Maxime Priou – Introduction

par Gelydrihan

The Doom We Must Deem : A Critical Study of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings


Maxime Priou, 2000-2001

Maîtrise LLCE Anglais

The Doom We Must Deem :
A Critical Study of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Introduction : The Dynamic Focus

a) Presentation and Reception

For some twenty years, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College at Oxford. Eventually, he became a Fellow of the College and was also distinguished by receiving an Honorary Fellowship from Exeter College. During these years, he studied medieval lore and published works on Chaucer and Beowulf. In all externals, he resembled the archetypal Oxford don, “at times even the stage caricature of a don” [1]. But that is exactly was he was not . The Hobbit, Tolkien’s juvenile novel, was published on 21 September 1937. It was an immediate success – the first edition had sold out by Christmas and the critics were lavish with their praise. Soon was begun what Tolkien had first thought of as a mere “sequel” [2] to The Hobbit : The Lord of the Rings, which was to occupy him until 1949.

The first volume was finally published in 1954, with the second and third volumes appearing in the next two years. Before long, the book acquired its champions and its enemies. And this was how it was to remain for the rest of Tolkien’s life : “total praise from one faction, total contempt from the other” [3]. Actually, The Lord of the Rings has been very seriously neglected by literary criticism in Britain. As R. Giddings remarked in 1983, “it has not even been taken up in the school curriculum” [4]. Yet, the book must mean something to millions of people. One cannot forget the famous Tolkien craze which begun in the summer of 1965, on the American University campuses. The Lord of the Rings became a hippie bible, and New York subways were painted with runic slogans celebrating the chief characters in the trilogy, seizing upon esoteric names and repeating the talismanic cries, just as countless buttons proclaimed that “Gandalf lives” and “Bilbo is God”. Moreover, The Lord of the Rings, at about 50 millions copies, is probably the biggest-selling single work of fiction of this century, and has been translated into more than thirty languages.

In other words, we are talking about a massively popular and successful publishing phenomenon ; “all the more so when the book in question is half-a-million words long, and neither involves any big money or sex, explicit or otherwise – two ingredients now normally considered essential for best-sellers – let alone cannibalism, serial murder, sado-masochism or lawyers” [5]. However, the critical incomprehension continues. Among the whole class of professional literary explainers, “Tolkien and his readers are a no-go zone” [6]. Despite some rare honourable exceptions, The Lord of the Rings, which was once dismissed by the champion of modernism as “juvenile trash” [7], is still largely ignored within the literary community, or routinely accused of being variously “paternalistic, reactionary, anti-intellectual, racist, fascistic and […] irrelevant” [8]. Thus, when it was voted the “greatest book of the century” in a British nationwide poll at the beginning of 1997, the critical response was not one of approbation but of shame, scorn or anger. J. Pearce reports that the Times Literary Supplement described the results of the poll as “horrifying” [9]. Some weeks later, a poll published by the Folio Society ranked Tolkien’s epic as Britain’s favourite book of any century and The Bookseller made it clear that “Tolkien topped the Public Lending Right’s list of the ten classic authors borrowed most from libraries” [10]. Another black day for British culture – critics joined in a sneering chorus of disbelief and the Chief Inspector of Schools complained of “low cultural expectations” !

It appears then that Tolkien is as controversial and as misunderstood as ever, and prompts the same popular acclaim and critical hostility that greeted the book’s initial publication more than forty years ago. This riddle deeply appeals to me. I have read The Lord of the Rings several times since I discovered it when an adolescent, and the more I read it, the more it baffles me. This is also the most challenging book I ever worked on. That is why one of the basic ambitions of this work will be to elucidate the critical visceral dislike The Lord of the Rings often arouses.

b) Critical Purposes and Processes

Before all else, I would like to suggest a reading of the book, which amounts to isolate a meaningful watershed – meaning shall be the focal point of this work. Besides, I will endeavour to make this reading both global and critical. By ‘global’, I mean that there is no question of my studying one or several arbitrary aspects of The Lord of the Rings here ; what matters to me is the novel in its entirety. Indeed, “L’œuvre est une totalité et elle gagne toujours à être éprouvée comme telle” [11]. By ‘critical’, I mean constructed ; meaning is no empirical data, there is no immediate entry nor possession. It is rather a series of elements which must be reorganized, a semi-finished product which must be completed, a crude sap which must be turned into an elaborated one. Thus, I intend to work the dough of the text, so as to take part in the construction of its meaning.

My critical processes are based upon the following postulate : the literary text is a spatialized entity. It moves about, it moves away and it moves back, it encircles, it skirts round, it builds up as much as it destroys, and then, finally, it moves off. In other words, the literary text is a spatiotemporal movement. This phenomenon will be more easily experienced if the text is a narrative. Reflecting about the very nature of narratives, T. Todorov writes indeed that “tout récit est mouvement entre deux équilibres semblables mais non identiques [12]. That is why my processes initially consist of a methodical search for a potential centre, i.e. a potential driving force, of the text. In other words, we must try to detect “le foyer d’où rayonnent toutes les structures et toutes les significations” [13], the dynamic focus of The Lord of the Rings, in order to scan its behaviour and its ramifications within the textual mechanism.

The problem lies in the fact that the dynamic focus is polymorphous, and can take such various shapes as a theme, an image, a character, a word or a narrative strategy. For example, the meaning of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is produced by the presence of a meta-narrative and in Joyce’s Dubliners, it is produced by an epiphanic strategy, whereas Claudel’s plays are controlled and organized by the key idea of a presence in absence. Moreover, there is no prevailing method of discovering such centres, although some critics do appear to look for them (J. Rousset, G. Poulet, J.-P. Richard…). I will attempt to isolate the focus by identifying some elements which, by cross-checking, should disclose it. I have established the following list after a good deal of experimentation, until I think it is totally effective. I also hope it is valid and logical. These are the elements which must be found :

1. Textual anomalies (enigmatic characters, like Manon in Prévost’s Manon Lescaut, textual holes, like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or odd paralipses, like Swann’s death in Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu…).

2. Recurrent words, themes or images : usually, we do not realize to what extent the fictional text is repetitive, or rather, redundant. Yet, “seuls les éléments récurrents permettent de construire une chaîne de probabilités donnant sens au discours” [14].

3. The object of the text : it is mostly the ideological or conceptual data which the text works or which it tends towards (passion in Mérimée’s short stories, time in Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, causality in Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste…).

4. The verb of the text (according to Genette’s axiom : “tout récit est le développement d’un verbe” [15]). Among other things, the verb concentrates the action of the text.

5. The thematic axes of the text : the centre is “the point where forces are concentrated and from which they radiate” [16]. The centre of the text should correspond to the point in which the thematic axes are secant.

Once the dynamic focus is identified, the actual study will begin : the focus offers us a logical plat-form upon which an objective meaning can be built. For some, though, the quest for the centre is an end in itself, so that they seek more than they build. My work will begin where theirs end ; the dynamic focus is but the starting point of my study. Further, let me insist that the latter is meant to be logical and vertical. In other words, I aim at avoiding thematic criticism, which is somewhat arbitrary and progresses horizontally, going from theme to theme [17].

Besides, my work will tend to be both referential and intratextual. By referential, I mean that I will treat the text as a particular mode of relationship with reality, for I must confess that I am quite unable to regard literature as an autotelic organism. By intratextual, I mean that I will not look for seeds of meaning in the ideological margins of the text. I have come across Marxist and Catholic readings of The Lord of the Rings ; and although they are quite apt to shed a new light on some aspects of the book, they cannot avoid some patent irrelevances, just as they cannot help projecting inappropriate ideas onto the text. “L’idéologie passe sur le texte et sa lecture comme l’empourprement sur un visage” [18], Barthes wrote. Of course, the final, constructed meaning may be of an ideological nature, but it is not to be found in the ideological film of the text, since it does not really belong to the fiction of the latter. Lastly, I will resort to narratology as well as to the sensualistic criticism of images ; so, I hope that the critical heterogeneity of this study will not be too disconcerting. For if I alternatively concentrate on the forms of the text and on its structures, it is because the dynamic focus has control over structures as well as over forms.

c) Doom is Near at Hand (264)

I guess it is time to divulge the results of my investigations. I will merely give bare conclusions, for the elements I found are mostly obvious or at least, very perceptible. In spite of the inevitable empirical quality of this list, you will see how it is sufficient to provide us with a starting point. Indeed, this list and its results should be regarded as heuristic tools.

1. Textual anomalies : Sauron (as the hole of the text), the goal of the quest (destruction as a goal departs from the norm of the quest-story), fate and free-will (both are thematically omnipresent, but their opposition is unexplained), Gandalf’s resurrection and Frodo’s final departure (both are left unexplained), the Ring (the stake of the story is totally enigmatic)…

2. Recurrences : ophidian and sylvan images, upward and downward schemes, mortality as a theme, obsessive recurrence of the word ‘doom’…

3. The object of the text : in one of his numerous letters, Tolkien comments : “the tale is not really about Power and Dominion : that only sets the wheels going ; it is about Death and the desire for deathlessness” [19].

4. The verb of the text corresponds to the demand which directs and motivates Frodo’s journey : he must destroy the Ring.

5. Thematic axes : fate, power, destruction, freedom, death…

In all these elements, it is possible to distinguish a single veiled word which brings them together. For example, the thematic axes of fate, power, destruction and death are but parts of the definition of a larger idea – doom. Sauron, mortality and every actual element is linked to, or even refer to, doom, which could have been taken for a mere esoteric curio. But doom includes the verb and the object of the text, it is already mentioned in the very epigraph of the novel, and the whole story might have been entitled “the tale of the Ring of Doom”(see pp. 739 and 998). We know that the Northern notion of doom fascinated Tolkien, as well as Northern ancient languages and myths, which provided him with so much of his material and inspiration. Thus, doom plays a prominent role in The Silmarillion, in which a strict, implacable, Sophocles-like determinism rules over many characters. Moreover, The Hobbit ends with the weird suggestion by Gandalf that something more than sheer luck lay behind Bilbo’s adventures [20].

That is why I retain doom as the dynamic focus of The Lord of the Rings. However, I will not attempt to elucidate the enigma which is inherent to doom : Tolkien himself did not venture to do it, and philosophy seems to have dropped the subject. Of course, I will give a few definitions to start with, but what I want to understand is how and why Tolkien has put doom, which is an essential but sibylline category of the human thought, right at the heart of his work. Although I will focus on the functioning of doom as a driving force, I will also explore its textual corollaries, for doom is a very capricious and polysemous word. Inevitably, I will ponder over Tolkien’s treatment of characters, since the latter seem likely to reflect much of the functioning and the means of expression of doom.

In the end, I hope to show that the whole narrative strategy of The Lord of the Rings is based upon a play with doom. This matrix would then allow me to build up a possible meaning of the novel. Furthermore, it is worth wondering whether Tolkien does not meddle with one of the most basic structure of novels and even of narratives. Isn’t it striking, for example, that the Latin root of the word ‘text’ refers us to such words as ‘cloth’, ‘weft’ or ‘to weave’ ? Indeed, even the tiniest spider spinning its web echoes the archetypal image of doom – the spinner. But above all, several writers or critics have noticed the unsettling relationship between novels or narratives and doom. Thus, Camus wrote that “le roman fabrique du destin sur mesure” [21] and Barthes defined the narrative as “la langue du destin” [22]. The fact that Alain, some decades before, had asserted that the novel is “le poème du libre-arbitre” [23], does not untie the peculiar links which unite doom and the novel. It rather shows that the novel and the narrative are taken, because of their very natures, in a dialectic of doom and freedom, that the novel and the narrative necessarily work the concepts of doom and freedom. That is why I will endeavour, in this study, to discover the nature of the links which tie the novel, the narrative and doom together, and their connection with the notion of character. I will also try to determine whether these links can be altered or not, and whether, and how, Tolkien did modify them.

Besides, doom has kept busy a great many philosophers (from Epicurus and Albertus Magnus to Descartes and Schopenhauer). Nonetheless, most of them, especially the medieval religious thinkers, saw it more as a spiritual dilemma than as a fruitful idea likely to welcome the foundations of a tenet. Indeed, from a theological point of view, doom is an aporia : if Man is doomed, then God is almighty, but he is unkind, ergo imperfect, for Man is not free, whereas if Man is free, then God is not almighty. Yet, doom is a fundamental structure of Greek epics and tragedies, or of French classical tragedies ; the novel of the Age of the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Diderot…) also granted it an important place, and some modern or even post-modern writers, such as Borges or P. Auster, have made it the centre of their narratives. At the very sources of all literature, in The Epic of Gilgamesh, doom is already omnipresent as a theme. It is as if literature had acknowledged it as one of its natural themes, or as one of its deepest structures. What, if doom was a specifically literary object ? Why could it not constitute the sound base of an interesting critical tool ?

Thus, doom is a much more challenging object than it could seem at first sight. First of all, I aim at giving some essential definitions, and at scanning the forms of doom in the text. Moreover, I will seek for the elements which trigger and reveal its presence. Then, I will focus on the textual relationship between doom and death, which should shed a light on the true nature of the ideological stake of the text. After this, I will examine closely how Tolkien responds to this appeal ; we will see how the forces of life and freedom will be summoned in order to assist him in this task. The fourth part will be the turning point of my study. I will focus on doom as a structural and programmed effect which affects the characters. This should provide us with some new perspectives on the text. As for my fifth part, it will pay more attention to the imagery of doom : I hope to show that some potent images untie what Tolkien’s narrative strategy had tied. In my last two parts, which will be based upon both the dialectic of the sacred and the profane, and the notion of creation, my chief concern

will be to explain how Tolkien succeeds in reconciling two fundamental human demands – liberty and destiny. Last but not least, my conclusion should suggest the use of some new critical tools and will consider The Lord of the Rings from the thorny angle of the genre.

[1] H. Carpenter, 1977, p. 6

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, 1991, The Lord of the Rings, p. 9. All subsequent references to The Lord of the Rings will be in parentheses in the text.

[3] Ibid., p. 223

[4] R. Giddings, 1983, p. 7

[5] P. Curry, 1998, p.13

[6] Ibid., p. 15

[7] E. Wilson, “Oo, Those Awful Orcs”, in The Nation, 1956, pp. 312-4

[8] Quoted by P. Curry, 1998, p. 16

[9] J. Pearce, 1998, p.2

[10] Ibid., p. 4

[11] J. Rousset, 1995, p. XII

[12] T. Todorov, 1970, p. 171

[13] J. Rousset, 1995, p. XV

[14] V. Jouve, 1992, p. 94

[15] G. Genette, 1972, p. 75

[16] Le Robert, 1972. My translation

[17] See T. Todorov, 1970, pp. 104-5

[18] R. Barthes, 1973, p. 45

[19] Carpenter and Tolkien, 1981, p. 262

[20] See J.R.R. Tolkien, 1966, p. 278

[21] A. Camus, 1951, p. 330

[22] R. Barthes, 1985, p. 180

[23] Alain, 1953, p. 61


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