The great Jeffro Johnson of Castalia and Appendix N fame is back to dropping bombs! Alas, we find ourselves on opposite sides of the issue in this case. Here I take issue with Jeffro’s very strange, novel take on Tolkien. From “Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge: Go Read Lord Dunsany, Dang it!”:
If you haven’t read the signature fantasy works that predate his influence, you won’t be able to imagine this being the case, but the man really did pull his punches. He tiptoed around themes and questions that deserved to be met head on. He truncated his creative palette for the same reason authors do today: he wanted to be taken seriously and he knew there would be consequences for not walking the line.
First off, I want to note that the post is actually about Lord Dunsany, and I entirely agree that Dunsany gives a completely different picture of the fantasy genre than what we know in the post-Tolkien landscape, and should be read and appreciated. No dispute.
But the claim above…
…Look, it’s just wrong. It’s hard to say exactly why it’s wrong, simply because there is absolutely no evidence for it. I can’t prove Tolkien wasn’t truncating his creative palette to be taken seriously, technically. There is simply no evidence, none, not a scintilla, not a sentence, not a word, that ever indicates this was even slightly the case in any of Tolkien’s writing. And we have tons and tons and tons of notes and letters proving Tolkien agonized over every minute detail of his fantasy world throughout his entire life – and in none of them does he ever indicate that his mythos wasn’t presented in exactly the way he wanted it to be presented. His issues with publishers have to do almost entirely with the names of the sections of his narrative and how they were to be divided. Of content – nothing, except they asked him to make a Hobbit sequel.
I questioned this on Twitter, and after a bit of a back and forth I asked Jeffro this question:
What themes and questions did Tolkien tiptoe around that he should have met head on?
Jeffro responded with this:
Tolkien quite carefully expurgated any mention of religion from The Lord of the Rings (The reference to heathen kings is the outlier…and also Faramir’s prayer-like moment of silence.)
This is quite true. So Jeffro’s theory is that Tolkien expurgated any mention of religion from “The Lord of the Rings” is so he would be taken more seriously. That by getting rid of all mentions of religion he was “truncating his creative palette”.
That’s a theory. Any evidence? Does Tolkien every say why he made that particular decision?
As it so happens he DOES say EXACTLY why in one of his letters:
The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.
So to be clear here: Originally the work was not even intentionally Catholic in philosophy, and Tolkien explicitly went back in and made the book MORE religious and MORE Catholic. What does this tell us?
Well, it tells us that the decision to eliminate religion from the story had absolutely nothing to do with wanting to be taken more seriously by the masses. Tolkien originally had almost no religion at all (he mentions cutting bits out, but he clearly implies here that even the moments he referenced any sort of pagan religion were few and far between). He went in and made the work more religious – as he explicitly put it – AFTER the first draft. This doesn’t fit Jeffro’s theory at all – if he wanted to be taken seriously, wouldn’t he be attempting to remove all traces of Catholicism and religion from his work.
I can hear the counterargument now. “He DOES say he got rid of mentions of religion and replaced it with a Catholic-style STORY and SYMBOLISM. He did that because he knew that if his mentions of religion were explicit people would take him less seriously.”
Okay, I get it. Granted we have absolutely nothing in any of his copious notes indicating this is the case, but it’s still a possibility. And as Jeffro says:
Is it really that out there to suggest an Oxford don might avoid appearing declasse?
Indeed, it is not that out there. So here is the question: As an Oxford Don, would it have been declasse for him to write openly religious works but still be taken seriously?
Let’s ask another Oxford Don, Tolkien’s contemporary, the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. Lewis published “The Screwtape Letters” – an openly Christian work if there ever was one – in 1942, a serialized book he dedicated to J.R.R. Tolkien. So if Tolkien was worried about appearing declasse due to his religion, he was already rather out of luck. Moreover, Tolkien finished his revisions of “The Lord of the Rings” in 1947, only 5 years after Lewis’s smash hit and over a decade before the omnibus edition of the Letters was released. Not only that, but the Letters were both a commercial AND critical success. It seems Tolkien had nothing to worry about after all.
So the theory now hinges on an irrational fear of Tolkien not wanting to appear declasse by including religion in his work, even though religious works by Oxford Dons were being written at the same time and achieving commercial and financial success, including an addition to the Screwtape Letters Lewis published as late as 1961!
Was Tolkien writing in the literary tradition of Lord Dunsany? Or even the old pulp authors?
Of course not! But what does that have to do with him truncating his creative palette to be taken more seriously? Tolkien was trying to do something entirely different from Lord Dunsany – create a new epic for Great Britain inspired by the old Norse sagas and pre-Christian Old English epics like Beowulf, a work which Tolkien championed; in fact he is the reason it is considered one of the great works of literature today. He didn’t write like Lord Dunsany not because he didn’t dare, but simply because he didn’t want to in the first place. And why did he have to?
Later, in his even more bizarre post “Tolkien and Modernity”, Jeffro says this:
Aragorn patrolling dangerous countryside with a broken sword for one thing. How utterly, embarrassingly British. Something as portentous and mythical as that, reduced to a cheap subversion along the lines of Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver. The anti-Conan did not originate with Michael Moorcock’s Elric– no, it’s right here! And it’s preposterous.
This is so wrong it’s insulting. It’s amazing that somebody actually wrote this, and put it out publicly, and used it to make a serious point. Because none of it is true.
Or at least, it’s true in semantics only. Aragorn does indeed have the hilt of Anduril with him. But he is in fact keeping it hidden from people, not patrolling the countryside with it, because Tolkien is not a moron. Aragorn would not take it out because he didn’t want anyone to know he was the heir of the throne of Gondor yet. He shows it to the Ringbearer specifically to prove he is who he says he is. There is never an indication Aragorn is using it as an actual, physical weapon, and in fact it would defeat the point if he was!
A comparison to Moorcock, of all people, who despises Tolkien, is just appalling. Moorcock sought to tear down; he subverted. Tolkien superverted. He went back BEFORE Christianity, to the old Pagan myths and legends, and he Christianized them.
Moreover he took enormous pains to make his universe internally consistent with his Catholic philosophy. To think he’d make such an obvious mistake because Subversion is to show a complete ignorance of J.R.R. Tolkien.
I’m sorry to be so harsh, but there really isn’t any other conclusion to come to that doesn’t involve dishonesty. And I don’t think Jeffro is dishonest.
I do, however, think his love of the older forms of fantasy is causing him to make rash statements about a subject he clearly knows nothing about. And my question is…why?
Why double down on this? Why can’t we say that Dunsany was a literary tour de force and A. Merritt was a man of genius AND say that Tolkien gave full reign to his literary powers without truncating his creative palette? There is no one or the other necessary.
These claims are so clearly, so obviously and observably, dead wrong. I simply don’t know why Jeffro keeps doubling down on them.
I don’t get it.