If J.R.R. Tolkien liked to write satire…

If J.R.R. Tolkien liked to write satire, the satire he wrote was secured in what he loved. He loved languages, of course, importantly. But I’m not learned enough to say if his languages are in anyway satirical. I can say however that he employed his love of language in his satires. What did he love so—enough to subject it to caricature however gentle or otherwise? Read about hobbits and Hobbiton to discover it. As a child he lived in Sarehole and explored rural and village environs, communities. One wonders if he is also satirizing himself somewhat in these expressions.

We see his satire in all things rural and village. The settings and characters are where he deploys it to great, good and fond consequence. Look for his rural settings and you will find satire. It’s in Smith of Wootton Major—a serious tale in which some characters are parodied, one in particular a village archetype. Tolkien does not satirize real people, he uses town roles to create characters. Such as the Cook who bakes the “splendid” cake that was “no bigger than needed.” Farmer Giles of Ham is satire from one end to the other and here we find his language-love deployed to glistening capital effect. And dragons! (Which he also loves.) “Good AEgidius, Bold Ahenobarbus, Great Julius, Staunch Agricola, Hero of the Countryside.”

I had not realized much about his love of this genre. I saw it in Bilbo Baggins first, and then in full and fruity depictions of the Shire and Shire folk at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings. But it wasn’t until I listened to an audio version of Leaf by Niggle—read by a synthesized digital voice—that I realized. This story is satire. Tolkien satirized not only the parish and rural community and characters that he loves, but he satirizes the human condition in this devastating story. I was laughing out loud, and cringing, even sorrowing as I listened while working in the kitchen.

Sorrowing yes, yet one cannot call his lampoons harsh or unloving, lacking redemptive power. Giles of Ham is satire front to back. Smith contains leavening irony. Leaf by Niggle burlesques with intimate knowledge of the Self. The Shire is leveling satire in a profound epic of spiritual warfare.

Ancalagon the Black was of the first wingéd dragons of Middle-earth from pits in Angband, mighty even to drive back the Warriors of the Valar — but before that was Glaurung, wingless great worm. Tolkien was ever dragon-hungry. And this worm, tormentor of Túrin, was his best in my regard. But Tolkien’s absolute fondness for dragons is revealed in satire, the dragon in Farmer Giles and, in Middle-earth, the Lonely Mountain, north of Dale, east of Mirkwood. Here the great fantasist is playing with dragons, Smaug and Chrysophylax, who was subject to Tailbiter, and “past all shame”.

Lampooning dragons is his way of taming them for readers. He once wrote that his desire for them was “profound.” But also that he did not want them in the neighborhood. So he never leaves their dragonness behind. With the self regard of each, they are fully dragon—and yet it is the very dragon—this vanity and pride—that make for delicious satire. And. And Tolkien likes them. This is plain. (I can’t help wondering what he thought of Lewis’s dragon, Eustace.)

I like what Samuel James said about parody. It’s a genre of illustrative not expository story, sometimes while mimicking style. Tolkien mimics village life. God mocks the faults of fallen humans, says Terry Lindvall, in his rich magisterial book of the same name. God Mocks gives a fascinating history of satire and shows its basis in Scripture, and throughout Western and Christian literary history. Throughout this artistry and history we find God mocking humans. But not so gently as does Tolkien.

© S. Dorman, who likes to write satire. This piece is part of a collection on writerly creativity. The unpublished collection contains explorations in satire, craft, creativity and The Fantastic.

S. Dorman at Amazon

One thought on “If J.R.R. Tolkien liked to write satire…

  1. Thanks for this! I’ve drawn it to the attention of readers of Brenton Dickieson’s post on a call for papers and its dragon theme:


    As I comment there, I wonder whether we could distinguish strands of satire and (at least somewhat) grim (or ‘dark’) humour in Tolkien’s treatment of dragons like Smaug and Chrysophylax (and perhaps even Glaurung)?

    For that matter, do ‘we’ know if anyone has written particularly about ‘grim humour’ and/or ‘dark comedy’ in the Inklings, individually or comparatively? (I’ve lately been trying to think a bit about the same matter in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding world writings (especially where Wizarding-historical references are concerned)…)

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