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More responses to the Village Voice article

June 8, 2001 at 3:34 am by Tehanu  - 

Thoughtful debate continues; today we heard from more people that thought Dibbell had some valid points, but focussed on a few areas of disagreement.

Michael read the Dibbell article more carefully than most, and perhaps figured out what was actually being said better than I did, for one. If he’s right, then this article wasn’t as offensively meant as most of us took it to be:

“I was kind of surprised at the reaction to the articles from the Village Voice.

I don’t see anything remotely offensive in the one called “Hobbit Forming”. It pretty much just said that there is going to be a trilogy of movies based on The Lord of the Rings and that they are likely to be very popular. No argument here on that point.

The other, “Lord of the Geeks”, had some critical remarks, but it didn’t strike me as particularly snobbish. It simply acknowledged the fact that Tolkien has some very opinionated critics in the literary world. Like it or not, everyone has critics, we’re just going to have live with it.

Dibbell catches a good bit of flack for using the “G” word. It seems that the word “geek” is becoming one of those touchy words which may or may not be offensive depending on who says it and how it is used. The word is often used, not as an insult, but as a label for a particular subculture. I for one am not ashamed to be part of that culture and its as good a label as any, I guess. Sadly, however, labels lead to stereotyping and, let’s face it, nobody likes to be pidgeon-holed.

None of us wants to hear someone say “Oh, their opinion doesn’t matter; they’re just geeks.” But, I don’t think that’s what this article is saying. Check out this quote: “If you feel that’s no particularly meaningful achievement, I understand. But maybe you could indulge me and imagine, just for a moment, that the fact that we live in a world increasingly made by geeks actually makes their collective imagination worth understanding.” Okay, so it’s still a stereotype, but it’s saying that our opinion counts. It’s saying that Tolkien’s work is important precisely because the people who love it are important.

Dibbell then goes on to quote from literary critics both for and against Tolkien, before giving her own opinion. She emphasizes the fact that critics have given Tolkien a hard time over the years, but she never says those critics were right.

Finally, she gets into her own opinion which I found very insightful. Her argument is that the greatness of the work does not lie in some “hidden message” or meaning in the text. With this I heartily agree. Too often, I think, we feel the need to “justify” a work of fantasy by saying that it contains some hidden meaning. It is true that, as Tolkien has written, a reader can find applicability in a well-written story and The Lord of the Rings is full of it. But, then again so were many stories before and after it. Dibbell contends that the true greatness here lies in the creation of Middle Earth itself. I think Tolkien would agree. He wrote Lord of the Rings to satisfy demands for a sequel to The Hobbit, and because he thought it would help him to get The Silmarillion published. His real passion was Middle Earth: its history, its people, and its languages. The stories are merely the windows through which Tolkien shows us his world. That’s not to say that there are not many wonderful things to say about the stories themselves, but the fact is that Tolkien introduced an entirely new approach to literature. The critics, Dibbell points out, are slow to realize the value of this.

Okay, there is one thing I do have to take issue with. In making her point that the “issues” are not the real point she goes overboard and seems to miss some of the real depth of the novel. Others have pointed out the innaccuracy of the implication that Tolkien had a childish view of good and evil and the silliness of the “cultural relevance” issue so I’ll take the other one. Here’s the quote that gets me: “Tolkien’s take on ‘human existence’? A hard gig, certainly, full of danger and tough decisions, but fortunately not enough to threaten the wise Gandalf, the noble Aragorn, the sly Saruman, or any of Tolkien’s other characters with more than the occasional moment of psychological complexity.”

Are you kidding?! This is the only statement which forced me to wonder if Dibbell had read past the first few chapters. When I read the trilogy one of the aspects that struck me the most about it was the overwhleming sense of despair. It caught my attention because it is rare in adventure stories. Usually, quests and wars are presented as more or less fun outings with a few nasty bits thrown in to make them exciting. Not so with Lord of the Rings. None of the heroes ever seems to have much hope of success. The world teeters on the verge of destruction through most of the tale. Gandalf and Frodo are both believed to be dead for a while. Denethor is so overwhelmed by despair that he burns himself alive. And “the sly Saruman” goes insane and is murdered by his assistant on whom he has heaped severe psychological abuse. That seems like more than an “occassional moment of psychological complexity” to me.

That part aside the real reason I’m surprised by the response to this article is because, whether you agree with every point she makes or not, Dibbell’s overall point is that The Lord of the Rings is a great and important work despite the lashing it sometimes gets from critics. How did we miss that?

Eric wrote from a highly literate perspective, and this is a copy of his reply to the Village Voice:

“Julian Dibbell’s piece on Tolkien was very interesting and, on its own terms, mostly hard to argue with. But he got the broad perspective all wrong.

Dibbell reiterates and expands a fairly cogent argument against the worth of Tolkien as literature. Essentially, however, these are straw man arguments. Of course Tolkien has little value by the standards of 19th and 20th-century mimetic literature, which mandate psychological depth, a distinctive rather than a transparent prose style, etc. However, from any perspective (especially historical) such standards represent a narrow and suffocating concept of what literature might be.

For Tolkien, for instance, the creation of an imagined world (“subcreation”) is inherently worthwhile; it requires no justification in modern literary terms — a view he defended at some length in essay, and a view that the popularity of _The Lord of the Rings_ seems to have supported. And, of course, for Tolkien and his readers, a goddamn great *story* has inherent worth — a notion, as old as literature, that modernism and post-modernism
have been in danger of forgetting. Tolkien was not trying to write a 20th-century novel; he was (by his own testimony) trying to write a myth for modern times. Isn’t it obvious that he succeeded?

Furthermore — the fears of Germaine Greer et al to the contrary — the qualities one finds in Tolkien are not antithetical to those of mimetic literature. They are separate but equal. I’ve read _The Lord of the Rings_ 16 times, and I have an A.B. in English from Harvard, where I was one of the late Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry students. (Bishop herself understood that “high” art had no hegemony over “low” — the two poets she insisted we read were Hopkins and Lewis Carroll.)

That Tolkien has special appeal to geeks is undeniable. However, the notion that it’s some *adolescent* quality that connects the two is facile and just plain wrong (although understandable coming from a non-geek). If you want to correlate pop-culture popularity with an adolescent mind-set, you’ll probably have better luck with _Baywatch_ than Tolkien. The correlation you *will* find is between a specific type of high intelligence and love of Tolkien — the same type of intelligence, of course, that makes one a good computer programmer. That’s a highly interesting phenomenon that has probably been under-explored.

Finally, a correction: the computer game Adventure predated (and probably inspired) D&D. But Dibbell is right to infer that it was hugely influenced by Tolkien: in fact, its author had an adolescent pact with his two best friends (one of them myself) to produce a film version of Tolkien should any one of us become sufficiently wealthy!”

Chris summed up the point of a lot of other letters:

“It seems that these two self-absorbed writers are members of the ever growing clique that has forgotten the value of a good story. Some of the best stories were written merely out of a desire to do just that – tell a good story. The writers weren’t working from a motivation to communicate some message, or convey a truth. However, a good story necessarily conveys deep truths, and for a story to be gripping and compelling, it must be able to reach deep down inside of you. In order to reach deeply, an author must have a deep understanding of what it is to be human, and must be able to put those basic elements into his or her characters.

If a character in a book gets mad at someone for killing his family, and then is bent on revenge the rest of his life, yes I can identify with it, but it’s such a shallow and obvious thing that it doesn’t compel me to read on. I’m much more drawn in by a scene like that in FOTR which occurs just before the Fellowship finally reaches Lothlorien. The Fellowship is caught up in the timeless beauty of the place they find themselves in. The hobbits are walking or running about like children. The grass, the trees, the flowers, the very air is full of youthful, yet eternal energy. Then we see Aragorn, who is caught up in some old, at once painful and happy memory. We read that one of the hobbits comes up to him, stirs him out of his reverie, and says that it is time to go. Tolkien tells us that Aragorn leaves, and then throws us the curve ball “and he came there never again as a living man.” There is insight that speaks to me on a much deeper level – the insight that things change and fade away, and somehow in the fading become more beautiful than they were.

When you stop reading the story just for the sake of the story, when you “grow up” and become “intelligent” and begin looking in all stories for the author’s secret message, you lose something. Certainly there are many great stories that were written with the purpose of communicating a message. However, to adopt the idea that a story should have no other purpose is to greatly limit yourself. In adopting that mindset, I think one loses a little bit of the child inside. Instead of taking joy in the beauty of the spoken word, you wind up arguing over what the author is *really* saying, and miss the entire point. “

Thanks to all our correspondents in the last few days.

Posted in Old Special Reports on June 8, 2001 by

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