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Tolkien's late self-critical period


Aug 10, 6:13pm

Post #1 of 6 (881 views)
Tolkien's late self-critical period Can't Post

I originally posted this on another forum but it's not very active now, so thought I would put it here...

One thing that's interesting about Unfinished Tales and the later volumes of History of Middle-Earth is Tolkien taking a self-critical eye toward certain aspects of the legendarium. There is more that could be talked about than I discuss, some of it seemingly pedantic like worries about the sun and moon. But I will focus on a few things related to aspects of Tolkien that are contentious nowadays.

The orcs
This is the most obvious one, because Tolkien said pretty explicitly they were a mistake - when discussing Tolkien and race, both people criticizing and defending him would do well to note this. Tolkien really thought an irredeemably evil race was a problem with the legendarium. Part of what makes the orcs difficult is their inconsistent portrayal - a lot of the time they’re basically mindless constructs. But then you have bits like the end of book IV where they seem like actual individuals, even sympathetic to a degree - which actually kind of makes the problem worse. As we know, Tolkien never quite worked out a way to square the circle without messing with fixed canon, but he put a lot of time into trying.

Númenórean Imperialism
While not as drastic as the attempted revision of the orcs, this is something Tolkien explores more later on. Passages in HoME and UT are clear that the proto-Dunlendings were treated terribly and their later enmity in the Third Age was at least partly understandable. Tolkien even says that there was an element of simple supremacist ideology in the Numenoreans labeling other men as “lower” than themselves. And Tal-Elmar is a very late (edit: or perhaps not quite as late as I thought, though it doesn't change the point that much) aborted story from the perspective of the victims of Númenor.

It is important to note that contra some hostile readings, Tolkien had no love for the British Empire even earlier in his life - he was too premodern for that. And even earlier incarnations of the Númenórean story are at the very least ambivalent about the kingdom’s overseas ventures (though you can argue Gondor and Arnor have a soft imperialism implict in their founding). But regardless, he did re- examine this aspect of his world further.

Aldarion and Erendis
And then there’s this gem of a story that has unfortunately been basically forgotten. I think it can be read partly as a self-critique on gender - a story that shines a light on women who are left on the sidelines of all the male adventures (I of course realize that this is an oversimplification of Tolkien's depiction of women, especially when you include the First Age stories, but it's not entirely false). There is one speech where Erendis seems to voice this pretty explicitly, when she talks about how Númenórean men act as if they'll live forever while ignoring what their women want.

He has also been accused of idealizing his female characters at times. This probably has some grain of truth to it, but Erendis is a flawed female character in a human and well-developed way. I find Erendis the more sympathetic one though - she does become too bitter and harsh in the end, but only after putting up with Aldarion’s absences for decades and repeatedly forgiving him.

(On a side note, I find it interesting that one of Tolkien’s more direct references to sex is in the “my bed is cold” exchange - like he only feels the need to draw attention to it if it isn’t happening in a marriage).

And then I’ll go a step further and say A&E may even be a self-examination of Tolkien’s own marital imperfections. From Carpenter’s bio, his marriage was not always a Beren and Lúthien fairytale, and he could sometimes be distant and leave his wife isolated with his work. It’s not hard to see the parallels. If Beren and Lúthien is the idealized portrait of their courtship, Aldarion and Erendis could be the darker counterpart (exaggerated in the other direction of course, neither is strictly autobiographical).

I am being more speculative with A&E than the rest, but I don’t think my reading of it is too much of a stretch. Aldarion's adventures also have some tangential relevance to the theme of Númenórean imperialism, by the way.

I haven’t read that much secondary Tolkien scholarship (though I do own a couple of Flieger books, and of course Christopher has done a lot of scholarship himself), so i don’t know how much this has all been examined by Tolkien scholars.

To me, this only makes the legendarium richer, and that Tolkien was wiling to be self-critical later on makes me think more highly of him. Any thoughts?


Aug 12, 1:33pm

Post #2 of 6 (796 views)
'a way to square the circle without messing with fixed canon' [In reply to] Can't Post

Welcome to the Reading Room, kzer-za

'a way to square the circle without messing with fixed canon' - I think that was the problem - the more Tolkien invented, the more difficult it would be to keep it all ordered and consistent, at perhaps a time when Tolkien was coming to value order and consistency more than new invention. Prof Tom Shippey (in Road To Middle Earth) suggests that Tolkien came increasingly to be 'an author looking back over his own work and trying to reduce it to order. The menace in that, as everyone knows, is that with system comes rationalisation and lack of vitality.'

An additional factor, I think, is that what Tolkien was trying to reduce to order was many decades of work - quite likely his opinions and attitudes and interests had shifted with age, but there is his younger self firmly in print.

Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm


Aug 12, 4:17pm

Post #3 of 6 (789 views)
Agreed... [In reply to] Can't Post

I also believe that with Tolkien's own mortality creeping up on him, he considered reducing the pagan and animistic influences and reconcile the stories with the Christian symbology he recognized as underlying Lord of the Rings. In many ways it seemed he was trying like the Dark Age monks to Christianize Beowulf.

He considered Orcs having souls, that all evil was redeemable, and he tried to soften the harder edges of his more Norse narrative brutality, in much the same way he eliminated the rape reference in the story of Eöl and Aredhel. So too, eliminating the pagan and mythological creation of the sun and moon and the pre-existing lamps to accord with more of a biblical version of cosmology.

Fortunately, that brusque and dogmatic editing did not come to fruition and remained in brief sketches Tolkien occasionally rummaged from the recesses of his mind. And the totality of the story is much better and varied in the touchstones and allusions of a darker and more primitive mythos.

Please visit my blog...The Dark Elf File...a slighty skewed journal of music and literary comment, fan-fiction and interminable essays.


Aug 12, 5:10pm

Post #4 of 6 (782 views)
'he tried to soften the harder edges of his more Norse narrative brutality' [In reply to] Can't Post

I like the idea that this 'softening' might be an older Tolkien, Christianizing (in a very lose sense) his works. A creping 'kind-heartedness' is something Shippey also comments upon:

One may think that Tolkien was rightly pushing towards a clarification of his ‘mythology’. 5 Yet at the same time he was edging back from his long concern with heroic valour, or hobbitic moral courage. It has been remarked already that he was in minor matters kind-hearted. As The Lord of the Rings came to an end this temptation, too, grew upon him. Bill the pony is saved in The Return of the King. In the ‘Epilogue’ to that work, eventually printed in SD pp. 114–35, we learn that Shadowfax will be saved too, to be taken on the last ship from the Havens to Aman, simply because Gandalf could not bear the parting. This would be a failure of nerve in a work which had sacrificed Lórien, and Tolkien, having written it, wisely decided to leave it out.

"The Road to Middle-earth: How J. R. R. Tolkien created a new mythology (How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology)" by Tom Shippey

Shippey then goes on to lament the UT reworkings of the Disaster of the Gladden Fields, feeling that he undermines Isildur's corruption by the Ring, which is (Shippey argues) essential to the idea that nobody can bear it safely. Some time ago now, some of us discussed that UT chapter, and I quoted Shippey's thoughts on Isildur to start the debate. That's here - http://newboards.theonering.net/...i?post=716045#716045 should it be of interest.

Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm

The Shire

Aug 14, 8:07pm

Post #5 of 6 (645 views)
Square the Circle [In reply to] Can't Post

I have read many posts on this forum about the problem with immortality and orcs. I have no problem with it.I have read the Histories of Middle-Earth.
My thoughts with orcs is that any elvish spirit in the orc body is in such a painful state that the spiritwishes death. This death is indirectly achieved by having the conscious orc intellect enjoy violence.Elves can die from grief. I think orcs can too.
Could not elves in the Undying Lands meet in the Halls of Mandos elves twisted into orcs by Morgoth and later dying?What conversations were there? "Hey, I really hated being an orc, so kill any if you can."Then after the first Kinslaying War, the elves traveled to the Living Lands with this knowledge.That is no orc could be redeemed since the spirit in an orc would not be rational to seek everlasting peace.
Thus, Tolkien was true in stating that reckless killing is inhuman. He saw what he saw in the trenches.This is how deal with the issue with orcs and elvish ancestry.

Grey Havens

Aug 21, 1:40pm

Post #6 of 6 (579 views)
Shippey's quote [In reply to] Can't Post

In any case, Tolkien did add Shadowfax to the Grey Havens for the second edition Lord of the Rings (not that you said otherwise)

In general for the thread:

Also, I believe Tolkien solved his problem with the Two Trees and the Shape of the World, abandoning a more Elvish Silmarillion (Myths Transformed) as a whole, for a Mannish Silmarillion with Elvish elements, sometimes confusedly worked in, and characterizing the Akallabeth as a mixed tradition.


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