Monday's class put me in the unusual question of direction questioning many of my assumptions about The Lord of the Rings. This is a series of books I've read more times than I recall; there are scenes (for me, when they first sight the sails of the Corsairs of Umbar during Pelennor Fields up until the flag is unfurled...goosebumps. Every time) which I go back to for comfort when I need it. Yet every single time I have read these books, and this is probably because of my Hindu background, I only read the most surface-level Catholic intention. My mom is trained as a sociologist, so I had always learned to attempt to contextualize works of fiction within their time and directly from the author, but I had never read Catholicism into the plot to the moral level at which we did so during class.
This is arguably my failing, given that I've made it clear both during and outside class that my Christian theological knowledge is rudimentary at best, but, as whenever I read anything into a work of fiction, whether or not it can be classified as a "failing." Tolkien was notoriously disinterested in allegory, and a story, as was presented in class, where the Hobbit, epitome of "Britishness," are "punished" for their taking-for-granted the nature of God's creation and Frodo and Sam's task is that punishment/resolution for their sins, is if not directly allegory, very much of the same feather. It's a fascinating reading, but one that I'm not sure holds up to scrutiny. Primarily, it is dependent on viewing Frodo and Sam's journey as a pilgrimage (or even "penance") and I don't exactly see the evidence for that, beyond the fact that it's a tough journey and Christian literary heroes only go on tough journeys when it is a pilgrimage or penance. In other words, I'm not sure that the argument isn't circular: this reading of The Lord of the Rings only works if you assume that this is the correct reading of The Lord of the Rings.
More to the point, I don't know why the alternative that this is simply what literary heroes (not necessarily Christian ones!) of the genre do. Frodo and Sam struggle against tremendous odds, their toughness is rooted in that same kind of Biblical toughness...and here we are to the Christian reading again. In other words, I worry that we are conflating Tolkien's Christian imagery and his worldview with a direct reading of the plot (it is very suggestive that, when explained in class, the route taken was to present their journey as a penance and then argue backwards what they were penitent for - Tolkien never really condemns smoking pipeweed, for example. I'm reminded of David Simon, when discussing the television show Treme, and two controversial characters, referring directly to totally incorrect statements by each, noting that if you felt that these characters represented his worldview, you weren't listening. Authors leave hints in their work. Where does Tolkien ever show he truly dislikes the Shire/rural England [though I wonder if UKIP election victories would annoy him as much as they do me]?). There's a difference between thematic elements and an allegorical plot, and I don't know if we've teased along that line enough.
Birzer discusses this exact fact in his conclusion when he talks about Tolkien's Christian humanism. To Birzer, Tolkien's work, like that of other Christian humanists is meant to explore questions as to the role of man in God's creation. Is it really a surprise that Tolkien's work plays with this kind of idea? It goes back to Tolkien's own statements in one of the letters, where he calls the initial work an "unconsciously" religious text; naturally a writer who is consumed by overarching questions will play with those in his work. There is a next step to state that his work is directly about those questions or gives a direct answer. This is a step which requires intent, and if we gave exact evidence for intent, I guess I didn't find it very convincing.
It's a similar question with regards to imagery. I have never found exercises like the one done in class comparing Galadriel and the Virgin Mary in the prayer to be very convincing. This isn't because they're bad exercises; to the contrary, they're incredibly thought-provoking, which is the intention. I just don't think a list of superficial similarities is enough to answer this intent question. Naturally Galadriel has a lot of star imagery: Tolkien was a devout Catholic who visualized a great deal of things in the context of that imagery and it would therefore naturally fall into his works. The problem with my argument is that there isn't necessarily any evidence in support of what I'm saying either. We're back to square one, no? Or, at least, if I'd be surprised if I've even coherently explained my thoughts to anyone, let alone convinced them.
I really didn't want to go back to the same well as my previous post, but given the last part of class and where this post has gone, I might have to. Birzer talks a great deal in his conclusion about all of the different groups of fans of Tolkien's work, each individual getting something different from the books, and deriving joy (even the "fantasy enthusiasts"). That's true for me, too. I'm far from a-religious. It could be that I defend this position because I don't want this to be another Christian morality play. I want these books which I love to death to be epic mythology, or have deep emotional meaning, or thematic depth. The beauty here is that they can, right? I talked at length in my last post about my own religious tradition intersecting with Tolkien's and my reading of these stories as such - the same can be said for the story as a whole. I've always loved mythological tales, from the Iliad to the Ramayana. Why can't this just be another one?
Well, it can be, but that's not a very satisfying academic position. Pure subjectivism feels good, but doesn't teach us much about the world beyond, well, pure subjectivism. The best thing for this class which can be said is that it has made me think about one of my favourite series without ever dampening my love of that series. It comes across just as greater learning, not supplanting my enjoyment. Regardless, I'll be listening in the last lecture, if only to learn and not really accept.
EDIT: Whoops, I realize I forgot to put my name! - Vidur Sood