Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Tolkien no longer interests me

I first really noticed that a few weeks ago, when prowling the stacks at a nearby university library. Sorry, Kindle, it's not the same. Actually, I'm not sorry, it's just not the same. But I digress.

When in the P section, for literature, a tail end of one shelf caught my eye.

All Tolkien studies. J.R.R. Tolkien. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Lord of the Rings author Tolkien.

And, I then realized it's been at least, what, 7 years, if not nearly a full decade, since I read LOTR?

I may have read it once since Peter Jackson's third movie came out, but not too long since then. And, it's been at least 5, if not 7 or more, since the Hobbit. And surely 15 since the Silmarillion.

My background?

I read LOTR the first time about the time I started high school, which was a little over a decade after the first authoritative, copyrighted U.S. edition came out. In short, LOTR was riding the end of its first, hippie-era (which Tolkien was ambivalent about) era of popularity. I believe I then read the Silmarillion the first time when in college.

I remember the original Hobbit cartoon movie, the cartoon movie of the first half of LOTR, controversy over the second half, controversy over hearing Jackson would do a live-action version, seeing that "The Two Towers," at least, WAS produced as an action flick for 25-year-olds, nearly not going to "Return of the King" for fear he'd butcher it, and being pleasantly surprised at the ending.

I'm not a cultist, but, a decade ago, I was certainly an ardent devotee.

All told? I've read the LOTR cycle itself half a dozen times — as in read through, cover to cover. I've read the Hobbit that many times, though with less interest as I got older, even before the LOTR waned from my mind. I've read the Silmarillion through twice, if not three times. And, read most extraneous, Chris Tolkien-edited material up through Jackson's third movie in 2003, at least.

I don't know why it has lost its drawing power for me, but I know it has.

I've always read a lot more non-fiction than fiction, but my total ratio hasn't changed. Since last reading the LOTR, I've re-read Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, as well as first-read other material by her, and that within the last 3-4 years. I've read Huxley's "Brave New World Revisited" in that time, and material from a couple of literature Nobelists who have died in recent years.

I think part of it is that, in the back of my mind, as I've become socially, politically and culturally generally more liberal, Tolkien's essential conservativism has been unconsciously apprehended more and more by me.

Second? At my current age, I'm not sure I want some of the quasi-depressive poignancy the book invokes. Let me check back with myself in five years. And, yes, I know that Earthsea had its own sadly poignant moments, too. Other than the "Final Endings" though, I think they're better handled. That's because Tolkien's other seeming poignancy, lamenting modernity, is about as stovepiped as Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" setup, which I've noted elsewhere.

I think another reason Tolkien interests me less is Chris Tolkien. The flood of post-Silmarillion material, especially after Jackson's movies, seems off-putting. It seems highly capitalist, even almost crassly commercial. And, the older I get, the more anti-capitalist I get, flat-out loathing its greatest excesses.

In that sense, part of JRR's semi-screed against modernity resonated.

At the same time, he seems partially hypocritical. First, re forests, trees, and the Ents of Middle Earth, in actual England, forests were cut for firewood, for catapults of war and many other things long before coal began to be mined, which in turn fueled the steam engines of the Industrial Revolution. Speaking of, Tolkien can have his dwarves mine gems and precious metals, but interestingly, there seems to be nary a coal miner among them.

(Update, 2020: I didn't even think about the hypocrisy of printing presses requiring massive amounts of trees, and with the traditional paper bleaching process being environmentally unfriendly, and other things.)

And, back to those Ents. Shepherds of the trees. Shepherds of actual sheep raise their sheep for eventual slaughter, and, of course, shearings before then, but eventual slaughter. The analogy he attempts to draw doesn't work quite so well.

Beyond that, it was modernity that let his family emigrate to South Africa relatively easily. And it ws modernity that let them come back to England after his dad died.

Meanwhile, Tolkien left something else out of calculations with his beloved Elves. Even with many of the Sindar eventually going over the sea, and some dying from war wounds and other injuries, being otherwise immortal, and propagating with multiple children, over several thousands of years, one would expect Middle Earth to be blanketed with them. The population explosion would certainly not be Edenic.

In other words, while I don't know about LeGuin and other fantasy writers, Tolkien seemed to believe that somewhere, at some time, in actual Earth, something like Middle Earth existed as a generally blessed realm.

I'm writing this over multiple sittings, in quasi-diary format. I'm going to take a break again, as I risk moving into territory too critically cynical. (Jan. 4, 2019: There may be a second round at some point.)

I will add that I just watched, for at least the third time at home as well as twice at the movies, "Cast Away." It of course has its own degree of pathos, and one in a real world, and pretty realistic, setting. So, it may be that fear of setting loose the black dog at a less than ideal time in life is not such a driver against LOTR as I have thought. It simply may be that it is a taste that I have moved beyond for now, and perhaps permanently outgrown.

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