Thursday, April 20, 2017

Tolkien, Jive, and Evil

In Letter 96, Tolkien reveals some small part of his musical taste. Particularly, he makes it extremely clear that he was not a fan of the music he lived with in the 1940s and 1950s. he writes "I read eagerly all the details of your life, and the things you see and do -- and suffer, Jive and Boogie-Woogie among them. You will have no heart-tug at losing that (for it is essentially vulgar music, corrupted by the mechanism, echoing in dreary un-nourished heads)". To him, swing music is a great travesty, worse than the music he personally enjoyed (and therefore objectively bad). However, the way he voices his discontent echoes his constant distrust of the mechanical throughout his works. Here, I hope to analyze why Tolkien finds swing music distateful, and use this to shed new light on the debate whether Melkor was evil for introducing discord into the Music of the Ainur, despite only acting within the powers Iluvatar gave to him.

Firstly, in order to understand why machines are something evil, we need to look at the act of creation. In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien describes Fantasy as the act of 'sub-creation' simulating "the internal consistency of reality". It is sub-creation because it is not generating a true life, which is a power only God can give, but it simulates that creation in His praise. The mechanism of generating a 'secondary world' (the result of the sub-creation) is Art. This Art, however, is very difficult. Tolkien demonstrates this in Leaf by Niggle, as Niggle spends his entire life trying to create "a whole tree, with all of its leaves in the same style, and all of them different." Niggle fails to during his lifetime, and only once he reaches his home in 'Niggle's Parish', as Tolkien names it at the end, can he create something believable enough to live in.

The end result of the creation is an 'enchantment'. Tolkien defines an enchantment very strictly; it "produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in both desire and purpose." This is Niggle's Parish, at least once Parish arrives. It is artistic desire made manifest, and in its physicality even the least artistic critics were satisfied. This enchantment clearly applies to music, as Tolkien shows in the Ainulindale. In that, the world is itself the result of an Enchantment. "Behold your music! This [Arda] is your minstrelsy; and each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem he himself devised or added." This is the ultimate Enchantment; Iluvatar turned a sub-creation into a primary one.

Now we can turn to machines. Machines are not simply produced things. After all, Niggle uses canvas and paint, both of which have to be manufactured. Tolkien himself used a typewriter whenever he could (Letter 257). No, machines are something to be distrusted for other reasons. The first is when it takes over the hard work of the sub-creator. By mass-producing goods, it encourages disposable creation, designed to make a small profit than be a work of praise. Ursula leGuin observed this result indirectly in her essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie", when she noted that "certain writers of fantasy are building six-lane highways and trailer parks with drive-in movies, so that tourist can feel at home just as it they were back in Poughkeepsie". This is crime of the machine; the enchantment cannot work when tricks and mechanisms replace thought and skill and the creator's own hand. The second reason to fear machines is that they dominate others, converting humanity's sub-creative force into a tool to cause pain. Tolkien's concern with this is expressed in The Hobbit, where he writes of the goblins "it is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help." Machines dominate and destroy, preventing people from exercising their sub-creative potential.

Now finally, we can look at swing music, and what Tolkien means when he describes as "corrupted by the mechanism". Putting aside the question of whether these tests are actually valid, swing seems to fall into the same traps as machines.

The test swing music fails most obviously is that of domination. Structurally, swing, like jazz, is highly concerned with the solo. Most of the band is generally relegated to keeping rhythm while a single player dominates the field. Often (and intentionally), this has little regard for harmony, instead playing with dissonance at the whim of the soloist. Many players never even get a chance to add their own voice to the music; they exist solely to provide a set foundation for a solo. I believe that Tolkien viewed this as over-reaching the music, forcing musical potential to serve the whims of a single dominating force (This can, of course, be persuasively argued against. However, I am following what I believe to be Tolkien's thought process in this work).

Swing dancing also fails at creating enchantment. In swing, the frenetic energy of the song encourages motion among the spectators. It is something that works best in the moment, instead of in quiet, harmonic contemplation. This is why swing is only for "un-nourished minds"; thought and analysis seems counter-intuitive to the music (again, this is something I believe to be untrue, and only something Tolkien thought because he had little musical ability, as he himself admitted in Letter 260). This does not generate enchantment, but frenzy.* The listener is not satisfied, but drained by the music. This failure makes it more akin to the separation imposed by machines. Exhaustion induced by tricks of sound replace the ecstasy of music, making swing a mockery of 'higher' melodies.

Finally, I'd like to use this discussion to analyze Melkor. He is placed as the antagonist of the Ainulindale, as he sought to "to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accordance with the theme of Iluvatar". However, prior to the beginning of the music, Iluvatar instructed the Ainur to "show forth your power in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices". Melkor therefore was only doing what he was instructed, and as Iluvatar told Melkor, even the strife he caused was "but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory". However, regardless of the result, Melkor was evil in intent. Like a soloist in swing music, he gave no care to his peers and compatriots, and indeed acted in their despite. By overriding the melody with his own thoughts, he denied others the ability to engage in their own subcreation and praise, making him fundamentally Evil.


*This is where swing music differs from the plainchant that Tolkien loved. While both rely on a single line of melody, chanting is somber and encourages contemplation, while swing is far more active and complex.

JRR Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Silmarillion. New York: Ballatine Books
JRR Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin
____, The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballatine Books
____, The Hobbit. New York; Houghton Mifflin
Ursula LeGuin, "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" in The Language of the Night. HarperCollins

1 comment:

  1. I am intrigued by the idea of Melkor as a swing soloist--that makes a lot of sense, given the musical styles Tolkien talks about in his letter. The soloist who dominates as opposed to the multitude of voices that come together in harmony is a good way of thinking of what Melkor wants. I wonder what Tolkien would have thought of Blind Guardian?! RLFB