Tolkien and Tuor

Tolkien and Tuor

Essay by Roger Echo-Hawk

On Thursday, May 25 the Tolkien Reading Circle gathered to discuss “Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin” in Unfinished Tales.  We delved into Tolkien’s process of invention, the versions of the story, and where Tuor fits in the sprawling fantasy legendarium of the First Age of Middle-earth.  We agreed that it is interesting to glimpse the inner secrets of Tolkien’s artistry, studying the texts issued by Christopher Tolkien in his multivolume The History of Middle-earth.

 

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The Tolkien Reading Circle gathers to discuss Tuor, May 25, 2017

The making of Middle-earth occupied Tolkien’s imagination for almost six decades.  That world is made of stories that never stopped evolving, and even his two published novels underwent various revisions after first appearing in print.  It seems arguable to see all of his fictional Middle-earth stories more as unfolding narratives than as finished projects.  This is a particularly useful lens to set on Tuor and the tale of Gondolin.

Tolkien first invented Tuor sometime during 1917, setting the character in an embattled version of what would later become Middle-earth, a realm of cataclysm and cosmic conflict.  Tolkien sent Tuor into one of the legends of The Book of Lost Tales (volume 2, p. 144-220).  He enters “The Fall of Gondolin” as a minstrel led by fate into lonely journeying full of rainbows, secret rivers, the cries of white gulls, and sable seashores.  The opening scenes of this story are rich with poetic landscapes.  Here we find the Land of Willows with waterlilies and butterflies – the likely prototype of the later realm of Tom Bombadil.  This idyllic journey leads to the hidden city of the Gondothlim, “the dwellers in stone.”  Guided by the will of Ulmo, a divinity of the world, the story brings Tuor to marriage with the daughter of the king of Gondolin, and then to war and the fall of the city in a great battle.

It was perhaps ten years later during the final years of the 1920s when Tolkien revisited this story, producing a much condensed version – a version that appeared in The Silmarillion as Chapter 23, “Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin” (p. 238-245).  Tolkien dropped much of the poetic drama of the original journeying – deleting the first occurrence of the Land of Willows and retaining only a brief respite there at the end of the tale.

After completing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien returned in 1951 to the tale of Tuor, setting down a new account of the journeying of Tuor, “Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin” (Unfinished Tales, p. 17-56).  It is also evident that as he prepared the story he had in hand the old manuscript of “The Fall of Gondolin,” borrowing and reshaping elements of the original story.  This final version was both new and never finished.

In The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion the legend of Tuor opened at the close of the story of Túrin.  Christopher Tolkien took the 1951 version of the tale of Tuor and presented it as if it could be read as a free-standing story, but it is more clearly intended to serve as a kind of counterpoint to the dark doom of Túrin.  Tuor’s fate is guided by the will of Ulmo, who seeks to help the Elves and humankind; while Túrin suffers from the ill-wishing of a different divinity, Morgoth.  The tales are not isolated stories, but are meant to help unfold together a cosmic vision of the First Age of Middle-earth.

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“Tuor and Voronwë” by Steamey

Readers of The Children of Húrin who wonder at the absence of any sense of eucatastrophe should keep in mind that Tolkien intended to set that tale in the midst of the legend of Beren and Lúthien, the tale of Tuor, and other stories.  Despite its editorial presentation as a stand-alone novel, it should not be read that way.

The poetic nature of the tale of Tuor makes it a kind of visionary journey.  It is arguable that the unfinished 1951 version was crafted at the height of Tolkien’s literary powers – a story into which he poured his most refined poetic essences.  This craftwork must be understood as the outcome of a long-term creative process.  It was not birthed purely in a moment of free-standing genius.

We can trace in its pages various trajectories of inventive magic.  In The Book of Lost Tales version of the Tuor story, for example, the Noldoli come to Tuor and guide him “by their blue lanterns” down a riverside to beautiful regions of that ancient world.  The lanterns vanish from the version in The Silmarillion.  But they return in the circa 1951 Tuor story: “And then Gelmir brought forth one of those lamps for which the Noldor were renowned; for they were made of old in Valinor, and neither wind nor water could quench them, and when they were unhooded they sent forth a clear blue light from a flame imprisoned in white crystal.”  These lamps materialize again in the later telling of the tale of Túrin in The Children of Húrin (p. 152): “These Noldor possessed many of the Fëanorian lamps, which were crystals hung in a fine chain net, the crystals being ever-shining with an inner blue radiance marvellous for finding the way in the darkness of night or in tunnels; of these lamps they themselves did not know the secret.”

The accretion of poetic invention gave Tolkien’s detailing a special sense of glimmering depth.  And so his lyrical prose holds the power to enchant.  And his vast epic project to populate Middle-earth with places and people and events kept emerging onward as a labor of love that never came to an end.  He went on inventing, creating, remaking – a long journey of re-envisioning the magic of that world.  When we turn those pages, we must keep in mind the illuminating backcloth of these evolving truths.

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The Tolkien Reading Circle, May 25, 2017: Charles reads Christopher Tolkien’s notes on “The Fall of Gondolin”
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The Dark Enchantment of Túrin and Niënor

The Dark Enchantment of Túrin and Niënor

Essay by Linda Echo-Hawk and Roger Echo-Hawk

In June of 2016 we held the premiere meeting of the Tolkien Reading Circle.  We sat down together in our Hobbit Hole and pondered how The Children of Húrin encircles Tolkien’s entire legendarium.  This was his last major creative project, and it is rooted in his first creative project, “The Story of Kullervo.”

Moving into the narrative at our next meeting, Ivan observed how a story is like a dream and readers need to be drawn in.  Feeling that the first chapter of The Children of Húrin was more of a chronicle than a story, we wondered how Tolkien would have transformed it had he lived to finish it.

Over the next ten months we traversed Tolkien’s unfinished vision of the impassioned ambitions and hopes and defeats of Elves and Men in Middle-earth.  We sat down on a mountaintop with Morgoth; we mulled the malice of Anglachel; we pondered the Elvish conquest of Beleriand; and we felt wise to make friends with fairy-like Nellas.  Then we took a break under a cheerful autumnal equinox to celebrate our Hundredweight Harvest Holiday.

When the Tolkien Reading Circle returned to Beleriand, we joined for a time with Túrin’s outlaw biker gang; we visited Mîm’s home on Amon Rûdh; we held aloft magic Fëanorian lamps to admire crystal fountains; at the great dwarrow-delving of Nargothrond we became mesmerized by Glaurung’s dark gaze; we trekked with lonely Túrin through snowy passes into Dor-lómin; we followed Túrin’s men as they carried Niënor up the Rainy Stair to the Shuddering Water… All these adventures and more we found in the pages of The Children of Húrin, as can be seen in our meeting reports from those days.

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April 13, 2017 Tolkien Reading Circle

At our April 13, 2017 meeting, we focused on the last three chapters of The Children of Húrin, giving thought to how this book compares to Tolkien’s other visits to Middle-earth.  The story does not culminate in what Tolkien described as “eucatastrophe.”  It is instead a more purified exploration of moral doom – a dark story best read with friends, we decided.  It is also a good story to read slowly, a couple chapters at a time. This brings out the strength of the succinct poetic imagery, the deft character portrayals, and the wonderfully wrought dialogues in the narrative.

It is possible to savor the powerful writing without being overwhelmed by the story.  But the story is grim, darkly textured.  The final chapters unfold gloomy suicidal realizations, not happy heroic endings.  We pondered the degree to which Tolkien intentionally took aim at portraying the solemn poetics of a doomed world – was he exploring his own inner experience in some way… a forbidding depressive state of mind?

Nicole reminded us that the wider literary context of this work must be relevant to understanding Tolkien’s creative energies.  To what degree is Túrin like Beowulf, she wondered.  Beyond the Kalevala, the tragic events of The Iliad and the aura of Ophelia could well have added some of the dark tones that we encounter in The Children of Húrin.

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April 13, 2017 Tolkien Reading Circle

Some members of our group also pondered the quality of Tolkien’s portrayals of women in this book.  If this was his final major journey into Middle-earth, why do so many women characters give in to sorrow and suicide?  The excellent – and all too brief – renderings of Melian and Nellas left us wishing that Tolkien had done more with them, giving them more to do, bestowing more narrative weight on their shoulders.

Andrea felt that the power of Tolkien’s writing redeems the bleak themes of the book and its final plunge into an unforgiving chasm.  Tolkien’s mythic tales of the First Age can prove difficult for some readers.  Several members of the Tolkien Reading Circle reported negative initial responses to The Silmarillion and to the tale of Túrin in particular – these unfinished writings provide the background mythic history for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

In the pages of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s nuance at detailing this historical backcloth imparts a sense of depth that is notable even when readers skip over the poetry where it often appears.  Readers inevitably compare the differing tonal and thematic essences of his three novels, and this range of qualities makes them difficult to compare.

Tolkien did not keep writing the same kind of book in his lifelong labors as a novelist.  The power of his magic may inspire in many readers the wish for more of the same, but when we set foot in Middle-earth, our journeys become unexpected.  And that makes the experience multi-dimensional, full of glimpsed vistas, fragmentary and mysterious.  Ultimately, to a notable degree, the richness of Middle-earth as an invented world flows from the diversity of its narrative texturing.

Presenting this tale as an independent project is a debatable choice by Christopher Tolkien.  His father evolved the Silmarillion legends together as a coherent project, and although The Children of Húrin stands alone as a novel, the absence of any quality of “eucatastrophe” is notable.  The great denouement of the cycle of legends – the happy ending – was always designed to occur later in the scheme.

It is evident that The Children of Húrin is important because it establishes the dark magic that is merely referenced in The Lord of the Rings.  We experience first-hand the doom uttered by Morgoth.  We get entangled in an anguished narrative uttered by a desolate cosmic sorcerer who bends the world to his sullen will.  This kind of tale is difficult and unpleasant, just as we find in the weary trek of Sam and Frodo across the wastes of Mordor.

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“Túrin and Niënor” by Steamey

The tragic fate of Túrin and Niënor leaves us in the midst of an unrelieved catastrophe.  This is merely an epic moment that Tolkien designed to help perfect the coming eucatastrophe that he crafted in all his fantasy writings.  And this crucial element is missing from Christopher Tolkien’s presentation of the story.  We leap off the final edge of this story and no eagle seems willing to save us.  It is proper to sense a narrative truncation here, bereft of the dreamlike bittersweet magic of Middle-earth that we treasure, an enchantment of the imagination where despair gives way to a glimpse of fabled realms of hope.

With the forthcoming issuing of an “independent” presentation of the legend of Beren and Lúthien in June 2017, we close the pages of The Children of Húrin and make ready to open the pages of a concurrent tale that will reveal more of JRR Tolkien’s intended vision for his legendarium of the First Age.  This will hopefully provide some of the light that is missing from the dark matter of the tale of the doom of Túrin and Niënor.  The Tolkien Reading Circle looks forward to continuing this journey!

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Tolkien Reading Day 2017

Tolkien Reading Day 2017

On March 23 we gathered to enjoy a magical evening in the Hobbit Hole, celebrating the Tolkien Reading Circle’s first observance of International Tolkien Reading Day.  We shared the warmth of friendship as we read some of our favorite poems and readings in honor of JRR Tolkien.  A relaxing aura of companionship settled around us as we laughed and sang and offered our deep thoughts and appreciation.  Thanks, friends, for bringing your warm energy to this special Middle-earth celebration!

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In the Rivendell Hall of Fire Charles peered over Frodo’s shoulder, and “the enchantment became more and more dreamlike…”

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And Dan’s voice passed from a dream of music to “Eärendil was a mariner…”

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Roger read a musical version of “Errantry” that was on its way to becoming Bilbo’s Eärendil poem.

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Linda joined the hobbits on their way to the house of Bombadil, and everyone sang Goldberry’s greeting.

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Andrea shared a Game of Thrones song, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” and she took us to a dell in the wild to recite Aragorn’s song of Tinúviel.

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Elanor shares her book with Charlie.

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Elisha read her story about Elanor Gardner, and she shared with us little Elanor’s favorite book, All the World.

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Katy gave us “The Duel” by Eugene Field… a spat between a gingham dog and a calico cat.

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Dyhrddrdh visited the moonless Merlock Mountains, and there we found “The Mewlips.”

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Charles held us spellbound with his reading of Neil Gaiman’s “The Treasures of the Gods” from Norse Mythology – an introduction to a new book that we have heard so much about.

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Elanor’s adventure!

White Witches in Middle-earth

White Witches in Middle-earth

Essay by Roger Echo-Hawk

In the “olden times” of Cornwall, England every village had its own white witch.  A midnight ceremony bestowed upon them the power to heal and to “ill-wish,” as well as the magical ability to ride ragwort stems.  These witches wore rings with blue stones – rings made by snakes breathing on hazel-twigs.  And they could transform themselves into toads and hares.

These interesting details about white witches were set down during the 1880s by a Cornish folklorist named MA Courtney.  Just a few years before, in an 1873 book on the traditions of West Cornwall, William Bottrell discussed the doings of white witches, pellars, charmers, wise women, enchanters, conjurors, and a “white wizzard.”  I get the impression that many of these terms were interchangeable, referring to a general class of tradition keepers with special knowledge of herbs, healing rituals, and esoteric powers of mind.

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Throughout the 19th century male and female white witches could be found across the English countryside.  In my 2016 edition of Tolkien in Pawneeland, I touch on white witches in writings by Sir Walter Scott, Walter Skeat, and Sabine Baring-Gould.  And I suggest that in 1940-1942 JRR Tolkien made a decision to weave traces of this heritage into the cultural fabric of Middle-earth, conjoining his wizards with folk tradition pertaining to white witches.

Pondering his wizards sometime in late 1940, Tolkien settled on white as Saruman’s special color, electing him to serve as “chief of the White Council” – casual mention of such a council had materialized at the end of The Hobbit.  Now Tolkien gave the group more definition and depth and narrative duties.   And a year later in late 1941 Tolkien invented Galadriel and set her on this White Council.  Not long after inventing Galadriel, Tolkien decided to kill Gandalf the Grey and replace him with Gandalf the White.

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“Galadriel” by Incantata

When we first meet the Elf Queen Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings we find her surrounded with the words “white” and “wise.”  Tolkien probably accepted the idea that “witch” and “wizard” and “wise” had intertwined roots.  Noting the widespread assumed link between “witch” and “wise,” Michael Dilts has more recently questioned that construction, as well as efforts to connect the term with other Old English terms for “divination” and “bend.”  He prefers the suggestion by Calvert Watkins that the old forms of “witch” may refer instead to “the wakeful one, the watcher.”

Dilts makes a fascinating argument.  But it is apparent that Tolkien in his day accepted an association between wizard and wise.  Merging the invisible roots of these words together with vanishing British tradition about white witches, Tolkien elevated his wizards into transcendent figures of otherworldly power and majesty – while reserving the word “witch” for the leader of his Ringwraiths.

It is reasonable to suggest that when Tolkien sat down to write The Lord of the Rings, he was then the foremost academic expert on British folklore.  As I show in Tolkien in Pawneeland (p. 310-318), the white witches of Skeat and Baring-Gould are arguably evident in Middle-earth.  But it is less clear that Tolkien ever encountered the Cornish white witches – we can identify only a few wispy traces of MA Courtney’s witches.

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Joan the waxwork witch, Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle, Cornwall

It may not be coincidence in The Fellowship of the Ring that Gandalf threatens to turn a too talkative Sam into a toad – one could read this as a subtle reference to Cornish white witchery.  And in The Two Towers when Wormtongue calls Galadriel a sorceress, Tolkien has Gandalf softly sing a poem about her, referring to the color white: “White is the star in your white hand[.]” And in The Return of the King when we notice Elrond’s “ring of gold with a great blue stone,” perhaps we are glimpsing the forgotten Cornish white witches and their magic rings mounted with blue stones.

Investigating the sources that shaped Tolkien’s White Council, others typically make mention of notable literary white witches in the novels of H Rider Haggard and CS Lewis.  But when Tolkien summoned the lords and the lady of his White Council, it is reasonable to sense that he was doing something more than referencing purely literary imagery, and that he was evoking misty British historical tradition.

In the end, it is difficult to weigh with any specificity the influence of any of these sources – a wealth of wizards and witches in European literature complicates such a task.  Even so, we can assume that at least a few white witch echoes came to Tolkien’s hand from the British countryside as he conjured the magic of Middle-earth.

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“The Witch” (Baba Yaga) by Ines-ka

 

At the Corners of the World

At the Corners of the World

A Meeting of the Tolkien Reading Circle, February 23, 2017

Tonight a wintry snowfall descended on Longmont, and the Tolkien Reading Circle hosted a special guest speaker at the Hobbit Hole.  Tiffany Beechy is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Colorado, specializing in Anglo-Saxon studies.  She shared with us her perspective on Tolkien’s creative mingling of mythological essences, and how this idea is in fact reflected in Anglo-Saxon England.

Tiffany began by pointing out how Rohirrim names and language are rooted in Anglo-Saxon culture.  Edoras, Théoden, and Éomer are just a few examples of words borrowed from Old English to colorize Rohan.  She also mentioned a touching Peter Jackson film character, the youth “Haleth” in The Two Towers – the Old English version of this name is hæleþ, meaning “hero.”  So in the scene when Aragorn asks his name and gives him a word of encouragement on the eve of battle, the youth is really a young hero.

Tolkien framed the Rohirrim as a horse culture.  He borrowed detail from actual horse cultures, but he also referred to Anglo-Saxon tradition.  Tiffany read a passage from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People about the tradition of Hengest (“Stallion”) and Horsa (“Horse”) arriving on the shores of Celtic Britain and meeting Vortigern.  Scholars today see a more gradual settlement process, but this tradition does make reference to horses.

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Hengest and his brother Horsa are met by Vortigern at Ebbsfleet in Kent southern England. Artist: Mark Taylor

Tiffany told how Tolkien is sometimes dismissed in academic English studies as a kind of presumed fascist ideologue for his project of idealizing a glorious nationalistic past.  But this framing of his Middle-earth novels does not do justice to his actual cultural project, which often evokes a cultural blending that conflicts with the fascist project of asserting forms of cultural purity.

This cultural mingling can be seen in the historical storytelling we find in records set down in Anglo-Saxon literature.  Citing Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Tiffany reminds us that the merging of Christian ideology with Anglo-Saxon culture was a syncretic process, a hybridization of concepts rather than a replacement.  But this ultimately did bring about an eclipse of tradition.

Everything written about Anglo-Saxons was produced by monks since the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons left no written literature, only rune sticks.  Bede has a passage that has the Chief Priest Coifi requesting King Edwin’s arms and stallion “to destroy the idols” of Northumbria.  The symbolic transition of culture thus involved horse imagery. Tiffany read an excerpt from her translation of “The Dream of the Rood” – we borrowed from it for the title of this blog.  The poem illustrates how the Anglo-Saxons were more likely to accept this new religion if Christ could be treated more like an active hero rather than a passive victim.  Tiffany also touched on the Ruthwell Cross in Scotland, a monument featuring runes, Latin inscriptions, religious imagery, and references to “The Dream of the Rood.”

All enjoyed a lively and enlightening evening.  Errors in this description of the meeting are due to the wandering minds of the Hobbit Hole scribes!

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Tiffany Beechy

Tolkien’s White Fire Sword

Tolkien’s White Fire Sword

Essay by Roger Echo-Hawk

Tolkien fandom must surely be one of the largest and most diverse fan groups in the world.  People who do not share religious ties, ethnic identities, politics, or languages can still share their appreciation of Middle-earth, and this diversity has helped to foster a culturally inclusive tone in Tolkiendom.  A minor segment of this fandom, however, has always preferred a more exclusive agenda.  Recent world events have suddenly cast the edge of the spotlight on this subculture.

Planning a fantasy battle at Helm’s Deep, JRR Tolkien invented a new captain to serve as a heroic savior of Anglo-Saxonish Rohan.  Wrestling with a name for this hero, Tolkien at last settled on Erkenbrand.  It is apparent that he repurposed the second part of this new name from the original name for Aragorn’s sword, Branding, which, as Christopher Tolkien reminds us, came from Old English brand, meaning sword.  Tolkien described Aragorn’s weapon in the early drafting of the Helm’s Deep chapter as “a white flame” – a sword that “flashed like white fire.”

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Surtr: “The Devil Giant with the Flaming Sword,” John Charles Dollman, 1909

Erkenbrand is also the adopted name of a recently launched Dutch white nationalist “alt-right” organization.  This pro-race activist organization has sought to establish common cause with their American intellectual cousins.  And the result is that Erkenbrand has heartened American proponents of white nationalism.  This kind of cultural appropriation of Tolkien’s legacy is not new.  As one 1998 article shows, Tolkien’s fantasy writings have long held appeal among pro-race white separatists.

These white pride organizations sense pro-white racial messaging in The Lord of the Rings, but they seem to represent a small minority in Tolkien fandom, and they have wielded very little evident influence on the general culture of Tolkiendom.  Little support for a pro-race view of Tolkien has come forward in scholarship.  In fact, over the last several decades a steady trickle of writings on Tolkien and race has given rise to a settled scholarly consensus which rejects the notion that Tolkien held racist attitudes.  The implication is that he would frown on white pride interpretations of his novels.

This consensus suffers from serious shortcomings.  Relying on a handful of statements that denounce Nazi anti-Semitism and the Nazi handling of Nordic mythmaking, Tolkienists too often ignore, minimize, or dismiss Tolkien’s actual record of literary racial usages.  My 2016 edition of Tolkien in Pawneeland features extended essays that explore the evolving manifestations of the real world traditions of race in Middle-earth.  It is clear that Tolkien intentionally deployed problematic racial imagery in The Lord of the Rings.  Pointing out shortcomings in the Tolkienist consensus, we can nevertheless conclude that it reflects a general distaste for the segregationist aspirations of white pride nationalism.

But given the convoluted and muddled nature of race in both concept and practice, awkward moments are to be expected.  In late 2015, in the course of denouncing criticism of Tolkien as a putative Nordicist, Michael Martinez recommended a 2003 article written by a man who that same year reportedly told an interviewer that “his group supported neo-Confederate groups in the United States.”  It is obvious that Martinez hoped to exonerate Tolkien from charges of harboring fascist tendencies – the implied message was that white pride ideologues should not see Middle-earth as a racially sympathetic realm.  During the year that followed, however, a new pro-race white nationalist group donned Middle-earth imagery.

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A burning sword rests at the center of Erkenbrand’s official sigil.  This can be read as a likely Tolkienian reference to brand, sword – Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull noted in a 2005 publication that the name Erkenbrand is a likely fusion of two Old English terms that mean “precious” and “fire-brand” or “sword.”

The fact that some white pride nationalists invoke Tolkien should bestow a sense of import on the scholarly project of examining Tolkien’s statements on race, his literary usages, and relevant social contexts.  When we consider the ways that race gets produced in the world and the choices made by culture-makers like JRR Tolkien, we also make space to affirm humanistic values that can challenge pro-race nationalism and promote the unraveling of racism in the world.

Reviewing Henry Gee’s The Accidental Species, biological anthropologist Jonathan Marks has made an important point about the moral momentum of scholarship in recent decades: “Gee’s historical survey of paleoanthropology is accurate, but hardly avails itself of the work that historians of the field have been grappling with of late. For example, one can readily lionize Raymond Dart and Robert Broom as proper champions of Australopithecus, as Gee does, but only at the expense of ignoring Dart’s writings about race (Derricourt 2010) and Broom’s writings about angels (Richmond 2009).”

While I don’t feel much interest in scouring the lives of culture-makers to spotlight things we might despise, I do appreciate insights that add necessary depth and perspective to valued iconic cultural productions.  To the degree that Tolkien’s morality aims at affirming the logic of our social values, it is useful to inquire into the moral nature of Tolkien’s uses of race in his novels.  In early 1956 Tolkien set forth his thinking about how questions of moral character shaped The Lord of the Rings.  Noting the existence of “conflicts about important things or ideas” he argued for “the extreme importance of being on the right side…”  And faced with conflicts between “right and wrong, or good and evil,” he felt that “the right will remain an inalienable possession of the right side…”

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“Zankantou Sword” by Sol Gravion Megazord

We must each determine for ourselves the “right side” of the social production of race and racism.  Judging from the many well-populated facebook Tolkien pages, the vast majority of fans feel attracted to Middle-earth for reasons that have nothing to do with bonding through racial pride.  But when we find some fans extracting multicultural values from the books, and we find others extracting messages of racial separatism, we must somehow sort out what is happening.

To apply a moral lens to matters of race and racism in Middle-earth, it would be helpful to have access to relevant critical inquiry.  In promoting the study of Tolkien’s uses of the real world traditions of race, we necessarily focus on the status of race in the world.  What choices did Tolkien make in his era?  What racial meanings did he inscribe in Middle-earth?  Do we see the ideology of race as a social construction to embrace and uphold, or do we see it as something to question and reject?

Tolkien’s fascination with glowing fiery weaponry most directly pertains to storytelling in which people make the heroic choice to battle potent evil in the world.  When we wrestle with the facts of Tolkien’s use of racial social narratives, we are defining our own choices, our own preferences, what we deem “heroic” and the right side of history.  We are reminding each other that it does matter what kind of meanings we attach to treasured mythological and cultural icons.

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“Gandalf and Balrog,” by Suc-of, 2013

JRR and GRR: War in the Fantastic World

JRR and GRR: War in the Fantastic World

A Report by Linda Echo-Hawk

December 8 brought a cold late afternoon in Colorado as we gathered at our Hobbit Hole at Barbed Wire Books in Longmont.  The Tolkien Reading Circle and the Game of Thrones-Children of the Forest met to ponder the making of fantasy war in Middle-earth and Westeros.

Linda welcomed everyone and Andrea launched the hour by outlining some discussions held by the Game of Thrones book group on this topic. Andrea read an excerpt from a 2014 Rolling Stone interview in which George RR Martin talked about how he became a conscientious objector:

I was, like many kids of my generation, a hawk. I accepted that America was the good guys, we had to be there. When I got into college, the more I learned about our involvement in Vietnam, the more it seemed wrong to me. Of course, the draft was happening, and I decided to ask for the conscientious-objector status. I wasn’t a complete pacifist; I couldn’t claim to be that. I was what they called an objector to a particular war. I would have been glad to fight in World War II. But Vietnam was the only war on the menu. So I applied for conscientious-objector status…

Roger added his experience as a teenager in the 1960s.  He and his friends spent a lot of time discussing the Vietnam War and pondering what to do – and they were very interested when they saw the founding of the Vietnam Vets Against the War protest group.  Ivan observed that it is common for young men in every culture to take part in military culture, hoping for adventure and glory, and a wish to prove themselves.

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The modeling of war as a social project has shaped the evolution of the fantasy genre.  Ivan discussed how Martin has developed a major focus on war in his fantasy worldmaking.  He has shifted the viewpoint, changing the fantasy genre by emphasizing the gore and grit of warfare and battle, challenging the romantic idealization of war that has defined so much post-Tolkien fantasy literature.

We wondered how Martin’s personal experience during the Vietnam era might be glimpsed in the Game of Thrones world. We discussed the various wars and conflicts in Westeros/Essos and wondered which war Martin would be willing to fight in, following his logic of objecting to Vietnam but not World War II.  We thought it might be possible to see warfare in Westeros in terms of a great morally driven cause versus more petty ambitions and struggles for power.  We discussed how Martin critiques Tolkien as focused on how a Good Man equals a Good King who rules wisely, as with Aragorn.  Ivan pointed out that one of Martin’s major moral points is that power always undermines moral idealism, with example after example of rulers in Westeros who gather power and become oppressive and vicious.

We got into Tolkien’s WWI experience and talked about trench fever, shell shock and PTSD. We touched on the contrast of how Martin shows the intimate brutality of battle while Tolkien has the Rohirrim singing as they slay the servants of Sauron.  Ivan suggested that Tolkien was referring to traditional warfare narratives that glorify battle and how he then gives us subhuman orcs to slaughter, while Martin prefers to show the realism of men killing men.

Pondering Martin’s personal status as a conscientious objector, we compared Tolkien’s complex response to his experiences.  He turned aspects of his war experiences into Middle-earth stories, and he also saw two of his sons join the military in WWII.  But then he went on to make several major characters in The Lord of the Rings into virtual pacifists – Gandalf the White and Frodo do not kill any enemies.

We covered many battlefields in the invented realms of Middle-earth and Westeros.  But we ended up thinking about hope and optimism.  In fantasy literature we can aspire to transcend the boundaries of history; we can seek a mysterious inner magic that uplifts us all, that expects us to build a better, more humane world for the future.  At the meetings of the Tolkien Reading Circle and the Game of Thrones-Children of the Forest we have had a great time discussing literature and life. We all look forward to the coming year – and to happy endings!

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