Superversive on Hurin and the Critics

An excellent essay and book review by Tom Simon (superversive ) of Tolkein’s CHILDREN OF HURIN. Mr. Simon logged this last year, but I have only just now seen and read it. Here is an excerpt:

When Túrin sees Niënor on the grave of Finduilas, the circle of memory is closed: for this is in truth a woman of his father’s house. But because he has never met Niënor before, and has no reason to guess that she has left the safety of Doriath, he fails to recognize her, and that circle becomes a noose that soon draws tight around them both. In the end Glaurung the dragon reveals to Niënor that Turambar, her husband, is also Túrin, her brother. Believing that he is dead, she despairs of him, and knowing that she has committed incest, she despairs of herself for shame; and nothing short of suicide can allay her grief. Then Túrin in his turn finds out the truth and kills himself.

This is the crux of the tale, the element Tolkien took from the Kalevala and made his own. It is only the ‘elvishness’ of The Children of Húrin, its place in the high matter of the Elder Days, that raises it above the sordid tale of Kullervo. But to know this you would have to do some reading; you would need to know more about the Silmarillion, and about mythology in general, than a Deveson is allowed to know without surrendering his licence to sneer.

In like fashion, Ms. Salij aims an ignorant barb at Tolkien, or what she fondly believes to be a barb:

Tolkien’s weakness for making his heroes so very, very good and his villains so very, very bad is particularly grating. Middle-Earth is the place to go if you must have the morality of your fiction be black and white, and apparently the simplicity was worse early in its history.

Beyond any doubt Túrin is the protagonist of Children, and the hero of the tale if it has one. He has the interesting trait, common enough among ‘men of honour’ in primitive cultures and still more in their mythological traditions, of having the strictest scruples without any actual morals. He is stubborn, stiff-necked, wilful, impulsive, violently touchy, immune to good advice, and prone to murderous rages against his closest friends; I can barely resist adding, ‘And those are his good points.’ I can account for Ms. Salij’s complaint in only two ways. Either she had already made up her mind to complain about ‘black and white morality’ before ever reading the book, or she really does think that a psychopath like Túrin is ‘so very, very good’. I am not quite sure which explanation disturbs me more.

Read the whole thing.

Unsurprisingly, Phillp Pullman makes an accusation similar to that of Mrs Salij against Tolkien, in a passage where he make a noble effort to describe that indescribable novel, A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS:

And there was the great example of that strange novel, A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay. That was first published in 1920, and has been in print, intermittently, ever since – often featuring in publishers’ lists of classic fantasy. The story begins in our world, but soon, after a series of strange events, the protagonist, Maskull, arrives on Tormance, a planet of the star Arcturus. There he makes a journey through the harsh and beautiful landscapes of the planet, encountering beings who are beautiful, or wise, or gifted with extraordinary powers. Maskull seems to be seeking enlightenment, but it isn’t just a story about the quest for wisdom: it would be far duller if it were. It’s riven with passion and violence, and haunted by mystery. …

I can’t begin to convey to you the power of Lindsay’s vision… A Voyage to Arcturus shows that fantasy is capable of saying large and important things. The word ‘Gnostic’ in Davis’s account gives a clue as to Lindsay’s vision: it is a variety of the Gnostic myth, the idea that this material world is the creation of a false god, and that it’s the duty of the Gnostics, the knowing ones, to escape from the false deluding beauty of the physical universe and find their way back to the inconceivably distant true god who is their home… I think the Gnostic vision is mistaken, in fact in some ways I think it verges on paranoia, but it’s undeniably saying something serious, it’s intensely and passionately questioning about the ultimate concerns of human life. Tolkien, by contrast, didn’t question anything: it didn’t occur to him to do so, because for him, as a Catholic, all the big questions were settled. The Church had all the answers, and that was that. Is there any doubt anywhere in The Lord of the Rings, even for a fraction of a second, about what is good and what is evil, what is to be praised and what is to be condemned?

Phillip Pullman is a fine writer [at least he is when he sets himself seriously to write (cf. NORTHERN LIGHTS) and not when he is neglecting his task (cf. AMBER SPYGLASS) ] and the essay, not surprisingly, has some interesting things to say about fantasy and creative writing.


My comment:

"Tolkien, by contrast, didn’t question anything: it didn’t occur to him to do so, because for him, as a Catholic, all the big questions were settled….." On the one hand, this is condescending bullshit: the kind of thing a confused man says when he pretends his lack of answers is a sign of open-mindedness rather than emptiheadedness.

On the other hand, if we lever Mr. Pullman’s elephantine ego aside, we might glimpse the small semiprecious stone of truth under its flabby bottom: it is true that, in LORD OF THE RINGS, Sauron never suffers a moment of doubt, such as Lucifer’s sollioquay atop Mount Niphates in Book IV of PARADISE LOST. For that matter, Sauron is never onstage at all. There are no moments in LORD OF THE RINGS, as one might find in a Hitchcock thriller, or THE MATRIX or THE TRUMAN SHOW, where all readlity turns out to be false, and all your friends and neighbors turn out to be cads.

There is, of course, real moral conflict (cf. Faramir’s rejection of the One Ring contra Boromir’s temptation) but the accusation that LORD OF THE RINGS is simplistic is, well, simplistic.

In a simpistic story, Boromir would have been all bad from stem to stern–untrustworthy, craven, mewling, petty, and vote Republican, and not a noble man brought low by patriotism, ambition and despair. In a simplistic story, Gollum would not be a figure of pity. (It amuses me to hear the accusation of simplism coming from the camp with the simplist black-and-white worldview of all. For a simplistic bad guy, see any modern movie starring a white Christian southern male.)

But Pullman is correct that there is no moral confusion in Tolkein: when Samuman the White betrays the West, the reader not for an instant is led to believe his arguments are sound.

If this is a criticism, Pullman cannot make it. By the same token, there is no moral confusion in ‘His Dark Materials’. The child-killers of the Evil Church of Evil never speak an argument to support their position, and so, here also, the reader is not for an instant led to sympathize with them. Indeed, as with most modern novels, it is the protagonists I have trouble sympathizing with — Lyra Bellascu is a brat, and Lord Asrael is a monster. Give me Sam Gamgee any day.

On the gripping hand, self-doubt is a personality trait not often found in innocent people, and so I do not know why it is so popular a trope among the literati. The revolt against the universe so popular among Gnostics (their stock in trade, in fact) has no parallel in the high and ancient literature of ODDYSSEY and ORLANDO FURIOSO, or THE DIVINE COMEDY or CANTEBURY TALES.

It might be interesting to write a tale about Frodo the country gentleman and his faithful servant Sancho (or whatever) setting out of a desperate quest to overthrow the allegedly evil Wizard of Oz,only to suffer a Hitchcockian reversal and realize that, yes, our beloved and trusted Elphaba actually is wicked after all, and merits being melted. And then (surprise!) the Wizard turns out to be a humbug balloonist from Grover’s Mill, New Jersey (or something) and the grim and terrible Sunday, cheif of the Supreme Council of Anarchists turns out to be Britt Reid, actually a true-blue goodguy only disguised as a green gangster! Sunday was working all along with the district attorney! Darth Froder is Frodo’s father! — all that might make for a smashing yarn.

But a story where the good guys are basically right to love the fields they know, and the confusion and pollution of the modern age are cast in a bad light, and the unicorn is neither a drug-pusher or a pederast when she leaves her forest of eternal spring to seek the others of her kind, would indeed by marred by introducing a Gnostic or Hitchcockian element.

Sometimes Frodo is just a country gentleman, who smokes his pipe and looks out over his little plot of gardenland at sunset, and dreams of distant things. And sometimes he is an imitation of the savior, who must sacrifice all he owns, and leave his comfortable hillside home forever.