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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
Pathetic fallacy!


Apr 27 2013, 11:45am

Post #1 of 7 (319 views)
Pathetic fallacy! Can't Post

I had to look up what "pathetic fallacy" was when I came across a too-short discussion of it in an earlier read-through of "A Shortcut to Mushrooms". So here's an example of pathetic fallacy in a made- up non fantasy story:

A story set in 1950s Chicago. Our heroine is about to post a letter in which she's regretfully going to dump her boyfriend over some complicated misunderstanding. The storyteller has the gusty wind pluck at the letter, as if it wanted to rip it out of her hand before it could be posted. Obviously, the real-life wind can't "want" anything, so this is a device to heighten our unease as an audience about what she's doing. Or it suggests that at some levels she doesn't want to post the letter. And so on.

Fantasy writers have the problem (or opportunity) that what would have to be pathetic fallacy in 1950s Chicago could be for real in Middle-earth. I read it as very clear that the terrain and weather in The Old Forest are part of Old Man Williow's trap for the hobbits.

Conversely, the old Reading Romthread which started me off (
http://users.bestweb.net/~jfgm/Mushrooms%20Website/03A%20Discussion%20-%20Brigand%20RR%20Higher%20Powers.htm ) is about whether things that look like pathetic fallacy in A Shortcut to Mushrooms can be taken more literally. Maybe, the argument runs, the hobbits in A Shortcut... Are being helped out by a benign landscape (a power that the Shire has, maybe, or Higher Powers subtly helping out the quest). I hadn't tried viewing the story that way before. What do you all think?

Possibly this will go the way of my post about magical realism in Tolkien ( http://newboards.theonering.net/forum/gforum/perl/gforum.cgi?post=596988#596988 ) But these things can be fun even without any conclusions being reachable.

Disclaimers: The words of noWizardme may stand on their heads! I'm often wrong about things, and its fun to be taught more....

"nowimë I am in the West, and by other names in other lands. Mostly they just say 'Oh no it's him - look busy!' "

Grey Havens

Apr 27 2013, 2:48pm

Post #2 of 7 (166 views)
Wow, interesting idea! [In reply to] Can't Post

This is why it can be so much fun to read what others see in my favorite books. Smile

Regarding the idea that the landscape is helping the hobbits by steering them, unwitting, towards Farmer Maggot's land, I don't personally find it persuasive. My own feeling about those passages is that they (together with the occasional mentions of/appearances of the Black Riders) create suspense in this part of the book, making the sense of danger for the reader more varied manner than could be achieved using the Black Riders alone. So, we're not just afraid the hobbits will be run down - they might get lot and wander straight into these mysterious riders, or be trapped and exhausted by the thickets creating one of those nightmare scenarios where there is a need to run, but it is not possible.

Also, to me the descriptions especially of the thickets and undergrowth seeming to deliberately hinder the hobbits, ring very true. I enjoy hiking, and have occasionally gotten myself lost in the process (fortunately never in a dangerous manner), either due to poor trail markings or poor shortcut decisions. The ensuing attempts to get somewhere (like down, where I know there is a road or river I can follow where I shall find people who can direct me) sometimes involved pushing through undergrowth, and the descriptions in this section are exactly how it feels, particularly when one is already worried!

Of course, Tolkien was also an enthusiast for hiking and long rambles in the outdoors, so it is possible a similar experience inspired him to create this aspect in his subcreated world (only, "for real"). It just seems otherwise explainable, to me.

I'd never previously considered how convenient it was to "get lost" and wind up near Farmer Maggot's land. Though to me it sort of confirms the other hobbits' "belonging" in the quest even before their "conspiracy" is unmasked. While Frodo fears and has bad memories of Farmer Maggot - Pippin has a good relationship with him

Finally, I do agree that the difficulties caused by the landscape in the Old Forest are caused by Old Man Willow, and this is in contrast to my feeling that the events in the Shire are "natural". This inconsistency in my view is because I see a difference in the presentation of the events. I find Tom's comments that Old Man Willow about Old Man Willow's powers of "song" to be an explicit, in-text confirmation of this view, whereas I don't see a comparable declaration by a similarly authoritative character about the wind, woods, etc. of the Shire.

Gildor's remark about the protection of the Shire I take to indicate his awareness of the Rangers. The Shire is protected, and Frodo and the others have been protected in the past, but this protection is no longer enough to keep them safe from the dangers that now threaten them, (as the Nine are a threat the Rangers cannot keep out).

Thanks for linking the old discussion - I had never noticed the connection between that song and the Elves!


May 1 2013, 1:37am

Post #3 of 7 (94 views)
beer: the work of a higher power? [In reply to] Can't Post

Echoing arithmancer's comments, I am not sure that I think the Shire is acting as a "Higher power" in the same way that Old Man Willow is, but it does deserve some thought.

I have always been a proponent of landscape-as-character, particularly regarding Tolkien. His descriptions of landscapes and natural features always feel like more than "place-setting" to me, so as far as that goes, the Shire might be "acting" in a sense. What is unclear to me is how much agency landscape has (through itself or through "higher powers"), versus the simple desire of the characters (in this case) to remain at "home". The part of "A Shortcut..." that makes me lean even more in this direction is the conversation between Frodo, Sam, and Pippin:

'All right!!' said Pippin. 'I will follow you into every bog and ditch. But it is hard! I had counted on passing the Golden Perch at Stock before sundown. The best beer in the Eastfarthing, or used to be: it is a long time since I tasted it.
'That settles it!' said Frodo. 'Short cuts make delays, but inns make longer ones. At all costs we must keep you away from the Golden Perch. We want to get to Bucklebury before dark. What do you say, Sam?'
'I will go along with you Mr. Frodo,' said Sam (in spite of private misgiving and a deep regret for the best beer in the Eastfarthing.)

It seems to me that everything about the Shire is "designed" to keep them there -- including the promise of good beer! It is with great willpower and not little regret on Sam's part that they don't tarry a bit at the Golden Perch. But whether that is a "higher power" or simply the lure of comfort (of "home") is a fuzzy, thin grey line.

I also think it is a theme that runs through LOTR -- the safe, comfortable, enjoyable places seem like they want you to stay there longer (or, simply the reverse, you want to stay there longer.) This is true in Rivendell and Lothlorien, but I am not sure that even there the landscape is imbued with a higher (Elven) power that wants to keep the Hobbits safe, more like it is our natural desire to be happy and comfortable, therefore we want to stay.

However, I reiterate that I believe landscape has character in Middle-earth, and I very much like the idea that the Shire could be willing the Hobbits to dawdle. And so it appears I am waffling...


May 1 2013, 6:45am

Post #4 of 7 (79 views)
Hard to know, isn't it? [In reply to] Can't Post

I think these theories are impractical to prove or disprove - but that doesn't matter much, the thing is whether its fun to think about. Worst case scenario is that one comes up with an explain-everything with too little evidence theory, like a tall tree with hardly any roots.
(Like the "Gollum stole their pants" theory: http://newboards.theonering.net/forum/gforum/perl/gforum.cgi?post=600073#600073 )

Disclaimers: The words of noWizardme may stand on their heads! I'm often wrong about things, and its fun to be taught more....

"nowimë I am in the West, and by other names in other lands. Mostly they just say 'Oh no it's him - look busy!' "


May 2 2013, 3:24pm

Post #5 of 7 (72 views)
Magic as a state of mind? [In reply to] Can't Post

I agree with your idea that what might be a pathetic fallacy in the modern world may be true in Middle-earth. Not because conditions are different in Middle-earth, though - just because the inhabitants of Middle-earth have a different way of seeing. I'm getting this idea mostly from the writings of Owen Barfield, one of the Inklings who wrote a book called Poetic Diction in which he argues that in earliest times people didn't distinguish between what we would call "objective reality" and what we would now see as a poetic/mythic/metaphoric way of getting to the truth. It's not just that early people gave equal status to the two (objective vs poetic) ways of seeing, by the way - Barfield argues that for them there only was one way of seeing, so that a "magical" view of the world was completely mixed up with their everyday experience. Tolkien has a nice image describing this state of mind in On Fairy-stories:
Let us take what looks like a clear case of Olympian nature-myth: the Norse god Thórr. His name is Thunder, of which Thórr is the Norse form; and it is not difficult to interpret his hammer, Miöllnir, as lightning. Yet Thórr has (as far as our late records go) a very marked character, or personality, which cannot be found in thunder or in lightning, even though some details can, as it were, be related to these natural phenomena: for instance, his red beard, his loud voice and violent temper, his blundering and smashing strength. None the less it is asking a question without much meaning, if we inquire: Which came first, nature-allegories about personalized thunder in the mountains, splitting rocks and trees; or stories about an irascible, not very clever, redbeard farmer, of a strength beyond common measure, a person (in all but mere stature) very like the Northern farmers, the bœndr by whom Thórr was chiefly beloved? To a picture of such a man Thórr may be held to have “dwindled,” or from it the god may be held to have been enlarged. But I doubt whether either view is right—not by itself, not if you insist that one of these things must precede the other. It is more reasonable to suppose that the farmer popped up in the very moment when Thunder got a voice and face; that there was a distant growl of thunder in the hills every time a story-teller heard a farmer in a rage.
Thor and thunder exist together, as one idea, not as a duality made up of "objective reality" and "myth". I think from Tolkien's perspective we lost a very powerful way of thinkng when we insisted on splitting reality into two modes of thought. I suspect this unified state of mind is what makes the Elves so puzzled when the hobbits ask about magic - to them there is no need for magic as an external idea, because their deep understanding of nature means that magic is part and parcel of nature itself. It's we who have lost this special, unified way of seeing the world and instead want to analyse everything. As Gandalf says to Saruman, "he who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom".

The hobbits of the Shire have almost lost this unified way of seeing, and are more or less like us, especially the hard-headed ones like Sandyman and the Gaffer (who doesn't even recognise the magical nature of a Ringwraith when he's nose to nose with one!). Frodo and friends are much more open-minded to "songs and tales", and as they travel into Faerie they gradually become more and more aware of the magic hidden deep down in things. I think that in the early episodes in the Shire they are still on the boundary between the two states of seeing, and so they are not sure whether the natural world has sentience of its own or not. So we, and they, are left to wonder. And there's really no answer to the question that can satisfy our analytical modern way of thinking; to us it's always going to be on the magic/reality boundary - a boundary that doesn't exist once you're truly in Faerie, as you might say, and see the world as the Elves do, as a single unified "magical reality".

They went in, and Sam shut the door.
But even as he did so, he heard suddenly,
deep and unstilled,
the sigh and murmur of the Sea upon the shores of Middle-earth.
From the unpublished Epilogue to the Lord of the Rings

(This post was edited by FarFromHome on May 2 2013, 3:27pm)


May 2 2013, 3:44pm

Post #6 of 7 (61 views)
I quite agree [In reply to] Can't Post

especially about seeing the world in a unified way; things are not real or magical, they are both. I think it is something more than the sum of those two parts, however, and I also agree that we as a society have lost something the minute we decided it was "either magic or real".

I am currently reading Gossip from the Forest, Author: Maitland) which is an interesting treatment of (Teutonic) fairytales and forests. The part I read last night has some relevance here as it discussed the idea of magic in these tales. Maitland stresses that magic in the Teutonic fairytales is not learned -- it just is. I think this is an interesting point, because if something has to be learned as a topic separate from other topics, than it emphasizes the dichotomy between reality and magic. If, however, "magic" just "is" as part of the world (and Maitland again stresses that magic often comes in the form of natural conduits: birds, trees, flowers, etc.) then it emphasizes the more holistic viewpoint you brought out through the example of the Elves.

I wonder, then, if Tolkien wished to point out that if the magic needs to be learned separately from learning about natural things, then it is therefore unnatural (and perhaps tends toward evil)? I am thinking of Saruman (Curunir - emphasis on cleverness) and the darker "magics" of Middle-earth through Melkor and Sauron...


May 2 2013, 3:55pm

Post #7 of 7 (69 views)
Thank you both! [In reply to] Can't Post

Really interesting ideas (and looks like I need a copy of Poetic Diction !)

Disclaimers: The words of noWizardme may stand on their heads! I'm often wrong about things, and its fun to be taught more....

"nowimë I am in the West, and by other names in other lands. Mostly they just say 'Oh no it's him - look busy!' "


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