Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Seeds and Gardeners: Patterns of Characterization and Tolkien’s Creative Process

In reading the recommended selection from Shippey’s The Road to Middle Earth, I was especially struck by his discussion of the relationship between Tolkien’s characters, their societies, and the land they inhabit. Shippey devotes some time toward a comparison of the men of the Mark and the men of Gondor, specifically visible through the characters of Éomer and Théoden on the one hand and Faramir and Denethor on the other. Shippey notes the situational parallels between Éomer and Faramir: both “come upon lonely trespassers, both have orders to detain such people, both would gain something by doing so, whether Narsil or the Ring, and both in the end make up their own minds, let the strangers go and offer them assistance” (129). Yet here, it seems, their similarities end. Éomer is, in Shippey’s words, “compulsively truculent” (129); he belies a fair amount of ignorance and superstition about the world outside the Mark, memorably threatening to cut off Gimli’s head and expressing skepticism regarding the existence of such creatures as hobbits. Faramir, by contrast, strikes the reader as “wiser, deeper, older” (129). He is markedly less antagonistic and manages to divine Frodo and Sam’s mission fairly exactly despite their initial reticence. He recognizes in Frodo an “elvish air,” which occasions his curiosity and respect–whereas Éomer speaks of the Lady Galadriel with fear and suspicion. Shippey argues that the differences between the two characters can be understood as a function of their respective societies (though perhaps not entirely; Boromir certainly seems to respond to the unknown in a manner more akin to Éomer than his brother Faramir at times). Faramir comes of age in the comparatively more worldly and cosmopolitan Gondor; almost necessarily, his interactions with outsiders are of a different character than Éomer’s, a fact especially appreciable in the contrast between the two men’s attitudes toward Gandalf when first we meet them. 

Tolkien’s comparison between the somewhat provincial people of the Mark and the more urbane people of Gondor as borne out through the characters of Éomer and Faramir undergoes a curious and critical inversion in the figures of Théoden and Denethor. The contrast between the way these two old men, recently bereaved of their sons, react and respond to the threat of Mordor is extreme. Shippey argues that Denethor’s lack of Théoden’s courage and resolve can be read as pointing to the “weaknesses of civilised cultures: over-subtlety, selfishness, abandonment of the ‘theory of courage’, a calculation that turns suicidal” (130). Indeed, Denethor’s rapidly spiraling behavior almost brings to mind the term “neurotic”–a notion that first emerges as one of the evils of a characteristically modern, urban life (130). 

Besides finding Shippey’s discussion to be prescient and persuasive, I was struck by how little thought I had ever given previously to the comparison of these characters. I’ve certainly thought about the differences between Faramir/Boromir and Boromir/Aragorn before, but never considered Éomer and Faramir as characters to be read potentially in dialogue with one another. While this may be evidence of my own oversight, I think it also speaks to the richness and internal coherence of Tolkien’s world and its composite societies. That each character is who he is seems utterly natural and deeply tied to his spatiotemporal location. To consider who Faramir would have been if he had grown up as a man of Rohan would be a fundamentally bizarre and I think ultimately pointless mental exercise. By the same token, Théoden would make little sense as a steward of Gondor. This is not to say that Tolkien’s universe is unilaterally deterministic; none of Tolkien’s societies produce only one kind of being. Rather, Tolkien’s characters develop so believably and so apparently naturally because they clearly grow along the avenues uniquely available to them. 

This brings me to what I thought was one of the most interesting and illuminating objects of our discussion on Monday–Tolkien’s assertion, in his letter to Auden, that “A man is not only a seed, developing in a defined pattern, well or ill according to its situation or its defects as an example of its species; a man is both a seed and in some degree a gardener, for good or ill” (240). Tolkien goes on to assert, in direct dissension from Auden’s review, that he believes in the fundamental “incalcula[bility]” of men; even if one knows a person’s “seed” or “species,” one cannot predict how he will tend to his garden (240). This view of men as simultaneously seeds and gardeners immediately brought to mind some of the most oft-cited lessons Gandalf provides Frodo in “The Shadow of the Past.” Gandalf chides Frodo for his quickness to judge Gollum as a being worthy only of death, asserting that Gollum may have “some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end” and reflecting that “even the very wise cannot see all ends” (59). Gandalf’s wisdom here lies in his recognition that he cannot predict the development of sentient beings in any kind of deterministic sense; he literally anticipates the wording of Tolkien’s later affirmation of the role of a gardener’s “conscious intention” in shaping the course of his life “for good or ill” (240).  

The conception of man as both a seed and a gardener is again borne out in Gandalf’s perhaps most famous line, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us” (51). Read in isolation, Gandalf appears to be counseling Frodo that individuals must make the best they can out of their time on earth, no matter the length of their life spans. Read in context, however, the statement takes on additional meaning relevant to the notion of men as gardeners–Gandalf is in fact responding to Frodo’s lament that Sauron is gaining power “in my time” (51). Gandalf’s reflection, then, is not only about making do with the amount of time one happens to be alive, but crucially about making do with the specific spatiotemporal situation to which one has been assigned by fate. To return to the gardener metaphor, the outcome of man’s life is the result of more than his innate characteristics (the “seed”), but is equally the result of his work as a gardener–critically, though, the choices available to any man in his “gardening” are shaped by his location in time and space. 

Returning somewhat circuitously to the discussion of Éomer and Faramir, both characters develop in response to the evolving exigencies and necessities of their respective societies. Additionally, it is easy to see that Tolkien’s figuration of the seed and the gardener can be read almost literally in the way he depicts the societies of both Rohan and Gondor as emergent from the land they occupy. The men of the Mark are bound to its particular landscape; even their language is like “the land itself, rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains” as Legolas observes (508). The men of Gondor have a less obvious relationship with the land, and it is the very urbanity bred by life in Minas Tirith that Shippey points to as potentially productive of men like Denethor. The intimate relationship between people and their land is borne out throughout The Lord of the Rings in what Shippey labels Tolkien’s “obsessive interest in plants and scenery” (132). Tolkien’s characters develop themselves largely through gardening in a range of different soils, a tendency outlined particularly explicitly in the way Tolkien assigns the Harfoots, Stoors, and Fallohides to characteristically different landscapes in his prologue. 

I want to posit that the gardener/seed paradigm is useful for more than just understanding Tolkien’s specific patterns of categorization and the ways he links characters with their native lands; the metaphor can further be read as key to understanding Tolkien’s creative process and why he wrote the stories he did in the ways he did. Briefly dwelling on another of the recommended readings, I was drawn to Tolkien’s image of the Tree of Amalion presented by Hammond and Scull in Tolkien, Artist & Illustrator. Hammond and Scull write that Tolkien drew the elaborate and fantastical tree “regularly” and that its “many flowers small and large [signify] poems and major legends” like the “Tree of Tales” Tolkien references in “On Fairy Stories” (64-65). Though I’m conscious that I’m delving into dangerously allegorical territory, the image of the Tree of Amalion combined with Tolkien’s statement about men as seeds and gardeners seems a useful way of considering how Tolkien understood his own development and the development of his work. Regardless of the “seed” Tolkien was born with, he spent nearly all of his life honing his craft as a philologist and story-teller, effectively “gardening” by arranging, pruning, and nurturing his Legendarium. As we have discussed, Tolkien’s tales develop out of a uniquely English soil–metaphorically, they are indebted to existing stories and linguistic fragments, but literally they are tied to the English landscape as well (as we saw so clearly in Monday’s slides). Thinking of Tolkien as an English seed growing in English soil and simultaneously shaping his development through “conscious intention” as a gardener (Letters 240) seems congruent with Tolkien’s repeated assertions that his much of stories tended to develop naturally, without a great deal of planning on his part. Indeed, Hammond and Scull write that Tolkien’s “creativity sometimes worked in advance of his consciousness” (47)–that is, Tolkien regularly drew or painted images that he was only able to incorporate or explain in his written work after the fact. As a story-teller, Tolkien understood himself as working with material that was largely already there: his own innate “seed” and the land, history, and myths of England. This being said, his craft as a gardener is ultimately responsible for the healthy development of his “Tree of Tales.” In his gardening, Tolkien is additionally able to alter the landscape in which he worked to the degree that future “gardeners” can hardly ignore his mark. For our final projects, we will all effectively be puttering around in Tolkien’s garden. 


1 comment:

  1. This is a fine reflection on character cultivation, both in Tolkien's hands as author and as a metaphor (not allegory!) for the creative process! I was impressed with your analysis of the Eomer/Faramir Denethor/Theoden relationships, and found this particularly well-observed and well expressed—even though individuals who inhabit similar cultural contexts exhibit cultural similarities, “Tolkien’s universe is [not] unilaterally deterministic; none of Tolkien’s societies produce only one kind of being. Rather, Tolkien’s characters develop so believably and so apparently naturally because they clearly grow along the avenues uniquely available to them.” I quite agree that the sentiment you are picking up in Tolkien's letter to Auden is borne out in Gandalf's attitude towards the “pruning” of men—one cannot be blamed for the source of his seeds, but only for the choices made in the growing.

    I am put in mind here of the last line of Candide—in lieu of blind optimism (“this is truly the best of all possible worlds”) Voltaire leaves us with “we must cultivate our garden.” And yet I would describe Tolkien's ethos as relatively optimistic—no one is necessarily defined by his roots, and no one is irrevocably pre-conditioned to evil. I would like to see you extend this analysis to the “cultivation” of Orcs by Melkor!