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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

All Twitter no Tolkien

Diane Ravitch writes that Americans are no longer reading literature and are instead focused on trivial communication such as twitter. She asks some questions I would like to answer:

1) On a recent recommended reading list, why wasn't anything by Mark Twain listed?

Simple. One word. Racism. It just isn't popular any longer and very few people are willing to tolerate the racism in Twain's works.

2) Why "Lord of the Rings"? Must have been due to the movie.

Fantasy literature has always had a hard time getting any respect. Literature snobs won't read it and they assume that, along with science fiction, it is merely escapist. This is certainly true of much of the genre as it is equally true of fiction in general. Lord of the Rings is not of that type, though it certainly has its adventure elements. Here are what I regard as the outstanding elements of the Ring trilogy:

Philosophical: It continues the thread begun in Plato's republic with the parable of the Ring of Gaiges and continued in Wagner's Ring Cycle. In both of those explorations of the lust to power, the cautionary elements were emphasized. Tolkien asks a different question: What would it cost to destroy the lust for power in us? Instead of using the ring of power to kill the king and marry the queen (Gaiges) or to bring the entire cosmos into ruin (Wagner), Tolkien's characters destroy the ring of power at tremendous cost to themselves.

Philological: Tolkien was a professor of medieval literature and created his fantasy world as a showcase for several of his invented languages.

Poetic: Many fans of escapist fantasy literature have trouble with LotR because the plot moves so slowly due to a lot of epic poetry and history building. LotR is a good introduction to epic poetry and inspired me to continue on reading the Iliad, Odessy, Aeneid, L'Morte d Arthur etc.

Theological: Tolkien creates a number of angelic or semi-angelic characters including the wizard Gandalf. He essentially asks the question: if an angel were to come to earth, what would he be like? How does compassion look in the real world?

Political: The legend of the Istari- wizards was that the gods sent them to oppose evil but without overt shows of power. This explores the idea of how we can attempt to change the world in a non-coercive fashion.

Value system: Tolkien creates his elven race (nothing like the traditional elves - these are more like angelic norsemen) to showcase another set of questions: What would a race of immortals value? He shows us a value system that centered on preserving beauty, seeking knowledge and keeping courage alive.

I think Tolkien deserves his place in the literary pantheon right next to Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, Twain and frankly, Asimov and Ellison. If you want literature that can change the way you think about the world, don't discount classic era science fiction and the best of the fantasy genre.

1 comment:

  1. As much as people are appalled by the racism of the Holocaust, people continue to read novels about that era, so I don't think that refusal to read stories because they portray racism is an accurate argument.

    If that is the nominal reason for not reading Twain's works, then I think people are letting "politically correct" or other mass media influence get in the way of individual thought, which is the premise of the article.

    I'm not sure if you're saying that Twain was racist, but I would hardly call an author or artist who portrays a way of life that included racism as racist because of that portrayal.

    Are you including other stories Mark Twain wrote, such as "The Prince and the Pauper, "The Mysterious Stranger," "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," or "The 1,000,000 Pound Bank Note" in this description of his works? I don't know that I see where any of these fit the category of "racism."