Kevin Roger Black - Where the Shadows Lie
Tolkien and Modernism
All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable ideas and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men. (Karl Marx)
These words from the Communist Manifesto reflect the mixture of admiration and horror that Marx felt towards the bourgeoisie that, he claimed, had "played a most revolutionary part" in world history (MER: 475). Admiration, because the bourgeoisie had, in scarcely one hundred years, "created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations put together" (MER: 477). Horror, because in its wake, it had left a void of amorality in the public consciousness, where the only universally acknowledged public values had become the false gods of profit and free trade, and there was "left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self interest." The result was that the bourgeoisie "has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labourers" (MER: 475-6).
Marshall Berman has identified Marx as one of the first social philosophers to articulate and examine the societal changes produced by modernity, that led to the cultural phenomenon known as modernism. In his book All That is Solid Melts Into Air, Berman describes the causes and effect of the "maelstrom," recognized by Marx, that has overtaken public life in the modern age, demanding a response from artists and philosophers:
....great discoveries in the physical sciences, changing our images of the universe and our place in it; the industrialization of production, which transforms scientific knowledge into technology, creates new human environments and destroys old ones, speeds up the whole tempo of life, generates new forms of corporate power and class struggle; immense demographic upheavals, severing millions of people from their ancestral habitats, hurtling them halfway across the world into new lives; rapid and often cataclysmic urban growth; systems of mass communication, dynamic in their development, enveloping and binding together the most diverse people and societies; increasingly powerful national states, bureaucratically structured and operated, constantly striving to expand their powers; mass social movements of people, and peoples, challenging their political and economic rulers, striving to gain some control over their lives; finally, bearing and driving all these people and institutions along, an ever-expanding, drastically fluctuating capitalist world market.
Many of these factors, individually, are quite laudable. But the total effect of them is a jarring discontinuity between the present and the past: a loss of stability and tradition, and a degradation of individualism, knowledge and integrity in favor of a new, faster-paced schema of efficiency and cost effectiveness. Between the frenzied urbanization of public space, the constant re-adjustment of the labor force to new needs of industry, and the consequent subordination of personal values to economic need, it seemed that all that was solid was "melting into air."
John Ronald Reul Tolkien was no stranger in his life to upheaval. He was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where his father had retreated to be a banker after the loss of the family piano business. Tolkien's visit to England at the age of three with his mother and younger brother was rendered permanent by distressing news: the father he left behind in Africa was dead from a sudden hemorrhage. After living a short time with relatives, the three of them moved to a small cottage at Sarehole Mill in Birmingham, an idyllic country setting for a young boy. Their stay would last four years, and Tolkien later recalled those years as "the longest-seeming and most formative part of my life" (TAB: 24). But he left Sarehole Mill and the English countryside behind forever in 1900 for a house near the tram routes in Moseley, which was more convenient for his schooling. Tolkien and his brother moved through four houses and two schools in the next four years, before tragedy struck again: their mother died from diabetes in 1904. Now a twelve-year-old orphan, Tolkien moved around several more times before enrolling at Oxford in 1911, where he studied classics and Old English. Like the other young men of his generation, he enlisted and departed for war after his graduation in 1915. He married his childhood sweetheart in 1916, who chose to follow the regiment and lived in several homes with him before his discharge in 1918.
Tolkien, without a doubt, felt the "wounds" of modernity quite keenly. By choice he steeped himself in the study of ancient languages and literature, including not only Latin and Greek, but especially Old English, Norse, German, and Welsh (he dabbled in many others, including his favorite: Finnish). At Oxford, he was a staunch member of the "old camp" of English professors, where "new" meant more recent than Chaucer. In fact, he cordially disliked Spenser, Wagner, and Shakespeare, all of whom were guilty, he said, of mishandling and debasing the "pure" strains of mythology that had been handed down from antiquity. Tolkien's disapproval, shown in his essays and letters, extended to the products of modern technology as well, from electric lights to airplanes (which he called "Mordor-gadgets"). Regarding industry, he made a solemn declaration, in defense of escapism, in his 1938 essay, "On Fairy-Stories":
For it is after all possible for a rational man, after reflection (quite unconnected with fairy-story or romance), to arrive at the condemnation.... of progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their most natural and inevitable, dare we say "inexorable," products.
Elsewhere in the same essay, he recommends that Oxford should take "offensive action" against the rising barbarity of the society that threatens to break through its fences, and delivers some social commentary that shows that his thought has run along similar lines as Marx:
It is indeed an age of "improved means to deteriorated ends." It is part of the essential malady of such daysproducing the desire to escape, not indeed from life, but from our present time and self-made miserythat we are acutely conscious both of the ugliness of our works, and of their evil. So that to us evil and ugliness seem indissolubly allied. We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together. The fear of the beautiful fay that ran through the elder ages almost eludes our grasp. Even more alarming: goodness is itself bereft of its proper beauty. In Faërie[-land] one... cannot conceive of a house built with a good purposean inn, a hostel for travelers, the hall of a virtuous and noble kingthat is yet sickeningly ugly. At the present day it would be rash to hope to see one that was notunless it was built before our time. ("OFS": 64-65)
The "improved means" refers to industrialization, and "self-made misery" makes it clear what Tolkien saw to be its end. Tolkien innovates on Marx by pointing out that modernization is dissonant with, and narrows, the imaginationa place where the wounds of modernity throb bitterly.
Tolkien's letters also reveal concern, shared by his countrymen, for the direction European politics was taking (he once called Hitler a "ruddy little ignoramus"). But Tolkien mistrusted the very nature of the modern nation-state, as he expressed in a letter to his son Christopher:
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)or to "unconstitutional" Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, an thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. (LOT: 63)
Tolkien's views may have been extreme, but we can surely forgive him, along with the other men of his day who fought in World War I and sent their sons to World War II (Tolkien wrote in the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings that "by 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead" [I: 11]). And even Tolkien's most iconoclastic statements are usually accompanied by thoughtfulness, wit, and wisdomwhich he used to turn the field of Beowulf criticism on its head in the milestone 1936 essay "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." He knew very well the advantages of playing the curmudgeon, also a favorite strategy of Gandalf the wizard. But we can be certain that he did sincerely deplore the painful consequences of modernization and felt strongly nostalgic for more primitive times. Furthermore, he evidently associated the ills of the modern world with his writing, as his letters draw frequent analogies between Europe's problems and Middle-earthhe refers to German soldiers as "Orcs," for instance, and writes that the Allies "are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring" (i.e. using evil to fight against evil). As if true of so many other authors, the form taken by his writing responds to the ills of the times.
The mainstream response of the artistic world to the problems of modernity was called modernism, and Marshall Berman's book is devoted to a discussion of the dialectics between the two. He sums up modernism rather idealistically as loose coalition of an amazing variety of visions and ideas that aim to make men and women the subjects as well as the objects of modernization, to give them the power to change the world that is changing them, to make their way through the maelstrom and make it their own. (Berman: 16)
In other words, writers and artists sought to seize the spirit of the time and to make it their own, exulting in it, assimilating and glorifying itrejecting the "traditional" in art and endeavoring to "make it new" according to the advice of Ezra Pound. One important modernist document, "The Manifesto of Futurist Painters, 1910" written in Italy before the first World War, exclaimed:
Comrades, we tell you now that the triumphant progress of science makes changes in humanity inevitable, changes that are hacking an abyss between those docile slaves of tradition and us free moderns who are confident in the radiant splendour of our future.... Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers, and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly! Come on! set fire to the library shelves!
According to this (extreme) view, the old world was been reborn into a new one to which the old world has nothing to say: to study history is merely to impede the progress of new ideas. Old art, and old thinking, is unsuited to the modern age.
Tolkien dissented. His Christianity, and admiration for early literature, forbade the thought that Man's history could be worthless or irrelevant, or that any good would come from ignoring it. Tolkien advocated instead that man return to his mental "roots"that he examine the currents of thought and imagination that have remained movingly consistent from the days of epic myths and folklore to the present. He thought we should unfetter the spirit from the restrictive bands of rationalism, and rediscover the metaphors and ideals, such as heroism, that speak to the needs of living with dignity amongst nature. Without them, we are only the servants of our technology, and not its masters. Tolkien snorted that the subject of most contemporary literature is "no more than play under a glass roof by the side of a municipal swimming-bath." He lamented that man was degraded by the degraded setting he was placed in. "Fairy-stories may invent monsters that fly the air or dwell in the deep, but at least they do not try to escape from heaven or the sea" ("OFS": 63).
While other writers were finding new, exciting ways to express themselves in the modern age, Tolkien returned to a very old one: the fantasy epic. Though it would be easy to argue that he "made it new" like a true modernist, the tenor of the work is more accurately anti-modern. Unlike his other writings about Middle-earth, The Lord of the Rings was conceived from the beginning with publication in mind, and Tolkien wrote it to stand alone, not only as a great story, but as a statement against modern life. But we cannot understand the statement he made without coming to terms with the genre he chose for itFantasy.