In my corner of the world, cold winds are lashing up rainstorms and snowfalls for the start of the new year: good days to stay cozy at home, to read, think, and write. To accompany any reading or re-reading of Tolkien in this winter season, I thought that it would be fun to highlight every weekend a podcast or video featuring a different Tolkien scholar: a “Talks on Tolkien” series. Some of the videos and podcasts will be recent; others buried a little further in the files of the web, but all, I hope, thought-provoking and informative.
Because I’m posting the first selection late in this weekend, I’ll keep it short, a twenty-minute video by a foremost Tolkien scholar, Verlyn Flieger, who is one of my favorite critics. In this talk, “Imaginary Creatures — Real Experience,” Professor Flieger, I believe, gets to the core of The Lord of the Rings and argues that it is not the simplistic good vs. evil story many people think it is.
Recently, an opposing opinion has been expressed by the writer Michael Moorcock in an interview on Dr. Karl Siegfried’s Norse Mythology Blog. In Part Two of that interview, Moorcock says that “it’s the simplification, rejection of the world’s complexity, that discomforts me with Tolkien.” Take a look at Moorcock’s argument; listen to Flieger’s in the video. Let me know what you think!
(In case you can’t see the video on your device, try this link: http://youtu.be/q87vHzNFadU)
Coming up in the next few weeks: talks by Tom Shippey, Michael Drout, Dimitra Fimi, John Garth, Janet Brennan Croft, John D. Rateliff, and more. Check back every Friday or Saturday for the next installment of “Talks on Tolkien.” And please note: my intention is to curate a series of already-available resources online; I’m not planning on producing any new talks on Tolkien, though I do hope I can suggest some interesting contexts for my selections.
You can find out more about Verlyn Flieger’s work on her website, mythus.com.
Comments / discussions are welcome!
6 responses to “New winter series: Talks on Tolkien”
This is a wonderful idea, Anna, particularly if you put them in perspective as with the recent Moorcock interview via Norse Mythology.
I think it is most definitely worth highlighting the great material out there – it just doesn’t get the credit it derserves. Kudos!
Thanks, Marcel. I’m glad you like the idea. You have a great collection of videos on your site too; I’ll be looking to see if I can pair anything up with my selections. I did think that instead of just posting links to videos, it would also be a good idea to try to provide some context or create a discussion by connecting the videos or podcasts to larger issues. That way people can take as much or as little as they like from the post — they can just listen to the video/podcast or go beyond to other materials.
I’m not teaching a Tolkien course this semester, which is probably why I’ve felt the urge to replace that experience with the idea of prompting discussion topics here! I wonder if anyone will use this series to supplement class discussions in a Tolkien course.
I think this is an absolutely splendid idea – to provide a thought-provoking (or entertaining or …) context to any such video you may promote via your blog. One of the negative side-effects of the web is that relevant and/or important sources of information are relegated to 2nd or 3rd place in comparison to the popular ones – which need not be bad but often are…
[…] Author of the Century. As usual, his talk is lively, opinionated, informed, and interesting. As with last week’s talk by Verlyn Flieger, Shippey offers an approach to thinking about Tolkien’s fiction in […]
I’ll start out with the easy part, “what Marcel said” 😉
I am somewhat surprised that Moorcock doesn’t see (or read) beyond this primitive bipolar reading (when all is said and done, any story will have an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, even if these may change for the next instalment). I haven’t read any of his work, so I cannot compare to his own fiction, and I will refrain from guesses as to why he doesn’t see beyond this level.
One thing that I have noticed about Tolkien is that he never describes things in bipolar terms. Tolkien does not set up just good vs. evil, or fate vs. free will, or (having also just seen the next instalment) the love of trees vs. the hatred of trees.
For the most part Tolkien, in his fiction, describes his Secondary World in extremely realistic terms – there is surprisingly little actual magic in Tolkien’s world, and particularly the ‘laws’ of causality and of human nature follow Tolkien’s beliefs on how these work in the Primary World.
This means that there is certainly an absolute Good in Tolkien’s sub-creation, but He is never seen in The Lord of the Rings. It also means that evil is a privation of good, so that there is no absolute evil. And because you can fail in goodness in many ways, there are no one evil. The Lord of the Rings, once you stop to think of it for a bit, becomes a book that does not set good against evil, but which rather sets different ways and degrees of falling from goodness against each other in a complex dance.
You might say that Tolkien’s world is monopolar (in the good/evil sense), but by hiding the one monopole, Tolkien leaves us with a complex pattern of different positions. The same could be said of his portrayal of fate and free will – there is the hidden monopole, “the one wholly free Will and Agent” as Tolkien puts it in letter no. 156 (November 1954), and then there are all the other agents, who relates to this monopole in different ways, with differing freedoms in differing degrees. What we get in Tolkien’s stories (outside of the Ainulindalë) is the interactions of all these different agents rather than interactions between two absolutes.
All of it very much ‘as I currently see it’, of course,
Thanks for your comment, Troels. I can only say in response “what Troels said.” 🙂 I agree with your views about the different degrees of falling from goodness that Tolkien shows us, and I have to say that I am surprised when I read other authors who believe that Tolkien gives us a simple good vs. evil story. I remember hearing a radio interview with Philip Pullman several years ago in which he stated that Tolkien writes a simple story in which good triumphs over all. He even stated that Frodo destroys the Ring and then everything ends happily ever after! (Or words to that effect). I wonder if sometimes people are remembering their childhood readings of Tolkien when they might not have understood the complexity of his books, or maybe they just want to make Tolkien into a figure they can reject for political, religious, or literary reasons.
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