To begin: on one level, I admire and appreciate what Tolkien was doing with The Silmarillion. He began writing it at (or near) the height of Modernism, when novelists pushed fiction into uncharted waters, experimenting with form in ways that feel -- even a century later -- fresh and vibrant. So for a young writer to begin cobbling together interrelated stories that felt not only traditional, but aggressively antique in style and content was a bold move, a setting himself apart from the pack. Other writers of the time did this as well: Sigrid Undset wrote epic medieval fictions just post-WWI when others were dabbling in stream-of-consciousness and all manner of tricksiness, and she won the Nobel Prize in Literature for those fictions, trends be damned. Undset's work, however, was successful where The Silmarillion most assuredly is not because of many reasons, but one reason above all: she had readers in mind when writing her great epics, and she cared about whether they cared about her stories. Which leads me to say: I have never before encountered a work of fiction so utterly indifferent to, or dismissive of, the idea of readership as The Silmarillion. So, although I applaud Tolkien's resistance to, and likely suspicion of, Modernism, this book is a stain on his reputation as a storyteller, as a spinner of yarns.
I'm the first to admit that one shouldn't go into reading this book
expecting a novel, because it is not that (however its being broken into
chapters suggests otherwise) and should not be judged as such. However,
neither is it a collection of short stories. Nor is it even more than
ostensibly a collection of myths of Middle-earth, or a cosmology of that
universe, although it has been, and continues to be, classified as such
by its most ardent admirers. It has been oversold along those lines, as
it turns out. The Silmarillion is more a reference
work than anything else, a compendium of names tied together with the
merest sinew of narrative, description, context; it reads more like the
Elvish yellow pages than like an origin narrative. And how can a reader
actually love a book if unable to recount when asked -- in more than the
broadest, most vague strokes -- the narrative arcs and names, roles and
relationships of that narrative's minor (to say nothing of major)
characters? From memory -- be honest-- who or what is Menegroth, or
Drengist, or Finarfin, or Elwe, or the Teleri, or Amlach, or Nienna?
Etc, etc. Having now finished the book (and being a closer reader and
better retainer of texts than most people I've ever known), I can tell
you, with some confidence of accuracy, about Iluvatar, Aule, Yavanna,
Feanor, Luthien and Morgoth -- and that's pretty much it. (Pardon the
missing umlauts and accents.) Everything else is this vast wash of white
noise, or what amounts to a dictionary of names -- the trial that is
reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude
(in which all principal characters seem to either share or have
variations on three or four different names) taken to the hundredth
power. It stands comparison with another classic in another way, too: The Silmarillion, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,
is a concept of genius impoverished in the prosaic execution. People
say: it can only really be claimed and embraced by hardcore Tolkien fans
-- which seems to me a way of excusing its inscrutability, of
apologizing for its failure as prose in a way that feels less like
acknowledgment of that failure than like pretentious cliquishness. The
thing is: I am a reasonably hardcore Tolkien fan. I read The Lord of the Rings
in my early 20s and felt so intimate a connection with it, I had plans
to name my daughter (should I ever have had one) Lothlorien. The trilogy
was not quite talismanic for me, but it blew me away and felt more like
a comprehensive and necessary work of art than anything I'd read up to
then. (The films, too, bowl me over: I cry my eyes out over at least half a dozen different scenes each time I watch them. Between the three films, I went to the cinema seven times to see LOTR.) But, above all, I'm one who demands that literature not be difficult for the sake of being difficult. The Silmarillion,
though, is not just difficult, but almost wholly indecipherable -- an
opaque work of literary masturbation, the clearest geek creation of any
work of art perhaps ever made or written. And art ceases, on some level,
to be art when it is made in a bubble, when its ignorance of its
audience is willful almost to a point of hostility. Is there
magnificence and loveliness in this book? Certainly. I love the
Christian echoes (not just the obvious analogies of Iluvatar/God and
Melkor/Lucifer, but also the subtler paralleling of Aule's creation of
-- and willingness to smite, on Iluvatar's command -- the Dwarves with
Abraham's willingness, on God's command, to sacrifice Isaac), and some
of the scenes are enormously stirring (Aule's creation of the Dwarves,
the death of Feanor with his body fallen to ash from the force of his
fiery spirit and "borne away like smoke," Fingon -- in classically
Greek mode -- cutting off the hand of Maedhros from the back of the
eagle, Fingolfin challenging Morgoth to single combat), but these scenes
are less remembered than dogeared to reference in this review, lost as
they become in continued reading, in the powering through genealogy
after genealogy in which characters have few or no distinguishing
personalities or characteristics. Everything about the book feels
engineered to frustrate, to confound rather than illuminate. Consider
the following paragraph:
"The sons of Hador were Galdor and
Gundor; and the sons of Galdor were Hurin and Huor; and the son of Hurin
was Turin the Bane of Glaurung; and the son of Huor was Tuor, father of
Earendil the Blessed. The son of Boromir was Bregor, whose sons were
Bregolas and Barahir; and the sons of Bregolas were Baragund and
Belegund. The daughter of Baragund was Morwen, the mother of Turin, and
the daughter of Belegund was Rian, the mother of Tuor. But the son of
Barahir was Beren One-hand, who won the love of Luthien Thingol's
daughter, and returned from the Dead; from them came Elwing the wife
Earendil, and all the Kings of Numenor after."
Now, I understand
that some of these characters prove significant in the book. But my
problem with this paragraph is that, given that these are introductions
to these characters, how are we meant to remember them or their
relationships to one another later in the book when each of them does become significant if Tolkien has given us nothing whatsoever to remember them by?
The passage echoes the genealogy of Christ at the beginning of the
Gospel of Matthew, but that genealogy works because it sets the stage
for the narrative to come by giving us, in brief, what has come before,
whereas Tolkien's does not because it sets the stage for the narrative
to come by giving us the narrative to come in lineage shorthand, in
microcosm that would benefit readers with detail but discourages them
from reading further in the absence of detail. It's as though Tolkien
looked to the Bible as a template for much of The Silmarillion
but failed to understand why biblical narratives, architectures and
tropes succeed as narratives, architectures and tropes -- which is
bizarre, given his stature as an academic and his devout religiosity.
By the end, I was feeling snarkier than I would've liked: how convenient that the giant eagles would show up and save the day the very second it went from bad to irredeemably screwed (ornithology as deus ex machina -- and we see it in the LOTR films and likely the novels, too, with Gandalf's escape from Isengard,
with Frodo and Sam stranded in the river of lava...), or interpreting
the Dunedain's "numbers increas[ing] only slowly in the land" as
commentary on Dunedainian sperm count (poor, poor Aragorn)...
there good stuff to be found in these pages? Certainly. I've touched on
much of it above, and haven't even mentioned the ephemeral fairy tale
soul of the tale of Beren and Luthien, or the degree to which Tolkien
honors Sophocles with the fates of Turin and Nienor. But the achievement
here is so overwhelmed by the strikes going against it -- e.g. the
incessant multiplication of names (Turin has S - E - V - E - N different
names), the eye-rollingly vague and self-important portentousness ("For
they told how a blind Darkness came northward, and in the midst walked
some power for which there was no name, and the Darkness issued from it"
-- gimme a break), the off-putting navel-gazing zeal with which Tolkien rattles off his Middle-earth Xs and Os (how often does The Silmarillion feel like a sound loop of the possessed Louis Tully in Ghostbusters?) -- that finishing the book felt like cause for celebration.
Booking a Room with a View
Join me as I shuttle and shoulder through the worlds of literature, cinema, and the awards seasons attending both.
Friday, February 1, 2013
Thursday, January 31, 2013
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Alas, Babylon is impressing me in spades just now), when we ourselves seem to have gone mad.
Sunday, July 15, 2012
What constitutes a classic? It is the question of questions among book lovers (and one to which Harold Bloom, of course, believes he has the answer). Is a specific elapsed time a prerequisite? Or rather: an elapsed time taken alongside a book's aesthetic and moral gravitas? It's a question that puzzles me often -- with respect to what I read and to what those around me read (everyone I've ever known who has read Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow wonders how the hell it managed to purchase passage into the canon). I despised Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary when I read it in my early 30s -- what is it about that novel that makes it quite so beloved (and it is beloved, placing second in this list of tallied, weighted votes from well-known authors naming their favorite books)? Did I somehow read a clunking translation (I should note that I've linked to a more recent, and perhaps better, translation above in an attempt to steer readers away from Eleanor Marx Aveling's)? (Such translations are out there and -- in certain cases -- make all the difference. Compare the translations of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter from Charles Archer and Tiina Nunnally. Night and day, the former a linguistically anachronistic nightmare, the latter a sublime rendering of a sublime fiction.) But is the translation the problem when the novel is a study in despicable people behaving despicably (a la the Flaubert)? Leaving translated works aside, what about the notion of national identity or a novel's place in a nation's consciousness as an earmark of its inclusion in the canon? Why, for instance, does (Canadian) Timothy Findley's novel Not Wanted on the Voyage remain in print in Canada as a Penguin Modern Classic despite being long out-of-print here in the States? Can a book be a classic in one place and not another? Or more to the point: can a book be marketed as a classic by a top publishing house in Canada while a branch of that same publishing house in America doesn't even see fit to lift the book from obscurity in the most limited way? (It bears mentioning here that Penguin is the very publishing house that classifies Pynchon's above-mentioned poo-fest novel as a classic.) Isn't the establishment of a literary canon necessarily a nod in the direction of subsuming the insular question of national identities into the larger fabric of shared humanity as expressed in art striving to outdo itself? Having just finished Not Wanted on the Voyage, I consider its absence from American bookshops a tremendous loss to serious readers -- indeed, as great a loss as it would be to Canadian readers if Philip Roth's American Pastoral were to suddenly find itself without an edition in the provinces.
Food for thought. Goodnight all.
Food for thought. Goodnight all.
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Sometimes we dig ourselves into holes (rabbit warrens?) of commitment and find ourselves floundering a bit to keep our heads above water. On the rare occasions this happens to me -- me being who I am -- it more often than not has something to do with books. And so while two months ago I was merrily going about my days, working at Target, reading in the evenings, exercising at the gym, watching Family Feud with my wife during supper -- I'm now (in addition to working at Target and riding the elliptical for three or four hours a week) taking tennis lessons on Monday nights, teaching a community education class in fairy tales on Wednesday nights, hosting a film series at church on Thursday nights, engaged in a handwritten-letter dialogue with a friend in which we tackle a different poem each month, have put together (i.e. have solicited signed copies of novels and memoirs from writers all over the map) and am now raffling off book baskets for our church fundraiser this summer -- and have fallen a little behind in both my Eclectic Shade Tree and Dickens bicentenary reading as a result of this whirlwind of busyness. To paraphrase Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's adaptation of Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring: I feel a bit like butter scraped over too much bread. Come the end of July, the fundraiser will be over, as will the tennis lessons and the film series, and I'll be able to start looking ahead in earnest toward teaching English Composition II in the autumn, to spending the early winter curled up with coffee and Little Dorrit, to Les Miserables and Anna Karenina and Cloud Atlas hitting the big screen.