Usually when I come across a mainstream journalistic critical article about Tolkien, it’s time to sigh deeply and sort through everything they got wrong. So I was pleased to see Konstantin Kakaes on The Lord of the Rings in Slate yesterday, because Kakaes gets it.
It’s not a great or profound article, but I feel that somebody who can write “Tolkien’s ambition allowed him to write in a register of intimate, original grandeur that I’ve never seen equaled” or “I don’t love these books for their aphorisms though, or for Tolkien’s mythopoetic historiography. I love them for their emotional texture” has at least, as a reader, found in The Lord of the Rings the same kinds of richness that the rest of us who love this work have seen. As a young reader, I was utterly absorbed by that historiography, and spent more time poring over Appendix A than I did re-reading the novel (for others it was Appendix E), but I’m convinced that I would not have cared one whit about this had I not already been won over by that emotional texture, and that unique form of grandeur, in the story itself.
I will give Kakaes special points for noting that “Gandalf’s power rests” not in his spell-casting wizardry but “on the moral authority of his wisdom, which gives him fortitude,” especially as this is followed by an aside noting that this is exactly what the movies don’t grasp.
Nevertheless, you’d suspect that this post wasn’t really by me if it didn’t contain some creebs and objections, and I’ll begin with the paragraph on Gandalf. My major beef here is not with the author but with the fantasy literature environment we live in. Kakaes contrasts Gandalf, who “doesn’t often actually cast any spells as such,” with wizards in video games. And I thought, how sad it is to have your image of wizards formed by such unchecked wand-jockeys. I predate video games, and have never found them very interesting. I far prefer Gandalf, or magical realms like Le Guin’s Earthsea, where casting too many spells is a sign of imbalance and intemperance.
In the same paragraph, Kakaes writes that Gandalf “gets into a fight” with Saruman. In the word of Jackson’s Frodo, Noooooo! It’s striking that even Kakaes, who’s loved the book since childhood and dislikes the movies, still confuses them. I call this “media colonization” and have been fulminating against it for a long time. This also shows why “The book is still on the shelf” is an insufficient answer to criticisms of the movie. It doesn’t matter where the book is if you’ve forgotten what’s in it.
Elsewhere, Kakaes irritatingly calls The Lord of the Rings a trilogy and describes it as a series of novels rather than one work, and refers to Middle-earth as “a world of Tolkien’s conception” in the same paragraph that he quotes Tolkien as writing, “Middle-earth is not an imaginary world.” There’s also a horrible example of folk etymology, guessing a name’s meaning by what it happens to remind the reader of: “Aragorn” echoing “paragon” is really stretching it. Why not just make him a Spanish grandee from Aragon? That’s a lot closer of an echo.
But those are minor. The oddest thing that Kakaes writes is a report of a personal response as a reader, which as a matter of personal taste cannot be gainsaid. Still, I don’t recall coming across any other fans of The Hobbit whose initial reaction to The Lord of the Rings was disappointment and irritation at having Bilbo dangled as the returning protagonist and then being pushed offstage in favor of Frodo. I liked Bilbo, but I didn’t feel that kind of attachment to him. That could have been because I’d already been told, before reading the sequel, that it had a different hero, or it could be simply that I felt Bilbo had had his story and now it was someone else’s turn. Certainly Tolkien in writing the story was gradually drawn to that same conclusion.
David Bratman is co-editor of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, and former editor of Mythprint, the bulletin of The Mythopoeic Society. He likes to write about Tolkienian biography and bibliography.