Dear Readers, what a tempest I have evidently stirred up in a teapot! J
I got many letters on the subject of last months Counterpoint, in which I took the stance that Lord of the Rings is not a novel, at least not by what I believe to be the definition of a novel. There are many letters on the subject that I have not yet answered, and so Im going to take this space to answer you publiclyforgive me if I have used your email without asking your permission.
First of all, some have quibbled with my definition of the word novel.
"In my dictionary, the definition of novel says nothing about having to display the complex nature of characters. And the second definition of novel new, original, and different, and often particularly interesting and unusual as well - displays more of Tolkien's work than most novels of today - Oprah's book club, per se. If we want to speak in semantics, you can't ignore the roots of the word "novel" when discussing what you, or a critic's opinion, of the word novel is. We are all critics, in the technical sense." --Shawn Hudson.
Shawn, dear, the rest of your letter on the nature of Middle-earth itself was interesting, and please expect a response from me in the (I hope!) not-too-distant future. But here I will focus on an answer to your semantic point. You are, of course, completely correct about the definition of novel that deals with something new. But my dictionary also goes on to state: "A fictional prose narrative of considerable length, typically having a plot that is unfolded by the actions, speech, and thoughts of the characters. The literary genre represented by novels." So many of our words these days have come into "standard usage" through being constantly applied in a way that may have been slightly different from the original usage. "Novel" is no exceptionit has come to represent a genre of literature that is certainly not new, but each author is trying to do something new with the form of the novel, else why bother to write it? However, I still do not agree that the definition has nothing to do with psychological complexity. I quoted the definition Im working from last monthDrydens, which says "A fictitious tale or narrative, professing to be conformed to real life; esp., one intended to exhibit the operation of the passions, and particularly of love." So Im making two points by saying this: firstly, that any narrative which tells the story through the "actions, speech, and thoughts of the characters," and which deals primarily with "the passions," will be uninteresting without psychological complexity; therefore we may say that a novel should purport to carry some, and secondly, that Tolkien was not doing anything new. He was recasting the ancient mythological and heroic saga form into the minds of a more modern audience.
William Roper writes quite complimentarily: "It's sad that we live in a world where the novel acts as an oppressive mode. Critics don't condemn Tolkien in comparison with the novel; they do it through it. If you will, we're all reading through novel-colored glasses. It's a shame that we can't go ahead a few centuries to see what literary works survive time's unbiased critique. If I were a betting man, I'd expect to see Tolkien still on a kempt shelf marked "Literature" and our modern novels on a shelf marked "History."
I couldnt agree more, Will. Heroic sagas, when well done, have been proven, time and time again, to survive much longer, no matter in what mutated form through oral tradition, than anything fictional about "real people." And thank you for making my point again that this dangerous confusion of saga and novel has resulted in the critics feeling free to bash Tolkien because he is not a novel-writer. Evidently they dont know what to make of a good heroic saga that has been carefully thought out and written by a modern writer, not passed down garbled through the centuries.
Now the point where I have been most disagreed with. Im not complaining; without different points of view, nothing I have to say would be very meaningful, so by all means, keep sending me your arguments, dear readers. But in this particular case, and I felt it would probably be so, many of you have been upset by my intimating that Tolkiens characters lack psychological depth. Voronwë writes: "Just read your article about LotR not being a novel, and I understand what you're trying to say. I do agree that, taking a certain definition of the novel, LotR is something else; however, it certainly does not lack psychological complexity. The 'good' characters all have their flaws and weaknesses, and the 'evil' ones are shown to have fallen because of these (even Sauron, if you read the background in other works). Tolkien does not explicitly point out the motivations and emotional states of his characters, or at least not often - it is his genius that portrays these almost entirely through their words and actions. But he saw human nature very clearly, and the psychology of his characters is flawless. It's forty years since I first read LotR, and every time I return to it I am struck by a further example of its truth. There are not many modern novels that get it so right."
Yes, the good characters have their struggles, and the evil ones may have a few redeeming qualities lurking about. But any psychological depth is created only by the struggle between these forces, not by the turmoil within one character. Remember that it was said of the family of Baggins that there was no need of asking what a Baggins would say on any question; you could know what hed say without the trouble of asking him? The characters in Lord of the Rings, like it or not, do fit some archetypal patterns reaching back into the ancient tradition of the heroic saga. And most certainly, Tolkien "saw human nature very clearly," but from where I sit he sought to illustrate it by showing something so much better and stronger, not how weak and silly we really are.
Charles Hahr writes (quoting me, to begin with): "Novels are stories of human nature. Real, as it is. They are, usually, stories of the reactions of one human or set of humans to a particular set of fictional circumstances. What ties them all in common is that the heroes and villains have the same emotional triggers, the same failings, the same ability to be killed and stay dead, the same distance between them and God or the gods, the same spiteful behaviors, the same remorseful moments, and the same frustrations at dealing with other humans as we have ourselves. Funny, someone asked me to describe Lord of the Rings to them recently and this paragraph you wrote is exactly as I described it to them. If you consider characters as abstractions of human nature (and don't tell me this isn't done by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens), then isn't Lord of the Rings just a story of the reactions of a set of humans to a
particular circumstances, just done so in a more pure form than Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. Tolkien went to great length to draw the parallels between heroes and villains to point out to us that they reacted with the same emotional triggers, the same failings, and the same spiteful behaviors. The (dare I say it) novels contain more examples of this than I can count. As to whether or not the character can be killed and stay dead, this is as true in Lord of the Rings as it is in any other book I've ever read. The remorseful moments and frustrations at dealing with other humans are present as well. And personally, I never encountered any God or gods while reading Lord of the Rings, so I can't comment on that."
Well. Lord of the Rings is indeed the story of the reaction of characters to their given circumstances, but I cannot say I agree that many of them react the way we might do. Were you ever told that a family heirloom held great power for evil and must be destroyed? Were you ever tempted to look into a crystal ball of great farseeing power? Have you ever disguised yourself as the opposite sex and rode away looking for adventure? "But Anwyn
quit being ridiculous." J
I suppose I am, and many will say it is an over-simplification, but one of the cruxes of my definition of a novel is that the circumstances described in it could reasonably be expected to be encountered by us, in our world. Gandalf is killed but does not stay dead, the gods are reasonably close by in the form of Maiar and Valar, and a little person, instead of saying "Why me?" or "No way, I cant do this," sets out on a long road into the Fire. I just dont see it as humanand dont get me wrong, dear readers, this is what I love most about it.
Finally, I must quote Merwyn, who said in four beautiful sentences what it took me my entire last column to say. "I have learned something new and wonderful today. Novels (like Jane Austen's) are personal insights into mundane human nature. Stories, sagas, myth are about what human beings could be--gods & monsters. Give me Tolkien, too."
And that is my belief, too, Merwyn, in a nice little nutshell. Stories, sagas, mythTolkienare what give me something (forgive the word) neat to look up to and outside myself, to hold up as an example of purity of spirit (even the evil spirits) and nobility of mind. These characters arent worried about where their next meal is coming from, the fact that they have to go to the bathroom, wondering if they will marry a rich person, standing around being bored by their Uncle Fred at a party, wondering whether to go to class or sleep in. The issues of saga and myth are always grand in scope and sweeping in consequence. All those other things make up, as Merwyn succinctly put it, "mundane human nature." The gift of the novel writer is to make that mundane human nature interesting, just as I think Jane Austen did. But Tolkien went outside that, to transcend human nature altogether and give us, in Merwyns excellent words, gods and monsters to look upon with wonder.