The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Boskone panel on worldbuilding anomalies with Tom Shippey

Hi, everyone. I was going to put the discussion of the aforementioned Boskone panel at the start of the next chapter post, but as I wrote I remembered more and more, until the panel report ended up being about as long as a normal post all by itself. So as not to slight “The Passing of the Grey Company” (which is far too awesome to get second billing), I’ve broken this out into its own post.

Thus, behind the jump, some incomplete but nevertheless fairly long notes on the panel that Mary Kay Kare, Mark L. Olson, Tom Shippey (!!), and I were on at Boskone called “The Problem of Glorfindel—and Other Issues in Tolkien.”

As I said above, what follows is going to be incomplete and mostly keyed off of things I said, because that’s easiest for me to remember and I don’t have any contemporaneous notes. I know at least one other person who sometimes reads these posts was in the audience, and I absolutely encourage him and anyone else present to fill in the gaps.

The description, as a refresher:

Tolkien’s elves never re-used names (they were immortal, after all) yet a Glorfindel lived and died in the First Age of Middle-Earth and another was a character in Lord of the Rings six thousand years later—what happened? One of the joys of Tolkien’s world is that it is so well-realized that minor anomalies (which in a lesser writer would be assumed to be sloppiness) only make it seem more real, since the history of the real world also abounds in puzzles. Enjoy a walk through Middle-Earth’s lesser-known byways. Who was Eldest: Treebeard or Tom Bombadil? What were orcs, actually, since Morgoth could not create anything new? Why are the wood-elves such jerks in The Hobbit? Whatever happend to Ungoliant? Arwen became mortal, but what happened to the sons of Elrond when he took ship for Valinor? Where did Sauron hide the One Ring when he was taken captive to Numinor? Let’s take the time to explore these and other intriguing curiosities of Middle Earth.

I forget exactly how we started, but early on we starting talking about Tom Bombadil and very nearly bogged down in everyone’s pet theories of who/what he is. Mary Kay and Mark were alert, though, and kept things moving by asking why people were so fascinated by these questions. I believe that they both thought it was precisely because the rest of Tolkien’s worldbuilding is so solid and enthralling (but I’m missing an additional reason or two; MKK, Mark?). I said I was interested when the anomalies gave me an angle into thinking about the worldbuilding. The question of who was the Eldest suggested something about Gandalf’s information and Tom Bombadil’s perspective on himself. The origin of the orcs raised serious questions about the universe’s morality (also the orcs so far haven’t really been living up to their stereotype as mindless ravening irredeemable hordes, which itself is interesting). Those seemed to be the two questions that generated the most discussion here, as well.

In response, Tom Shippey made the first substantive comments that I recall. (He was pretty quiet early: he was coming straight from two back-to-back items and was obviously tired, asking at the start if he had time to get coffee (a kind person in the audience got some for him). Also, though Mary Kay and I were somewhat in awe of the company we were keeping, we also both want to moderate everything we are on, and so awe or no awe, we weren’t lacking things to say.) He said that neither option was satisfactory: either the orcs were corrupted Elves, in which case there weren’t enough of them, or corrupted humans, in which case there are free-will/choice problems. They feel like humans to him. This led to the obligatory comment about Tolkien’s experiences as a soldier, and I mentioned John Garth’s work.

We discussed Tolkien’s obsessive revision, a.k.a. “niggling” (see “Leaf by Niggle”). Mark horrified me by saying that very late in his life, Tolkien wanted to rewrite everything to be consistent with our scientific understanding of the solar system, e.g., making the Sun a ball of gas instead of a vessel guided by a minor deity. (I have no idea what this would have done to Eärendil.) I think this is where we talked about the obvious tensions between Tolkien’s Catholicism and his attraction to non-Christian mythologies: the way that the Valar are more-or-less angels but feel like polytheistic deities; reincarnation (making reference to Glorfindel); and the rewriting of humans’ Fall to be partly the fault of the Valar (okay, I’m not sure how directly we talked about that).

Shippey said that Sam going to Valinor was a late-life change, which he felt was (to paraphrase) getting soft, going back on a hard choice he’d made earlier. That surprised me greatly because I always believed that it was a fact that Sam went, but of course the Appendices are not definitive (“the tradition is handed down”). What can I say, I was eight years old when I first read and interpreted that. What did you all think?

Someone said that RotK being finished in the first place was generally credited to C.S. Lewis. Shippey talked about Tolkien’s academic work at Oxford, which I believe I can reasonably sum up as sparse, slow, and undistinguished. That lit up a connection for me to Adam Roberts’ very interesting comments on the peculiar position LotR takes with regard to the written word:

[it] is not that it is too obscure, or ambiguous, or slippery; but on the contrary, that it is too plain. It does exactly what it says (you speak ‘friend’ and enter). It bridges the gap between text and world too immediately, and renders itself real with a dangerous completion. This is at the heart of the power of the ring. The whole novel is a written-textual articulation of that fact.

Which ties back again to my disbelief in the framing device: when I see a framing device like “this is a translated manuscript” today, I expect it to be signaling the text’s unreliability, not the reliability, as Tolkien clearly intended. (A comment which seemed to go down like a lead balloon; I’m not sure if it was the generational gap between me and the rest of the panelists, or if everyone just thought I was weird.) And if Tolkien had such a fraught conception of the written word, well, no wonder he found it difficult to commit to a final version of anything.

(Thanks to Jo Walton for the pointer to Roberts’ post.)

I asked the rest of the panel what it was like when The History of Middle-earth came out, for people who enjoyed trying to piece together the puzzles of inconsistencies and anomalies: did it close things off, stop the fun? The general consensus seemed to be no, it gave even greater scope. This led to Shippey mentioning serious feuds over pet theories, and at Mary Kay’s prompting he gave the example of a talk, given at one of the various anniversary celebrations, that argued that Tolkien was a Neo-Platonist early in his life: he thought it was very interesting and everyone else hated it. (At this point I nodded and attempted to conceal the fact that I had only the vaguest idea of what Neo-Platonism was. I have since Googled.)

Mark asked for summing-up comments. Shippey got the last word with the only new remark, a very emphatic “Tom Bombadil was a land-wight,” a figure in existing mythology—he gave some translations that I didn’t catch—period, the end.

I had a lot of fun, especially when we were able to hit on some questions that Tom Shippey had something to say in response, because he’s a very entertaining speaker as well as a knowledgeable one. And the audience appeared to be enjoying themselves, too, so on the whole I think it went well. Thanks to Boskone for the opportunity and to all of you for giving me things to talk about on it!

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Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at her LiveJournal and booklog.


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