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I would like to say at the outset I had a little hesitation in e-penning this particular diary; not because I don't feel strongly on the topic - there isn't much that is literary that I don't feel strongly about - but because it seems to me that the points I would make about Tolkien, his writing, his erudition, and his Masterwork "Lord of the Rings" [LoTR as I will refer to it in this diary] seem to be so obvious, so 'well, of course', so widely shared amongst us Kossacks, paragons of taste and perception all, that I didn't really think it was necessary. It would be like telling an art class why Rembrandt is so good. Nevertheless, I have had some dialog with those who may not in fact, be aware of why Tolkien really is as good as many think; why he is held in some esteem, why his work stands up to academic scrutiny, and why I think this is important.

So if you have some time, follow me to middle-earth. And a reason besides all the above why Tolkien is as important to us all as he is.

There is very little doubt in my mind that LoTR is one of the major works of literature in the 20th century, and seems to have had such widespread dissemination that virtually every literate person is at least aware of the work even if they haven't read it. Surveys of bookreaders (as opposed to literary critics) for example, consistently put it at the top of lists of favored, most widely read and most influential books, and its worldwide sales figures of 150 million certainly speak to its enduring popularity. No other fantasy work even comes close (although collectively the Harry Potter series have probably sold close to 400 million). I am of the opinion, in fact, that if people are still reading 400 years from now, one of the works that will still be read is LoTR, just as Shakespeare and the King James bible are still read 400 years after they were written. The answer to why may be more similar than one might think.

Lets look at Tolkien. The best description comes from Adam Gopnik in "The New Yorker":

At Oxford in the nineteen-forties, Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was generally considered the most boring lecturer around, teaching the most boring subject known to man, Anglo-Saxon philology and literature, in the most boring way imaginable. “Incoherent and often inaudible” was Kingsley Amis’s verdict on his teacher. Tolkien, he reported, would write long lists of words on the blackboard, obscuring them with his body as he droned on, then would absent-mindedly erase them without turning around. “I can just about stand learning the filthy lingo it’s written in,” Philip Larkin, another Tolkien student, complained about the old man’s lectures on “Beowulf.” “What gets me down is being expected to admire the bloody stuff.”

Read more

And they ain't kidding. Check out this snippet:

Brilliant, yes, but can you imagine learning philology from him? And if you had never read LoTR would you take this rambling donnish figure as someone who could craft tales beautiful enough to make you cry? Didn't think so.

The key to understanding Tolkien, I believe is possibly best approached by looking at one of his lesser known short stories: "Leaf, by Niggle". From The Tolkien Library

Niggle is an artists who paints to please himself, living in a society that holds art in little regard. His main occupation is a huge painting of great tree. He started with one single leaf and the painting grows around it. Niggle hopes to draw every leaf in detail. Soon Niggle finds birds in the trees, hills that are visible true the branches. And so the painting grows and takes up all time from the painter. Niggle takes time off from his work, because of politeness, to aid his neighbor, a gardener named Parish who is lame and has a sick wife. In the process of helping Niggle catches a sickness.

Then he is forced to take a trip, but was ill prepared for it (partly due to his illness) and ends up in an institution of sorts where he must labour each day. He is paroled and sent to work as a gardener in the country. He realizes that he is in fact working in the forest of his painting, but the Tree is the true realization of his vision, not the flawed version in his art. Eventually the painting fragments and the one aspect that is left of it is a single perfectly crafted leaf

Tolkien talks about 'Leaf by Niggle':

"...that story was the only thing I have ever done which cost me absolutely no pains at all. Usually I compose only with great difficulty and endless rewriting. I woke up one day (more the 2 years ago) with that odd thing virtually complete in my head. It took only a few hours to get down, and then copy out."
   Leaf by Niggle is very much an allegory of Tolkien's own creative process, and, to an extent, of his own life. Although Tolkien actively defended against being allegorical,  He admitted having been just that in Leaf by Niggle in a letter to Caroline Everett (24 June 1957):
"I should say that, in addition to my tree-love (it was originally called The Tree), it arose from my own pre-occupation with the Lord of the Rings, the knowledge that it would be finished in great detail or not at all, and the fear (near certainty) that it would be 'not at all'. The war had arisen to darken all horizons. But no such analyses are a complete explanation even of a short story..."
Well that was how this obscure Oxford philologist was able to produce LoTR. He worked on it, you see. He niggled it. Over and over for 12 years, getting diverted, focusing on his job, his family and rarely other works, but always keeping it in mind. Over and over until he got it just right. Have I already told you it is breathtaking when you really read it closely?

So now, to LoTR

But first, a musical interlude. Maybe you can listen to it as you read the diary

The Lord of the Rings is considered by most people to be a single book, because it was written and planned by the author to be such. Some people consider it to instead be a trilogy or series of three books, because it was originally published as a series of three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. This move by the publishing house was due largely to post-war paper shortages as well as to minimize the price of the first volume to aid sales. In subsequent printings the book has sometimes appeared as a single volume, and in at least one case was split into seven. But it is clear Tolkien always thought of it as a single, integrated work. It is consistent in pacing and character, if a little varied on tone, and foreshadowed and plotted very much as a single volume.

And it works. My God, does it work. From Mr Gopnik and the same article:

What substitutes for psychology in Tolkien and his followers, and keeps the stories from seeming barrenly external, is what preceded psychology in epic literature: an overwhelming sense of history and, with it, a sense of loss. The constant evocation of lost or fading glory—Númenor has fallen, the elves are leaving Middle-earth—does the emotional work that mixed-up minds do in realist fiction. We know that Westernesse is lost even before we know what the hell Westernesse was, and our feeling for its loss lends dimension to those who have lost it. (There is also, in Tolkien, the complete elimination of lust as a normal motive in daily life. The wicked Wormtongue lusts for Éowyn at the court of Rohan, but this is thought to be very creepy.)
I'll get back to the theme of loss in a bit, but for now lets just say that even I, who have lustful thoughts about as frequently as I think of dinner, am perfectly OK with their absence in this magical world. Besides, one of the main character's motivation is the love he has for the daughter of the elven-king of middle earth, and how she loves him so much she gives up immortality for him.

As a philologist, Tolkien was fascinated by the old English and Norse languages - as mentioned, that was his professional interest - and LoTR breathes it. In the verse that is scattered throughout (and in a variety of forms), some of which directly echo the romantic sagas of the late middle ages; in the made up and wholly consistent elvish language that was the original inspiration for the creation of middle-earth; and in the invented names of the characters and places that achieve an authenticity that I don't ever think has been matched; the work elevates to the level of masterwork. Take the sobriquet that Tolkien attaches to another main character, Gandalf the Grey. It gets emphasized until he returns as Gandalf the White and finally confronts the fallen wizard Saruman who has taunted him with it earlier. Perhaps you didn't know - I didn't - that the original derivation of grey came from from Proto-Indo-European ĝher- 'to shine, glow'. But I bet Tolkien did.

LoTR also lives up to the masterwork label because, like Shakespeare (there's one of the connections. Get it?) such grand themes are woven into the book. Take the theme of mercy, explicated in one of the earliest scenes, where Gandalf tells Frodo about why he is in such peril because of what the ring represents, and adds that the enemy knows all about it, and him, because Gollum has been caught in his quest to get the ring back (he wore it for a long time, as fans of the work know). Frodo, fearful says "What a pity Bilbo didn't stab the vile creature when he had the chance", to which Gandalf responds "Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand" and that Bilbo never fell under the evil spell of the ring because of pity. But then Frodo says he is scared and doesn't feel any pity for Gollum, and that he is as bad as an orc and deserves death. To which Gandalf replies

"Deserves it? I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.
Every death penalty foe should memorize those words and repeat them as often as possible. I know that reading them was when I began to question the whole monstrous capital punishment curse, to which we, as a society are only slowly beginning to be rid of.

Another theme comes out during the scene of the Council of Elrond, in which the good inhabitants of Middle Earth come together to work out what they are going to do about Sauron and the ring. Frodo the hobbit realizes that he is the one called to end its evil. "I will take the ring" he said "although I do not know the way". So Elrond, The mighty Elven-king, the one who wields the most Elven power on earth says:

"I think that that this task is appointed for you, Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will. This is the hour of the Shire folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and the councils of the Great. Who of the Wise could have forseen it? Or, if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck
and earlier he said:


"The road must be trod , but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft  the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world; small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere"

Have we heard this before? Yes indeed. From 1 Corinthians [King James Version]. Otherwise known as the version that both Tolkien and I grew up with (Tolkien was not only a Catholic, but a pious one. He never thought there was the slightest bit of contradiction between his fantasy work of middle earth and his belief)

For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.

  Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. . .Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

   And the Chronicler, St Paul,  goes on to add:
God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are
And now I come back to the theme of loss and how power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is recurring throughout the novel - and Tolkien's writing in general - and is best portrayed during a scene between Frodo and Galadriel when she bids him look into her magic mirror and tells him how truly she understands what the destruction of the ring will mean:


"Do you not see now wherefore your coming is to us as the footstep of doom? For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and be forgotten'.
   Frodo bent his head. 'And what do you wish?' he said at last.
   'That what should be shall be', she answered. 'the love of the Elves for their land and their works is deeper than the deeps of the sea, and their regret is undying and cannot ever wholly be assuaged. Yet they will cast all away, rather than submit to Sauron:  for they know him now. For the Fate of Lothlorien you are not answerable, but only for the doing of your own task. Yet I could wish, were it of any avail, that the One Ring had never been wrought, or had remained forever lost.'
 So Frodo offers her the ring.


"And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord, you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be Dark"
And this is the one part of the diary where I will let my contempt for the movie show through - the next words are
"Beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night. Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain. Dreadful as the storm and the lightning. Stronger than the foundation of the earth. All shall love me and despair"
    She lifted up her hand and from the ring she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement; and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.
    'I pass the test', she said. "I will diminish and go into the West, and remain Galadriel'.
And, to end the chapter, we have Samwise, who otherwise thinks very clearly throughout the novel say to her
"If you'll pardon my speaking out, I think my master was right. I wish you'd take his Ring. You'd put things to rights. You'd stop them digging up my gaffer and turning him adrift. You'd make some folks pay for their dirty work.'
    'I would', she said. 'That is how it would begin. But it would not stop with that, alas! We will not speak more of it'.
                     *               *                *                 *                   *

I find that I have barely scratched the surface of the work, and I could go on for many pages, but time is short and I think I have lengthened this diary enough. So I will pass on only one more, Tolkien's war-horror, delivered through his Character Faramir, a prince of the land surrounding Gondor and the younger son of the regent (remember, in English primogeniture, the younger son doesn't inherent anything and basically serves his elder brother). Like Galadriel he has come upon the ring, but resists its temptations for the same reasons:


'For myself, I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings. . .Minas Anor again as of old, beautiful as a queen among other queens, not a mistress of many slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves. War must be while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bight sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend, the city of the Men of Numenor; and I would ahve her loved for her memory, her her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom

Kind of sounds like how I feel about my country at present. Fallen, in a way, but redeemable. If only it were as easy as throwing an evil ring into a fire!

And that, finally is why I feel so strongly about LoTR, and about the author who created it and why I am writing the diary on this particular topic., Indeed, I was inspired, shall we say, by a sort of dairy pie-fight in which atheists and believers on this very site started writing meta-diaries, each side feeling somewhat put-upon and certainly misuderstood. While I think there is misunderstanding on both sides - and, truthfully a bit of an understanding asymmetry on the part of the believers who don't seem to really understand what makes the atheist feel as he or she does - what concerns me here is common ground. I don't really think there is much. I don't have a lot of faith (as it were) that morality provides it; certainly not epistemology, ethics, or personality. Science and religion are wholly divided. But I think in places like Middle-Earth, fantastical places that are bounded by imagination and unconstrained by things as they are (as opposed to real earth) represent realms where we can all congregate, and behold, and wonder. Because we are human and that's what we do. We all have differing beliefs, and different motivations. But everyone needs some magic in their lives.

Now, back to the real world and combat with Orcs like Santorum, Trolls named Gingrich, and fallen wizards resembling Mitt Romney, who is plotting to become a power, but will always lack the magic ring.

Wed Apr 11, 2012 at 6:11 AM PT: Hey everyone, Kossacks of taste and perception, thank you to all for the comments and making this my first 'recommended' diary. I can't resist reiterating my invite to contribute  a 'My favorite author' piece for the series, particularly as some authors need publicity and praise a bit more, maybe, than Tolkien does. Nonfiction authors/scientists/historians are welcome as well, but if anyone writes about gollums like Saleton, Jonah Goldberg, or Meghan McCardle, expect to get roasted - like Butterbur should have been - in the comments

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Apr 09, 2012 at 08:09 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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