Sunday, January 22, 2012

Blog Post 7: I say "hero," you say . . .

What is heroism, according to Tolkien? At one point, Sam jokes that perhaps one day, people will make songs about his quest with Frodo, and I think it's fair to say that the adventures of the heroes we meet in The Lord of the Rings measure up to the exploits of the heroes in The Silmarillion. The heroes themselves, though, are different. For this blog post, I'd like you to reflect on the nature of heroism in The Lord of the Rings and try to develop a coherent theory of what a hero is, at the end of the Third Age and the beginning of the dominion of men. If you could characterize the heroes of the Lord of the Rings as a group, what single characteristic stands out the most? Who are we supposed to look up to? What are we asked to value? And how do we know someone is a hero?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Blog Post 6: A Sequel to the Hobbit?

It may give you some satisfaction to know that grading the exams took an absurd amount of time. That's what I get, I suppose . . .

For this blog post, I'd like you to consider The Fellowship of the Ring as a sequel to The Hobbit. This was, in fact, Tolkien's original purpose, as his letters to his publisher repeatedly demonstrate. Yet, as he pointed out on numerous occasions, the story somehow got away from him. What I’d like to ask is: where do you see the more Hobbit-like moments in the story? In what sense is The Fellowship of the Ring a sequel to The Hobbit, and how does it deviate from that intention? Is there a particular moment when the story takes a turn away from the tone and purpose of The Hobbit, and starts developing a sense of its own story-ness? Are there changes in familiar characters or landscapes that let us know we are in a different sort of story, even if it is set in the same world?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Blog Post 5: Enter the Hobbits

Have you recovered from the exam yet? Are your hands still cramped? You might be interested to know that the exams I've graded thus far have been quite good and so, while your hands might still be twisted into some sort of claw shape, your grades are just fine.

For tonight's blog, I'd like us to think about hobbits. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf tells Frodo, "[i]t would be a greivous blow to the world, if the Dark Power overcame the Shire; if all your kind, jolly, stupid Bolgers, Hornblowers, Boffins, Bracegirdles, and the rest, not to mention the ridiculous Bagginses, became enslaved." Gandalf seems to be acknowledging that hobbits serve an important role in Middle Earth; just what that role is, though, is a bit unclear.

In the previous post, I suggested that one of the roles for hobbits (as narrative devices) in telling stories about Middle Earth is to provide a grounding for our sense of humanity. But do hobbits merely serve a narrative purpose in the stories of Middle Earth? How or why are they important to Middle Earth, as Gandalf indicates? Bilbo certainly develops some more heroic qualities as the novel progresses, but he would be hopelessly out of place in a lineup of heroes which included Fingolfin or Turin or Finrod or Beren. In a world inhabited by Elves and Numenoreans, and filled with orcs and dragons and trolls and giant spiders, where do hobbits fit in?

Why hobbits?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Blog Post 4: Heroes before Hobbits

If you've read The Hobbit, you know that one of the most attractive aspects of the story is the protagonist, Bilbo Baggins. He is eminently familiar as an example of perfectly average humanity: he loves food and comfort, he tries to avoid danger, and for the most part, he behaves exactly as we might expect any average person to behave. Bilbo's behavior is one of the most obvious ways that Tolkien ensures his faery story remains focused on humanity.

This is, perhaps, not the case for the heroes we've in The Silmarillion. In our encounters with Feanor and his sons, or with Thingol, Turgon, Barahir, Beren, Luthien, Turin, and Isildur, we meet characters who are bigger than life in almost every way. How, then, does Tolkien manage to maintain a focus on humanity in a way that is recognizable? Is it possible to identify with these heroes in a meaningful way? And if the heroes don't invite our identification with them, how do we make any meaning out of the mass of myth and legend presented in The Silmarillion?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Blog Post 3: The Fall

In letter 131, which we read for class on 01/05, Tolkien claims that his entire mythology is concerned with "Fall, Mortality, and the Machine." So far in the Silmarillion, we've seen little of mortality or machines. Of falls, though, we've seen a few, and the rest of the Middle Earth mythology is rife with fall after fall.

In particular, our reading for today is concerned with the fall of the Elves, and of Feanor in particular. I'd like you to reflect for a bit on the nature of Feanor's fall. Is his decision to keep the Silmarils for himself justified? Do the Valar have any responsibility for Feanor's departure from Valinor? And is Feanor's decision the right one, even though he is warned that his quest to reclaim the Silmarils is doomed from the start?


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Blog Post 2: Stepping into Myth - Ainulindale and Valaquenta

If I were a wizard, I'd say that I was never late, and always posted exactly when I meant to. But I'm not a wizard, and this is a bit later than I'd intended. Nevertheless, tonight's post . . .

Moving from "Farmer Giles" and "Smith of Wooten Major" to the beginning of The Silmarillion is a bit jarring, I'll admit. We are clearly transitioning into faery stories that are bigger, richer, and deeper than anything encountered in the short stories we've read so far. Tolkien's intention in The Silmarillion is to provide an entire world and its history, beginning at (or, I suppose, before) the moment of creation. In order to achieve the effect of depth and seriousness he feels the material demands, Tolkien adopts a pseudo-Biblical style in his prose.

My question for you: how does this shift in style -- so different from the tone found in "Smith" or "Giles" and certainly much different than the approach he takes in The Hobbit or, to a lesser extent, in The Lord of the Rings -- actually affect our comprehension of the material? I'm not talking about whether it makes it more difficult to read or understand; rather, I want to hear from you about whether the style of The Silmarillion works. Does the pseudo-Biblical word choice, diction, vocabulary, and organization help draw us into the world Tolkien is creating? Does it get in the way? Would there be a better, more effective way to approach writing about the creation of Middle Earth? Does the Biblical tone draw attention to the "frame" of Faery in a way that Tolkien actually wanted to avoid?

Once again, you don't have to respond to every question I've raised, but you do need to respond to some aspect of the post. And don't hesitate to respond to your classmates as well.


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Blog Post 1: The Land of Faery

In today's class discussion, we talked about Tolkien's conception of "faery" as a place where sub-creation takes place. Sub-creation is a difficult concept: briefly, it is the idea that, as beings "created" in God's image (in a Christian theological world view), people have an instinctive desire to create. This instinct toward creation is not just a desire to create things, like inlaid tables or hand-carved salad bowls, but is a desire to create worlds, and beings, on our own.

This view of sub-creation, then, influences his understanding of how faerie stories work. Tolkien laid out a few guidelines for the development of faerie stories:
  1. Fairy stories depend on belief. If the author of a fairy story is not taking his material seriously, the audience will detect his lack of belief and the story will cease to work as a true fairy story.
  2. Fairy stories must be presented as real and true. They can't be illusions, or dreams.
  3. Fairy stories are about humanity. There may be elves and dwarves and wizards and dragons. But fairy stories are grounded in their attention to humanity, and human concerns give them their depth and meaning.
  4. Fairy stories can be jovial and less than serious about almost anything. But one aspect must always be taken seriously: magic. If the magic of a fairy story is treated with anything less than respect, the fairy story will not function as a fairy story.
  5. Finally, Tolkien tells us that fairy stories have two main purposes. First, they respond to a human desire to "survey the depths of time and space." Second, they respond to a human desire to "hold communion with other living things."
With all of this in mind, you should comment on how these concepts seem to play out in Tolkien's own work. Do these principals apply to his stories about Middle Earth? Do they apply to the shorter, smaller tales about Farmer Giles, Smith of Wooten Major, or Niggle?

You don't need to respond to all of those questions, but you need to clearly comment in response to the preceding concepts. I look forward to what you have to say . . .

Getting Started

Some instructions, tips, and thoughts about responding to the blog posts:

My intention for the blog posts is that they will stimulate thought outside of class, and discussion within class. You should, then, be thoughtful in your comments. This doesn't mean that your comments have to be especially brilliant or long-winded, but you should actually put some thought and effort into what you contribute. I would also urge you to interact with one another. The minimum requirement for this assignment is that you respond with one thoughtful comment to each of my posts. But it might be useful (or, dare I say, enjoyable?) to use the blog as a forum for you to work out your questions and queries about the text among each other.

In order to receive full credit for participating in the blog post assignment:
  • Your comments should be written in complete sentences, using, to the best of your ability, correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
  • Your first comment on any post should clearly respond to the post as it is written. If the blog comment conversation drifts in interesting directions, feel free to post in response to your classmates' thoughts. But your first post should clearly and specifically respond to the original post.
  • Your comment should be at least one paragraph in length. This means that you can't just toss off one exceptionally clever thought and have it count for your blog comment. If you choose to continue posting in response to your classmates' comments, you can be pithy and witty. But for your original comment, for credit, you need to write (and think) a bit more.
  • For now, you should sign your posts in a way that makes it clear who you are. This will guarantee you receive proper credit for participating in the blog post assignment.
  • While the blog is a somewhat informal venue for class participation, your comments should be respectful to your fellow classmates, and should avoid any speech that might be considered offensive. I reserve the right to remove any commentary I feel is inappropriate or disrespectful.
I think that's it. Enjoy!