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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
Tolkien and the Tragic

Bombadil21
Bree


Jun 10 2013, 11:08am

Post #1 of 8 (268 views)
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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.

Regards
bombadil21


Rembrethil
Tol Eressea

Jun 10 2013, 1:03pm

Post #2 of 8 (143 views)
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Has it been ignored? [In reply to] Can't Post

I don't think that is has been consciously so. I think that it ( the tragic ) is the contrasting background for the eucotastrophic. We focus on the characters successes and we forget the suffering they went through. We'd miss it if it wee not there, but we really don't look for it. To me it becomes apparent in the low, sad portions of the books, when there seems no good end in sight.

As for the COH and the Sil, they were written ,or at least the notions of the stories were, Long before The Lord of the Rings. They also had differing purposes. The LotR was written as a sort of sequel to the Hobbit( correct me if I am wrong) and the Sil and other legendarium, were written to give a mythos to his world. Inspired by Norse mythology, I can see the similarities beween the Sil and mythology in general. THey all(mythology), have a sort of tragic streak to them, something he imitated so well to make it seem real.

My 2 cents.


Bombadil21
Bree


Jun 10 2013, 1:50pm

Post #3 of 8 (133 views)
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Eucatastrophe [In reply to] Can't Post

I not really arguing that the *tragic* in Armstrong's specific sense has been 'ignored', more that it has been under-recognized, and under valued. The 'Tolkien Professor', Dr. Olsen for example heavily emphasises 'eucatastrophe' and (I think) tends to overuse it.

It is certainly true that LOTR was written for a different "purpose", or at least under different circumstances, than the Silmarillion. Perhaps this is one reason for the differences in philosophical temperament between the two works.


CuriousG
Valinor


Jun 10 2013, 4:28pm

Post #4 of 8 (131 views)
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Tragedy has a slippery definition for me [In reply to] Can't Post

I agree with you that eucatastrophe is most often used to describe Tolkien's works, and tragedy is normally applied to Children of Hurin. I don't see too may sweeping descriptions of The Silmarillion as a tragic novel, though there are tragic elements.

Those are the broad brush strokes. As you note, tragic in a colloquial sense isn't as precise as the literary term, so colloquial tragic can just mean something bad happens, even randomly, like a car accident, vs a tragedy where a lot of forces build up around a person, hem them in, interfere with their choices and self-determination, and lead to miserable consequences. Given those distinctions, I think I'd say that the first sense applies to Theoden's death. It's like a car accident to me. I'd say the latter sense applies to Denethor's pyre since there were a lot of forces at work there.

What do you think of Frodo's overall story arc? I think it's tragic that he saves the world but no finds no peace from it and no rest or honor in the Shire. There's a nice touch about him going to Valinor that softens the blow, but I don't think it erases his tragic fate. Others call it eucatastrophe, though.

I think it was in one of his letters that Tolkien referred to Gollum's near-repentance outside Cirith Ungol as a tragedy perpetrated by Sam. The forces at work were Gollum's long past of evil coupled with his consuming obsession with the Ring and his deep commitment to his plot with Shelob to betray the others. In spite of all that, other, positive forces converged and gave him a tiny, once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity to reclaim his hobbit roots, and Sam blew it. That was a tragic moment that wasn't a tragic story since it all happened in a moment.

I'm bouncing around on examples wondering if they meet your view of tragedy. I agree that it's there, but you often have to dig it up. Quite a few things may seem tragic on the surface, such as Gandalf's fall in Moria, but they later turn into eucatastrophes.


demnation
Rohan

Jun 10 2013, 10:59pm

Post #5 of 8 (100 views)
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I think Tolkien struck a good balance [In reply to] Can't Post

  I find the ending to LOTR (The Scouring of the Shire and The Grey Havens) to be almost unbearably tragic, and all the better for its subtly (unlike Children of Hurin, which I find beautiful in a different way). I appreciate LOTR for showing that there is beauty in sadness, and it really is one of the few works of fiction that give me the same kinds and degrees of feelings that I only otherwise get in real life.

My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself- J.R.R. Tolkien


Bombadil21
Bree


Jun 11 2013, 7:35am

Post #6 of 8 (101 views)
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Turin and Frodo [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To

Those are the broad brush strokes. As you note, tragic in a colloquial sense isn't as precise as the literary term, so colloquial tragic can just mean something bad happens, even randomly, like a car accident, vs a tragedy where a lot of forces build up around a person, hem them in, interfere with their choices and self-determination, and lead to miserable consequences. Given those distinctions, I think I'd say that the first sense applies to Theoden's death. It's like a car accident to me. I'd say the latter sense applies to Denethor's pyre since there were a lot of forces at work there.

What do you think of Frodo's overall story arc? I think it's tragic that he saves the world but no finds no peace from it and no rest or honor in the Shire. There's a nice touch about him going to Valinor that softens the blow, but I don't think it erases his tragic fate. Others call it eucatastrophe, though.


The distinction between colloquial 'tragedy' and the more 'refined' literary definition is important. In both cases the term still carries some ambiguity. In the literary sense I think it relates to the fundemental nature of the world being depicted. A *tragic* world is ultimately one in which providential or cosmic purposes fail to materialise. So, in Turin's story for example, his life serves no ultimate *purpose* as Frodo's does, and his suffering seems to serve no greater purpose either. It is highly consequential in the narrative (precipitates Fall of Nargothrond, etc), but within the frame of the story there doesn't seem to be any *reason* why, for example, Lalaith perishes. At least, no one can come up with one.

Furthermore, The Valar are not omnipresent, omnipotent, nor indeed omnibenevolent, so their perspective, while powerful, is also provisional. Even were Turin to take the advice of the Valar, he would not have moral certainty of his life choices. We might say he would be better off had he chosen listen to the advice of Ulmo, for instance, but we cannot know for certain that his life would have turned out for the better. Frodo can be sure that the purpose of destroying the Ring is the correct one, and that his suffering thereby attains meaning. Events that take place within the LoTR have purpose, they are sanctioned. In CoH, the closest we come to this is the "advice" of the Valar; there is no sense that events are meaningfully orchestrated by unseen benevolent powers.

The Valar are characters in the fiction, powerful characters, to be sure, but temporally and spatially limited, just like the Elves and Men (though to a lesser degree).

Turin does have access to aid, like Frodo, but not certain moral knowledge. That he chooses to reject the aid of the Valar does not amount to a rejection of divine will, merely a rejection of the advice of others in preference to his own council. We may say this is pride (and therefore a moral "sin"), but I don't agree with that interpretation. We might say that Turin should have responded favourably to the Valar, but once again, we are faced with the problem of Turin's epistemic uncertainty. Turin knows that the Valar are not omniscient, and that their advice is also partial, and contains within it a degree of uncertainty. Further, the Valar have shown disinterest to humans, by and large, Ulmo being the exception. How is Turin to know that Ulmo's advice has his best interests at heart? Ultimately Turin's actions are indeed motivated by a prideful pragmatism, but also by a lack of clarity. Turin cannot be said to take ultimate moral responsibility for his actions because he lacks full knowledge. He lacks full knowledge because his world (unlike that of LoTR, although that has issues as well) is not nurtured by some omnipotent creator god. Even if we say it is, it makes no logical sense.

The hobbits suffer in the shire under Saruman. Is their suffering meaningful? To a degree it is. It makes sense within the purview of the wider struggle between the West and Sauron/Saruman. It is not as purposefull, but it still has an explanation. Turin's choices to do not wholly create his suffering, they exacerbate it, for sure, but his suffering would have occured regardless. "Cruel fate" is emphasised by Tolkien in the novel, especially in terms of the death of his sister Lalaith, which no one can explain. Hurin blames Morgoth, but Lalaith's suffering and death has no certain explanation, and the Valar cannot field one.

Turin's story is therefore and interesting contrast to that of Frodo, who also suffers. The thrust of the story is Providential, however; Frodo is "meant" to have the ring. Turin is not "meant" to do anything. Personally I prefer his world, for all its tragedy, where the relationship between individual choice, chance and the curses of divine beings is highly ambiguous.


(This post was edited by Bombadil21 on Jun 11 2013, 7:39am)


demnation
Rohan

Jun 11 2013, 8:17am

Post #7 of 8 (94 views)
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Interesting take [In reply to] Can't Post

Personally, I find all the elements you refer to in your last sentence to be just as ambiguous in LOTR as they are in The Sil and COH. Your reply makes me insanely curious to what Tolkien himself would have thought: which one he perfers (LOTR or COH), what his real intentions were in writing them or if he thought if there was really any difference between them.

This is a great topic, BTW. So great, in fact, that I don't think I'll ever come up with a satisfactory reply. Wink

My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself- J.R.R. Tolkien


noWizardme
Grey Havens


Jun 16 2013, 10:59am

Post #8 of 8 (97 views)
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More than one way to set up a tradgedy? [In reply to] Can't Post

Interesting thread!: the idea is that literary tragedy is the failure of the expected goodness in the world to manifest? (Did i get that right?) I'm not sure that always works. I think that sometimes:

Quote
"Tragedy in dramatic terms is inevitable, pre-ordained."

That is, the character, usually the main one, brings their doom upon themselves. So in some tradgedies at least it's far from the case that life makes no sense- I see Saruman as a tragic character for example, because he self-destructs rather than because the gods fail to keep him on the path of virtue.

Its quote from the play Educting Rita. If you're not familiar with tgat stiry, it concerns Rita, a hairdresser with a keen mind but little formal education, who joins a literature course, with various amusing and touching consequences. In this scene, Rita's tutor is defining tradgedy, and contrasting it to mishap. The scene discusses why Macbeth is a tradgedy.

You can read the scene here (it's very good! )http://resources.mhs.vic.edu.au/...torical/tragedy.html

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

"nowimė I am in the West, Furincurunir to the Dwarves (or at least, to their best friend) and by other names in other lands. Mostly they just say 'Oh no it's him - look busy!' "
Or "Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!"

 
 

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