Thursday, May 10, 2018

Review: The Modern Scholar: Tolkein and the West

I was climbing Kings Ridge Road with the Western Wheelers on the tandem the other day. Right at the top, the pastoral scenery was glorious, my son was singing and telling everyone how much fun this was. Racers on some sort of timed event were passing us, but every one of them gave us a thumbs up. I found myself saying, "This is why people have kids, because if you're lucky, you get one like this one."

Indeed, Bowen's letting me recapture a bit of my childhood. From listening to the Hobbit with him to now listening/watching pieces of The Lord of the Rings and playing D&D, I'm reliving the part of the past when I first discovered the fantasy world that Tolkein created. But it also comes filtered with an adult perspective: that these books are deeply and fundamentally conservative and nostalgic in a way that I don't always agree with.

When I saw The Modern Scholar: Tolkein and the West go on sale on Audible, I picked it up for its excellent reviews, since it might make a good companion for the novel. (And there's that bit of me that says that I should also teach my son to read more deeply than the surface plot and characters in the novel, and for that to happen I myself have to understand the book at a deeper level)

Professor Michael Drout comes across as extremely earnest and of course, a Tolkein enthusiast. He points out several things that immediately hit me:
  • Tolkein is probably the most widely read poet in the past half century, since a lot of the book is in verse, and most books of poetry can't even come close to selling as well as his book.
  • Tolkein comes from academia, and the techniques of academic textual analysis and philology are deep in the book, in ways that I never realized. The parts where the characters go into full on verse? The part where Sam Gamgee speaks poetry that he couldn't have known? That's in the grand tradition of the study of Western Literature, where scholar after scholar might have come across the text and modified it, or written in the margins, and inserted stuff that might be out of place just because he/she knew something and thought it appropriate. That's why the language in the book is the way it is, and the pieces of the text disjointedly so.
  • There are repeated poems in the book, some of which show up in different versions, and it takes careful reading to discover why. The reader isn't meant to realize this, but this is used to evoke a sense in the reader of the change that has happened between the start and the finish. Prof. Drout mentions "The Road Goes Ever On and On" as being one that shows up 4 times, and the last 2 times is different from the first 2.
  • The sense of loss in the novel, The Lord of the Rings isn't solely about nostalgia. It's also a reflection of Tolkein's work as a philologist. Apparently, Western Literature has lost many stories and tales which are only known about because of references to them from works that survived. That sense of loss that Tolkein felt professionally also led to the themes of loss and corruption in the novel.
  • The last third of the Hobbit is a huge confusing mess, unlike the children's book it's intended to be. It's complicated enough that the multiple betrayals, negotiations and ultimate reconciliation can be viewed as the taking over of modern values over the ancient, honor-bound cultures that existed in Western Civilization before then.
There's much much more in the lecture series. Books covered individually are: The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, the Two Towers, the Return of the King, the Silmarillon, and Unfinished Tales. The lectures were so compelling that I found myself listening to the series from beginning to end, almost in a binge in just a week. It was entertaining, fun in a way I didn't expect to be, and now I feel better equipped to answer more questions from Bowen. In fact, I wonder if he'll find the analysis of The Hobbit interesting.

Highly recommended.
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