Apprenticing with the Dead: Reading Tolkien 35 Years Late

When I was in high school in the late 1970s, everybody was reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I resisted, for reasons I didn’t fully understand at the time.

I think if you’d asked me then, I would have said that I was uneasy with the simple black-and-white, Good vs. Evil setup. Good is Us and Evil is Them, and it seemed an actively dangerous way to think about it. As a student of medieval philosophy, I understood that Evil was a tricky business not of presence but absence. Not to mention the racial overtones, which others abler than I have unpacked at length, and the sex-stereotyping by the overwhelmingly male cohort of 1970s sword-and-sorcery writers.

Then there was the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, which I met in passing in college, and found rather uninteresting as storytelling. At 12, I might have found it enchanting, but by 17, I had been thoroughly infected by a combination of Russian novelists and American New Wave science-fiction writers. I had acquired a taste for complexity — the more the better — and demanded a substantial dose of philosophy with my literature.

Over the course of decades, I found my way to the writing of fantasy, but by a very different route. In 1998, I saw Marcie Rendon‘s play Songcatcher (available in this anthology) which drove home for me what ghosts are: nothing more or less than the persistently unresolved past, both individual and collective. The dead are very much with us, in the consequences of their actions.

Behind that supernatural setup, the play was based upon solid research — in fact, it was produced at the Minnesota History Theater,  which specializes in same. ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,’ as Emily Dickinson put it. History need not be told as pageant or as realist drama; there are other, more direct roads to apprehension of truth: fantasy and humor. Rendon’s other work ranges from children’s books to salty satire about the for-profit appropriation of Native American spirituality.

In the line of major influences, I would mention Toni Morrison’s Beloved (most indubitably a ghost story) and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (a dystopic epic set in a future rooted in the current Californian landscape), Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (a tip-tilted phantasmagoric portrait of a capital city on the verge of revolution) and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, which begins with creation, then a bet between rival sorcerers, before opening onto the internal landscape of a Native American veteran come home from Japanese captivity in WWII.

Every few years, I reread Petersburg and Ceremony. Those terrifying landscapes reassure that me that what I feel moving under my feet is real. Any landscape is four-dimensional. The past is a character. “Dead is dead, but dead is not done,” as Gertrude Stein put it in The Making of Americans. At every scale — individual, family, language, nationality, city — we are born into trouble that someone else made in their time.

Which brings me back to Tolkien, and my experience of reading him now, thirty-five years late.

Tolkien’s academic training and practice was in linguistics. His world-building draws on the English landscape and the roots of the English language as it evolved in England. He is as deeply rooted in his language and culture as it is possible for a writer to be. His geography is well-realized and I am reading the book without resort to the maps with little or no confusion. (Certainly I draw maps and timelines when I world-build, but the reader should not require them.)

It’s not to say that American writers should only write American landscapes, but they should question the urge to foreign travel. Many of Tolkien’s 1970s sword-and-sorcery imitators are American, and I read, in all of this harking-back to some ill-conceived pseudo-medieval society, a disinclination to look too closely at our own history.  Truth does not live only in special places Elsewhere, whether on the arid escarpments of the Sinai Peninsula, under a fig tree in India three centuries before the Common Era, or in the green and pleasant land of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. One can receive revelations in Upper Midwestern thunderstorms.

Like Rendon, Butler, Morrison, and Silko, I find my richest sources in matters both American and nonfictional, and I expect I will still be drawing up water from that well for years to come. The thirty-five year delay has allowed me to read Tolkien as a colleague, but by no means a model to be imitated slavishly.

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2 Responses to Apprenticing with the Dead: Reading Tolkien 35 Years Late

  1. Jean Lamb says:

    Yes, there are a lot of other sources to draw from for fantasy (just finished Butler’s Mind of My Mind, a very interesting prequel to Patternmaster). I enjoyed Gaiman’s American Gods, but was sadly disappointed to see few really native ones (his faves all seemed to be imports, as far as i could tell. Where was Grandmother Spider? Where was Elvis?). Ahem. Before Orson Scott Card became…different, I very much enjoyed his Alvin Maker books, though I found the ending not what i was hoping for (you don’t have to know a whole lot about Joseph Smith, though it helps). The American experience is rich. Though if one must steal European influences, the non-bedroom activities of a certain Chevalier de Seingault were varied. Really varied. Apparently he was an extremely energetic individual out of bed, too. There are other individuals in European history (imagine, if you will, Catherine the Great meeting Rasputin. If you can’t have fun with that, you are in the wrong business, just sayin’). Life, and writing, can be much more multidimensional than how Tolkien wrote. Oh, if you haven’t read it already, read Mary Gentle’s GRUNTS. Orcs with half-tracks and other modern weapons of destruction. Halfings with um, interesting eating habits…). i wonder where I left my copy?

    • epbeaumont says:

      The reading list expands by leaps and bounds… but what is new? Catherine the Great is one of my favorite historical characters; she did meet (among many others) Casanova, and they talked about — calendar reform. 🙂 I nickname her Kate the Collector, because of the thousands of paintings she added to the royal collections that later became the Hermitage (many of which were still uncrated when she died, given the sheer volume of the collection effort.) And have you met her friend the Princess Dashkova, who took part in a coup d’etat in her youth (disguised as one of the royal guard) and in older years was the first head of the Academy of Sciences?

      Tolkien is a great role model to me because he was rooted in his own landscape, and I think it helps immensely to have met him as an adult, more or less fully formed writer. Others had the honor of forming me as an adolescent reader, including many of our ‘new-wave’ (now ‘classic’) science-fiction writers (LeGuin, Russ, Butler all had a part in my education.)

      The richness and variety of North American culture staggers me the more I learn. The 30-some language groups (where Europe has ‘Indo-European and one or two unclassifiables’), the tens-of-millennia historical foreground, the immense diversity of solutions to the ongoing problem of humans living with each other … all separated from us, and from the would-be inheritors, by the burnt-over ground of the Conquest and the ongoing physical and cultural genocide. (Native spiritual practices only became legal in the US and Canada in my lifetime.) Which really makes Gaiman’s omission inexcusable, Furriner or not.

      Perversely enough, I am ready for a story with an Orc POV. I imagine them saying, “Yeah, we eat people. But they are only a small part of a balanced diet.”

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