kaigou: sometimes it's better to light a flamethrower than curse the darkness. (2 flamethrowers)
[personal profile] kaigou
From a Salon essay about the English-language translation of The Ringbearer, a satirical/parodic take on The Lord of the Rings. First, tying into both myth-making and a broader pop culture application, per the issue of fantasies in re women's roles, this food for thought:
"The Lord of the Rings" wouldn't be as popular as it is if the pastoral idyll of the Shire and the sureties of a virtuous, mystically ordained monarchy as embodied in Aragorn didn't speak to widespread longing for a simpler way of life. There's nothing wrong with enjoying such narratives -- we'd be obliged to jettison the entire Arthurian mythos and huge chunks of American popular culture if there were -- but it never hurts to remind ourselves that it's not just their magical motifs that makes them fantasies.

And an intriguing reaction from the reviewer, too, in the final paragraph:
Yeskov's "parody" -- for "The Last Ringbearer," with its often sardonic twists on familiar Tolkien characters and events, comes a lot closer to being a parody than "Wind Done Gone" ever did -- is just such a reminder. If it is fan fiction (and I'm not sure I'm in a position to pronounce on that), then it may be the most persuasive example yet of the artistic potential of the form.

And since translations and language have been on my brain, this paragraph from an interview with Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things:
To be able to express yourself, to be able to close the gap—inasmuch as it is possible—between thought and expression is just such a relief. It’s like having the ability to draw or paint what you see, the way you see it. Behind the speed and confidence of a beautiful line in a line drawing there’s years of—usually—discipline, obsession, practice that builds on a foundation of natural talent or inclination of course. It’s like sport. A sentence can be like that. Language is like that. It takes a while to become yours, to listen to you, to obey you, and for you to obey it. I have a clear memory of language swimming towards me. Of my willing it out of the water. Of it being blurred, inaccessible, inchoate… and then of it emerging. Sharply outlined, custom-made.

Date: 20 Feb 2011 06:12 am (UTC)
nagasvoice: lj default (Default)
From: [personal profile] nagasvoice
The second quote is just so sleek and lovely, it makes language sound like a mer-person just climbing out the weeds and the rocks right in front of you!

Date: 20 Feb 2011 12:55 pm (UTC)
susanna: (Default)
From: [personal profile] susanna
There's nothing wrong with enjoying such narratives -- we'd be obliged to jettison the entire Arthurian mythos and huge chunks of American popular culture if there were -- but it never hurts to remind ourselves that it's not just their magical motifs that makes them fantasies.

The logic of this sentence escapes me completely. What if indulging in the mythos of King Arthur is indeed problematic?

Just consider the last part of the story - that the king might return from his lake and restore its beautiful, perfect kingdom? There's a similar myth in Germany, not about King Arthur but about about Emperor Barbarossa waiting in the mountain Kyffhäuser to restore his realm. Heine makes fun of this myth: he visits the emperor in his mountain and tells him that nowadays kings get guillotined. The emperor is shocked about this respectlessness (not only killing the king, but also how it was done), and Heine decides that we don't really need an emperor, neither to liberate nor to reign us.

Heine was wise, refuting the old myth, and history would have taken a better course if more people had listened to him.

So, yes, maybe there is something wrong in the Arhurian mythos and indulging in it (at least in certain ways, and dreaming of a simpler life is such a problematic way), and maybe there is something deeply wrong with the ideals of Lord of the Ring.

Date: 20 Feb 2011 07:09 pm (UTC)
susanna: (Default)
From: [personal profile] susanna
Actually, I find the phantastical rather unproblematic. I have no issues at all with the phantastical moments in Terry Pratchett, and the same goes for Harry Potter, or Naruto. I have no problems with suspending disbelief when it comes to dragons or orks. (I am too lazy to pick up "on fairytales" by Tolkien at the moment...) What I resent is the regressive political dreams. (There aren't any to be found in Terry Pratchett, or, well, not many, which is why I don't mind the phantastical in his stories at all.)

The faulty logic of the sentence is the following: "We should not complain about Lord of the Rings, because then we would have to complain about the King Arthur Myth too" - but what if this latter assumption was wrong?

Date: 20 Feb 2011 03:14 pm (UTC)
branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)
From: [personal profile] branchandroot
*wry* Yeah, I'd definitely agree that's one of the things that makes fantasy fantasy. Not that other genres don't all have their own "if only this thing here was totally different than it really is". But fantasy puts that sticker on governance systems an awful lot.

Date: 20 Feb 2011 05:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] l-clausewitz.livejournal.com
You know, I was originally rather intrigued by mentions of the "parody," but this review--despite its favorable stance towards Yeskov's work--seems to have put me off it altogether, because it makes the Russian book sound like it has a genuinely simplistic agenda, which is to prove Tolkien wrong. I don't know. Maybe I'm just more used to the sort of revisionism and reevaluation that happens in history circles, and there a "more nuanced view" isn't one that just goes out to prove the orthodoxy wrong on all counts, but to reexamine the evidence in order to see where the old consensus falls down _and where it still holds its own against more recent attempts at reexamination_. Seen this way, taking Tolkien's book and turning its morality _entirely_ upside-down just doesn't sound like presenting a more realistic or more complex view of Middle-Earth to me.

Date: 21 Feb 2011 01:59 am (UTC)
phoebe_zeitgeist: (Default)
From: [personal profile] phoebe_zeitgeist
I'm not sure I agree about the basic premise, or at least, I'm not sure I agree about it in all its aspects.

I'll accept that for a great many readers, a fair part of the appeal of LOTR comes from "the pastoral idyll of the Shire and the sureties of a virtuous, mystically ordained monarchy as embodied in Aragorn . . . speak[ing] to widespread longing for a simpler way of life." But I'm reasonably certain that it's not of particular importance to anything like all readers. And I'm not convinced that it's necessary to read either the True King motif or the Shire's pastoral as having much of anything to do with a simpler way of life.

I can be sure of that first point because I know how I read the book, even on my first encounter with it in childhood. Certainly I was too young to love it for a depiction of a simpler way of life lost in a theoretical golden age -- I was a kid, I didn't have any angst about modernity or longing for old certainties. Not only that, but I was a kid who was fascinated by politics and had family who tended to get involved in local issues. I was used to the idea that all government was inherently complicated and difficult, and I got twitchy when presented with stories that tried to tell me otherwise; and LOTR actually felt satisfyingly real to me on that axis. It wasn't about those complexities, but the world presented in it, and the way events were handled, left me feeling throughout as though this was a world in which the complexities existed. If they were offstage, that was because the details of making the Shire work as a community weren't what the story was about. It wasn't that it was some mystical prelapsarian society where people magically got along, and there never had to be rules about access to and use of the river, or enforcement of the rules, or any of the other endless details about keeping a community functioning, that is. It felt as though this was a world where those systems and rules existed; we weren't seeing them for the same reasons that we normally don't see the workings of a city's water department in a contemporary romantic comedy.

And while we're certainly getting the mystically-ordained True King in Aragorn, that still doesn't make things simple, unless you assume that having a True King by definition means that you've entered a world in which complicated issues are magically made simple. In an otherwise-realistic universe, though, all it means is that you've got the best person for an inherently complex and difficult job, and probably he's going to make good decisions for as long as you can keep him there. Oh, maybe you get a few years of mythic Golden Age when the weather is perfect and no one catches a cold. But your life in that universe isn't going to be simple because you've got a decent government in place, any more than the king's job is simple. Besides, he's going to die, and you don't get any guarantees after that.

Not in Tolkien, anyway. The return of the King coincides with the disenchantment of the world: with the removal of the capital-E Enemy as a force in the world, but emphatically not with the removal of small-e evil, which remains and will remain; with the departure of the Elves from the mortal world; with the world becoming, in fact, our own everyday pretty much non-magical human world. The simplicities of grand Good Versus Evil are gone; what Aragorn symbolizes may be human government at its theoretical best, but it's not a fantasy world where government by people is magically less intricate or difficult than we know it to be.

Or at least, it's not necessarily a fantasy world where all is simple. The essay wouldn't exist if it weren't possible to read the book that way. My argument here is merely that nothing in the book compels such a reading, and some of us would find it downright counterintuitive.

Date: 21 Feb 2011 08:00 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] maire
I'm with phoebezeitgeist in not having found Tolkien to be presenting an idyllic simpler life. To me, LoTR was very much the story of how small-minded, somewhat xenophobic people (hobbits) can raise themselves above that to be heroic (if they're willing to and encounter suitable circumstances). If the Shire at the start is meant to look idyllic, I'm confused, because to me it looks petty, gossipy, small-minded, and confining. Certainly the four hobbits who leave on the quest seem to think so.

The Shire they return to at the end certainly finishes with an idyllic year, but that year is told of sandwiched in with the deaths/departures-for-heaven of about half the main characters. (Some people may have got to enjoy the England that Tolkien's son was fighting for as he wrote the novels, but not everyone.)

I also found that I felt I had a better image of Tolkien's ideas after I spent some time living in Stourbridge in England. The river that the town is built on is the Stour (probable source of Tolkien's 'Stoors'). The area was naturally rather beautiful, but the human effect on it was pretty horrible -- mostly just bricks, concrete, and graffiti. I gather that in the twenties it would have had more soot as well. I tend to describe it as 'the part of England that put Tolkien off the Industrial Revolution.'

Furthermore, I think Tolkien was at least semideliberate in the way he portrays monarchy. People feel very relieved after a war that it's over, and things look good, but they fall rapidly back to 'normal'. Eomer and Aragorn spend a good bit of their reigns still fighting the wars that started before they were crowned. I also don't think the story of Aragorn's ancestors (the great hero who leads his people to a new kingdom in the sea, and his descendants who get pettier and nastier every generation until Numenor/Atlantis is destroyed completely) is put in accidentally.

Date: 23 Feb 2011 02:41 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] maire
I do agree with you about the idea of ordination. I'm not comfortable with it as a reason for people to be ruling anything.

OTOH, arguably Tolkien's hero in the novel is the lower-class character (Sam) who volunteers to be involved and who steps up to the plate when the hereditary hero (Frodo, who inherited the ring) fails. It's Sam who takes over the ring quest, either by carrying it, or by carrying Frodo, all the way through Mordor.

It's Sam who is portrayed as setting up the new, better society in the Shire at the end, not Frodo. And it's Sam who has the strongest character-development arc -- he is the character most fundamentally changed by his experiences (except possibly Gimli). This doesn't fit in the with 'ordination' thing at all.

At the end, he shows an ordained king ruling far away, with little detail. He also shows a guy with no powerful or notable family history, from a poor background, become the Mayor of the Shire with a great deal of detail. And he shows two hereditary rulers completely stuffing up their rule (Denethor and Theoden). One is salvagable with good examples and forced removal of poor advisors. The other is not. I don't think this overall picture supports the idea that Tolkien's main theme was the rightfulness of inherited rule. Honestly, I think he portrays so many different results of inherited or ordained rule that it's not reasonable to take any of them as having his full support. The Numenoreans are definitely a line of god-ordained kings. They fall, taking their entire island with them. Aragorn is a god-ordained king. He does well. Galadriel doesn't like the god-ordained system in heaven (Valinor), strikes out on her own in what is then the hinterlands, suffers terribly, and eventually establishes the most beautiful place on earth.

(Tolkien's most explicit look at ordained heroes suggests his opinions matched yours more than you seem to think, too. The 'ordained' person, intended by the Valar to overthrow Sauron is the upper-class demigod Saruman. He fails. He fails so badly that he turns into the secondary villain. Gandalf's assumption of his role is great, but not what was planned by the 'gods'.)

As far as being able to tell good guys and bad guys apart by skin colour, I know much is made of this, very validly, but I don't think it was the author's *intent*. Good guys: all white, yes (in this prehistoric Europe). Bad guys: Saruman, Grima, Denethor, and various faceless groups from the east and south. I think it's sad that Tolkien was caught up so far in his cultural assumptions that he felt safest saying of the east and south that he simply didn't know what happened there. He sent them two wizards and said explicitly that he didn't know what happened with them. But I do think he was definitely trying, over and over again, in his novels to say that it was actions that mattered more than what one looked like or who one's forebears were, even though he obviously thought cool ancestors was a nice thing to have. I think it's awful that he set up his world to equate dark with evil and then continued that with skin colours. It's horribly racist. However, it's taking things too far to say he provided colour coding of heroes and villains. His villains are quite able to be fair. He says so rather often.

Date: 23 Feb 2011 01:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] l-clausewitz.livejournal.com
Sam the hero? YES. Bloody hell yes. I've always read Sam as the real main-character-cum-hero of the story, regardless of whatever Tolkien may have intended with him. Come to think of it, we actually see the journey to Mordor more often through Sam's eyes than through Frodo's, at least once they got beyond Bree.

Date: 24 Feb 2011 02:02 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] maire
I'm pretty sure Tolkien was genuinely trying to do multiple heroes, rather than one. But Sam's easily the one who both has real character development and who is unambiguously heroic.