Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Tolkien Mystery


I’ve been a mostly consistent reader of the New Yorker for more than forty years, since I discovered it, very improbably, in an elementary school library. I’ve read the magazine during the long sunset of William Shawn’s editorship, through Gotlieb’s, through Tina Brown’s revolution and have been delighted by David Remnick’s elevation of the magazine even as he’s broadened it to have a strong web presence and character. I’ve grown particularly fond of several of the staff such as Steve Coll, George Packer and Adam Gopnik. Gopnik’s recent personal essay, in particular, relating his experience as an art historian learning to draw was both delightful and revelatory as only the best personal essays can be. Somewhat to my surprise, I find myself reading the magazine cover to cover most weeks.

All of which is pertinent because I found Gopnik’s most recent article “The Dragon’s Egg” about fantasy literature so deeply disappointing and provocative at the same time. The subtitle of the article is “High Fantasy for Young Adults,” which gives a lot away. It was as if I’d stepped back in time to the 1970’s when there existed, more or less, a coherent literary establishment which pronounced judgment on fantasy as not serious and suitable only for young adults. Gopnik’s more than reductive set of examples includes Paolini, Tolkien, Stephanie Meyer with nods to Terry Brooks J. K. Rowling and T. H. White. Gopnik admit’s to a sneaking admiration for the intensity of emotion of Meyer’s characters but at best damns the rather curious collection of authors with faint praise while making time to suggest that for the most part fantasy fiction has the same plot that Tolkien revived from the Nibelungenlied.

I don’t read that much fantasy but even in my limited experience that criticism rings particularly hollow and ironic especially when George R. R. Martin’s highly sexed and discordant series has entered popular cultural via a very successful HBO mini-series.

I wouldn’t take time to comment except that Gopnik’s piece is provocative in an entirely different way. Midway through he attempts to identify what makes Tolkien’s fiction compelling. He writes,

"This is surely the most significant of the elements that Tolkien brought to fantasy. It’s true that his fantasies are uniquely “thought through”: every creature has its own origin story, script, or grammar; nothing is gratuitous. But even more compelling was his arranged marriage between the Elder Edda and “The Wind in the Willows”—big Icelandic romance and small-scale, cozy English children’s book. The story told by “The Lord of the Rings” is essentially what would happen if Mole and Ratty got drafted into the Nibelungenlied."

Now this is interesting. But it’s just a start, and the same start others have made, in trying to understand what makes Tolkien's fiction important, compelling and lasting. I recall a rather dismissive article the late John Gardner wrote in which he described rereading Tolkien and found so many reasons to dismiss it even as he himself was attempting to legitimize fantasy with his dark fictions such as Grendel. The truth is I’ve never read any criticism that provides anything like a comprehensive exegesis of the strength of Tolkien’s work. My sense is that that is still a mystery hidden in the plain sight of popular culture.