Category Archives: Return to Middle-Earth

Some Thoughts on The Rings of Power, or, Shall We Compare Mythologies?

Having watched the first three episodes of The Rings of Power, I can, with relief and delight, say that I love it so far. It has its problems, which I may or may not talk about in future posts, but the end of episode three left me wishing I could binge the whole season in a day. Always a good sign. Whether it rises to the level of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films remains to be seen, but it has that potential.1

So, I won’t be talking about the episodes in detail. Nor do I particularly want to talk about the entirely predictable furor that has become commonplace when something like The Rings of Power is released—namely, the howls of protest that arise from the revanchist precincts of a given fan community when the new product is perceived to have been tailored for “woke” political sensitivities. That particular drumbeat has been pounding since the release of the first Rings trailer revealed that the series would feature elves, dwarves, hobbits, and, yes, humans who were not white—something perceived by the usual suspects as a rank betrayal of the source material in the name of political correctness.2

I don’t want to talk about that backlash … but given what I am talking about, I can’t ignore it entirely. Not that it should be ignored, mind you—but there have been enough good pieces dealing with it that I would just be repeating other people’s principal points.

For the moment what I want to try and do is articulate some thoughts on fantasy and mythology, and the perennial compulsion to adapt, refine, revisit, revise, and expand upon stories that are profoundly meaningful to us one way or another. These thoughts are at the front of my mind for two reasons, the first being the recent embarrassment of riches on television of stories meaningful to me: The Rings of Power’s illumination of earlier histories of Middle-earth; House of the Dragon’s return to Westeros; and just a few weeks ago, Netflix’s release of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, the only comic book I’ve ever read obsessively.

From left: Tom Sturridge as Morpheus in The Sandman; Morfydd Clark as Galadriel in The Rings of Power; and Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra Targaryen in House of the Dragon. I believe I said something in a previous post about the divine right of cheekbones?

The second reason is that this fall I’m teaching a first-year English course called “Imagined Places.” My variation on its theme is modern and contemporary rewritings of Greek myths.3 As part of my preparation I’ve been rereading The Iliad and The Odyssey, which started as an exercise in refreshing my memory of their finer points and has become a joyful reunion with texts I first read in high school, and then again in an intro to classics course I took in my first year of university.

Few works in the history of western literature have inspired quite as much imitation and revision. Keep that in mind as we go, because it’s something I’m going to circle back around to.

My entry point to this discussion is a recent New York Times column by Tolkien scholar Michael Drout, titled “Please Don’t Make a Tolkien Cinematic Universe.” I’ll get into the particulars as I go, but the gist of his argument is that the subtle complexities of Tolkien’s moral universe are beyond the scope of contemporary film and television; unfortunately, the franchise model of cinema that has come to dominate the current entertainment market likely sees Tolkien as a wealth of source material to be exploited. Should Amazon (or, presumably, any other corporate media entity) turn Tolkien’s legendarium into something akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it will inevitably miss, mangle, or pervert the moral vision at the heart of Tolkien’s work.

To be clear, that last sentence is my extrapolation from Drout’s argument—he does not himself say as much in so many words, but it is an accurate summary of his concern. “Is it fair to the legacies of writers like Tolkien,” Drout asks, “to build franchises from their works without their knowledge or permission?” There were attempts to adapt The Lord of the Rings to film while Tolkien was still alive; initial, wary interest on Tolkien’s part turned fairly quickly into antipathy to the whole idea as he rejected one spec script after another, finally declaring that his work was unsuited for film. His biographer recounts a time Tolkien attended a staged version of The Hobbit, at which he frowned every time the play departed from the novel. “So it is hard to believe,” Drout concludes, “that he would have approved of a team of writers building almost entirely new stories with little direct basis in his works.”

Here of course Drout means The Rings of Power, which is drawn from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings.4 It is true that the series is taking a big swing, building out a multi-season story arc from some short summaries and chronologies of the Second Age. Such a sketchy basis, Drout suggests, is a poor foundation on which to build—but then, from what he says, it’s a reasonably good chance Tolkien would similarly have disapproved of Peter Jackson’s films (whose absence from his discussion is an odd omission to which I’ll return). Tolkien’s imagined approval or disapproval is at least somewhat beside the point, however; it is strange to suggest that adaptations and retellings of a given author’s work are somehow “unfair” to their legacy, considering that entire cottage industries thrive on adapting authors like Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Possibly Austen might have liked Clueless, but would probably have looked askance at Pride and Prejudice with Zombies. Does a spectral Shakespeare burn with anger at all the distortions of Hamlet, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to The Lion King?

Or is fifty years not long enough? (Tolkien died in 1973). Must we wait for copyright to expire?

I pose these questions with my tongue only partly in my cheek: I’m trying to read Drout’s concerns generously but can’t help but find them a little disingenuous. Especially considering—as I mentioned above—that he elides any mention of Peter Jackson’s films, except to acknowledge that they exist. This omission is passing strange if for no other reason than that we already have a Tolkien cinematic universe, helpfully spanning the extremes of good and bad—with The Lord of the Rings films displaying both profound respect for their source material and moments of brilliant filmmaking, while The Hobbit films are a hot mess of poor directorial impulse control.

A few of the lowlights from The Hobbit–though I must confess I have always liked Tharanduil’s battle moose.

There have also been a handful of animated adaptations, most notably Ralph Bakshi’s somewhat trippy 1978 Lord of the Rings that blended traditional animation with rotoscoping.4

The animated 1977 film of The Hobbit and Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 The Lord of the Rings.

There is also a Lord of the Rings stage musical—of which I was somehow unaware until one of my students in my Tolkien class last year sent me a YouTube link, destroying my blissful ignorance.

And while we’re at it, there have also been a significant number of video games set in Middle-earth, perhaps most notably Lord of the Rings Online, an MMORPG in the mold of World of Warcraft, whose fidelity to the geography, story, and lore of Tolkien’s work would probably impress even Michael Drout.

A still from Lord of the Rings Online. Not sure what’s happening here, but it looks heroic.

And though Drout’s quibble is with the prospect of a Tolkien cinematic universe, there is also the inescapable fact that there has always been the Tolkien expanded universe. Created initially of course by the man himself with his “mythology”—into which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were folded—it was then enlarged with The Silmarillion and the further eighteen volumes edited by his son Christopher that provided readers with world-building akin to that of the mad encyclopedists of Jorge Luis Borges’ storyTlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

Given this already-existing critical mass of material, it makes me wonder why Drout draws the line at The Rings of Power; why choose this moment to stand athwart the expanding Tolkien universe to yell stop?

The uncharitable reading would be to suggest that this is of a piece with the more overtly revanchist backlash, just more delicately articulated; the more generous reading is to take him at his word and presume that he’s concerned that Amazon will take Tolkien down the same road as Marvel comics have gone, or—and this was a pretty widely shared worry, though now mostly allayed—that The Rings of Power showrunners would feel compelled to create a Game of Thrones clone. Drout, indeed, alludes to both these apprehensions while asserting that “the groupthink produced by the contemporary ecosystems of writers’ rooms, Twitter threads and focus groups” of the “Hollywood of 2022” is innately out of step with Tolkien’s unique sensibility:

The writing that this dynamic is particularly good at producing—witty banter, arch references to contemporary issues, graphic and often sexualized violence, self-righteousness—is poorly suited to Middle-earth, a world with a multilayered history that eschews tidy morality plays and blockbuster gore.6

Citing the fact that the quest of The Lord of the Rings is not the attainment of power but its destruction, and that in bearing the Ring Frodo is too wounded, physically and psychically, to return to his life as it was before, Drout asks, “Can a company as intent upon domination as Amazon really understand this perspective—and adapt that morality to the screen?” While I’m not unsympathetic to anyone taking issue with Amazon as a cultural and societal blight, I find this line of argument bewilderingly obtuse—as if Jeff Bezos were the one writing, casting, costuming, and doing art direction.7

Ultimately, however, my interest in Drout’s argument is that its inconsistencies speak to a broader, more significant issue with Tolkien’s mythology—or rather, with Tolkien as mythology. In the end, whether or not Amazon does a good job with The Rings of Power, or whether they do attempt to build out an expanded cinematic universe on par with Marvel, really matters very little for a fairly simple reason: that Tolkien in fact succeeded in realizing his lifelong goal. He created an enduring mythology.

I will come to that in a moment. But first, for the sake of argument, let’s take some of the protests over The Rings of Power casting of nonwhite actors on their merits. One strain of the “I’m not racist, but—” arguments is that Tolkien’s world is explicitly modeled on Northern European geography, cultures, and ethnicities, and so introducing obviously non-European-looking characters disrupts Tolkien’s design and intent. A refinement on this line of thinking says “OK, sure, introduce Black elves, but make it clear how it serves the story!” In other words, offer an explanation of how there came to be Black elves (and hobbits, and dwarves, and humans).

To be fair, I’ve seen such concerns offered with all appearance of sincerity and earnestness,8 and there are, if one has the patience for it, substantive counter-arguments, some of which are based in Tolkien’s own lore. One example that has gone viral is from none other than Neil Gaiman:

There is also the fact that medieval Europe wasn’t quite as monolithically white as is often assumed or depicted, given the vestiges of the multi-ethnic Roman legions left behind after the western empire imploded; there was also, more significantly, brisk trade that brought people from Moorish Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East into regular contact with Europeans of all shades.9

But again, this is all at least partly beside the point I want to make. To be generous, I’ll say that the idea that the casting choices in The Rings of Power are somehow transgressive resides in a vague understanding of the original story as sacrosanct, or that there is an “authentic” Tolkienian vision to which it behooves all adaptors to hew. Leaving aside the simple fact that “authenticity” in this context is always going to be illusory and chimerical, is it really even desirable? Are we obliged to honour every boundary, real and imagined, that an author places on interpretations of their work?

Fortunately such a myopic approach is not practical or feasible. Neither the creative arts nor literary criticism have anything like the legal doctrine of originalism, something of which Tolkien was well aware. He might have gotten stroppy over prospective filmic adaptations or a staged version of The Hobbit, but his lifelong project was to shape a mythology—something he was at his most candid and open about in a long letter to the publisher Milton Waldman. Tolkien was at the time (the letter is undated but most likely written late 1951) shopping around The Lord of the Rings; he was having some difficulty finding a publisher because he was still insisting that LotR should be published in a single volume with the prehistory that would eventually become The Silmarillion. Given the already-epic length of LotR, publishers were understandably reluctant at including the dense mythology. But Tolkien had not yet reconciled himself to jettisoning the narratives of Middle-earth’s First and Second Ages, and he attempted to persuade Waldman by explaining the import of the project to him. “I do not remember a time when I was not building it,” he says. “I have been at it since I could write.” His aim, he says, was not merely to make up stories, but to build a mythology that could supplement what he saw as a lack in his native country:

I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found … in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, and Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing.

He goes on to explain that his own mythopoeic project was precisely an attempt to replace what he felt to be missing:

I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story—the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths—which I could dedicate simply to: to England: to my country.

Not exactly a humble ambition, something he self-deprecatingly acknowledges as he pleads “Do not laugh!” and adds at the end “Absurd.” But one is put in mind of John Milton’s determination to write an epic poem in English that would be the equal—or the superior—of Homer and Virgil,10 or James Joyce, whose own grandiose ambition was voiced by his alter ego Stephen Dedalus at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when he says, absurdly, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

But like Milton and Joyce11, Tolkien succeeded in his seemingly hubristic ambition—he did create a mythology that has taken on its own life as it captured people’s imaginations, albeit not perhaps as he thought it might. His vision, it turns out, was too modest: Middle-earth has transcended England and become the world’s mythology. And like all such mythologies, it is futile to try and contain it.

This is where we come back around to my first-year English class: as I said, we’re looking at modern and contemporary poetry and fiction that reimagines and revisits classic Greek myth, often in ways that give voice to those figures who are ancillary to the main action, or disposable in the name of advancing the plot. The modernist poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) writes “Eurydice,” in which the title character excoriates her husband Orpheus for consigning her to Hades—again!—when he couldn’t help but look back at the last moment (you had one job!). Or Canadian poet Don McKay’s reimagining of Icarus as an unapologetic adrenaline junky aiming to get that fall from on high just right.

And then there’s the story of Briseis: The Iliad, long considered the origin point of Western literature, begins when the great warrior Achilles and High King Agamemnon quarrel over Briseis, a Trojan woman who is Achilles’ spoil of war, whom Agamemnon takes from him. In a fit of pique, Achilles retires to his tent to sulk and withholds the forces he commands, allowing the Trojans to turn the tide and bring the fight all the way back to the Greek ships, forcing Agamemnon to swallow his pride and send Briseis back to Achilles. In her novel The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker retells the events of The Iliad from Briseis’ point of view. This shift of perspective makes explicit the brutality of the war and the way it envelops non-combatants in its implacable, bloody logic: the trauma visited on ordinary people, the slaughter of innocents, the enslavement and rape of the women taken captive. Barker’s novel is harrowing, brilliant, and faithful to The Iliad; it would also, I am certain, be considered a “woke” attempt to tear down the edifice of classic Greek literature if read by those who view a Black elf as a profound betrayal of Tolkien’s legacy.

A thought I’ve had a lot lately is what low esteem Tolkien purists have for Tolkien’s work, given that they seem to believe the slightest deviation from what they perceive as the original or authentic vision is somehow mortally damaging to Tolkien’s legacy. The opposite is the case: Tolkien’s peculiar genius lies in the very capaciousness of his vision. It contains multitudes. Not even Amazon can dent it. And that, of course, is the nature of mythology: if the ancient Romans had had Twitter, there would have been endless arguments in the Greek myth fan community over the Latinizing of the gods’ names; Ovid would have been excoriated for the liberties he took, Virgil for being an Augustan propagandist; and legions of toga-clad hipsters would sniff into their wine (locally sourced, of course) that Hesiod was the only truly authentic mythographer.

But none of the Roman emendations and transformations of the Greek myths had a deleterious effect on Homer, any more than do contemporary novels by Pat Barker or Madeline Miller. And no more than The Rings of Power, Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, or even Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit have had on Tolkien’s mythos.

Indeed, in his letter to Milton Waldman, Tolkien is quite clear about how he wants his mythology to be picked up, adapted, and transformed by others: “I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.” And so it has transpired. Whether Tolkien would have liked any of the scholarship, cinema and television, fan fiction, video games, and indeed the whole raft of imitative works that came to comprise the genre of fantasy as we now know it is irrelevant. Such is the risk you take when you create something transcendent.


1. I suppose we should appreciate that Jackson established a spectrum of quality against which all future Tolkien adaptations can be measured, with the Lord of the Rings films establishing the high-water mark and The Hobbit films as the nadir.

2. One thing I will say on this point is that two of the things giving the anti-woke crowd the nativist vapours are my favourite parts of the show: namely, the young, impetuous, warrior version of Galadriel played by Morfydd Clark, and the EOC (elf of colour) Arondir, played by Ismael Cruz Cordova. Cordova is veritably mesmerizing as Arondir, playing the character with a tightly controlled mien that just barely hints at a tumult beneath; when in the third episode he breaks out the Legolas-like balletic combat, I don’t think his expression changes. Not that I would want to typecast him, but he’s all set to play a Vulcan should he want to stick with the SF/F thing.

Meanwhile, the complaints about Galadriel are as predictable as they are exhausting, starting with whinges about making a female character the show’s main focus and filter. Beyond that, (some) people can’t seem to reconcile Clark’s smouldering rage and badass combat skills with the cool reserve with which Cate Blanchett endowed the character … never considering, presumably, that that degree of imperturbable self-control is something one earns.

Also, it’s probably mere coincidence that the first thing Galadriel does in the first episode is kill a troll. I’m sure that wasn’t something the writers did in anticipation of the backlash the character would inevitably face.

3. We’re starting with Rick Riordan’s YA novel Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief; then Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which is a retelling of The Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, the Trojan woman over whom Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel; Circe by Madeline Miller, which tells the story of the titular witch who plays a small but significant role in The Odyssey; and The Just City by Jo Walton, a novel in which the goddess Athene creates Plato’s Republic out of curiosity, to see if it would actually work. We’ll also be doing a bunch of poetry (Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” for example, and William Carlos Williams’ “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”), as well as reading the relevant myths as recounted in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (I would have actually preferred to use Stephen Fry’s book Mythos, which is an arch and elegant compendium, but it is too expensive and too long to justify including it, especially when my students would only be reading a fraction of it. I’ve been listening to it on audiobook off and on all summer—read, of course, by Fry himself—and it is a delight).

4. For legal reasons I haven’t entirely parsed, Amazon has the rights to The Lord of the Rings—and its appendices—but not The Silmarillion.

5. The Bakshi LotR was just the first half—that is, all of Fellowship and parts of The Two Towers. He’d planned the film to take place in two parts, but the second film never got made … for reasons that become clear when you watch the first.

6. If current film and television was in fact limited to these possibilities—which seem to be delineated here as Marvel’s archness, Game of Thrones’ sex and violence, and the self-righteousness of a vaguely imagined wokeness—he might just have a point. But I don’t have to reach back fifteen years to The Wire and The Sopranos and the rest of prestige television’s first glut of great work to refute Drout’s characterization. In just the past two or three years, Severance, Better Call Saul, Our Flag Means Death, The Mandalorian, The Plot Against America, Succession, The Good Place, Sex Education, Slow Horses, Yellowjackets, and countless other series have shown the depth and breadth of the subtlety and sophistication that is out there.

7. I’ve written previously on this blog about the contradictions inherent in Bezos’ avowed love of Star Trek, given that Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future was utopian in part because it imagined a future in which a billionaire class was unthinkable … but this isn’t really what Drout’s on about.

8. Though, really, any time you feel compelled to preface a statement with “I’m not racist, but …” there’s about a 100% chance you’re about to say something racist.

9. Also, not for nothing, but it’s not as if The Rings of Power is doing for the Tolkien expanded universe what Black Panther did for the MCU, in which Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis were the sole Tolkien white guys (get it?). The “diversity” of The Rings of Power, in the end, is a handful of dark faces in a large cast that is otherwise still overwhelmingly white. The fact that so many people are reacting as if the showrunners had put a sign saying “Caucasians need not apply” on the audition room door is perhaps the most telling point.

10. Interestingly, Milton had about as much regard in the end for Arthurian legend as Tolkien did—which is to say moderate regard, but like Tolkien he found it wanting. In the early days of considering what the subject for his epic would be, Milton considered King Arthur, but discarded the idea as too parochial.

11. The rumbling you hear is Harold Bloom spinning in his grave at me mentioning Tolkien in the same sentence as Milton and Joyce.

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Tolkien and the Culture Wars, Part Two: Thoughts on the Tolkien Society Seminar

[PROGRAMMING NOTE: I have not abandoned my “Remembering Postmodernism” series—I’m just having problems putting the next installment into a coherent form that doesn’t run into Tolstoy-length rambling. In the interim, please enjoy this follow-up to my Tolkien and the culture wars post.]

I do so love serendipity. I would go so far as to say it is what most frequently inspires me in my research and writing. Unfortunately, that tends to make my primary research methodology not at all unlike the dog from Up.

This fall, I’ll be teaching a fourth-year seminar on the American Weird. In the original version of the course, which I taught three years ago, we looked at H.P. Lovecraft’s influence on American horror and gothic, and we considered as well how contemporary texts engaged specifically with Lovecraft’s hella racist tendencies—specifically with regard to Victor LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom, a retelling of Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook” (one of his most explicitly racist stories) from the perspective of a Black protagonist, and Matt Ruff’s recently published Lovecraft Country.

Since then, Lovecraft Country was adapted to television by HBO under the imprimatur of Jordan Peele, and the magnificent N.K. Jemisin published an overtly Lovecraftian novel The City We Became. So this time around, we’re going all in on the issue of race and genre in “the American Weird,” not least because the current furor over “critical race theory” in the U.S. makes such a course at least a little timely.

But of course you’ve read the title of my post and might be wondering how this is serendipitous with the Tolkien society’s recent seminar. What on earth does Tolkien have to do with Lovecraft, or questions of race and identity in American literature?

It has to do with the issue of genre and the ways in which genre has come to be both a metaphor and a delineation of community, belonging, and exclusion. Genre has always been about drawing lines and borders: as Neil Gaiman has noted, genre is about letting you know what aisles of the bookstore not to walk down. But in the present moment, we’ve become more alert to this exclusionary function of genre, something that Lovecraft Country—both the novel and the series—took as its principal conceit, taking H.P. Lovecraft’s racist legacy and redeploying it to interrogate the ways in which genre can be opened up to other voices, other identities.

The greatest joy of participating in this Tolkien Society seminar was seeing precisely this dynamic in action—in seeing how an international and diverse cadre of Tolkien scholars found themselves within his works. As I said in my previous post, the backlash against the very idea of a “Tolkien and Diversity” conference employed the rhetoric of invasion and destruction. A post to a Tolkien message board epitomizes quite nicely the zero-sum sensibility I discussed:

The very first paper of the Tolkien Society seminar this weekend was titled “Gondor in Transition: A Brief Introduction to Transgender Realities in The Lord of the Rings.” As you might imagine, the very idea that there could be transgender characters in LOTR has been anathema to the various people slagging the seminar over social media. Tolkien’s world view did not allow for trans identity! has been one of the squawks heard from complainants. Leaving aside the fact that gender fluidity in Norse myth is something Tolkien would have been quite familiar with, this sort of complaint misses the point—which is that Tolkien’s work is voluminous enough to admit a multitude of readings he almost certainly did not have in mind as he composed his mythology.

I wish I could offer a useful precis of the paper, which was quite well done, but I was distracted by Zoom’s chat function and the avalanche of commentary scrolling up the side of my screen as I listened to the presentation—many of the comments being from trans and non-binary Tolkien enthusiasts expressing gratitude for a paper that made them feel seen in the context of Tolkien fandom and scholarship. This was actually the general tone of the two-day seminar: not people who, as the conference’s detractors have charged, look to destroy or desecrate Tolkien, but people who love his mythology and want to see themselves reflected within it. And who in the process demonstrated the capaciousness of Tolkien’s vision—one not limited, as the fellow cited above suggests, to the rigid circumscription of conservative Catholicism.

Genre is an interesting thing—less, from my perspective, for its more esoteric delineations within literary theory and criticism than for its blunter and cruder demarcations in popular culture. This latter understanding is where the real action has been for the past ten or twenty years, as the barriers walling off genre from the realms of art and literature have crumbled—with the advent of prestige television taking on the mob film, the cop procedural, and the western in The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood, respectively; then proceeding to make fantasy and zombie apocalypse respectable with Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead; all while such “literary” authors as Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Colson Whitehead made their own forays into genre with The Road, Oryx and Crake, The Buried Giant, and Zone One, just as “genre” authors like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Alison Bechdel and others attained “literary” reputations.

But as those walls have come down, so too have those genre enthusiasts of years past grown resentful of all the new people moving into their neighbourhoods. As I mentioned in my previous post, both the Gamergaters and Sad Puppies articulated a sense of incursion and loss—women and people of colour and queer folk invading what had previously been predominantly white male spaces. Like those attacking the Tolkien and Diversity seminar, they spoke in apocalyptic terms of things being ruined and destroyed and desecrated—SF/F would never be the same, they bleated, if these people had their way. What will become of our beloved space operas and Joseph Campbell-esque fantasy?

Well, nothing. They will still be there—fantasy in a neo-African setting rather than a neo-European one doesn’t obviate J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis or any of the myriad authors they influenced. They’re still there, on your bookshelf or at the library or your local bookstore. However much we might use the metaphor of territory, it’s flawed: in the physical world, territory is finite; in the intellectual world, it’s infinite. Tolkien’s world contains multitudes, and can admit those people who see queer themes and characters and want to interrogate the possible hermaphroditic qualities of dwarves and orcs without displacing all its staunchly conservative readers.

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Tolkien and the Culture Wars

We interrupt your regularly scheduled deep dive into postmodernism for a brief diversion into the latest anti-woke tempest in a teacup.

CORRECTION: when I started writing this post, I meant it as a “brief diversion.” It has grown in the writing and become decidedly non-brief. One might even call it very long. My apologies.

Because there was no way on earth casting Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf could possibly queer that character.

The Tolkien Society was founded in 1969 with J.R.R. Tolkien himself as its president; like most scholarly societies, it has hosted annual conferences at which people present papers exploring aspects of Tolkien’s and related works, and generally mingle to share their passion and enthusiasm for the subject. And like most of these such conferences, each year tends to have a different theme—looking over the society’s web page listing past conferences, we see such previous themes as “21st Century Receptions of Tolkien,” “Adapting Tolkien,” “Tolkien the Pagan?”, “Life, Death, and Immortality,” “Tolkien’s Landscapes,” and so on … you get the idea.

This year’s conference, to be hosted online on July 3-4, is on “Tolkien and Diversity.”

If this blog post was a podcast, I would here insert a sudden needle-scratch sound effect to indicate the sudden, sputtering outrage of all the anti-woke culture warriors who, fresh from their jeremiads about Dr. Seuss and perorations about critical race theory, are now charging that the woke Left has come for Tolkien because these SJWs will not rest until they have destroyed everything that is great and good about white Western civilization. Because, you know, a two-day conference in which people discuss issues of race, gender, and sexuality with regards to Tolkien’s work will destroy The Lord of the Rings.

If that all sounds snarky and hyperbolic, well, I’ll cheerfully concede to the snark, but I’m not overstating the reaction. Survey the Twitter threads on the subject, and you’ll see the phrase “Tolkien spinning in his grave”1 an awful lot, as well as the frequent charge—made with varying degrees of profanity and varying familiarity with grammar—that all of these people who want to talk about race or sexual identity in Tolkien are doing it because they hate Tolkien and seek to destroy this great author and his legacy. Well, you might protest, that’s just Twitter, which is an unmitigated cesspool; and while you wouldn’t be wrong about Twitter, these reactions exist on a continuum with more prominent conservative outrage. The default setting for these reactions is the conviction that people engaging with such “woke” discourse as critical race theory, or queer studies, or feminism for that matter, do so destructively—that their aim is to take something wholesome and good and tear it down, whether that be Western civilization or your favourite genre fiction.

I shouldn’t have to argue that this Tolkien conference, with its grand total of sixteen presenters, isn’t about to do irreparable damage to Tolkien’s standing or his legacy. Nor would reading some or all of the papers ruin LotR or The Hobbit for you. The idea that it might—that this is some form of desecration that indelibly sullies the Great Man’s work—is frankly bizarre. It is, however, a kind of thinking that has come to infect both fandom and politics. Six years ago I wrote a blog post about the Hugo awards and the conservative insurgency calling itself the “Sad Puppies,” who were attempting the hijack the nominating process to exclude authors and works they believed to be “message fiction” (“woke” not yet having entered the lexicon at that point), i.e. SF/F more preoccupied with social justice and identity politics than with good old fashioned space opera and fur-clad barbarians. If I may be so gauche as to quote myself, I argued then what I’m arguing now:

… namely, that the introduction of new voices and new perspectives, some of which you find not to your taste, entails the wholesale destruction of what you love, whether it be gaming or SF/F. Anita Sarkeesian produced a handful of video essays critiquing the representation of women in video games. As such critiques go, they were pretty mild—mainly just taking images from a slew of games and letting them speak for themselves. Given the vitriol with which her videos were met, you’d be forgiven for thinking she’d advocated dictatorial censorship of the gaming industry, incarceration of the game creators, and fines to be levied on those who played them. But of course she didn’t—she just suggested that we be aware of the often unsubtle misogyny of many video games, that perhaps this was something that should be curtailed in the future, and further that the gaming industry would do well to produce more games that female gamers—an ever-growing demographic—would find amenable.

This is the same kind of thinking that had people wailing that the all-women reboot of Ghostbusters somehow retroactively ruined their childhoods, or that The Last Jedi was a thermonuclear bomb detonated at the heart of all of Star Wars.2 It’s the logic that leads people to sign a petition to remake the final season of Game of Thrones with different writers, as if such a thing were even remotely feasible.

By contrast, while I loved Peter Jackson’s LotR trilogy, I thought that his adaptation The Hobbit was an unmitigated trio of shit sandwiches—not least because it displayed precisely none of the respect Jackson had previously shown for the source material. And yet, aside from inevitable bitching about how terrible the films were, when I teach The Hobbit in my first-year class this autumn, I do not expect to be hobbled by the trauma of having seen a work I love treated so terribly. The Hobbit will remain The Hobbit—and nothing Peter Jackson can do on screen or an overeager grad student can do at a conference will change that.

Conservatives love to harp on about the entitled Left and “snowflake” culture, but the current culture war pearl-clutching—when it isn’t merely performative posturing by Republicans looking to gin up their base (though also when it is that)—comprises the very kind of entitlement they ascribe to the people they’re vilifying. When the Sad Puppies try to crowd out authors of colour and queer voices at the Hugos; when Gamergaters attack female gamers; when a Twitter mob drives Leslie Jones off social media in retaliation for her role in the “female” Ghostbusters; when Anita Sarkeesian has to cancel an invited talk due to bomb threats; or when an innocuous conference on diversity in Tolkien—no different from the dozens that have been held on “queering Shakespeare” or masculine fragility in Moby Dick—excites the ire of those declaring that such an abomination somehow desecrates Tolkien’s legacy, what is being articulated is an innate sense of ownership. This is mine, the reactionaries are saying. How dare you trespass on my territory. The zero-sum sensibility is one in which any change, any new voice, any new perspective that is not consonant with the way things have always been, is perceived as a loss. Anything challenging the mythos built up around an idea—be it the acknowledgement of systemic racism in America’s history or misogynist subtext in the Narnia Chronicles—is a betrayal of that mythos.


But we should also talk more specifically about the conference itself, as well as the counter-conference quickly thrown together by “The Society of Tolkien,” a group formed specifically in defiance of the incursion of “wokeness” into Tolkien studies.3

Ideally, I want to put this in perspective, and make clear why those people losing their shit really need to do a deep knee bend and take a fucking breath.

To be completely honest, this entire kerfuffle over “woke” Tolkien might have never showed up on my radar had I not been tagged in a general invitation to join my friend Craig and his partner Dani’s weekly online “office hours.” Craig and Dani are both professors in Philadelphia; they host discussions about a variety of topics, mostly dealing with American conservatism and anti-racism, and they focused this particular discussion on the backlash against the Tolkien and Diversity conference. Among those joining were members of the Tolkien Society, including some people presenting at the upcoming conference.

It was a lovely discussion, and since then I’ve been inducted into the Alliance of Arda—which is to say, I requested to join the Facebook group, and been accepted. There has been, as you could well imagine, a lot of discussion about the “Tolkien and Diversity” conference, particularly in regards to the backlash against it. This blog post came together in part because of my participation in those discussions.

And before I go further, I just need to make something clear: these lovely people who are enthusiastically participating in this conference are not resentful SJWs looking to take Tolkien down a peg or five. They are not haters. They do not want to cancel Tolkien. These are people who love Tolkien and his works. They would be as distressed as their detractors if Tolkien went out of print or was eliminated from curricula.

But they are looking to expand the ways in which we read and understand Tolkien, and in a zero-sum perspective … well, see above.

The original call for papers (CFP) for the conference is prefaced as follows:

While interest in the topic of diversity has steadily grown within Tolkien research, it is now receiving more critical attention than ever before. Spurred by recent interpretations of Tolkien’s creations and the cast list of the upcoming Amazon show The Lord of the Rings, it is crucial we discuss the theme of diversity in relation to Tolkien. How do adaptations of Tolkien’s works (from film and art to music) open a discourse on diversity within Tolkien’s works and his place within modern society? Beyond his secondary-world, diversity further encompasses Tolkien’s readership and how his texts exist within the primary world. Who is reading Tolkien? How is he understood around the globe? How may these new readings enrich current perspectives on Tolkien?

For those unfamiliar with academic conferences, this is pretty standard stuff, and is followed by a non-exhaustive list of possible topics participants might pursue:

  • Representation in Tolkien’s works (race, gender, sexuality, disability, class, religion, age etc.)
  • Tolkien’s approach to colonialism and post-colonialism
  • Adaptations of Tolkien’s works
  • Diversity and representation in Tolkien academia and readership
  • Identity within Tolkien’s works
  • Alterity in Tolkien’s works

Again, this is pretty standard fare for a CFP. Nor is it at all outlandish in terms of the topics being suggested. Speaking as both a professional academic and someone who first read Tolkien thirty-seven years ago, I can think of a half-dozen ways into each of those suggestions without really breaking a sweat.

But of course, the CFP was only the amuse bouche for the backlash. The real meal was made of the paper titles. Here’s a sample:

  • “Gondor in Transition: A Brief Introduction to Transgender Realities in The Lord of the Rings
  • “The Problem of Pain: Portraying Physical Disability in the Fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien”
  • “The Problematic Perimeters of Elrond Half-elven and Ronald English-Catholic”
  • “Pardoning Saruman?: The Queer in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
  • “Queer Atheists, Agnostics, and Animists, Oh, My!”
  • “Stars Less Strange: An Analysis of Fanfiction and Representation within the Tolkien Fan Community”

None of these seem at all beyond the pale to me, but then again I’m a professor and have presented numerous conference papers at numerous conferences, and these kind of titles are pretty standard. I can see where a Lord of the Rings enthusiast who never subjected themselves to grad school might think these titles absurd. True fact: academic paper titles are easily mocked, no matter what discipline, as they always employ a specialized language that tends to be opaque to those not versed in it.4

Case in point: I’m reasonably convinced that when former Globe and Mail contrarian and plagiarist Margaret Wente was at a loss for what aspect of liberal thought she would cherry-pick to vilify, she would comb the list of projects granted fellowships or scholarships by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and select the most arcane and convoluted project titles receiving taxpayer dollars and write one of her “And THIS is the state of academia today!” columns.

Emblematic of the Wente treatment was an article in the National Review by Bradley J. Birzer, a history professor and author of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth (2002). Writing about the upcoming Tolkien Society conference, he says,

While I have yet to read the papers and know only the titles for reference—some of which are so obscure and obtuse that I remain in a state of some confusion let’s, for a moment, consider “Pardoning Saruman? The Queer in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.” In what way is Saruman, an incarnate Maia angel, sent by the Valar to do good in Middle-earth (Saruman really fails at this), queer? Is he in love with himself? True, with his immense ego, he might very well have been. Is he in love with Orthanc? Perhaps, but there is nothing in the text to support this. Is he in love with Radagast the Brown? No, he considers him a fool. Is he in love with Gandalf the Grey? No, he’s jealous of Gandalf and had been from their first arrival in Middle-earth. Is he in love with his bred Orcs? Wow, this would be twisted. Is he in love with Wormtongue? If so, nothing will come of it, for the lecherous Wormtongue has a leering and creepy gaze only for Eowyn. And, so, I remain baffled by all of this. Nothing about a queer Saruman seems to make sense.

Let’s begin with his admission that he hasn’t read any of the conference papers—which is fair, considering that, as I write this post, the conference is several days away—which means that if any of the presenters are at all like me, they’re just starting to write the papers now. But … do you really want to dive in so deeply based solely on a title? There was a story frequently told of a professor I knew at Western University, my alma mater: in answer to a question he’d asked, a student raised his hand, and said, “Well, I haven’t read the book yet, but …” and then went on confidently for several minutes while the professor nodded along. When the student stopped talking, the professor paused, and said, “Yeah. Read the book.”

Birzen’s choose-your-own-adventure speculation on what the paper might be about is no doubt entertaining to his readers who think, like him, that the whole concept of a queer Saruman is absurd, full stop. But here’s the thing: you don’t know. You don’t know what the paper is going to argue. You don’t even know if, despite the fact that he’s the only named character in the title, the paper has anything to say about Saruman’s queerness. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that considering someone a fool or being jealous of them doesn’t obviate the possibility of sexual desire for them, or the idea that demi-gods are somehow asexual (the Greeks would have something to say about that), perhaps consider that the paper isn’t about specific characters being queer? The pre-colon title, after all, is “Pardoning Saruman.” If you handed me this title in some sort of conference-paper-writing reality TV show, in which I have a few hours to write an essay conforming to the title, my approach would actually be to talk about the mercy both Gandalf and Frodo show Saruman, as something subverting a masculinist approach to punitive practices. Queerness, after all, isn’t merely about sex, but about a constellation of world-views at odds with heteronormativity; that Birzen reduces it to a question of who Saruman wants to fuck reflects the impoverishment of his argument.

But who knows. Will the paper be good? Perhaps, though that actually doesn’t matter much. Academic conferences are not about presenting perfect, ironclad arguments; the best papers are imperfect and lacking, because those are the ones that excite the most discussion. Conference papers tend to be works in progress, embryonic ideas that the presenters throw out into the world to test their viability. At its best, academia is an ongoing argument, always trying out new and weird ideas. Some fall flat; some flourish.

At its worst, academia becomes staid and resistant to change. Which brings me to the “Society of Tolkien” and its counter-conference. Their CFP reads as follows: “When J.R.R. Tolkien created Middle-earth, he filled it with characters, themes, and dangers that leapt from the pages to intrigue, excite, and give hope to his readers. In these sessions, we’ll explore these concepts to celebrate all that makes his works stand the test of time and what we should take from them today.” Or, to translate: no theme at all. Suggested topics include:

  • Analysis of characters, situations, and linguistics in the books
  • Military doctrine and tactics portrayed in the books or movies
  • Themes, lessons, and allegories drawn from or used by Tolkien
  • Works influenced by Tolkien’s writing
  • Works which influenced Tolkien’s writing
  • Middle-earth history

So, in other words: stuff we’ve seen before numerous times. But what is slightly more interesting is the supplemental list of topics that will not be considered for the conference:

  • Concepts not included in Tolkien’s writing
  • The Black Speech of Mordor
  • General foolishness

Speaking as someone who has attended numerous academic conferences, I can attest to the fact that “general foolishness” is always welcome to break up the monotony. As to “concepts not included in Tolkien’s writing,” that’s a pretty difficult territory to police. As one of my new Tolkien friends points out, the word “queer” appears in both The Hobbit and LotR multiple times—not, perhaps, meant in the way we mean it today, but still—where precisely does one draw the line?

I’m particularly intrigued by the prohibition against “The Black Speech of Mordor.” Because … why? Are they concerned, as were the attendees at the Council of Elrond when Gandalf spoke the rhyme on the One Ring in the language of Mordor, that the very sound of the language is corrupting? Do the people of the “Society of Tolkien” want to prohibit any presentation that might end up being sympathetic to Sauron? Or are they, as I joked in Arda’s comment section, worried that a paper about “Black Speech” could be a Trojan horse sneaking in critical race theory to the conference?

I said it as a joke, but I’m by no means convinced that that was not the reasoning behind the prohibition.



When I was enrolling for my fourth year of undergraduate study, I saw a course in the calendar on Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I signed up unhesitatingly: it was, as I joked at the time, the one course at the university where I could probably walk into the final exam without ever having been to class and still get an A. I did however have a little bit of anxiety: I had first read LotR when I was twelve, and reread it several times through my teenage years. I did not reread it for the first three and a half years of my undergrad, so inundated was I by all the new texts and authors and ideas that saturated my days. I was concerned, on returning to this novel that had taught me so profoundly how literature can have affect—how it can transform you on a seemingly molecular level—that I might now find LotR deficient or less than it was. Since starting my English degree, I’d had that transformative experience again numerous times: Annie Dillard and Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez and George Eliot, Yeats and Eliot and Adrienne Rich, Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende, Tom Stoppard and Bertholt Brecht and Ibsen, Woolf and Joyce and Faulkner, to say nothing of a raft of literary theory and criticism from Plato and Aristotle to Derrida and De Man. How would Tolkien measure up? And how, having taken classes on postcolonial literature and women’s literature, would I react to Tolkien’s more problematic depictions of race and gender?

Here’s the thing: I needn’t have worried. Yes, all the problematic stuff was there, but so was the deeper complexity of Tolkien’s world-building, the nuanced friendship of Sam and Frodo, the insoluble problem of Smeagol/Gollum, as well as Tolkien’s bravura descriptive prose that I appreciated in a way I could not when I was a callow teenager. There was also my greater appreciation of Tolkien the person. My professor posed a question to the class: why do you think Tolkien—scholar and translator of Norse and Teutonic sagas featuring such indomitable warriors as Beowulf—why did he, when he wrote his great epic, make diminutive halflings his heroes? Heroes who, she continued, proved doughtier than such Teutonic-adjacent heroes as Boromir?

Could it be, she suggested, that he was annoyed by the deployment of Norse and Teutonic myth by a certain 1930s dictator to bolster the fiction of a master race?

She then read to us Tolkien’s response to a Berlin publishing house interested in publishing a German translation of The Hobbit, but wanted confirmation of Tolkien’s Aryan bona fides before proceeding. Tolkien’s response remains one of the most professorial go fuck yourselves I’ve ever encountered:

Thank you for your letter. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its sustainability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung [ancestry].

All of which is by way of saying: Tolkien was a product of his nation and his era. He was a complex person, and would almost certainly blanch at the Tolkien Society’s current roster of conference papers.

But then, he’d probably blanch at many of the ones in years past too.


1. Anyone even halfway familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien would tell you that he most likely started spinning in his grave the moment he was interred and hasn’t paused much since. Some authors are generally indifferent to people’s interpretations of their work and are happy to let fans, academics, and adaptors have their own ideas; others retain a proprietary sense of their work, and will respond to negative reviews or interpretations they think miss the mark of what had been intended, as well as being antagonistic to the idea of someone else adapting their work to stage or screen. Tolkien was quite firmly in the latter category, often engaging in lengthy correspondence with fans in which he corrects their understanding of The Lord of the Rings with his own, especially with regards to allegorical or symbolic readings (with few exceptions, Tolkien adamantly maintained that there was no symbolism or allegory in LotR, and no correspondence to contemporary world-historical events). He was also quite bearish on the idea of adapting The Lord of the Rings to film, even though there was an American project in the works in 1958; in his letters, Tolkien communicates his antipathy quite clearly. One can only imagine what he would have thought of the allusions to Middle-Earth in the music of Rush and Led Zepplin, or Ralph Bakshi’s vaguely hallucinogenic animated film (much beloved by the guardians of “classic” SF/F). Whether he would have appreciated Peter Jackson’s LotR trilogy is less certain, though the dilatory and overstuffed debacle of The Hobbit was surely responsible for seismic events in the vicinity of Tolkien’s grave. Compared to Radagast the Brown’s rabbit sled, King Thranduil’s war moose, Legolas constantly defying the laws of physics, and the dwarves’ battle with Smaug inside the Lonely Mountain (I could go on), a paper titled “’Something Mighty Queer’: Destabilizing Cishetero Amatonormativity in the Works of Tolkien” is small beer.

2. That there is so much hate levied against The Last Jedi, while Revenge of the Sith apparently gets a pass, baffles me.

3. As one commenter observed, the fact that some people split off to form “The Society of Tolkien” is such pure Monty Python that it truly puts the absurdity of all this into context.

4. And it is by no means limited to academia. On the day I wrote this post, I also drove my partner Stephanie, who is a talented guitarist, out to Reed Music in Mount Pearl so she could purchase a Fender Telecaster. Unlike Steph, I am utterly unmusical. As we drove, I idly asked her what the difference was between a Telecaster and a Stratocaster. She then proceeded, very animatedly, to descend into guitarist-speak for the next ten minutes. After a certain point, she looked at me and said, “You didn’t understand any of that, did you?” To which I replied, “No, about ten seconds in, you started to sound like the adults in Charlie Brown specials.” But as I write this, she’s in the next room playing “Sultans of Swing” on her new guitar, and, really, that’s a language I speak just fine.

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Filed under Return to Middle-Earth, wingnuttery

A literally fantastic autumn

I have a bad habit of letting this blog lie fallow for months at a time, and then posting something somewhat apologetically and promising to get back into regular posting. Well, I guess it’s that time again! At least this time I posted something substantive without comment first, but now I feel I should offer some explanation for what will hopefully be a more productive summer of blogging.

I’m extremely excited about my fall term: for one thing, I will once again be teaching English 3811: The Lord of the Rings. When I taught this course for the first and so far only time four years ago, I posted an awful lot under the header “Return to Middle-Earth.”


I mean to do a lot more of that, both over the summer and during the term.

I will also be teaching a graduate course that I’ve been working up to over the past two years or so:

ENGL 7352 poster

As my ever-so-clever title suggests, the course will be looking at the intersection between “magic worlds,” as in the world-building and creation of alternative realities in fantasy, and “magic words,” as in the role played by language in the figuration of magic and conjuring, as well as the way in which these imaginary worlds are linguistic and semantic creations.

As you might imagine, that’s a lot of ground to cover in just thirteen weeks, so the reading list is by necessity somewhat eclectic and wide-ranging:

Anonymous, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Neil Gaiman, Sandman: Season of Mists
Lev Grossman, The Magicians
N.K. Jemisin, The One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
John Milton, Paradise Lost
Thomas More, Utopia
Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad
Vernor Vinge, True Names

(Students will also be enjoined to have The Fellowship of the Ring and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe under their belts before classes start).

A big chunk of my summer is going to be devoted to prepping this class, both because of the rather large scale of material it entails, but also because doing so feeds into my current research preoccupations. I’ll be posting as I go, using this blog as I so often do: as a means of thinking out loud.

Look for a multi-part series on the whole “expanded universe” phenomenon to lead us off, coming soon.

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Filed under Magic Wor(l)ds, Return to Middle-Earth, teaching, what I'm working on

Tolkien and the Humble Tater: Thoughts on Food and Fantasy


I always loved the fact that the original Japanese version of Iron Chef started with a epigraph from the nineteenth-century French gourmand Jean Anselme Brillat-Savarin: “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” Besides being the perfect pretentious opening for one of the most beautifully bombastic television shows ever made, the sentiment has always rung true for me … and unlike many pithy aphorisms, does not start to crumble under examination.

In my other life where I’m still a university professor, I’m a food historian or possibly food anthropologist (as opposed to my other other life, in which I’m a military historian). This is, I should add, a relatively recent enthusiasm: moving to Newfoundland has been something of a catalyst in this regard, as there are so many examples of this province’s history built into its food traditions. Go into the liquor store and you find nearly an entire wall given over to rum—which at first glance is odd, as you wouldn’t think liquor made from sugar cane would have such a foothold in this northern clime. By the same token, the presence of salt cod in so many traditional Caribbean dishes is similarly counter-intuitive, considering the bounty of fresh fish readily available. But both of course are legacies of the trade routes running salt cod south and sugar and rum north, and both are deeply and unfortunately entwined with the horrors of slavery and the depredations of colonialism.

Perhaps it is because of this dilettantish enthusiasm for food (though I stop well short of calling myself a “foodie”) and its history, but I find myself noticing it a lot in fiction … or in some cases, noticing its absence. I always tell my students: pay attention to the stuff. That is, pay attention to what a given author foregrounds, what he or she chooses to devote especial attention to. If that happens to be food, all the better: why, for example, does someone so parsimonious with detail as Ernest Hemingway devote so much attention to what his characters eat and drink (especially drink)? Or consider our first introduction to Mr. Leopold Bloom in Ulysses:

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Bloom is, above all else, a sensualist, a man whose tactile and sensory relationship to the world is placed in contradistinction to the moody and cerebral Stephen Dedalus; a partiality to inner organs of beasts and fowls is eminently appropriate to a man with a more visceral experience of life.

Fantasy as a genre has a particularly interesting relationship with food, for the simple reason that the creation of an alternate world requires some benchmarks for readers rooted in what Tolkien called the “primary world.” The most obvious example today is A Song of Ice and Fire, in which George R.R. Martin lavishes loving detail on (it sometimes seems) every single morsel of food his characters consume (seriously: Every. Single. One). On one hand, it is the prose of an author who himself obviously loves good food; on another hand, it is a shrewd and pungent way to establish regional identity in a world that, as the series progresses, just keeps getting bigger.

Indeed, food plays a prominent enough role in Martin’s novels that one of the promotional gimmicks for HBO’s adaptation was a series of food trucks roaming New York and L.A. selling “the food of Westeros” … food inspired by the series and devised by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio:

feastoficeandfireMartin’s preoccupation with food has also spawned a Game of Thrones cookbook, A Feast of Ice and Fire—itself the product of a blog, Inn at the Crossroads, which has for several years been approximating meals from the novels like almond-crusted trout, honeyed chicken, honey-spiced locusts (which are probably best to avoid, and not just because they’re insects, as readers of the books will attest), and of course Sansa Stark’s beloved lemon cakes.

But in Tolkien? Not so much. If we are, as I enjoin my students, to pay attention to the stuff in The Lord of the Rings, our attention is drawn predominantly to descriptions of landscape. The most descriptive passages tend to focus on the terrain through which the main characters pass. This preoccupation is perhaps unsurprising, considering that Tolkien was an avid hiker and loved a good walk about as much as George R.R. Martin likes a good restaurant; but more specifically to the novel, landscape in its various iterations becomes deeply significant in its oppositions between the pastoral cultivation in the Shire and dangerous wilderness; between plain and forest; and most crucially between a utopian, idyllic world of beauty, and the blighted, dystopian spaces of Mirkwood or Mordor.

Food is of course present in the novel, but usually in passing and rarely with any detail or description. It is indeed rare that we even know what characters are eating (lembas excepted). There are no Game of Thrones-esque scenes in which “Pippin tore a crisp leg, sticky with honey and crusted with herbs, from the roasted capon.” And what specificity we do get with food tends to rest with the hobbits—the lavish feast at Bilbo’s birthday party, for example, or the hobbits’ two meals of mushrooms. Hobbits, as we are told repeatedly, are small creatures with capacious appetites, so it stands to reason that they’ll be more preoccupied with meals than stern men, stoic dwarves, or ethereal elves.

Hence, when Sam determines to cook a meal for Frodo and cajoles Gollum into catching some rabbits for the task, the scene stands out. And we get a fun little insight into hobbit priorities:

All hobbits, of course, can cook, for they begin to learn the art before their letters (which many never reach); but Sam was a good cook, even by hobbit reckoning, and he had done a good deal of the camp-cooking on their travels, when there was a chance. He still hopefully carried some of his gear in his pack: a small tinder-box, two small shallow pans, the smaller fitting into the larger; inside them a wooden spoon, a short two-pronged fork and some skewers were stowed; and hidden at the bottom of the pack in a flat wooden box a dwindling treasure, some salt.

The resulting meal is, however simple it ends up being, among the most vividly described in the novel. More than that however, it serves to make Sam’s familiar, banal act of cooking that much more remarkable. Indeed, given the context, cooking a simple and wholesome meal is nothing short of heroic, and the attention Tolkien gives it emphasizes its thematic importance, something I’ve touched on in a previous post: the role of “home” and the “homely” as a touchstone, the manner in which it, by contrast, emphasizes just how far from home they actually are, and (of course) it serves as a concrete manifestation of Sam’s loyalty and devotion. That being said, the stew’s lack is just as significant as what it possesses. It has nothing to flesh it out besides the rabbits themselves, and the paltry herbs Sam is able to forage. It is on one hand a reminder of the comforts of home; but Sam is also keenly aware of how deficient a stew it is, with its lack of any vegetative besides herbs—and in particular, its lack of potatoes. His little disquisition on taters in answer to Gollum’s question is one of my favourite Sam moments, and one rendered very well in the film:

“Po—ta—toes,” said Sam. “The Gaffer’s delight, and rare good ballast for an empty belly. But you won’t find any, so you needn’t look. But be good Smeagol and fetch me some herbs, and I’ll think better of you. What’s more, if you turn over a new leaf, and keep it turned, I’ll cook you some taters on of these days. I will: fried fish and chips served by S. Gamgee. You couldn’t say no to that.”

But of course Gollum can say no, preferring his own rather gruesome version of sashimi. This little wistful ode to potatoes speaks to Sam’s rustic and rural simplicity—if we think of potatoes in cultural terms, there is much of the peasant attached to them, in part because of their colonial associations with the rural Irish. And if we can cast our minds back to the very first chapter, we recall that the list of Bilbo’s bequeathals included two sacks of potatoes for “Old Gaffer Gamgee,” Sam’s father (as well as “a new spade, a woolen waistcoat, and a bottle of ointment for creaking joints”).

There is also here yet another fun anachronism, for both potatoes and the practice of frying in oil were alien to the European Middle Ages. We might associate potatoes with Ireland, but in fact potatoes were not indigenous to Europe—they were transplanted from South America in the sixteenth century. And frying as a means of cooking, while practiced in, for example, ancient Rome, was not at all common in the Middle Ages. Certainly, the dish of “fish and chips” as we know it did not become standard fare until the eighteenth century and after. (Fun fact: initially, the batter was not meant to be eaten, but was used to protect the flesh of the fish from the hot oil). The point here being that “fish and chips” is an ahistorical gesture on Tolkien’s part that grounds the hobbits and the Shire in a particular sense of Englishness—and again, in a particular sense of “home.”

So what? (you might well ask). Tolkien isn’t writing historical fiction; potatoes and battered, fried fish might be fatal anachronisms in a novel seeking to accurately depict the middle ages, but there’s no such restrictions in fantasy. Indeed, the presence of a potato in an ostensibly medieval, vaguely European context is rather insignificant next to sorcery, magical rings, and immortal elves. Which is true enough, but misses the point, which is that this scene, with Sam’s ode to the humble tuber, is deeply significant for the fact that nowhere else is food so celebrated except in the abstract. Hobbits, as we have established, love to eat; what they love to eat is left to the imagination.

“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” Sam’s love of potatoes speaks to who and what he is, the simple but sturdy rural yeoman embodying certain qualities of the English agrarian working class. If other hobbits (such as the Sackville-Bagginses, Ted Sandyman, or those who get in line twice at Bilbo’s party to receive gifts twice) are Tolkien’s gentle poke at country folks’ small-minded parochialism, Samwise Gamgee is his celebration of their virtues of loyalty, tenacity, and common-sense (or “hobbit-sense”). Sam is, ultimately, the novel’s true hero: it is he who gets Frodo to Mount Doom through sheer force of will, finally carrying him when Frodo no longer has the strength to walk. He also, in a moment that bears quoting in full, resists the temptation to take up the Ring himself while he bears it:

As Sam stood there, even though the Ring was not on him but hanging from a chain around about his neck, he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor. He felt that he had from now on only two choices: to forebear the Ring, though it would torment him; or to claim it, and challenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows. Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.

In that hour of trial it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.

There is an awful lot in this passage to parse, and I want to come back to it in a future post to talk about Tolkien’s conception of tyranny and what it means to be a “free gardener” (or “free” anything). But for now the main point is the fantasy the Ring gives Sam: that of the uber-gardener, the Great Power who will make the desert bloom. As I mentioned in one of my first Lord of the Rings posts, Tolkien’s vision of the pastoral is not an unequivocal celebration of nature, which it its wild incarnations is perilous and frequently terrifying. Rather, he romanticizes the domestication of wilderness in the form of the Shire, in which domestication is effected not by domination but by cultivation. The twinned figures of the farmer and gardener are ultimately as heroic in Tolkien’s world as the warrior.

I seem to have strayed a little from my overarching topic here, which is about the thematic, symbolic, and metaphorical significance of food. Do I derive this reading of Sam solely from his love of potatoes? Of course not. But that moment—which is, in its way, a moment of honesty and vulnerability, spoken to an unsympathetic listener—stands out for me, not least because it is one of the only instances when food is described in specific terms. “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.”


UPDATE: I had literally posted this blog entry when my friend Allan Pero posted this picture to my Facebook wall.



Filed under Return to Middle-Earth, what I'm reading

Tolkien’s Wars (Part One)

This is the first of two posts dealing with war as a critical trope in The Lord of the Rings. I’ve been thinking for a long time now about the role of violence and cruelty in fantasy generally, and Tolkien specifically; at some stage in the near future I’ll be posting something about the Uruk-hai, torture, and rapine. What’s on my mind this week, however, is war more generally: war as an organizing principle in The Lord of the Rings, what role it plays thematically and otherwise, and the ways in which battle functions as a redemptive and ennobling experience. In class this past week we finished the first book of The Return of the King, with its climactic battle in which the forces of Sauron meet with temporary defeat. What I want to suggest in this post is that however much Tolkien was steeped in the myth, legend, and history of the Middle Ages—and indeed created in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings a compelling modern retread of medieval preoccupations—by the end of his masterpiece and in such supplemental texts as his appendices and Unfinished Tales, the scope and scale of Middle-earth has become identifiably twentieth-century.


Considering that The Lord of the Rings was written during and immediately after the Second World War, there is a not insignificant amount of criticism and interpretation that looks for parallels between Tolkien’s narrative and the events raging in the world at the time of writing. Tolkien himself tended to deny real-world correlations: Sauron was not Hitler, Mordor was not Nazi Germany. In so saying, he echoed and anticipated legions of fantasists who reject straightforwardly allegorical readings of their texts. And with good reason: such reductive this=that interpretations deny narratives like Tolkien’s their nuance and complexity (and by contrast, otherwise compelling stories can become hackneyed when they too-obviously employ obvious correspondences; indeed, the most cringeworthy parts of the Narnia Chronicles come when C.S. Lewis slaps on the Christian allegory with a trowel).

That being said, The Lord of the Rings’ resonances with its recent and contemporaneous history can be hard to ignore. As I observed to my students this week, it would be hard to credit that a thoughtful and deeply intelligent man like Tolkien would not find himself influenced by traumatic, world-shaping traumas like the two world wars. Tolkien himself fought in the First World War and was wounded at the Battle of the Somme, badly enough that he spent several years convalescing (during which time he shaped the substance of the mythology that would become The Silmarillion). It is easy to imagine how the pastorally-minded Tolkien was traumatized not just by the horror and violence of the trenches, but by the way the verdant fields of France and Belgium were transformed into blasted horrorscapes of mud, blood, broken metal, and corpses. Frodo and Sam’s traversal of the Dead Marshes and Dagorlad (the “Battle Plain”) is about as vivid a recreation of the Western Front as possible while still taking place in Middle-earth. In the Dead Marshes, the see the faces of the dead under the water. Frodo says:

I have seen them … They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead.

Gollum concurs, adding that “There was a great battle long ago … They fought on the plain for days and months at the Black Gates.” The battle to which he refers is the battle fought by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men against Sauron, which ended with Isildur cutting the Ring from Sauron’s hand. The faces Sam and Frodo see beneath the marshes are the dead from that battle, and though it is uncertain whether they are specters or actually there (somehow sorcerously preserved), the image of dead faces peering up through foul water unavoidably evokes the experience of many in WWI who saw the dead submerged in water-filled craters and corpses disinterred from the mud by shellfire. After they pass on from the Dead Marshes, Frodo and Sam follow Gollum through Dagorlad, which even a thousand years after the war between the Last Alliance and Sauron is still a reeking, desolate landscape. At one point they take shelter in a close facsimile of a shell-crater:

Frodo and Sam crawled after [Gollum] until they came to a wide almost circular pit, high-banked upon on the west. It was cold and dead, and a foul sump of oily many-coloured ooze lay at its bottom. In this evil hole they cowered, hoping in its shadow to escape the attention of the Eye.

(It is worth noting here that while soldiers on either side of the Western Front did not have to worry about the malevolence of a Dark Lord, there was a constant struggle to not be visible. The superstition about not lighting three cigarettes on the same match was born out of the fear of snipers; and any soldier managing to survive his first front-line posting learned the lesson of staying low.)

Observing the WWI resonances in these chapters is by no means original or new: it is, indeed, a staple of Tolkien biography and criticism to note this rare moment where his own experience bleeds into the text (pun intended). The imagery is obvious enough that Tolkien himself acknowledged it, saying in a letter that “The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.” (Not content to leave it there, however, he adds, “They owe something more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings or The Roots of the Mountains.”)

By contrast, there is little or nothing overtly referencing the global conflict that raged while he wrote The Lord of the Rings—too old for service at that point, he had no firsthand experience of the war, and Oxford was never a target for the Luftwaffe’s bombs. That being said, it is difficult not to see the shift in focus and scope over the course of The Lord of the Rings as reflecting the global changes wrought by a global war. If Tolkien’s storytelling impulses had started with traditional quest-romance in The Hobbit and into The Fellowship of the Ring, by the end of The Return of the King the novel’s scope has expanded to encompass most of Middle-earth. The Hobbit and Fellowship both exhibit the limited scope of a quest narrative, with a narrative specific to the band of adventurers and, in both cases, more or less limited to the perspective of a single character. Both proceed from romance’s basic narrative premise, namely the essaying forth from enclaves of safety and security into an unknown (unknown to the hobbits, at any rate) wilderness full of dangers.

battle of pelennor fields

Starting with The Two Towers however, the narrative fractures, and the preoccupations of the principal characters have less to do with the quest per se than with what can really only be characterized as geopolitical concerns. I never would have thought to hear myself using the word “geopolitical” with regard to The Lord of the Rings, but it is apt when one considers the larger picture of the imminent war with Sauron. It is telling that just before Frodo determines to desert the Fellowship and set off on his own to Mordor—breaking not just the Fellowship, but the single narrative thread the novel has so far followed—he has a totalizing vision of Middle-earth from the Seat of Seeing atop the hill of Amon Hen:

But everywhere he looked he saw signs of war. The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills: orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes. Under the boughs of Mirkwood there was deadly strife of Elves and Men and fell beasts. The land of the Beornings was aflame; a cloud was over Moria; smoke rose on the borders of Lorien.

Horsemen were galloping across the grass of Rohan; wolves poured from Isengard. From the havens of Harad ships of war put out to sea; and out of the east men were moving endlessly: swordsmen, spearmen, bowmen upon horses, chariots of chieftans and laden wains. All the power of the Dark Lord was in motion.

In his book Inventing the Middle Ages, Norman Cantor lauds Tolkien for depicting a medieval setting in relatively realistic terms, “not the Arthurian heroism of golden knights but the wearying, almost endless struggle of the little people against the reality of perpetual war and violent darkness.” Middle-earth, he asserts, presents “the medieval world at its most bellicose, destructive, and terrible moments: the Age of the Barbarian Invasions in the fifth and sixth centuries; the Hundred Years’ War in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.” Perpetual war is the crucial designation here, as indeed any casual familiarity with the European Middle Ages is one of near-constant skirmishes, campaigns, shifting alliances and loyalties, punctuated with larger battles and wars, but always with some armed strife smoldering in some corner of the continent. Our image of Middle-earth—once we leave the Shire behind—is precisely of that sort of constant conflict, whether expressed by the relics of old wars like the Barrow-Downs, or the ongoing skirmishes between Gondor and Mordor as described by Boromir. And even where there is no battle in progress, there is always one waiting for those who trespass into enemy territory, such as occurs in Moria.

If the medieval condition is one of perpetual war, however, Tolkien builds to conflict on a much larger and indeed totalizing scale. Frodo’s vision from Amon Hen is a foretaste of what is to come and it is markedly continent-wide, stretching from the Misty Mountains to Mirkwood to Lorien, and finally south to Gondor. The narrative itself expands outward to encompass broader and more varied geographies, and broader and more varied concerns. Even Sam and Frodo, whom can be said to be carrying on the quest-narrative, have in their encounter with Faramir and his rangers an impromptu education in history and geopolitical considerations, as well as bearing witness to such considerations manifested in the rangers’ battle with the Men of Harad. Elsewhere, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli become embroiled in Rohan’s struggle with Saruman; Merry and Pippin find themselves allied with Treebeard and the Ents, and witness the defeat of Isengard while their friends are still fighting at Helm’s Deep; Pippin finds himself caught up in Gondor’s intrigues, stuck between the dueling wills of Denethor and Gandalf (between a rock and a hard case, one might say); he swears his service to Gondor; Merry similarly pledges his sword to Rohan, and is witness to the Battle of Pelennor fields.

lotr-siege-towersAll this is by way of highlighting the ever-widening scope of The Lord of the Rings, but even these examples are only hints of a vaster conflict, one that only really becomes apparent in such supplementary texts as the novel’s appendices or Unfinished Tales. There we learn that Sauron’s forces attacked more or less simultaneously along an east-west front running almost the entire length of Middle-earth: as Gondor was besieged, so too was eastern Rohan invaded, Lothlorien and the elves of Mirkwood attacked, and a force of Easterlings descended on Dale and the Lonely Mountain. A sample from the appendices:

At the same time as the great armies besieged Minas Tirith a host of the allies of Sauron that had long threatened the borders of King Brand crossed the River Carnen, and Brand was driven back to Dale. There he had the aid of the Dwarves of Erebor; and there was a great battle at the Mountain’s feet. It lasted three days, but in the end both King Brand and King Dain Ironfoot were slain, and the Easterlings had the victory. But they could not take the Gate, and many, both Dwarves and Men, took refuge in Erebor, and there withstood a siege.

After the destruction of the Ring, the appendix goes on to say, the Dwarves of Erebor and Men of Dale emerged and routed their enemy. So too did Celeborn and Galadriel take their forces from Lothlorien to destroy Dol Guldur, and there under the trees of Mirkwood meet up with the forces of Thranduil (Legolas’ father and king of the wood-elves). According to Tolkien’s chronology, the events of this great, final battle take place over the course of about two weeks—two weeks in which all of Middle-earth is locked in simultaneous battle.

middle-earth total war

Any sense that the War of the Ring is anything less than a global conflict is further dispelled by Gandalf’s story in Unfinished Tales about how he conceived of his scheme to send Bilbo along with Thorin and the Dwarves to Erebor. Knowing that the Necromancer in Dol Guldur was in fact Sauron, Gandalf fears what dire use he might make of the dragon Smaug:

You may think that Rivendell was out of his reach, but I did not think so. The state of things in the North was very bad. The Kingdom under the Mountain and the strong Men of Dale were no more. To resist any force that Sauron might send to regain the northern passes in the mountains and the old lands of Angmar there were only the Dwarves of the Iron Hills, and behind them lay a desolation and a Dragon. The Dragon Sauron might use with terrible effect.

When Thorin accuses Gandalf of having ulterior motives for helping him, Gandalf replies “You are quite right … If I had no other purposes, I would not be helping you at all. Great as your affairs seem to you, they are only a small strand in the great web. I am concerned with many strands.” Gandalf has always appeared as a wise counselor; here we see him as a shrewd strategist operating on a global scale. One of the fascinating parts of returning to The Lord of the Rings this term as I have has been seeing how Tolkien retroactively folded the events of The Hobbit into the broader sweep of Middle-earth’s history: not just an unexpected journey, but a shrewd move on the geopolitical board with deeply significant benefits many, many years later. As Gandalf concludes his tale:

It might all have gone very different indeed. The main attack was diverted southwards, it is true; and yet even so with his far-stretched right hand Sauron could have done terrible harm in the North, while we defended Gondor, if King Brand and King Dain had not stood in his path. When you think of the great Battle of Pelennor, do not forget the Battle of Dale. Think what might have been. Dragon-fire and savage swords in Eriador! There might be no Queen in Gondor. We might only hope to return from the victory here to ruin and ash. But that has been averted—because I met Thorin Oakenshield one evening on the edge of spring not far from Bree. A chance-meeting, as we say in Middle-earth.

The broader point I am making here is that, while Tolkien does not effect one-to-one analogies with his contemporaneous history, the global scope with which The Lord of the Rings ends does reflect—however obliquely—the radical changes wrought by the Second World War. Britain had of course been a global power for some two centuries, but the twentieth century ushered in a terrible era of total war that had not been possible in previous centuries. The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring depict a neo-medieval world in terms of the traditional scope of the quest-romance; by the end of The Return of the King, the geopolitical conflict consuming an entire continent is the unmistakable product of the fraught twentieth century.

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Here Be Spiders

Apologies for the unplanned hiatus here—this term has turned into something of a gong show, and I’ve been snowed under with various committees and my teaching. As a result, I have a handful of half-finished blog posts about The Lord of the Rings starting to clutter up my desktop … I’ll return to them when things ease up, which means whatever semblance of chronological order I’d been maintaining will be out the window, but that doesn’t bother me overmuch. For today, just a short post on everyone’s favourite subject: spiders!


Frodo, about to totally regret going to Australia for holiday.

Yes, as you might have guessed, we just passed through Shelob’s Lair and left Frodo cold and apparently dead in the pass of Cirith Ungol while Sam takes up the Ring and the quest. We start The Return of the King this week and head into the home stretch.


Samwise vs. Shelob

I’ve got spiders on the brain because one of my students asked whether Tolkien, in giving us Shelob—who I maintain is one of the most terrifying inventions in all of fantasy fiction—was citing a certain mythological and legendary tradition of monstrous spiders.

My gut reaction was to say yes—because obviously arachnophobia is a common element of the human condition, yes? But I caught myself, realizing I could not think of any examples outside of twentieth-century popular culture; and the more I thought about it, the more I began to think that no, spiders in myth tend at worst to be trickster figures—the African god Anansi, for example, or the Lakota trickster Unktomi. Most central to the western tradition (and to biological taxonomy) is the woman Arachne, a master-weaver who challenges Athena and either (1) defeats her and is struck down by the goddess in a rage, but is resurrected as a spider when Athena feels remorse, or (2) loses to the goddess and is transformed into a spider for her sin of pride.

The spider is less significant, then, than her web—hence the tendency toward the trickster figure, something that has also been suggested with regards to Norse myth. One etymological interpretation of Loki’s name connects it to the pre-medieval Swedish vernacular, in which “spider” is “locke.” (As an aside, some preliminary investigation into my own name’s origins suggest that “Lockett” is a diminutive of “locke” and is similarly connected to Loki. So there you have it: Tom Hiddleston and I are practically brothers).

Tolkien’s spiders, it goes without saying, are explicitly and terrifyingly monstrous. One interpretation of this derives from a story told (not by Tolkien) to his biographer Humphrey Carpenter, that when Tolkien was just a small child of four or five in South Africa, he was bitten by a tarantula. However, Tolkien would later refute this, saying that while the story might have been true he had no memory of it, and that he first introduced the giant spiders into The Hobbit because his son Michael was terrified of them.

One wonders if this is a bit disingenuous, as large swaths of The Silmarillion had been written before he ever conceived of The Hobbit, and the giant spider-demon Ungoliant plays a significant role first as Morgoth’s ally and then his captor. Her principal characteristic is her insatiable need to consume: specifically, to consume light, “for she hungered for light and hated it … In a ravine she lived, and took shape as a spider of monstrous form, weaving her black webs in a cleft of the mountains. There she sucked up all the light that she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished.” Melkor (Morgoth) befriends her, and together they travel to Valinor, where Ungoliant feeds on the light of the two trees of Valinor, killing them, and in the process “swelled to a shape so vast and hideous that Melkor was afraid.”



Shelob is described in similar terms, insatiable and lusting always for more to feed on in spite of how bloated she has grown. A brief history is offered:

There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form, even such as once of old had lived in the Land of the Elves in the West that is now under the Sea, such as Beren fought in the Mountains of Terror in Doriath, and so came to Luthien upon the green sward amid the hemlocks in the moonlight long ago. How Shelob came there, flying from ruin, no tale tells, for out of the Dark Years few tales have come. But still she was there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dur; and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of elves and men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness. Far and wide her lesser broods, bastards of her miserable mates, her own offspring, that she slew, spread from glen to glen, from the Ephel Duath to the eastern hills, to Dol Guldur and the fastnesses of Mirkwood. But none could rival her, Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world.

Like her mother, Shelob has little care for power or possessions or treasure, living only to consume and destroy: “Little she knew or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone, swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her.” She is pure appetite and little more: Freud might say she is pure id, with no consciousness outside her monstrous lust.

All of which is rather terrifying, but leaves us with the question: why the spider-shape? For indeed, it does seem here that Tolkien is doing something quite original, or at any rate not borrowing from a set of extant mythological tropes. I want someone far smarter about this sort of thing than me (and more willing to do the research) to inquire as to why spiders have not figured as nightmarish monsters in our mythic and legendary collective imaginations more than they have. Considering just how rampant arachnophobia seems to be today, and how frequently spiders have figured as objects of terror in twentieth-century narratives from John Wyndham’s Web to a host of B-movie monsters (to say nothing of the giant spiders in the Harry Potter series), I have to wonder if this is a uniquely modern nightmare. Humanity has always had the fear of being consumed, but when we look at myth and legend, those monsters doing the consuming are more often than not giants, ogres, trolls, and suchlike; nary a spider to be seen. When we’re not being devoured by giant human-shaped things, the predators tend to be serpents, giant birds, or other such massively-proportioned animals … all of which suggests the lingering nightmare of being eaten by wild animals on one hand, or fellow humans on the other.

So why is it that spiders only start to loom large in our nightmares so relatively recently?


Shelob Lego. Seriously. Complete with little figures of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum. (It’s the fish in Gollum’s hand that makes it art.)

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What’s that got to do with the price of mithril in Eregion?


Back in Rivendell, Bilbo gave Frodo his coat of mail, the one that had been given to him by Thorin in The Hobbit. It proves to be a prescient gift, as it saves the Ring-bearer’s life at least twice. Frodo wears it hidden under his outer-clothes, and no one else knows he has it on his back until after they emerge from Moria.


While deep in the halls of Moria, Sam asks Gandalf what inspired the dwarves to brave the dangers and attempt to re-establish a kingdom here. “For mithril,” Gandalf replies, explaining that “here alone in the world was found Moria-silver, or true-silver as some have called it. Mithril is the Elvish name. The Dwarves have a name which they do not tell. Its worth was ten times that of gold, and now it is beyond price; for little is left above ground …” He goes on,

“Bilbo had a corslet of mithril-rings that Thorin gave him. I wonder what has become of it? Gathering dust still in Michel Delving Mathom-House, I suppose.”

“What?” cried Gimli, startled out of his silence. “A corslet of Moria-silver? That was a kingly gift!”

“Yes,” said Gandalf. “I never told him, but its worth was greater than the value of the whole Shire and everything in it.”

Frodo said nothing, but he put his hand under his tunic and touched the rings of his mail-shirt. He felt staggered to think that he had been walking about him with the price of the Shire under his jacket. Had Bilbo known? He felt no doubt that Bilbo knew quite well.

This moment is a rare glimpse into exchange-value in Middle-earth. A single mail-shirt worth as much of the entirety of the Shire? In practical terms, that seems fair—but only in retrospect, insofar as it saves Frodo’s life and thus prevents the Fellowship’s mission from falling into catastrophe. In that respect, the mithril-coat is worth the entirety of Middle-earth.

Wealth and poverty appear in The Lord of the Rings, but only obliquely. At no point is money ever a concern for any of the characters. Indeed, I am hard-pressed to think of any point after the hobbits leave Bree when anyone is shown selling or purchasing goods or services. Not that there are many opportunities: as mentioned here before, Tolkien’s Middle-earth is predominantly large swathes of wilderness dotted with towns and cities that are few and far between. Even so, money plays at best a miniscule role in Tolkien’s narrative furniture.


Smaug and his hoard, as it appeared on my first copy of The Hobbit.

The same, oddly, cannot be said about wealth. As with The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit does not show money as being anything problematic or significant, even though it is strongly suggested that their years in exile have impoverished Thorin’s people. But wealth—vast, huge, stupefying wealth—is the novel’s principal motivating force. Yes, Thorin &co. want to reestablish themselves as the rightful rulers of Erebor, and yes, they were manipulated into the quest by Gandalf, who wanted the dragon dispensed with; but the narrative also possesses an unpleasant undercurrent of avarice, the desire for the dragon’s enormous hoard. In his book There and Back Again, an excellent study of the writing of The Hobbit, Mark Atherton points to Tolkien’s earlier fascination with myths and legends of dragon-hoards, in particular Beowulf’s battle with a dragon, and the story of Sigurd and the dragon Fafnir. In both cases, the allure of the dragon-hoard is a key motivating factor, and one which leads to a hero’s doom (Beowulf in the first instance, and Fafnir himself in the second, who was a man transformed into a dragon by his gold-lust).


Smaug’s hoard as depicted in the film.

Indeed, the dwarves’ song in Bilbo’s parlour at the very start of the novel—the song that wakes something “Tookish” in the hobbit—has little to do with birthright and kingdoms, and much to do with reclaiming the wealth stolen by the dragon. It’s worth watching the scene from the film, as it’s one of the few things Peter Jackson has gotten exactly right this time around:

There’s a small but significant change in the lyrics: the last line of the first verse in the novel is not “To find our long-forgotten gold,” but “To seek the pale enchanted gold.” Enchanted is the key word here, establishing as it does the sense of their lost gold as possessing magic of its own—the power to enthrall and entrap. The first half of the dwarves’ song is indeed preoccupied not with the mountain or the dwarves’ usurpation, but with the varieties of treasure shaped by the dwarven hands:

For ancient king and elvish lord
There many a gleaming golden hoard
They shaped and wrought, and light they caught
To hide in gems on hilt of sword.

On silver necklaces they strung
The flowering stars, on crowns they hung
The dragon-fire, in twisted wire
They meshed the light of moon and sun.

Goblets they carved there for themselves
And harps of gold; where no man delves
There lay they long, and many a song
Was sung unheard by men or elves.

And the song has an infectious quality, for “As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire in the hearts of the dwarves.” Though this gold-lust is framed as somehow congenital to dwarves—we learn later that Elrond “did not altogether approve of dwarves and their love of gold,” for example—it is not specific to them, as even the Elvenking of Mirkwood is enthralled by the wealth of Erebor. The people of Laketown fete Bilbo and the dwarves outrageously, principally because they succumb to the fantasy of excessive wealth. And in a crucial moment, when Bilbo beholds Smaug’s hoard, he is enraptured:

Bilbo had heard tell and sing of dragon-hoards before, but the splendour, the lust, the glory of such treasure had never yet come home to him. His heart was filled and pierced with enchantment and with the desire of dwarves; and he gazed motionless, almost forgetting the frightful guardian, at the gold beyond price and count.

The physical scope and scale of such wealth is dramatically reduced in The Lord of the Rings, while the actual value of specific items grows by a magnitude. The staggering value of Frodo’s mithril-coat is itself vastly exceeded by the Ring. Which is a fact that makes The Lord of the Rings quite unusual in the tradition of quest-romance, as the entire point is not the acquisition of wealth and power, but its destruction. As the dwarves’ song and Bilbo’s reaction to it makes clear, wealth and value are closely tied to beauty—there’s no such thing as “filthy lucre” in Middle-earth, but that doesn’t mean that wealth is not a corrupting power. The gold-lust on display in The Hobbit is a foretaste of the Ring’s addicting nature. And though the Ring itself afflicts with ugliness, its destruction will lead to the diminution of the beauty in the world wrought by the Three Elven-Rings, as Elrond predicts: “maybe when the One has gone,” he says, “the Three will fail, and many fair things will fade and be forgotten. That is my belief.”

I’d argue that Tolkien’s treatment of wealth and value in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is crucial to understanding how Tolkien depicts the nature of power. Wealth is not portrayed as a means to an end. It is barely portrayed as an end in itself: it mostly just is, and as such is conflated with power. As George W. Bush is supposed to have said of the French, the people of Middle-earth have no word for “entrepreneur.” (Not entirely true, as such a man as Barliman Butterbur obviously runs his inn for the purpose of profit, but he is very much the exception to the Middle-earth rule. Presumably a more careful consideration of such places as Minas Tirith would show a more actively market-based society, but Tolkien does not oblige us on this front). Money and its acquisition, accrual, and deployment play no role in Tolkien’s world—which parallels the acquisition and accrual of power. The Ring, as Gandalf tells Frodo, grants its user power commensurate to his or her abilities. Hence, Frodo could not expect to become anything more than a second Gollum; Aragorn or Boromir would become great leaders and warriors, but little more; whereas Gandalf, Galadriel, Saruman, or anyone already possessing great power would become a new Dark Lord.

Such rigid stratifications are not surprising: Tolkien’s Catholicism, after all, provides a template for divine versus temporal power. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he makes a telling distinction between the “right to power” and the “possession” of power. The former is divinity, and is “the due of worship.” “Possession” is delineated here as the lesser of the two; though he does not expand on this distinction, the suggestion is that one “possesses” power in the same manner as one earns wages, whereas the “right” to power is akin to inherited wealth, especially as it functioned in feudal contexts. Power, in other words, is a transcendent principle.

It is in the shift from Tolkien’s depiction of power as innate and immutable—destroyable but not transferable—to a more fluid and indeed Foucauldian model that underwrites my argument that much contemporary fantasy articulates a specifically humanistic world view. To this end, it is worth contrasting the lack of monetary concerns in Tolkien’s world with George R.R. Martin’s veritable preoccupation with money in A Song of Ice and Fire (second only to his preoccupation with food). The economics of Westeros comprise a crucial and persistent trope: “a Lannister always pays his debts” is the unofficial motto of the most powerful house, but it also points to the fact that debts, both financial and symbolic, pervade the narrative. The cost of things—be those things swords, food, or loyalty—is always at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and “the wealth of nations” determines their power, status, and geopolitical influence. To put it another way, power in Martin’s world is essentially fluid—or, to put it yet another way, and paraphrase Omar Little, money in Westeros doesn’t have owners … just spenders. There’s a reason why the Tumblr page A Song of Ice and The Wire, in which stills from Game of Thrones are captioned with lines from The Wire and vice versa, is so uncannily apt:


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Tolkien and the Magic of Home

ring_edited-2This week in my Tolkien class we arrived at Rivendell, where Frodo and company have a well-deserved rest. I introduced our discussion of Rivendell by positing to the class the significance, indeed the necessity of periodic safe havens in adventure narratives—and the more harrowing the adventure, the more important it is for the protagonists to have occasional respite, for it is a respite for the reader/viewer as well. The emotional relief of momentary security balances the anxiety, fear, or terror to which we and our heroes are otherwise subjected.

Of course, part of the emotional and thematic power of safe havens is the certainty of their ephemerality: either (1) we know our heroes will be obliged to move on sooner rather than later, (2) their safety will inevitably be breached, or (3) the safe haven isn’t quite as safe as first imagined, because those with whom we share it are themselves a threat (any fellow zombie film aficionado will be intimately familiar with this last one).

Nevertheless, the ability to pause and take a breath comprises its own odd form of catharsis. The most striking example of this, for me, is in Cormac McCarthy’s bleak post-apocalyptic novel The Road, possibly one of the most harrowing books I’ve ever read. A father and son (simply referred to as the Man and the Boy) travel across a blasted landscape that makes Mordor look like the Salinas Valley, avoiding cannibalistic gangs and searching for sustenance. Around the middle of the story they discover a Cold War-era bomb shelter, stocked with imperishable food and boasting beds with clean, warm blankets. My relief when they made it to this temporary safety would have been comical if it wasn’t so deeply felt.

Frodo waking in Rivendell to Gandalf’s voice isn’t quite the same thing, but there is a similar degree of relief, amplified by the idyllic quality of Rivendell itself—“a perfect house,” Bilbo had once said, “whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.” Simply being there “was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.” Perhaps more importantly, it comes to feel to Frodo like home, not least because he is reunited with Bilbo, and because he allows himself to believe that his task is done. Just before he volunteers to carry on as Ring-Bearer, “An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled his heart.” It is telling that, on imagining his burden has passed on, he does not think of returning to the Shire, a fact that anticipates his later emotional distance when his task is truly done, and his decision to leave Middle-Earth forever. (I suppose I should have prefaced that with “Spoilers!”) His apparent inability at that point to take pleasure in the Shire and in his post-Ring life deeply bothers Sam, for whom the Shire was always the beloved home to which he desired to return. That Frodo never really returns is, perhaps, first hinted at while he is in Rivendell.


Frodo looks out at Rivendell in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Home and its different conceptions and figurations are a crucial theme in The Lord of the Rings; which is perhaps utterly unsurprising, considering that home—or a point of return, at any rate—is a crucial element in most quest romances, that space of safety from which the hero journeys into the space of adventure. Certainly, that was its thematic role in The Hobbit. We learn a lot less of the Shire and its denizens there, as Bilbo is thrown into his adventure with unseemly haste. In Rings, it takes the hobbits five chapters to get a leg on and finally depart, and in the process we learn a lot more about it, its qualities, its people. In The Hobbit, the Shire is what Bilbo thinks of wistfully while sleeping in the rain or skipping yet another meal. In The Lord of the Rings, however, we learn enough about the Shire to have a deeper sense of its worth and its meaning, and it becomes one of several figurations of home.

Why is this at all significant? Well, aside from mere curiosity, I’d argue that home as an idea and a reality as we understand it in the novel is connected to Tolkien’s figurations of power and magic. In a novel that is otherwise exhaustively detailed with regards to the history, mythology, and languages of its various peoples and societies, the nature of magic remains infuriatingly opaque. Tolkien does not deign to outline the laws and nature of magic as practiced by Gandalf, Elrond, or Sauron; aside from a few instances when Gandalf sets things on fire, magic appears as a nebulous, usually unseen force. Such coyness on Tolkien’s part sets him apart from those who followed him: fantasists such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Patrick Rothfuss, J.K. Rowling, and Lev Grossman turn magic into something that, while there must needs be an inborn talent for it, must be exhaustively studied and practiced. Each of the writers I mentioned incorporate magical schools or universities, where the students must commit thousands of details to memory and pass rigorous examinations.

Possibly Gandalf and the other istari had to undergo some such training back in Valinor, but the more acute sense communicated by Tolkien is that magic is innate. Of the rare glimpses into its workings we get, it also appears to be connected to contact to the “other realm,” a parallel or simultaneous reality that Frodo glimpses whenever he puts on the Ring. I will have another post soon on that subject; but for now …


Gandalf has something interesting to say to Frodo not long after he wakes up. When Frodo asks him if Rivendell is safe from Sauron, Gandalf replies “Indeed there is a power in Rivendell to withstand the might of Mordor, for a while: and elsewhere other powers still dwell. There is power, too, of another kind in the Shire.” Given that he doesn’t go on to say anything more about the Shire and what it’s “other kind” of power is, it’s an interesting comment. Obviously, the Shire is by no means as powerful as Rivendell or Lothlorien; and as we discover at the end of the novel, it was by no means prepared to repulse even the assault of a deeply weakened Saruman.

But there is power there: in class this week, we queried why the Nazgul are so much less fearsome in the Shire and Bree? At the Council of Elrond, Boromir describes the rout of Gondor’s forces: “[It] was not by numbers that we were defeated. A power was there that we have not felt before … Some said it could be seen, like a great black horseman, a dark shadow under the moon. Wherever he came a madness filled our foes, but fear fell on our boldest, so that horse and man gave way and fled.” Later on, we will see such fear deployed as the Nazgul’s main weapon—but while they are still Black Riders in the Shire, all they seem to do is creep out Frodo’s neighbours. In Bree, they become somewhat more menacing, actually attacking what they think are the hobbits in their beds—only to discover that they have been deceived by the illusion of pillows and bolsters underneath the bedclothes, in a ruse that could have been devised by Ferris Bueller.


See? You can hardly tell the difference.

On one hand, it is tempting to think that Tolkien wasn’t sure who these villains were just yet when he wrote them. On another hand—and this was the class consensus—perhaps they lack the power they show elsewhere (such as the attack at Weathertop) while in a place of community. In both the Shire and Bree, they are objects of fear and suspicion—very obviously outsiders and strangers. It could be argued that they preferred stealth at such moments; but it could also be argued that, well, they’re Ringwraiths! Who needs stealth? Except that Gandalf tells Frodo that the Shire has its own kind of power. He does not, of course, elaborate on what the nature of that power might be, but the fact that he feels compelled to mention it at all is significant.

So what is the power of the Shire? This is not a question I have previously asked myself in my rereadings of The Lord of the Rings. I do think that my class is on the right track with this one: if there is power in Rivendell to withstand Mordor (for a time),  part of that power manifests itself in the peace and contentment its visitors feel, both in terms of obvious relief to be in such a secure place, but also in terms of the magic that sustains it. In Tolkien, landscape is frequently an expression of the mind or minds that inhabit it, and comes to manifest the dominant power for good or ill. Mirkwood was Greenwood the Great before Sauron took up residence in Dol Goldur in the guise of the Necromancer; his pernicious influence turned it into the dark and forbidding wood we see in The Hobbit, choking out sunlight and populated with such terrifying beasts as the giant spiders. Likewise, Mordor is a dire hellscape, and Saruman is in the process of turning the vale of Isengard into a comparably post-apocalyptic space when he meets his defeat. The cleansing of Isengard by the Ents in The Two Towers is, in my opinion, one of the things Peter Jackson got spectacularly right:

In contrast, Rivendell and Lothlorien are idyllic expressions of their masters’ benign power. On the first leg of their journey from Rivendell, the Fellowship reaches the land of Hollin, which used to be called Eregion when Elves dwelled there. Though they have been gone from the land for several thousand years, it is still a fair and pleasant place. Gandalf notes that, “There is a wholesome air about Hollin. Much evil must befall a country before it wholly forgets the Elves.” By the same token, the Shire is the embodiment of hobbit-society: pleasant, complacent, well-tended, and eminently comfortable.

It is in the experience of Rivendell however that Frodo and company have their first real encounter with the power of place. Rivendell—Imladris, in Elvish—is referred to as “The Last Homely House” (variously, “The Last Homely House East of the Sea” or “The Last Homely House West of the Mountains,” which tells us pretty emphatically that it is the only Homely House, at least on this latitude). In the first draft of The Hobbit, Tolkien initially refers to Rivendell as “the Last Decent House,” though he changes his mind about a page and a half on and changes “decent” to “homely,” and makes a marginal notation beside “decent” to change it later. The change is a sensible one, as “decent” conjures up connotations on one hand of moral propriety, and on the other of a certain snobbishness (as in “there’s no decent hotel in this city”). But “homely”? Why? It’s obvious we can dismiss our common contemporary understanding of homely as blandly unattractive (assuming Rivendell didn’t earn that name for poor design choices). It’s also obvious that the term can be understood, in part, as “homey,” but it does seem odd to call the home of Elrond Halfelven, son of Earendil the Mariner, “homey,” however much it might be so. Besides the obvious alliteration, why “homely”?


Tolkien’s own illustration of Rivendell.

To the OED!

“Homely” as it turns out is a far more textured and loaded term than one might at first assume. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it comes to us by way of German and Dutch. Heimlike is Middle Dutch for belonging to a household or a home; hemelik is Middle Low German for “friendly or intimate”; and heimlich is Middle High German meaning either “belonging to a person’s own country” or “familiar and intimate.” So far, nothing surprising—all of these definitions are in line with “at home with” or other such uses of “home” to designate a place of safety and comfort, in which individuals sharing that space similarly share intimacy.

What immediately struck me however was the paradoxical way in which the German heimlich features crucially in Sigmund Freud’s essay on the uncanny. The word he uses is unheimlich, which though we translate that as “uncanny,” it more literally translates as “unhomely.” As Freud notes at the start of his essay, this understanding of the uncanny as that which makes us feel metaphorically not at home—unfamiliar, weird, unsettling—has been the one that traditionally obtained. But heimlich, in addition to meaning what is known and familiar, also carries the meaning of “Concealed, kept from sight, so others do not get to know about it, withheld from others.” And in the OED entry for “homely,” there is also this note: “In several cognate Germanic languages, the parallel adjective shows a semantic development from ‘private’ to ‘secret, clandestine’ or ‘mysterious’.”

Freud’s explication of the uncanny is largely focused on this seeming paradox, wherein heimlich and unheimlich come to have a significant semantic overlap. His thesis, moving beyond the simplistic understanding of the uncanny as merely weird and unfamiliar, posits that the unheimlich, the uncanny, has as much to do with revelation as it does with the unfamiliar. That is to say, the revelation of what is private and hidden; and most crucially, that which is hidden from the self as much as from others.

But what, you might ask, does this have to do with Rivendell? Quite a lot, I would argue. Tolkien might not have had much use for Freud, but he certainly had a lot of use for the OED (working as an editor on it was one of his first academic jobs), and one has to assume that given “homely’s” affinities with and roots in Germanic languages, he would have been well aware of its variegated meanings. Rivendell embodies both meanings of heimlich, in terms of its hominess, familiarity, and comfort—but also in terms of its secrecy and concealment. It is literally concealed, hidden among the valleys of the Misty Mountain foothills. This quality is less obvious in The Lord of the Rings, as Frodo is unconscious during the last leg of his journey from the Ford of Bruinen to Rivendell itself, and so has no memory of the hidden trail—unlike Bilbo’s experience In The Hobbit, in which the way to Rivendell is depicted as extremely tricky, with even Gandalf not entirely certain of his route. But Rivendell is also a place of concealment and secrets in a variety of other ways, not least of which is what it hides from the eye of Sauron: most prominently, Elrond (spoiler), as we discover in the final pages, is the wearer of one of the three Elven-Rings; Elrond’s ring however we can also read as representative of the practices and qualities of Elven-magic—felt but not seen, sensed but not grasped by those who are not themselves imbued with such power. Though Rivendell is advertised as the “Last” Homely House, we encounter a similar space when the Fellowship arrives in Lothlorien—and there the uncannier qualities of magic and power are more forcefully felt. Indeed, one of the significant moments of those chapters comes when Galadriel meets the gaze of each of the Fellowship in turn: “And with that word she held them with her eyes, and in silence looked searchingly at each of them in turn. None save Legolas and Aragorn could long endure her glance. Sam quickly blushed and hung his head.” Sam admits later that “She seemed to be looking inside me and asking me what I would do if she gave me the chance of flying back home to the Shire with a nice little hole with—with a bit of a garden of my own.” The rest of the company uneasily admits to having been similarly tempted; Sam’s embarrassed discomfiture, to my mind, perfectly expresses that aspect of the uncanny in which something previously hidden is revealed to the self. Galadriel’s test (which is turned around on her when Frodo offers her the Ring) is uncanny precisely because it makes explicit repressed desire to the self. That Sam’s unheimlich moment was precisely a desire for home articulates the way in which Tolkien’s figurations of home and power are really rather complex, if not in fact fraught.


I’ll end this post here, as it has grown well beyond what I had originally intended. Suffice to say, this particular thesis is still embryonic but evolving. I will continue this line of inquiry, as promised, with a post about what that “other world” I mentioned earlier might entail. Na lû e-govaned vîn, novaer.

Beyond the Old Forest by Ted Nasmith

Rivendell as illustrated by Ted Nasmith.

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In Defense of Tom Bombadil


There are few characters more loathed in the world of Tolkien fandom than poor Tom Bombadil, the odd little man who rescues the hobbits, first from the Old Forest, and then from the Barrow-wight. The antipathy is not overly surprising, considering just how bizarre his sudden appearance in the narrative is—to say nothing of just how bizarre his actual appearance is:

There was another burst of song, and then suddenly, hopping and dancing along the path, there appeared above the reeds an old battered hat with a tall crown and a long blue feather stuck in the band. With another hop and a bound there came into view a man, or so it seemed. At any rate he was too large for a hobbit, if not quite tall enough for one of the Big People, though he made noise enough for one, stumping along with great yellow boots on his thick legs, and charging through grass and rushes like a cow going down to drink. He had a blue coat and a long brown beard; his eyes were blue and bright, and his face was red as a ripe apple, but creased in a hundred wrinkles of laughter.


Tom Bombadil, as depicted by The Lord of the Rings Online

Matching his appearance is his singing, which is incessant and mostly nonsensical:

Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!

Tom comes along as a deus ex machina for the hobbits, very fortunately for them and for the narrative as a whole, but in such a way that is jarringly out of step with the tone and style of the rest of the novel. Even in these early chapters where Tolkien has not quite shaken off the vestiges of The Hobbit, Tom’s appearance is baffling (and I would also argue he would have even been a bit much for The Hobbit). He rescues them from Old Man Willow and gives them respite in his cottage for a couple of days while he tells them stories and his wife Goldberry the River-Daughter serves them meals.

Ironically, the reaction of most readers to Tom Bombadil is perhaps summed up best by Tolkien himself, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” when he takes issue with Coleridge’s formulation of “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

[T]his does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstances, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or shifted), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of art that has for us failed.

In other words, Tolkien’s gripe with Coleridge is the qualifier “willing”; a well-wrought story that does not transgress its own internal coherence does not require the reader to be “willing,” as the acceptance of that Secondary World is intuitive. Awareness of disbelief, he argues, is fundamentally at odds with belief.

I think it’s reasonably safe to say that if readers of The Lord of the Rings are going to have a moment of being jarred out of Middle-Earth, it is when they encounter Tom Bombadil: and unfortunately, that experience is only aggravated on re-reading, as one comes back to these early chapters knowing precisely how grave and serious the hobbits’ adventures become, and Tom’s nonsensical capering is dramatically more bizarre after having met the Uruk-Hai, Shelob, and seen the true terror of the Nazgul. The great temptation with Tom is to dismiss him out of hand—he is such a ludicrous character, so obviously plucked from children’s tales, that one wonders exactly what Tolkien was thinking. Everything about him, from his appearance to his nonsense rhymes, seems designed for little more than making small children laugh. Indeed, that is precisely his genesis: Tolkien invented him around or about 1934, in a poem called “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.” This poem, along with a collection of other mostly comic poems about animals and nature, was published in 1962. The poem details a series of minor adventures that begin with Tom resting by the side of the river Withywindle, dangling his beard in the water. Goldberry the river-daughter yanks him into the river teasingly. Irritated, Tom dries out underneath Old Man Willow, who sings Tom to sleep and traps him precisely as he would later trap Merry and Pippin:

Up woke Willow-man, began upon his singing,
sang Tom fast asleep under branches swinging;
in a crack caught him tight: snick! it closed together,
trapped Tom Bombadil, coat and hat and feather.

Tom commands Willow-man to release him, which he does, but is then waylaid by a badger, who drags Tom down into his lair and promises him he’ll never escape. But again Tom rebukes his captor, who, chastened, releases him (basically it seems as though Tom’s principal response to adversity is to speak sternly to it). Tom returns aboveground to his home, only to discover an unwelcome visitor:

Dusk came under Hill. Tom, he lit a candle;
upstairs creaking went, turned the door-handle.
“Hooo. Tom Bombadil. Look what night has brought you!
I’m here behind the door. Now at last I’ve caught you!

You’d forgotten Barrow-wight dwelling in the old mound
up there on hill-top with the ring of stones round.
He’s got loose again. Under earth he’ll take you.
Poor Tom Bombadil! Pale and cold he’ll make you!”

But again through his super-power of speaking sternly, he puts the Barrow-wight to flight, and then the next day goes and repays Goldberry for her mischief by abducting her and compelling her to marry him. The end.

If nothing else, this earlier version of Tom is intriguing because we see the raw material of the three chapters that have so irked a lot of Tolkien readers: the Willow trapping an unwary person, the Barrow-wight, and of course Tom himself and his love of Golberry (though his interactions with her in the novel are less kidnappy). All is presented here in lighthearted fashion: both Old Man Willow and the Barrow-wight (especially the Barrow-wight) are far more sinister in The Lord of the Rings—in this poem, they’re comic villains easily dispatched by Bombadil. They are just as (apparently) easy for him to dispatch in The Lord of the Rings, but because their prey is unwary mortals, we have a more profound sense of just how dangerous they are.

So who is Tom Bombadil? How does he fit into the larger mythos of Middle-Earth? Is he, as some assume, merely an anomaly? It is tempting to see him as something Tolkien threw in while he was still finding his way with this—one of the most-quoted passages from Tolkien’s letters is where he describes the process of writing LotR as an adventure in itself, that he was as surprised by his heroes’ encounters as they were. The first eight chapters carry much of the spirit of The Hobbit—but did Tolkien write Tom Bombadil, cannibalizing his earlier poems, when he still had the sense his new book would be much like the last? And then, having written him, was he reluctant to edit Bombadil out?

It is a tempting reading, but as I drill into my students every year, our job isn’t to speculate on what a writer may have intended, but to work with what is present in the text itself. And while Tom Bombadil seems like a complete anachronism, he is nevertheless folded into the novel’s history and mythology when the hobbits arrive at Rivendell. Elrond has this to say about Bombadil:

I had forgotten Bombadil, if indeed this is still the same that walked the woods and hills long ago, and even then was older than the old. That was not then his name Irwain Ben-adar we called him, oldest and fatherless. But many another name he has since been given by other folk: Forn by the Dwarves, Orald by Northern Men, and other names beside.

Given that he seems to precede the elves and the strife and conflicts of Middle-Earth, he is a being out of time. As Gandalf says, “the Ring has no power over him. He is his own master. But he cannot alter the Ring itself, nor break its power over others. And now he has withdrawn into a little land, within bounds that he has set … and he will not step beyond them.”  If my speculation is correct and Tolkien wrote the Bombadil sequences before he had a grasp of where LotR was going, he at least did a yeoman’s job of building him into the mythology.

(Which, of course, he also did with The Hobbit: both in terms of incorporating its “sequel” into the broader mythology he had been constructing for over twenty years, but also by offering supplementary material in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings and Unfinished Tales in which he made clear the fact that Bilbo’s adventure to the Lonely Mountain was a sideshow—orchestrated by Gandalf—to the broader conflict between the White Council and a re-emergent Sauron. If nothing else, the stubborn inclusion of Tom Bombadil is another example of Tolkien grafting his stories for his children onto his broader mythology).

If I were to make a more specific defense for poor Tom, however, it would be this: perhaps it has taken me multiple rereadings of this novel and that touch of world-weariness we all adopt as we age, but I now see in Tom Bombadil something of a poignant pathos. Who is he, after all? All we know is that he is ancient and immortal, and hugely powerful, but essentially indifferent to the travails of the world. The question I now find myself asking is why he chooses to be this person? Why, when you possess that sort of power, do you choose to dress so ludicrously (sort of like an inept wizard imitating a muggle, when you get down to it), limit your domain to a relatively tiny acreage of forest and down, and devote your days to capering through meadows singing nonsense verse?

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that there’s probably a good number of us who wouldn’t mind that kind of life (at least in retirement, if not necessarily in eternity), there is in that choice, I feel, a powerful undercurrent of melancholy: a deliberate withdrawal from the world “into a little land, within bounds that he has set,” as Gandalf says. As if, having seen too much of the world’s cruelty and pain, he wants nothing to do with it … which, incidentally, resonates with that crucial little moment when he puts on the Ring and nothing happens.

In my previous post I made the suggestion that forests in Middle-Earth are repositories of memory; if we glean nothing else from the hobbits’ encounter with Tom, we know that so is he. Elsewhere in the novel it is said that, to the elves, the lives of Men are like the passing seasons, or ripples on the water; Tom’s brief description of the rise and fall of kingdoms gives us a similar sense:

Suddenly Tom’s talk left the woods and went leaping up the young stream, over bubbling waterfalls, over pebbles and worn rocks, and among small flowers in close grass and wet crannies, wandering at last up to the Downs. They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again. A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind.

No wonder he’d rather spend his days roaming meadows and gathering water-lilies for his wife.


But to end on a cheerful note: many have speculated on what a confrontation between Tom Bombadil and Sauron might have looked like. Thanks to the internet, we now know.

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Filed under course readings, Return to Middle-Earth