Thursday, January 23, 2003

LOTR LOL: Eric Olson on Lord Of The Rings:

I finally finished rereading The Return of the King, about 25 years after the first time I read it. I find it preposterous that the series has been voted the greatest work of literature of the 20th century, or even the millennium by one poll: this is a great story with an amazing depth of mythic detail behind it, not a work of great literature. "Literature" at its greatest shines an uncanny light upon human relationships and exposes something so surprisingly true about ourselves that we stare into space in wonder and even fright. Depth of character and the complexity of relationships is what Tolkien does least well.

What he does almost miraculously well is create an alternative world, people it with solid, if thin, characters, and set them off on a, to slip into reviewer-ese, "ripping good yarn" with a powerful surprise ending and a deeply satisfying set of morals. In conjunction with this tale told of a parallel, pre-firearm, cusp-of-the-Industrial-Revolution earth, the unself-conscious values of honor, courage, commitment, and attachment to kith, kin and the land are presented so naturally and powerfully that by the end of the series we are ready to take up arms and stride purposefully out the door seeking to eviscerate evil, in between draughts of good ale, of course.

Charlie Murtaugh pointed this out. Eric pointed out this Orrin Judd response to his review:

As a threshold point, one fails to see how it can be argued that a great read that creates its own mythology of "amazing depth" can fail to be considered great literature. By comparison, I'm currently reading Philip Pullman's Dark Materials Trilogy, which has won awards and much critical acclaim, but as you read it there is no sense that the characters have any life or history beyond what appears on the page and serves the plot at that moment. Part of the unique genius of Tolkien is that he created Middle Earth, its languages, religions, literature, songs, peoples, history, etc. and only then wrote the novels. It may be fair to say that characters don't have the "psychological depth" we require in the age of James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Oprah, but they have an entirely different kind of depth: to the extent such a thing is possible, they exist outside the books.


If the cleverest trick of the devil truly is to convince us that he doesn't exist, then one of his greatest modern opponents is J.R.R. Tolkien--whose writings have reached millions, by now perhaps hundreds of millions. The Lord of the Rings teaches us that evil is real and that it is compelling, that even the best of us will be attracted to it. This is one of the oldest truths of Western Civilization, yet somehow it still surprises people, as Mr. Olsen demands that great literature must. And because it does and because this truth is so vital to a proper understanding of what it means to be human, it seems to me at least that it must be considered one of the greatest works of literature our civilization has produced.

Eric responded to this with "I think it comes down to semantics." And I agree--I interpret Eric (if I can be that presumptious) to be saying that literature is a form of written art wherein insight on the human condition is expressed via the psychological relationships between characters or depictions of the internal lives of characters. Something like that. Or as Eric actually said:

Yes, I agree that the characters exist outside the books, but they do so very thinly. Yes, all of the characters go through their own struggle with the ring, but the struggle is seen from the outside: I don't really know what that struggle feels like to the characters.

I don't think this necessarily diminishes the trilogy as a story, but it does take it out of the realm of literature, by my definition.

And I really love his definition--because it turns literature into just another genre with no special claims on insight into the human condition. That rules. It means LOTR, the ultimate fantasy novel, can be art without being literature because it uses none of the conventions of literature. Which, in my eyes, solves a whole lot of problems with lit-crit types looking down on genres because their high art non-genre gave them special insight. Which was never so because it was a genre all along. Kewl.

I mean, maybe slapping labels on things doesn't change anything. But I think arguing that a book is great should not have to mean you have to argue a book is great literature--those things do not have to go hand in hand.

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