08 November 2018

The Purposed Domination of the Author

Allegory, Tolkien said, 'resides ... in the purposed domination of the author' (FR xxiv). I don't know why I never saw until the other day that this description so closely matches what he says about the Ring, but lately I've been working on a book about the Ring inter alia. So perhaps that allowed me to see this phrase differently.  We need think only of the incantation contained in the Ring verse and inscribed on the Ring itself (FR 1.ii.50); of Elrond's words to Glóin that 'those who made [the Elven rings] did not desire strength or domination' (FR 2.ii.268); or of Galadriel's warning to Frodo that to use the One Ring '[he] would need ... to train [his] will to the domination of the wills of others' (FR 2.vii.366).

I could be mischievous and suggest that the Ring is an allegory of Allegory, but that would be too meta. It would also be wrong. But I guess he wasn't kidding when he said he expressed his dislike for allegory. So were all stories in Mordor allegories?

07 November 2018

'I could not take it from him' -- The peril of seizing the Ring

'I could not take it from [Bilbo] without doing greater harm; and I had no right to do so anyway. ' 
(FR 1.ii.48)

'And I could not “make” you – except by force, which would break your mind.' 
(FR 1.ii.60)

So says Gandalf to Frodo in The Shadow of the Past about the consequences of taking the Ring by force. Presumably Gandalf reckons 'breaking the mind' of Bilbo to be the 'greater harm' he would have done, and we can certainly see how paranoid and close to violence Bilbo comes when Gandalf pushes him to leave the Ring to Frodo, as he wished and promised to do until the moment came in which he had to do so (FR 1.i.34). Bilbo laid his hand on the hilt of his sword. Taking hold of a weapon in the middle of a heated argument is not what you'd call a subtle hint. It's a threat. (Trust me.) How much farther would Bilbo have gone if Gandalf had actually tried to take the Ring? 

As for Frodo, who later does have the Ring taken from him by force, one may question whether his mind is broken by losing it in this way. Tom Shippey certainly does in J. R. R. Tolkien, Author of the Century (118), not without reason, but the Frodo who loses the Ring to Gollum is not the same Frodo as the one Gandalf is speaking to in The Shadow of the Past. He has changed in ways both good and bad in the meantime; and he is broken by losing the Ring, in spirit if not in mind, and even if this is not immediately clear: "'It is gone forever,' he said, 'and now all is dark and empty'" (RK 6.ix.1024).

But there is another aspect to seizing the Ring by force, whether that force is physical or not, which the story of Gollum and the words of Gandalf should make us consider. Gollum took the Ring by force from Déagol, claiming the Ring as his due because it was his birthday and committing murder to enforce his claim. His claim to the Ring wasn't even specious. He had 'no right to [take it] anyway'. The violence he does to his own mind and soul is perhaps greater than that which he does to poor Déagol's body. And when he seizes the Ring a second time, from Frodo in the Sammath Naur, he is twice described as 'like a mad thing' (RK 6.iii.946). This should give us pause. For not only would Bilbo have been harmed, had Gandalf taken the Ring taken from him by force, but committing such an act would have been harmful to Gandalf himself. If refraining from unnecessary violence was able to slow the effect of the Ring on Bilbo, not doing so, as the tale of Sméagol and Déagol indicates, only speeds that effect. So, whatever protection from the pull of the Ring Gandalf's motives might have afforded him would have been negated by the harm he would have done himself in harming Bilbo. 

This should come as no surprise. The Ring was made specifically to enable its bearer to dominate the wills of others. To begin one's possession of the Ring with an act of domination, whether physical or spiritual, with good intent or ill, was to court one's own domination by the Ring. We might also find a pattern for Gandalf's wisdom in that of Elrond who, failing to persuade Isildur to cast the Ring into the fire 3,000 years earlier, made no attempt to take the Ring from him by force. He knew better. He knew that to do so was to fall.



05 November 2018

Review: The Ring and the Cross: Christianity and the Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien

The Ring and the Cross: Christianity and the Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien The Ring and the Cross: Christianity and the Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien by Paul E. Kerry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An excellent collection of articles by scholars, who fairly and thoroughly assess the role played by Tolkien's Catholicism in his writings. The book begins with an excellent survey of the history of Christian approaches to The Lord of the Rings, which should be required reading for anyone interested in this question. After that the first section of the book addresses the pagan elements of Tolkien's legendarium and how they fit with the Christian elements. The second investigates how Tolkien's world is 'fundamentally Christian', as Tolkien himself put it, and specifically influenced by the Roman Catholicism which was so essential a part of his life.

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18 October 2018

Review: Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in the Lord of the Rings

Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in the Lord of the Rings Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in the Lord of the Rings by Matthew Dickerson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dickerson explores the moral choices made by characters in The Lord of the Rings, and provides a far more nuanced and persuasive analysis of Christian elements in Tolkien's work than one usually finds. On the whole an excellent critical work, though at times I found myself disagreeing with him on matters of details.

Minus one star, however, for no index and repeatedly calling The Lord of the Rings a trilogy.

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28 September 2018

The Dark Lord's Bread and Butter -- 'He'll eat us all'

'Don't take the Precious to Him! He'll eat us all, if He gets it, eat all the world.' 
(TT 4.iii.637)
Whether by chance or by design two prominent traits of Hobbits converge in Bilbo's likening of himself at the Ring-enhanced age of eleventy-one to 'butter that has been scraped over too much bread' (FR 1.i.32). The first is of course the Hobbits' well-known love of food. The other is their habit of jesting about serious matters. As Merry says to Aragorn in The Houses of Healing
'But it is the way of my people to use light words at such times and say less than they mean. We fear to say too much. It robs us of the right words when a jest is out of place.' 
(RK 5.viii.870)
What makes this fascinating is that in The Shadow of the Past, the very chapter after Bilbo makes his comparison, we find Gandalf comparing the action of the Ring and of Sauron himself to eating and devouring no less than four times (FR 1.ii.47, twice on 55, 57). We find the same in Faramir's description of what had happened to the nine men given Rings of Power by Sauron: 'he had devoured them' (TT 4.vi.692); and elsewhere he calls Sauron 'a destroyer who would devour all' (TT 4.v.672). And as we saw in the quote with which I began, Gollum, too, saw things in similar terms. It's not often Gandalf, Faramir, and Gollum agree.

Given all this, Bilbo's choice to compare himself to food is even more psychologically revealing than at first it seems, which makes its presence here a matter of chance, if chance you call it.


I would very much like to thank Joe Hoffman and Corey Olsen for the friendly banter which we engaged in on the subject of Hobbits and butter, and which in turn led me to this reflection.