Tolkien the Introvert

J.R.R Tolkien was the sort of man who tended to stick close to an adored few friends and family. He was an academic who spoke awkwardly and had an uncharismatic presence. He loved obscure subjects that no one else cared about. Yet within himself he developed a whole world that no competitive, self-promoting socialite could ever think to imagine.

Indeed, his project was not tailored to meet popular demand. It was written first for family, friends, and most of all, for his own satisfaction.
From these insular motives comes a great deal of its power.
There is something haphazard and unpolished about Tolkien’s storytelling. His pace is slow, the direction of his plot imprecise and shifting. It’s always given me the feeling that I’m sitting with him by a fireplace and he’s prodigiously making it up or recalling it from memory right there on the spot.
Tolkien had a natural grasp of the Subtle way of thought. He understood the charm of imperfection. As a result he sounds more like a storyteller, less like an author.
The details we learn aren’t necessarily relevant to the plot. A lot of that stuff is just for fun. You have to understand that playful impulse, that curiosity and creativity for its own sake to enjoy the story to its fullest.

Tolkien never intended to single handedly resurrect the mythological paradigm in Western society, but his stories obviously spoke to a deep human need
Tolkien understood viscerally that no society could be grounded without legend and mythology—narratives that establish a meaningful continuity that extends far into the past and which will extend into the future. A continuity that invites us to be a part of something greater than our own fleeting lifespans.
Tolkien was a true introvert and his mythology tells us something of a sense of isolation and alienation in a rapidly changing world.

When one encounters interpretations of the Lord of the Rings, the first thing people always seem to look for is allegorical references to the World Wars.
To do so is to fundamentally misunderstand the man was about.

Though Tolkien writes epic stories about great nations, the geo-politics of our world were never his overriding concern.
He was there in the trenches during WWI and lived through WWII, yet he never wrote obsessively about futility and disenchantment as did so many other writers from his ‘lost generation.’ Nor did he seem to perceive the opponents of his nation as evil forces out of some sense of nationalistic zeal.

Many of us who are familiar with Tolkien’s stories dismiss most of the real world allegorical interpretations, seeing instead reflections on the nature of good and evil. After all, the ethical questions posed by Gyges’ invisibility ring have been around since ancient Greece:
If a man named Gyges finds a magic ring that makes him invisible and unaccountable for his actions, would he still be moral?
Should he still be moral?
The Ancient Greeks believed that Gyges should resist his desire for power. Though external laws and punishments do not apply to him, the real danger is being reduced to a warped animal state:
Gyges need not fear going to jail, but by casting away restraint, he becomes prisoner to an ever growing addiction to power.
In the Lord of the Rings, there is a contrast between the Bagginses and Gollum, Sam and Boromir when faced with the temptation of the ring. The corrupting influence of power is clearly a theme, but it is not the theme that rules them all.

Tolkien’s works, though generally upbeat, have an elegiac message constantly hinted at: the old world with its legends, tradition, and magic is dying…

In this old world, with all its epic events, it is often a Hobbit, someone small, reluctant, and shy who has the formidable inner strength to save the day.

In the Hobbit homeland, the Shire we see an idealized representation of traditional village life, sheltered from events that shake the rest of the world.
The Hobbits work hard and grow their own food, but there is no rush or sense of toil.
There are no strangers in the Shire. All the families are known to one another, as are their reputations.

In the new world, our ‘age of men,’ traditional culture is dying out. It would seem there is no longer a place for these little people. Tolkien tells us those few who survive will be forced into hiding.
It’s a world where you have to compete to survive amidst a faceless crowd.
A world in which even friendships are contingent upon social status and money.
A fast-paced world in which no one has time for second breakfast.

It is not the clash of nations or moral quandary that seems to preoccupy Tolkien, but deep changes within society itself:

-The elves, the epitome of ancient virtues are forced to leave the continent by the oncoming forces of change. They embody a sense of mystery and reverence that cannot exist in a world where everything is explained away as mundane phenomena, where predictability and repetition are the aims of most endeavors.

-The ents are losing a bit more of their vitality with every passing year. Eventually they will all be ordinary sedentary trees. Their abhorrence for the cutting of trees and of machines echoes Tolkien’s personal disapproval of industrialized mass culture.

-The dwarves, stubborn, honorable, followers of principle live in a post-apocalyptic world, their underground cities overrun and in ruins. The new world won’t need their craftsmanship. Their skills will be replaced with machines. They too are doomed to fade away and be forgotten.

Humans alone are to be the future but they are fickle and perhaps prone to evil without the wisdom of the ancient races to guide them.

In the Orcs, we see a polar opposite of Tolkien’s values, a deliberate perversion and antithesis of the elves. In their race we can see his worst fears come true.

Most often, the Orcs are depicted as a screaming, faceless mass-produced mass(it is implied they might be manufactured rather than born). They move and act only as groups. They have little sense of individual agency or self. Beyond instant gain and self-promotion, they have no personal initiative. There are no Orc heroes. Their leaders rule by pure coercion. Bonds of honor and loyalty are absent. At all levels of the Orc hierarchy, there is constant, fierce competition, even for trivial scraps. Their whole society is mechanical by nature. Their armies move inexorably and in great numbers but with no sense of spirit, driving values, or purpose.
Ultimately, they’re all just obeying the will of the big boss and would be unable to act decisively without him. In every way, their society, to the extent it can be called a society is held together only through the exercise of naked power.
Furthermore, Orcs in true contrast to elves have no concept of beauty, sanctity, reverence, or mystery. Their world view is literal, pragmatic, joyless, relentless. They are devoid of creativity and imagination.

This Orcish culture tells us something of how Tolkien perceived our emerging new world. A world in which everything that made life worth living was under attack and an Orcish sort of life and world view becoming predominant.

His fantasy universe was not so much a direct allegory as it was a personal reaction to social change. Tolkien was stubborn. A devout catholic, he persisted in using Latin at mass even as everyone else switched to English.
In his personal world, he persisted with the conventions of ancient Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Celtic legends.
Middle Earth would seem in part to have been his personal defense, his stand against the overwhelming forces of modernity.
Indeed, Tolkien tells again and again the story of a few brave individuals in seemingly hopeless opposition to insurmountably numerous and powerful enemy forces.
Dying out and coming under overwhelming assault from all sides is a pervasive theme of Tolkien’s mythology.

As an introvert perpetually at odds with the mass society, Tolkien’s besieged defender mentality speaks deeply to me. Especially powerful for me is Tolkien’s conviction that the outwardly modest but inwardly strong amongst us can prevail against a monolithic mass no matter the odds. Tolkien is one of my heroes.
He may have been one of the last hobbits who could dare live out in the open. He had the good fortune to make his way into the relatively tolerant environment of the university. Without his job as an academic, it’s hard to imagine that Tolkien would ever have had the opportunity to pursue his eclectic interests.
He probably would have been crushed as others like him no doubt were(and are).

When I first read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings as a kid, it was just a great story, but even then when I wasn’t worried in the least about analyzing, I somehow felt Mr. Tolkien was on my side.
Now, I look to Lord of the Rings as a protest against an increasingly Loud society.
It is a project that openly defies the collective reality through the creation of a new world with new languages and societies. Everything about it, the world building, the con-langing, the plot tangents, the archaic tone, the emphasis on inner integrity over outer attributes, the lack of calculated mass appeal and shameless scraping to get to the top – it has all the ingredients for being deemed “a waste of time” or “self-indulgent” according to the conventional social understanding. Indeed, Tolkien’s works are more heretical than ever in an age defined by zero-sum popularity contests.

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8 responses to “Tolkien the Introvert

  1. God, that guy was a total hack. More like The Bored of the Rings, am I right? If I were you, I would be trying to convince people that he was really an extrovert…

  2. Why was Tolkien a hack?
    You can argue Shakespeare got almost all his plots ready made from other sources(this is still pretty weak), but why is Tolkien a hack besides the fact his books aren’t to your taste?

    He was a major inspiration for an entire category of literature. That seems to suggest he was doing something others weren’t already doing.
    Yes, he derived much of his material from ancient myths, but everyone gets inspiration from somewhere.
    I would think to be a hack you have to nearly replicate what’s already being done with no deviation in style, with nothing personal or unique in your narrative voice.

    Here’s what I got from entering ‘hack’ on dictionary.com:

    a person, as an artist or writer, who exploits, for money, his or her creative ability or training in the production of dull, unimaginative, and trite work; one who produces banal and mediocre work in the hope of gaining commercial success in the arts: As a painter, he was little more than a hack.

  3. Wow, some of that was really insightful…had some angles I hadn’t looked at. It’s clear that the passing away of the old gods and magic was a major theme of Tolkien’s, but the way you described it race by race almost sociologically…well done.

    Tolkien a hack? I don’t know…I despise most modern fantasy which is the opposite of Tolkien, long on flashy writing for the modern short attention span, and short on story and plausibility. Yeah, Tolkien can be hard to read. Wah. Try Shakespeare or Chaucer or the King James bible. But believe it or not there are those of us who read those for the story instead of watching TV on the printed page, if you get my drift.

    Tolkien’s story connects with the most fundamental concerns of humans: mortality. He started all this when he was young and in mortal danger everyday. As he aged he saw the way of the world, the years go by, youth fades, autumn is over, winter is in the air, and there’s only a short time until the sun rises not again. He saw the land around him being wasted and exploited and knew that a day would come when concrete blanketed the planet. And he connected it directly to us. Who hasn’t wondered if the legends of the fair folk, of goblins and trolls, hadn’t had to have had some basis however small in reality? Then Tolkien hands you a story that answers all those questions so nicely that you have to wonder whether it might not be real!

    Most modern fanstasy is simply the literary equivalent of a TV series. Characters appear from thin air when needed, and the story adjusted to accomodate them. New gimmicks and gizmos have to be invented to up the ante from the last ultimate evil slain so as to keep the readers attention between episodes. Tolkien had only one story, and it was complete from beginning to end before a word of it was put to paper.

    So yeah, Tolkien might be hard to get through sometimes (especially those great swathes of dense verse,) but it’s worth it. If you get it. If you don’t, let me introduce you to David Eddings and Hickman and Weiss.

    • Since Tolkien as a young man was at the battle of the Somme, lost good friends in the war, and spent awhile at death’s door with the trench fever, it does seem unsurprising that he was very conscious of mortality.
      I would note: that an awareness of one’s mortality is an important component of the truly inward and contemplative personality. An appreciation of death gives perspective on what is really important. Without it, we lose ourselves in the concerns of the day.

      Fantasy authors after Tolkien went on to use his same basic plot line: Great evil threatens the land, x magic item decides the outcome.
      However, I’ve never really had a problem with this, since there’s really only a very limited number of plots. And for some reason, I never have gotten tired of seeing maps of exotic lands after the title page.
      The main thing I ask of an author is to bring their own style and interpretation to the setting they’ve chosen.

      There were lots of great fantasy authors from the 60s to 80s who succeeded very well at this.
      David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Hickman and Weiss wrote some excellent stories even if most are not exactly philosophical in nature. These are the sort of stories I read while growing up.

      The genre seems to have slid a bit in the 90s to early 00s with Jordan and Goodkind putting thousands of pages onto the market each year. This is the period when I really noticed the trend of endlessly upping the ante with ever more ultimate evils. In the later 00s to present, I’ve noticed franchise themed fantasy has become a lot bigger than it used to be.
      Not always a bad thing: i.e. Zahn’s Star Wars novels.

      I don’t read fantasy or even fiction that much any more, so I’m probably out of date. I’ve had trouble reading a lot of the pulpier fantasy ever since I was introduced to Robin Hobb.
      Her works aren’t exactly philosophical, but she writes in a thicker, high literary tone compared to the large body of stuff aimed at kids in middle school. The characters, the use of descriptive language are among the best I’ve seen anywhere. It can suck to feel for her characters so much because it hurts when she makes them suffer. I’ve always thought “Royal Assassin” should be renamed “Regal Strikes Back” in honor of the Star Wars film that features two and a half hours of the good guys getting their asses kicked.

      Now that I think of it, there was definitely a more philosophically oriented school of fantasy back in that 60s to 80s period. Ursula K LeGuin’s and Madeleine L’Engle’s stories were frequently built around strong moral/philosophical themes.

      The TV style of writing is standard in most present forms of literature. Fantasy is just one among many. If you pick up a thriller like the DaVinci code or Angels and Demons, you’ll quickly notice that it’s plot oriented with tightly written scenes and dialogue. Nothing goes to waste. Only action sequences and necessary plot information make the final cut into the story.
      As a result, there’s a lot of fade to black type of moments, quick transitions that keep things moving fast.
      There’s very little sense of the characters’ internal world. Indeed, it’s somewhat tacitly understood that you’re meant to fill the empty shoes of Robert Langdon, Jack Ryan, or Dirk Pitt.
      I think this is where some of that voyeuristic TV feeling comes from.

  4. Pingback: 5 Reasons Why Introverts Are Awesome | Sharing Interesting Stuff, Updates News & Free Tips

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