Friday, 3 August 2012

Glorfindel(s) I miss you!

Under this title Shaun Gunner (a Tolkien Society trustee) makes a charming appeal in the latest issue of Amon Hen (the bulletin of the Tolkien Society).

Shaun wonders what happened to the ‘great debates’ — not just the question of Balrog Wings (we're all pretty much fed up with that), but also the question of one or two Glorfindels, Elven ears, the colour of Legolas' hair or the irredeemability of Orcs.

This of course raises the question of what constitutes a ‘great debate’? Reasonable criteria might include such as the number of people participating in the debate, the length of time over which the debate runs, the number of contributions both over time and per day, week or month etc. However, if we look at many of the debates that are typically listed as ‘great’ the strength of emotions also seems to be a common factor.

Shaun Gunner acknowledges that Tolkien Studies has become more ‘mature’ or ‘mainstream’ and that as a result of this issues such as source criticism and biographical history dominate the discussions.

A few of the debates have been definitely closed (there is not much point in discussing the number of Glorfindels after the publication of The Peoples of Middle-earth, is there), while others, perhaps particularly the infamous Balrog wings, have reached a state where just about everyone is fed up with them.

As a result it would unfortunately seem that the only great debate in Tolkien fandom these years is for or against the Jackson films — or about the ‘faithfulness’ of them. I admit that I am more than a little tired of these discussions — in the end we're all just trying to rationalize the gut feeling we had that first day in the theatre, and too often it ends in pointless reiterations of positions and ad Hominem attacks.

However, despite all this, I still think Shaun Gunner raises a good question — not so much about the specific debates he mentions (and I might be able to add a question or two to his list), but about the eagerness to discuss the story-internal issues. This may be geeky in nature, but I also think that these debates have a very legitimate place also in the more mature world of Tolkien studies.

One of the points that Jason Fisher makes strongly in his own contribution to Tolkien and the Study of His Sources is that the desire to understand how Tolkien worked is important for motivating source studies — he goes as far as to suggest that good source studies should, at least in some measure, attempt to uncover some corner of this. Well, I will argue that identifying the probable sources also requires a good understanding of how Tolkien's world works — it's inner reality. I have seen too many poorly thought-out attempts to justify a claimed source that have been based on a dubious interpretation of the inner reality of Tolkien's work.

This is also an important part of understanding the man himself, the biographical studies: in Tolkien's works, his personal world-view is built into the structure of the world he described. Frodo receives grace simply because Tolkien believed that grace works also in the real, primary, world. In may ways we can trace the evolution of Tolkien's fascinations, ideas and philosophical/ethical views through the evolution of his sub-creation.

Tolkien studies and Tolkien scholarship has been blessed with a good relationship between the academic scholars such as Shippey, Flieger, Drout etc. and the community of Tolkien geeks, and I honestly believe that both parts have benefited from this relationship, and I am convinced that either side would suffer from the weakening of the other.

Fortunately I am not quite as pessimistic as Shaun Gunner. There are a lot of discussions about the story-internal aspects of Tolkien's world, but there are not many that would qualify as ‘great debates’.

We still see occasional earnest discussion of the Master Ring. Both the question of the actual agency of the Ring (its capacity for thought and free will) and the related question of how it corrupted its bearer and others (Saruman is apparently corrupted merely by the idea of the One Ring). These questions are also important for understanding Tolkien's ponerology — his metaphysical portrayal of the nature of evil: a question that is very relevant in Tolkien studies. That question is, in and of itself, actually a story-internal debate: what is the nature of evil and how does it work in Tolkien's world?

The same could be said about the nature and workings of free will in Tolkien's world — a question that is related to discussions about the Master Ring, about the nature and redeemability of Orcs and the role of the Music as fate.

Other story-internal discussions that are being taken up in the more academic discussions are the metafictional layers of Tolkien's stories: what is the exact transmission history of the many stories from the Ainulindal√ę to Findegil's additions to the Red Book? Does it make sense to claim a long series of copies of copies between Findegil and the book that Tolkien-the-translator had as the basis for his translation? These are inherently story-internal questions that are no less geeky than the question of Balrog wings (a question that might, at least in theory, be relevant for suggesting possible sources for the Balrogs).

I could mention many other story-internal discussions that bear on, or are actually themselves, current issues in Tolkien scholarship, but the thing is that they exist.

This leaves the question of why these do not emerge as ‘great debates’ such as we saw earlier. Here I think that Steuard's comments in the thread ‘What killed’ have some bearing on this as well. The dilution, or dispersion, of the on-line discussions has created a multitude of fora where discussions arise and die out. Though many of us are active in more than one forum, only a few of these discussions manage to be ported from one forum to another — possibly because many fora have their own profile that seems to dictate what discussions will be taken up eagerly.

Another problem might be that many of these discussions are more complex — in their origin the discussions of Balrog wings and Elven ears are quite easy to relate to (though they, too, got into fairly complex levels of textual analysis), but the transmission history of the Red Book quickly becomes more complex. This should, however, not detain us: the on-line Tolkien discussions are often dominated by highly intelligent people who are more than capable of understanding even far more complex issues (as witnessed by the complexities that has always crept into all the great debates).

Instead of asking what happened to the great debates of yesterday, I'd much rather ask what will become the next great story-internal debate? What question can raise sufficient intellectual interest and emotional engagement to engage the on-line community in sufficient numbers and over a sufficient length of time to deserve that title?  Any ideas?

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