more merit than that. It isn't just about making ordinary life more bearable - I think human beings are naturally imaginative. We LIKE things that are different from us and reality. When we go to the movies, the point isn't always to learn something about our own world or see things differently; a lot of times it's simply to immerse in fantasy for an hour or two, because we like the imaginary and it is pleasurable. I think critics who criticize Tolkien's writings as not seriously engaging with human concerns are missing a crucial part of humanity: that sometimes we tell stories not because there is something to learn from it, but simply that we are imaginative beings. In that way, Tolkien's writings are just as concerned about what it is to be human as literature that deal with philosophical questions and religion.