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Tolkien and technology: fall, mortality, and the machine

News from Bree
spymaster@theonering.net

Jul 29 2012, 7:45pm

Post #1 of 13 (558 views)
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Tolkien and technology: fall, mortality, and the machine Can't Post

Alan Jacobs muses in The Atlantic that "from the beginnings of modern fantasy, in the work of Tolkien, technology has always been the enemy of the good life. But does it have to be that way?"

It's an interesting thought piece that draws on some key comments Tolkien made in letters around the time Lord of the Rings was published.

"Anyway all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine." Letter 131. Letters of JRR Tolkien.

[More]


SirDennisC
Half-elven


Jul 30 2012, 1:35am

Post #2 of 13 (214 views)
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Nice little article but a little light on [In reply to] Can't Post

what Tolkien himself thought about technology.

I'm immediately struck by the irony that our desire for fantasy has been a driver of technological development, least ways in the entertainment sector.


Tweezers of Thu
Rivendell


Jul 30 2012, 12:52pm

Post #3 of 13 (189 views)
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If you (or others) haven't already read it.... [In reply to] Can't Post

...might I suggest having a look at the "Environment" entry in Scull and Hammond's The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader's Guide, Houghton Mifflin Boston NY, 2006, pp. 253 - 258? That offers a good summary, garnered from Tolkien's writings (letters, etc.), of the old Oxford don's take on technology. If you're familiar with this material already, my apologies for the redundancy.

You're right: Jacob's article, although written well enough, offers nothing new. IMO, David Brin's We Hobbits are a Merry Folk and Henry Gee's commentary throughout The Science of Middle-earth make for much better (and provocative) reading.



A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. ~~ Henry David Thoreau




Voronwë_the_Faithful
Valinor

Jul 30 2012, 2:13pm

Post #4 of 13 (171 views)
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Nice to see, though [In reply to] Can't Post

That they don't present material from the films as if it were what Tolkien wrote. That seems to be common in the mainstream media. I thought it was a worthwhile little article.

'But very bright were the stars upon the margin of the world, when at times the clouds about the West were drawn aside.'

The Hall of Fire


Curious
Half-elven


Jul 30 2012, 3:25pm

Post #5 of 13 (155 views)
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There is good technology in Tolkien's world. [In reply to] Can't Post

Quite a bit of it, in fact, especially if we count biotechnology such as the Two Trees, as well as the cities and boats and various artifacts of Valinor. Feanor is the best artisan among the elves, and the Silmarils are not just good, but holy and sacred -- yet, in a sense, they are the products of technology.

What Tolkien distrusts is mass production. He glorifies smiths, but hates assembly lines. There's often an assumption that mass-produced goods are worse than individually-crafted artifacts, but in fact a Toyota is much more reliable than a Rolls Royce. In fantasy, though, and particularly in Tolkien's fantasy, that's not the way it works. The very best technology was the first, starting with the creations of the Valar, of which everything else is an echo, usually in a degraded form. Even weapons are better if they are older, and more numerous but less reliable if they are new.


SirDennisC
Half-elven


Jul 30 2012, 5:11pm

Post #6 of 13 (152 views)
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A very good point [In reply to] Can't Post

it is evidence too that although the impending films might explain the timing of this article, that "Tolkien" is a separate and interesting topic in its own right.

Another bit of irony is how both LOTR and now TH (movies) were used to introduce (some might say push) radically new technology to the film industry. Perhaps this will drive people to the existing refuge of the books all over again.

To Tweezers of Thu, Thank you so much for the links!


(This post was edited by SirDennisC on Jul 30 2012, 5:12pm)


Otaku-sempai
Half-elven


Jul 30 2012, 5:27pm

Post #7 of 13 (175 views)
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Evidence that Technology and Magic are not inherently in opposition [In reply to] Can't Post

In the last few years I have noted a cross-pollenation between the steampunk and fantasy genres, especially in Terry Pratchett's Discworld and the Dungeons & Dragons setting of Errebor. In both, the technology is magically based for the most part, often powered (for example) by Elementals.

I've also seen this in the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender (and its follow-up The Legend of Korra), where the Fire Nation is the most technologically advanced civilization in its world and that tech is powered by the innate ability of Firebenders, individuals with the talent to create and manipulate fire without the use of tools. Earth-, Air- and Waterbenders all have their own technologies, based on their respective bending abilities. The Legend of Korra is set some seventy years after the previous show and the World of the Four Nations has experienced its own Industrial Revolution, where technologies have been developed (such as the internal combustion engine) that do not rely on bending abilities. This has spawned conflicts between benders and non-benders.

"Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house." - Aragorn

(This post was edited by Otaku-sempai on Jul 30 2012, 5:28pm)


squire
Valinor


Jul 30 2012, 5:33pm

Post #8 of 13 (281 views)
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Speed up the belt, Sam, speed up the belt! [In reply to] Can't Post

I know what you are trying to say, but on a point of historical nicety: where does Tolkien say or imply that he "hates assembly lines"? The imagery of industrialism that stands for evil in the LotR is primarily the processes and the wastes of the early primary-production factory era: steam, iron wheels, industrial sludge. Or he evokes simple slave labor and military regimentation, on the human side of the evil-doer's ledger. As is appropriate for a proto-medieval world like Middle-earth, these elements characterize the earliest industrial revolution and its factories. Those did not use assembly lines as we know them but rather organized large numbers of laborers to tend to giant production machines. I would argue that the hyper-rationalism of assembly lines, as such, is too modern even for Sauron and Saruman. They would be as jarring in the book as telegraph wires or the Numenoreans' quondam dreadnoughts.

And to harp just a little bit, using the term "biotechnology" as a description of the magical woods and plants of the Elves again flattens the fantasy beyond recognition. Actually, I wish people would also use "technology" a little less freely when talking about the artifacts of Middle-earth - it is a new term with overtones of a scientific approach to invention that makes it a poor metaphor for the artisanal tools and crafts of earlier eras.



squire online:
RR Discussions: The Valaquenta, A Shortcut to Mushrooms, and Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
Lights! Action! Discuss on the Movie board!: 'A Journey in the Dark'. and 'Designing The Two Towers'.
Footeramas: The 3rd (and NOW the 4th too!) TORn Reading Room LotR Discussion; and "Tolkien would have LOVED it!"
squiretalk introduces the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader's Diary


= Forum has no new posts. Forum needs no new posts.


Curious
Half-elven


Jul 30 2012, 8:33pm

Post #9 of 13 (147 views)
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Tolkien talks about mass production in On Fairy Stories, under Escape. [In reply to] Can't Post


Quote
For a trifling instance: not to mention (indeed not to parade) electric street-lamps of massproduced pattern in your tale is Escape (in that sense). But it may, almost certainly does, proceed from a considered disgust for so typical a product of the Robot Age, that combines elaboration and ingenuity of means with ugliness, and (often) with inferiority of result.


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Not long ago—incredible though it may seem—I heard a clerk of Oxenford declare that he “welcomed” the proximity of mass-production robot factories, and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic, because it brought his university into “contact with real life.”


Quote
The maddest castle that ever came out of a giant's bag in a wild Gaelic story is not only much less ugly than a robot-factory, it is also (to use a very modern phrase) “in a very real sense” a great deal more real.



(This post was edited by Curious on Jul 30 2012, 8:38pm)


Curious
Half-elven


Jul 30 2012, 8:43pm

Post #10 of 13 (157 views)
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I'm having trouble with the edit function, so let me add here [In reply to] Can't Post

that I didn't say Saruman or the orcs or Sauron ever used assembly lines, I just said that Tolkien made a distinction between mass production and artisanship. I think he would argue that Sauron and Saruman and the orcs represent the kind of technology exemplified in the assembly line -- cleverness combined with ugliness, transience, and disregard for people and the environment. To actually put an assembly line in Middle-earth would be too much of an anachronism, but we can see the direction in which technology would head if the bad guys were in charge, and we can see echos (or foreshadowing?) of 20th century horrors in LotR.


(This post was edited by Curious on Jul 30 2012, 8:47pm)


justbennett
The Shire

Aug 1 2012, 5:50am

Post #11 of 13 (135 views)
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Interesting Reaction [In reply to] Can't Post

 
I think I feel the opposite. I was refreshed with the "unmagicalness" of Tolkien's books. The examples that Curious mentioned do appear magical to the reader and even most of the characters in the story, but there is an underlying sense that the magic was learned, developed, and passed on just the way that technological knowledge is. I don't know if he meant them to be synonymous, but there are definitely parallels between magic in Middle Earth and technology in regular Earth.


squire
Valinor


Aug 1 2012, 11:57am

Post #12 of 13 (164 views)
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I agree about the parallels [In reply to] Can't Post

I just disagree with the transition from parallelism to synonymity.

I think Tolkien's idea of magic does have the qualities of being a learned craft, as you say. That parallels the pre-industrial model of learning ones craft as a smith or artisan, where tradition and past knowledge are not systematized but simply organized. It is the systematic and theoretical aspect of invention and technics that makes "technology" today so different from earlier modes of tool-making, and that aspect in my opinion is as absent from Tolkien's magics as it is from the medievalized "reality" of the world he places the magic in.



squire online:
RR Discussions: The Valaquenta, A Shortcut to Mushrooms, and Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
Lights! Action! Discuss on the Movie board!: 'A Journey in the Dark'. and 'Designing The Two Towers'.
Footeramas: The 3rd (and NOW the 4th too!) TORn Reading Room LotR Discussion; and "Tolkien would have LOVED it!"
squiretalk introduces the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader's Diary


= Forum has no new posts. Forum needs no new posts.


justbennett
The Shire

Aug 6 2012, 9:06pm

Post #13 of 13 (225 views)
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Yes, but what if [In reply to] Can't Post

 
I think I see the distinction you make. Basically, the scientific method has allowed us to predict the behavior of technology even before we create it to a degree unimaginable in the rest of history. But imagine a few thousand years from now after our society fails and we loose most of our knowledge to the swine flu or nuclear war or whatever. What if only legends of our time survive and little or none of the technical know how? Wouldn't the internet and spacecraft sound pretty magical without the underlying basic understanding of how those things worked? Imagine explaining mobile phones to someone who lived 300 years ago.

"I come from a place where everyone carries a small device that lets them instantly send messages, images and even speech to anyone else with one of these devices." For someone who doesn't know about computers, electromagnetism, plastics, batteries, satellites, etc. you might as well be describing a crystal ball that speaks to the dead. I'm not saying that Tolkien specifically meant magic to be synonymous to technology, but I like trying to think of it that way.

 
 

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