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Tolkien and the Tragic


Jun 10 2013, 11:08am

Views: 260
Tolkien and the Tragic Can't Post

In his book 'In Search of Civilization', philosopher John Armstrong writes that "An intense, unceasing demand from meaning - the longing for life to make beautiful benevolent sense - is coupled with the dawning, appalling fact that it does not, in the end, make sense in that way." (108) It has seemed to me recently, after reading the Lord of the Rings again, that Tolkien's work oscillates between two poles - the 'eucatstrophic' and the 'tragic'.

In fact I think these two philosophical poles embody competing visions of reality in Western philosophy and philosophic thought more generally (embodied in novels, art, etc). The 'eucatostrophic' vision does not deny the reality of suffering, but it does insist on an ultimate or 'cosmic' meaning for life, even (I think rather masochistically) that suffering itself may have some 'higher purpose'). I think when the Lord of the Rings is sometimes criticised, at best for an unwarrented optimism, or at worse for ignoring or euphamising the reality of suffering in war, there is a deeper insecurity at play on the part of the critic. Even though defenders point out that its ending is malencholic, and certainly not euphoric, it retains a vision of providential guidance, cosmic meaning and 'chance' as something more than chance. Hence the vision is 'eucatastrophic', a concept which Tolkien links to the Christian notion of 'grace' in 'On Fairy Stories'. This complex of associations is troublesome for some readers. For others, it speaks of ultimate hope and so serves as one of the chiefly enjoyable thematic elements of the romance.

The other vision, the tragic, is not really embodied anywhere in the Lord of the Rings itself. Certainly there are elements of the novel that are deeply malencholic and tragic in a more colloquial sense: the death of Theoden, for example, or the Pire of Denethor. Nevertheless, the tragic, in Armstrong's more specific sense, is absent. The Silmarillion and the Children of Hurin better represent Tolkien's vision of the tragic, especially the latter. This is not to argue that Tolkien himself consciously chose to depict a providential and then a tragic vision of his legendarium, but I would argue that there are indeed deep philosophical differences between LOTR on the one and the Sil/COH on the other.

As a matter of taste, I prefer Tolkien's tragic vision, because it better accords with my own vision of life. I do not deny the need for and importance of meaningfulness in life, but I do not see it as emenating from any outward source. As such, I am arguing here as a non-religious and non-'eucatastrophe' believing Tolkien fan. I certainly admire all his work, and I continue to enjoy reading LOTR, but I think the 'tragic' in Tolkien has been under emphasised.

His whole legenderium has been interpreted through the lense of 'On Fairy Stories', and more broadly, the individual work, The Lord of the Rings. I think this has been a mistake: though his stories are set in the world of "Arda" his individual works, as texts, though sharing much in common, are also variant in the emphasis they place on the 'eucatastrophic' and the 'tragic' visions of life.

I do not claim here to have done this argument justice, and I hope to extend it in further posting, but I'd be interested in your thoughts.


Subject User Time
Tolkien and the Tragic Bombadil21 Send a private message to Bombadil21 Jun 10 2013, 11:08am
    Has it been ignored? Rembrethil Send a private message to Rembrethil Jun 10 2013, 1:03pm
        Eucatastrophe Bombadil21 Send a private message to Bombadil21 Jun 10 2013, 1:50pm
    Tragedy has a slippery definition for me CuriousG Send a private message to CuriousG Jun 10 2013, 4:28pm
        Turin and Frodo Bombadil21 Send a private message to Bombadil21 Jun 11 2013, 7:35am
            Interesting take demnation Send a private message to demnation Jun 11 2013, 8:17am
        More than one way to set up a tradgedy? noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Jun 16 2013, 10:59am
    I think Tolkien struck a good balance demnation Send a private message to demnation Jun 10 2013, 10:59pm


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