Jul 19 2010 4:33pm

LotR re-read: Return of the King V.9, “The Last Debate”

We resume the Lord of the Rings re-read after a delay caused by work, Readercon (at which I met some of you: hi! Thanks for introducing yourselves), and post-con blahs. I did go to a panel with relevance to this, but since it’s only tangential, I will just post a link in comments when I put up my panel report on my personal LiveJournal.

And now, the usual comments and spoilers for all things Middle-earth.

What Happens

Legolas and Gimli visit Merry and Pippin in the Houses of Healing. Legolas tells of his longing for the sea and of their journey through the Paths of the Dead. He then describes their journey to the river, followed—and once nearly overtaken—by the Dead. At Pelargir they found the Corsairs of Umbar’s main fleet; Aragorn called the Dead and all those aboard the ships fled in terror, except the chained slaves. The Dúnedain took control of the ships and freed the slaves, and Aragorn told the Dead that their oath was fulfilled. They vanished and the fleet made ready to row up the Anduin, with the results all know.

While this story is being told, a council is held outside the city among Gandalf, Aragorn, Éomer, Imrahil, and Elrond’s sons. Gandalf argues that “(v)ictory cannot be achieved by arms” and urges them to makes themselves the bait in a trap to keep Sauron’s attention from Mordor and give Frodo a chance. Aragorn and Elrond’s sons agree on the merits of this plan; Éomer and Imrahil agree because they hold it their duty, in friendship or allegiance, to follow Aragorn. They make plans to take seven thousand men with them (and leave another three to protect the city). Though this is a laughably small number to bring against Sauron’s might, Gandalf assures them that Sauron will take it seriously, as seriously as they do.


I remember thinking fairly recently how big an influence this plot point was on the fantasy genre, the idea that big splashy things would be diversions for a much smaller and more critical mission. And now I can’t think of a darn thing that does use this pattern except David Eddings’ Belgariad; oh, brain, how I miss you. In any event, I find it significant, though not surprising, that a veteran should write a story in which military force is necessary but not sufficient.

I was mildly surprised by how quickly everyone accepted Gandalf’s assessment of the situation and plan, but then I realized that Éomer and Imrahil don’t so much agree on the merits as hold themselves bound to comply, and of course Aragorn and Elrond’s sons would have the long perspective. Another scene that would have looked very different with Denethor in it, though at this point I think I’m ready for the short downward slide to the Black Gate. (It’ll be interesting to see what we can infer about the non-leader, non-hobbit view of this all in the next chapter.)

* * *

It’s nice to see parts of the Fellowship reunited and hear what happened in the reader’s absence. I found it initially interesting that we got the story of the battle at Pelargir second-hand, rather than as a chapter in its own right or a flashback. But Tolkien just doesn’t do flashbacks in the cinematic sense (I don’t know when that sense developed or made its way to literature), and making Pelargir another chapter would either wreck the surprise, if it came chronologically, or be too much like the treatment of the Rohirrim—surprise last-minute arrival, jump back a chapter to how they got there. And what we get is sufficient for me, since “the Dead show up, everyone runs in fear, the Dead leave” does not require a lot of elaboration.

Checking back on “The Passing of the Grey Company,” it seems that the Dead’s broken oath was allegiance and to fight against Sauron. So I would like to know what prompted Aragorn to release them after a single battle, which would hardly have fulfilled their oath in life. Concern over the strength of the curse? Doubt that they would have the same effect against non-human armies? Feeling of intrinsic narrative rightness, particularly not wanting to push the seeds-of-own-destruction past its limits?

* * *

Around the story of Pelargir are the edges of two stories about permanence and its limits: Legolas’ longing for the Sea, and the conversations about how long Gondor shall endure. Which is maybe itself another answer to why let the Dead go now, on a kind of impermanence – imperfection – even the very wise cannot see all ends line of reasoning. Regardless, they are also lead-ups to the debate of the title:

Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

Legolas, by the account of the Appendices, stays for what I think is reasonable to characterize as “long enough,” until everyone but Gimli is gone (and, “it is said,” he took Gimli with him; I refuse to believe otherwise). And so from a character-level point of view, his leaving is not a loss. But from the bigger picture, it’s part of the Elves not being here any more and no Minas Tirith, either: beauty and magic fade out of the world. The “deeds of Men will outlast” Gimli and Legolas? Well, yes, to the extent that humans are still here and doing deeds, but those specific deeds they are talking about, the past and future glories of Minas Tirith? Not so much.

Have I given the rant about how I hate diminishing-magic worlds yet? Well, if I have, you all can skip this next paragraph.

I hate diminishing-magic worlds. I hate the idea that it’s a bedrock truth that either we or the characters I am supposed to identify with are living in a world that not only is worse than it was, but can never surpass or even reach its past heights. For one thing, I’m more or less an optimist—certainly not enough of a pessimist to settle for the idea of unreachable, unreturning glory days. (Diminishing-magic worlds never, that I have read, see the new state of affairs as equal to or better than the old. If there are some that do, tell me!) For another, the general trend of quality of life and social justice over human history has been upward, and so I am automatically suspicious of nostalgia, because by definition it is a longing to return to a time when my life would suck. [*]

[*] Actually I have just thought of one sort-of exception, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, in which it’s a good thing that certain forms of magic that are closely tied to superstition are diminishing—see Lords and Ladies particularly. But magic itself is emphatically not going anywhere on the Discworld, and there are still gods and the numinous, so this is only a partial exception.

Tolkien had a reason for writing about a diminishing-magic world, because his frame story was that Middle-earth was our past and therefore he had to have the magic diminish to a point that it either vanished or became able to be hidden, since the Prologue aside, there are not actually hobbits around today, let alone elves, Ents, dwarves, talking animals, or Tom Bombadils. (Too many fantasy authors since then seem to have adopted the idea as just part of the furniture without examining what and why.) And that’s his right as an author and it makes sense within the book and I respect that. It still makes me reflexively grumpy, but that’s my problem to deal with (largely, I admit, by avoiding The Silmarillion). But what about you all: how do you feel when you read about the Elves leaving, and Minas Tirith being restored in the text but not around any more, and so forth?

Okay, rant done, but before I leave the subject, I note that Legolas says, in what I suspect is a conveying-authorial-intent voice, that the line of Lúthien shall never fail. I’m not sure I actually want to know if Tolkien had anyone present-day in mind as descendants, but if those of you who have delved into Tolkien’s drafts and writings have anything to add, go ahead.

* * *

My notes about the rest of the last debate are mostly reminders to myself about the exposition, and looking them over I don’t have anything much to say (don’t let that stop you all, though—you always find something interesting and useful to add). I do, however, thrill to the idea of Aragorn not sheathing Andúril until the end of the war. The most dangerous objects I own are some cooking knives and a car, and I don’t personify any of them (don’t name my computers either), but the romance of the sword goes really deep culturally.

« Return of the King V.8 | Index

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.

David Lewis
1. dglewis
Re: releasing the Dead after a single battle. My thinking is that it shows Aragorn's character in two ways: 1, a quality of mercy -- the Dead have been hanging around in torment for, what, three thousand years? Enough is enough. And 2, to show Aragorn's resistance to temptation -- none could stand before the Dead; there would certainly have been a temptation to use them to sweep all of Sauron's forces aside. They were a great and terrible weapon, which Aragorn chose not to use -- in the same way he chose not to use the Ring.

Quoth Legolas, "In that hour I looked on Aragorn and thought how great and terrible a Lord he might have become in the strength of his will, had he taken the Ring to himself... But nobler is his spirit than the understanding of Sauron."
Tony Zbaraschuk
2. tonyz
I think that Aragorn's release of the Dead to freedom ties in with the whole point about why you must give up the Ring instead of using it: if he keeps them, if he keeps using their terror to back up his will against his enemies, how long is it until he is another Sauron, a Dark Lord sending out wraiths to enforce his will. (I never realized this before this conversation, actually, nor how it ties into Legolas' comment about "how great and terrible a lord he might have become in the strength of his own will, had he taken the Ring to himself." Go re-read!)

Aragorn has the right to call the Dead into battle, for they so swore and he has inherited Isildur's claim on their service. But he does not have the right to bind them forever to his will (the souls of Men should go to Iluvater beyond the circles of the world...), and even if he did the results would be terrible for his realm. (Hence the command to "trouble not the valleys ever again"!) So, wisely, he lets them go before the temptation to use them again and again gets to him.

Tolkien himself commented that it was difficult to decide where to place the story of Aragorn's ride, since if you put it in the right place chronologically it spoils the surprise reveal at the Pelennor Fields. That's a real difficulty when you're running an intricate multi-threaded narrative and then rejoining the threads. Tolkien tends to use story-telling techniques, though, which are a kind of flashback -- not the cinematic one, but the same sort of thing. Gandalf telling Frodo about his search for the One Ring, Elrond narrating the Last Alliance at the Council of Elrond, Eomer telling Aragorn about the war with Saruman... there are a lot of stories about the past interrupting the straightforward progression of the story before we get to this point. (Literary narrative flashbacks like this go back a long, long way -- Beowulf starts with the hero arriving at the hall of the Geats and then being told what's been happening, and the Illiad and the Epic of Gilgamesh have similar things...)

>idea that big splashy things would be diversions for a much smaller and more critical mission. And now I can’t think of a darn thing that does use this pattern except David Eddings’ Belgariad

Stephen R. Donaldson's The Power That Preserves, where Mhoram justifies the sortie from Revelstone as a distraction to aid Thomas Covenant by forcing Lord Foul's attention on them. (It seems to me very likely that Donaldson was consciously riffing on Tolkien's theme here, but Donaldson is often complicated enough that you can't be sure where he's getting the inspiration.)

I don't think Tolkein anywhere describes how Luthien's line continues into the present, though maybe there's something in the drafts for The Lost Road -- the never-finished time travel story where a father-and-son pair go backwards through history and legend and myth and finally into the fall of Numenor. Maybe they would have been descendants of Luthien, if the tale had ever been finished. (Though given the way inheritance works, by this point probably most of the human race would be descended from Thingol and Melian... -- it's been calculated that probably 80% of humanity is descended from both Muhammed and Charlemagne.)

As far as the dis-enchantment of the world goes, Tolkien might suggest that one of the further chapters in the story is the Incarnation, which is not just a re-creation and a re-sanctification but a re-enchantment (see G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man and Orthodoxy)

The one thing I think I would mention in the debate is Tolkien's point about good being able to understand evil, but not vice versa: Sauron cannot conceive that anyone would, or could, or would want to, or even could want to, throw away the Ring. Which is why he loses.
David Levinson
3. DemetriosX
I was also going to say that Aragorn's release of the Dead was an act of mercy. dglewis@1 said it better than I would have.

It might be interesting to compare Legolas' recounting to Merry what happened at Pelargir to Merry's recounting of the fall of Isengard. Both times we get major action revealed second hand. I think there may be a deliberate parallelism here.

Diminishing magic worlds are probably deeply ingrained in our culture. For most of human history, it was generally accepted that things were better in the past. Eden, a Golden Age, that sort of thing. It would have been difficult for Tolkien to separate out that belief from his Catholicism. The idea that things are getting better is fairly new, not more than a couple of centuries old, and an awful lot of people still don't believe it.

OTOH, I recall reading that he felt that the elves represented a certain degree of stagnation and that their ultimate departure was necessary for humankind to truly advance and come into their own.
4. Chrysostom
What about Larry Niven's "The Magic Goes Away" and related stories? Magic is a non-renewable resource there, and its exhaustion is not presented as necessarily negative.
Andrew Mason
5. AnotherAndrew
The Lost Road certainly features descendants of Elendil - in fact I think that the figure of Elendil was originally invented in that context. Once this is linked up with the rest of the mythology, these people would also be descendants of Luthien, though I'm not sure whether Tolkien realised that when he wrote TLR.

Of course, it's true that, if Elendil had descendants at all, everyone should be descended from him by now. But perhaps the people featured in TLR are the senior line (eldest child of the eldest child, etc.), or something.
6. Nicholas Waller
As well as the commendable desire not to go Sauron and be tempted to overuse a terrible weapon, Aragorn could be thinking that the Dead at Pelennor Fields might bring terror to his allies as well as (or more than) his enemies.

As a writer, Tolkien might have thought it would be cheating and rather undermine the moral purpose of the alliance of men, dwarves and elves to dig up a bunch of oath-breaking ghosts from the past (like pulling a rabbit from his hat) and have them win all the battles on behalf of the living. As well as avoiding the problem of spoiling the surprise of Aragorn's arrival at Gondor, this might also have been why Tolkien described the Dead's battles after the fact and reported by someone else instead of directly.

So why use the Dead at all? It shows Aragorn's command and authority in areas that other leaders, however worthy, can't reach. And it's a bit of variety.
7. debraji
I agree--the terror the Dead cause is too great to use them side by side with mortal soldiers. The enslaved rowers of the Corsairs of Umbar were saved because they'd been chained to their benches.

Regarding the diminishing magic in Middle Earth--I think Tolkien, as a devout Catholic, must have felt it only natural that the age of miracles was (mostly) in the past. Prophets and miracles were abundant in Biblical times, but were pretty thin on the ground by the middle of the 20th century.
Hugh Arai
8. HArai
@kate: It seems to me that Tolkien's world is only diminished entering the fourth Age if you make the assumption at the start that it's a bad thing that Men are taking over. The Elves and Dwarves are still around after all, they just aren't this side of the sundering seas any longer. I think Tolkien made it very clear this has always been the way Eru designed it to turn out, which makes it a good thing. The Elves were sad they had to go, but it was always the Plan.

I think we've discussed a related issue before: some people consider the Gift of Men to be a poor "second prize" but that's not how it was viewed by the Elves or the Valar or Tolkien as far as I can tell.
Jesse Galdston
9. itshissong
On the diminishing magic front, I have always been frustrated by this, as well. However, I have made my peace with it by looking at it this way. Nowadays, we have the internet, airplanes, and myriad other forms of technology and machinery that couldn't have been dreamed of even 200 years ago. Nonetheless, there is something that is distinctly unmagical about these advances.

I guess that isn't a great way to explain my point. Let me try again. The massive advances of science these days, take physics as an example, are distinctly small bore, regardless of how much they end up throwing things on their head. Even if that isn't true descriptively, it is true in terms of perception. Don't the vast majority of people consider the discoveries of the enlightenment era more momentous than those of today? The same thing is true vis a vis the Einsteins, Bohrs, and Heisenbergs.

One final example is in the religious sphere. I'm not particularly religious (I am a mostly secular jew). But think about the treatment by the rest of society of more modern religions' creation or fundamental myths. We ridicule Mormonism and Scientology for their far-fetched myths largely because our greater knowledge of what came before these myths and their "prophets" lives puts into relief the strangeness of them. But looking at them side by side is an angel with golden tablets written in reformed Egyptian or aliens with volcanos that shoot out souls really that much less believable than people coming back from the dead and walking on water? I don't think they are.

Thus, one way to think about diminishing magic is in terms of perception of the amount of "magic" in the world as time goes on. Does that ring true to anyone or am I way off base here?
j p
10. sps49
HArai @8-

Where did the Dwarves go? I never heard they went beyond the Sea, just that they were hiding or diminished like the Hobbits (and Avari?)
Mari Ness
11. MariCats
If I'm recalling correctly, Tolkien had apparently some idea of having Eriol or Elfwine, his mortal explorer/narrator in the Book of Lost Tales, who come to Elvenhome/Tol Eressea, turn out to be descended from Elendil and Aragorn, and having the male descendants end up in the vicinity of Warwick. This was never made explicit, apparently because he never found a good way of integrating his old ideas of the tale of Eriol into what he wrote in the Lord of the Rings - this was part of his overall, never completed attempt to make the Simarillion consistent internally and with what he wrote in the Lord of the Rings. And partly because, as Christopher Tolkien notes in The Book of Lost Tales Part II, even in the beginning, Tolkien kept changing his mind about the whole Warwick concept and how to construct the overall framework of the story (in the sense of, exactly how are humans getting the tales of the First Age again?) Some of this story was at some point connected to various Saxon and Norman invasions, but never consistently. (And at one point Tolkien apparently even considered identifying England as Tol Eressea, so...yeah, changes.)
Andrew Foss
12. alfoss1540
Declining Reality - Elves and Men were able to beat Sauron in Open battle while wielding the One Ring. In present day, all cowl in terror to the ring wraiths. the thought of Sauron with the One Ring is shear destruction to Middle Earth. And it takes destroying the ring for any hope of salvations - kind of like winning the lottery. But long odds sure do add to the excitment.

Declining Magic - I have always hated it - since Peter Pan. Seems like such a cheat for the fun that we seek in Fantasy and Science Fiction to come to a sudden end. As a story and plot element it works. But it sucks.

POV Legolas - The number of references to seagulls was significant. They fly everywhere through this chapter.
Ron Griggs
13. RonGriggs
The comments suggesting that by releasing the Dead, Aragorn showed mercy and avoided temptation make perfect sense and are no doubt correct. Let me suggest another consideration.

It appears that the power of the Dead was through fear--they struck terror among the Corsairs of Umbar at Pelargir. Gimli says "Pale swords were drawn; but I know not whether their blades would still bite, for the Dead needed no longer any weapon but fear."

But the effect of that fear was limited to Men (and at least one Dwarf.) Legolas says "I feared not the shadows of Men, powerless and frail as I deemed them." So, would the Dead have had the same impact on the fields of the Pelennor? The Haradrim would have been affected, but perhaps the legions of Orcs would have laughed, feeling as Legolas did, no fear. And who knows what the Nazgul might have done--seizing control of the Dead or tormenting them further--they who were pupils of the Necromancer.

So it could be that the value of the Dead--these traitorous Men--was primarily against other Men who worshiped and served Sauron. And that Aragorn was wise enough to understand this.
14. Edward Khil
Re: Aragorn's dismissal of the Dead, everyone's thoughts thus far make sense, particularly Nicholas Waller @6: their appearance would surely have frightened the forces of good.

But Aragorn may have been concerned that Sauron might have been able to gain control over them. Yes, Aragorn wrested control of the Palantiri from Sauron, but not without effort.

Certainly, Gandalf would have counseled Aragorn against relying overmuch on such as the Dead.
Hugh Arai
15. HArai
sps49@10: The Dwarves believe at death they go to their own "wing" of the Halls of Mandos and will aid Aule in creating the world after Arda ends. It seems fitting to me, so I choose to believe that too :)
16. Jerry Friedman
Disappearing Magic is the Whole Point. (Or one of the Whole Points.) The constant nostalgia gives the novel an emotional color ("grey"), and to me, that's the main thing that makes it more than an adventure story, more than run-of-the-typewriter sword and sorcery. No one has to like it, but I think it's part of the bedrock.

In fact, I'd say that Tolkien didn't need disappearing magic to explain how we got from Middle-earth to us. He set Middle-earth in our past (unlike Lewis's fantasies) so magic and Elves could disappear. Maybe not consciously, but that was the story he wanted to write. He does explicitly connect the Shire with his childhood, and I'd find it very easy to believe that his infancy in Africa had something to do with LotR too.

I agree that Legolas's prophecy on Lúthien's line isn't much of one; you'd expect everyone now living to be descended from her. (That 80% descended from Charlemagne has to be a very, very rough estimate, though.) On rereading, I thought he was prophesying that the West would win, but then I realized I was forgetting about the Black Númenoreans, who merged with other races—though they're probably not who Tolkien had in mind. :-) So all Legolas prophesied was that if Sauron won, he wouldn't annihilate his allies.

(It doesn't prove anything, but I thought I'd make sure everyone knows what's on Tolkien's and his wife's gravestone.)
17. Jerry Friedman
Some other comments:

No doubt in Middle-earth Gimli is justified in concluding that the best stonework is the oldest, but I don't think that would follow in our world. Cultures tend to get better at things and then worse, right?

It's a bit odd that we don't find out Legolas and Gimli are looking for Imrahil with a message till after they've chatted with him.

Gimli too has a touch of PTSD (and I don't blame him).

It's very convenient that "a great concourse" of Gondoreans can get an acceptable sound out of a trumpet.

Aragorn knows he has to get to Minas Tirith the day after the battle of Pelargir. Did he use the palantír?

Gandalf says that if they stay in Minas Tirith, they'll have to "endure siege after siege". I'm not sure. We find out in later chapters that most of Mordor is essentially emptied for the battle at the Black Gate. So Sauron's resources are finite, and I don't see that it's clear at all that he can attack more than once with greater force than the first time.

Gandalf says that if they sit in fortified cities, they will surely perish. I don't get that—isn't there a chance that if they do this, Frodo's quest will succeed anyway? Without risking the loss of 7,000 men, including the rightful king and the others at the "debate"? If so, the decision becomes more interesting.

Furthermore, if they stay in Minas Tirith, Gandalf is expecting siege after siege. Won't Sauron's mind be focused outside Mordor just as much if he's planning to besiege Minas Tirith? And if they wait for his army to come to them, and then hold out as long as they can behind the walls, they'll give Frodo more time for his quest. Maybe has some idea—from Faramir's report on Frodo and Sam, or from that clairvoyance that I said didn't seem to be helping him, or from one of those little divine nudges—that the timing will be better if they attach the Black Gate.

If Gandalf is right that they'll die if they stay in Minas Tirith, though, there's no choice, the short view agrees with the long view, prudence gives the same counsel as boldness (contrary to what Gandalf said in his opening). No wonder there's no debate.
Amit Kotwal
18. amitkotwal
Worlds where diminishing magic is good:

C.S.Friedman's Coldfire trilogy.
Mary Gentle's Ash
19. EmmaPease
Two thoughts.

First there was no way Aragorn could take the ships up the Anduin with the dead on board since there would be no sailors capable of manning the ships.

Second it must have been very tricky carrying Anduril around unsheathed day and night until the battle before the Black Gate.
20. pilgrimsoul
@ Jerry 17

Gandalf and Aragorn appear to have no hope of winning the War of the Ring by arms, but they reject the defensive strategy that has been followed for too many years. An offense is far more of a distraction to the Black Tower than a mere series of sieges.
The idea apparently is to make Sauron believe that Aragorn has the ring, and so Sauron has to strike back before he can learn to use it.
21. Marc Rikmenspoel
I can't read this part of LotR today without thinking about ICE's MERP game coverage of Southern Gondor. they actually covered a tremendous amount of territory, with a hardcover book about Minas Tirith, and detailed looks at Dol Amroth (Imrahil's home), Pelargir, and Umbar. Of course, what they came up with was on the interpretation of their writers, but it all felt very right to me. I don't think they ever released anything about Ithilien, but it would have been cool if they did.

Do a web search for MERP, and you might not only find some well-done gaming products, but really nice maps to go with them. For me, they definitely enhance the experience of reading Tolkien's own works. YMMV...
Soon Lee
22. SoonLee
Chrysostom @4:
"The Magic Goes Away" is a significant work for me: it approached magic (mana) as a finite resource in a well-thought out manner.

Jerry Friedman @17:
No doubt in Middle-earth Gimli is justified in concluding that the best stonework is the oldest, but I don't think that would follow in our world. Cultures tend to get better at things and then worse, right?
In general, yes but here's a concrete* example where for a long time, older was better.

And if you hadn't I would have brought up the gravestone inscriptions.


Re: Aragorn freeing the Dead.
I'm in agreement with the comments. It was a graceful & wise thing to do despite the temptation to hang on to them. Also, RonGriggs @13 that the Dead might be susceptible to being wrested to Sauron's control. Finally, given that one of the themes is of diminishing magic, it seems appropriate to eschew further use of the Dead.
23. Masha Stekker
I agree with Jerry Friedman that "diminishing magic" is core to the book, and what lifts it to another level.

I do not agree that the diminishing magic is presented as "the past is always better than we have now" because there is actually a strong sense that the story is telling us something like this:

Acknowledge what we are losing and grieve for it, but accept that all things change, and that the new age will have it's own strengths - but those will be human strengths. And that part of our task is to learn to recognize those.

I've always understood this being similar to the pain of growing up. Childhood has its own magic, but as you get older, you see behind the curtain of the puppet theater, realize that your parents are fallible, and all those small wounds to our ability to have "wonder" and see beauty in our world.

As an adult, it is easy to sink into a sort of cynical despair. But (for me) the LOTR shows an alternative, which is to accept that what may seem to be a diminishing of magic, is change, and that change is life. The challenge for an adult is to find a new and adult sense of wonder - and not be stuck in memories of childhood.

That is the sense I get from this story - I'm not sure if that will resonate with anybody else.
24. legionseagle
I hate diminishing-magic worlds. I hate the idea that it’s a bedrock truth that either we or the characters I am supposed to identify with are living in a world that not only is worse than it was, but can never surpass or even reach its past heights.

I've got a lot of sympathy with this; I also find it resonates with what Jo Walton has been writing elsewhere on this site about the "cosy catastrophe" genre of post-WWII British fiction, in which she includes Day of the Triffids and Nevil Shute's In the Wet among others. I was also struck by a comment regarding the Scouring of the Shire on a previous post which chimed with this, too. Both diminishing magic and the Scouring tie in, for me, with the same fears and insecurities which also lie at the root of cosy catastrophes. After all - and I may have more to say about this in due course - however well the Shire plot fits into the overall theme of the degradation of Sauron, it is also, in one sense an aging Oxford don of conservative views taking a swing at where he saw the post War UK Welfare State as liable to end up.
David Levinson
25. DemetriosX
Another thought on Aragorn dismissing the Dead: He was probably looking beyond the battle and thinking about his inheritance. There's a big difference between "The king is the general who arrived in the nick of time and turned the tide of battle in our favor. Yay!" and "The king is the general who arrived in the nick of time and turned the tide of battle in our favor with an army of ghosts. Umm...yay?"
Birgit F
26. birgit
The diminishing magic has parallels in belief in the real world. In the past, people believed in a world populated by gods and magic creatures, but the modern scientific worldview led to a decline of belief in magic.
Hugh Staples
27. hugh57
Nicholas Waller @6 asked the question:

So why use the Dead at all?

I would suggest another reason would be, as DemetriosX @25 above suggested, Aragorn was looking ahead to his rule as King. If the Dead had not been given the opportunity to redeem themselves, i.e., fulfill their oaths, they likely would have continued to haunt the valleys and mountains they had been haunting for three thousand years, and generally made a terrible nuisance of themselves to Gondor (not to mention nearby Rohan) long into the Fourth Age. Having them fight made it possible for Aragorn to then release them, holding their oaths fulfilled, allowing the Dead to go away.
Birgit F
28. birgit
What I find more problematic than the decline of magic itself are leftover Artifacts of Doom from a time when wizards were more powerful. If Sauron was not invincible when he first made the One Ring, why should getting it back suddenly make him the ruler of the world?
29. legionseagle
If Sauron was not invincible when he first made the One Ring, why should getting it back suddenly make him the ruler of the world?

Because the overall decline of magic has meant that the ability of the other side to make Artefacts of Counter-Doom has declined while the Ring remains at full, Second Age strength.

It's not that the pictures have got bigger; it's the world that's got smaller.
30. Rabscuttle

I agree that we think that cultures keep getting better at stuff, and Tolkien was raised in a world that worshiped progress even more than we do, but then his whole professional life was a reaction to that. In Graves's autobiography he remembers being told at Oxford in the 1920's that there was no Anglo-Saxon poetry of real merit, presumably because we are making progress in literature like everything else. Tolkien would disagree. Not only did he like the past, most of his literary models were based on decline. Why sit around the fire and tell stories about Beowulf? Because were no heroes like him in these lesser days. Most pre-modern literature works like this. (When were the great days of Rome? Under the Republic.)

So, yes, I think he does decline of magic (and high blood and all that) in part to fit his world to ours, but I think he also had a deeper reason.
31. pilgrimsoul
@ various
Continual progress? History doesn't work that way. The big example that most of us would be familiar with is the collapse and eventual transformation of nearly everything after the Fall of the Roman Empire. But there are numerous other examples in other parts of the world. Mayan city-states were abandoned to name one. JRRT living through two World Wars was very aware of the fragility of civilization.
Jo Walton
32. bluejo
Diminishing magic is seen as leading to better things in Daniel Abraham's Long Price books too.
Sam Kelly
33. Eithin
There are a couple of other, more or less contemporary examples of magic fading due to/correlated with Progress, and specifically Protestant/anti-Catholic progress. I've taken to calling "that thing the elves/fairies do" a Dymchurch Flit, after Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill (1906); it also shows up in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960).
Tony Zbaraschuk
34. tonyz
As far as the siege thing goes, Gandalf is thinking long-term: with only Gondor and Rohan raising armies for defense, and Sauron drawing from Mordor and Rhun and Harad and lands far to the east and south, eventually sheer weight of numbers will push the West under. It's not that there will be three sieges in the next month, but that there will be too many to withstand.

(And just consider the numbers at the Black Gate... that's what Sauron had immediately available, without raising new armies in the East and South and marching them to battle.)
rick gregory
35. rickg
The issue with diminishing magic in LotR for me is that the world seems greyer and less interesting as the Fourth Age dawns. Throughout the first three Ages we've had elves and wizards and hobbits and dwarves and Ents... the world is full of a variety of living, intelligent creatures and it's a matter of knowledge, not faith, that there are places Across the Sea, that the world is large and that there are powers beyond mortals and forces beyond mundane swords and spears.

All of this is going away as the Third Age ends - all that's left is Man and he possesses no magic. We lose the other races, we lose the large scope of reality. Nothing comes and goes across the sea anymore and it feels very much like we're shut away, isolated from the greater, richer reality that exists. While diminishing magic may not always be a harbinger of loss it most certainly is in this world.
36. Jerry Friedman
SoonLee @ #22: Concrete is an excellent example of what may have inspired Tolkien, but if Gimli had been touring ancient Rome, I doubt he'd have said the first concrete was the best.

tonyz @ #34: I don't think we know whether Sauron can raise more armies to the east and south. You're right about only Gondor and Rohan fighting, but there is no other country of military significance.

pilgrimsoul @ #17: One question I'm trying to raise is why Gandalf is sure that Frodo has no chance if they don't attack. (In addition to what I mentioned, he says, "By arms we can give the Ring-bearer his only chance...")

I'm also wondering why Gandalf just thinks the attack improves Frodo's chances. I don't know much about military matters, but I really can't imagine a siege takes less attention than a defense of one's well-fortified gate. The attack does make things more urgent for Sauron, though, and Gandalf may see that as more important than delaying to give Frodo more time. Though it's one of those troops responding to the attack that will come on Frodo and Sam.

Yes, as you point out, Gandalf is also trying to pretend that Aragorn has the Ring. This seems like a good idea, since (though Gandalf doesn't know it), Sauron seems alert to the possibility that someone could try to sneak the Ring into Mordor (a couple-three pages from the end of The Two Towers). So I can see that in this way, Gandalf's plan improves Frodo's chances by discouraging Sauron from looking for the Ring in Mordor. (But that would backfire if Sauron defeated the attack on the Black Gate and found the Ring wasn't there. He'd wonder what Gandalf was up to. And by the way, good think he never heard that Gollum was in Mordor or wondered why.)

I still don't see why Frodo has no chance if Gondor sits tight, except that if Gandalf says so, everyone else's decision is easy.
rick gregory
37. rickg
Jerry - A siege leaves the initiative to the faction laying siege. Sauron could, if he wanted, take days or even weeks to plan a siege, move forces around, build catapults, etc. During this time there would be armed forces throughout Mordor, forces that Frodo and Sam would have to avoid. This would be unlikely to happen since they would have to trek across Mordor. They would almost certainly be noticed and caught.

In contrast, an attack by the West puts the initiative with Aragorn and his forces. It's an action that can't be ignored if there are enough troops and it draws forces in response to the point of the attack and *out of Mordor* away from the area where Frodo and Sam are walking. If the force Aragorn marches with is large enough it means Sauron has to use many of his forces in response, which is why the size of the army is important. Taking 200 elite men would not work, but 7000? 7000 probably draws many of the forces of Mordor out as a counter.
38. lampwick
I think the diminishing magic thing is in part because Tolkien knew that you can't go through something as terrible and world-shaking as the war of the ring (or WWI, or WWII) and not have things change, and not all of it for the better. I like this part of the books because it's realistic, and also because it makes it possible to smack down people who say, "Oh, it's all just escapism! Everything ends happily ever after!" No, it doesn't.
Hugh Arai
39. HArai
Jerry Friedman@36: I don't know about Roman concrete but I recently visited Peru, and I strongly suspect Gimli would favor the original Inca stonework over what came after. Especially after an earthquake, when the Inca work would almost certainly still be standing, and the newer work would very likely have to be rebuilt yet again.
les kaye
40. hapax
Fantasies where the diminishing of magic (or, more properly, the withdrawal of magic from the World of Men) is seen as -- ultimately -- a good thing:

Lloyd Alexander's PRYDAIN CHRONICLES (explicitly inspired by the Mabinogion)

T.A. Barron's LOST YEARS OF MERLIN series (themselves inspired by Alexander, with Arthurian elements)

and, arguably, Ursula K. LeGuin's EARTHSEA series
Kate Nepveu
41. katenepveu
Hey all. I see a great deal has already been hashed out, so I'll just say generally that all of your expansions on the problems of keeping the Dead army around (moral and practical) were useful and convincing, thank you.

As for the military implications of the decision to invade, I don't remember later chapters well enough to say, so I'm going to watch that one from the sidelines for now.

tonyz @ #2, amitkotwal @ #18, I've read Covenant, Coldfire, and Ash, but forgotten almost everything about them, so thanks for mentioning them.

tonyz @ #2 (con't): indeed there ought to be a whole lot of children of Luthien now, and I can't decide whether Tolkien would have liked that thought or not! As for evil not understanding good . . . I'm not sure that I would agree, at least on the level where "understand" = "able to predict significant actions of," which seems to be the relevant one here.

DemetriosX @ #3, HArai @ #8, Masha Stekker @ #23, you're quite right that LotR has a strong counter-theme of the dangers of stagnation and stasis and that there is A Plan for it all. All the same my overall impression of the text's attitude toward the departure of the Elves and the diminishing of magic and so forth--well, I find myself wanting to quote _Little, Big_:

Even the weather isn't as we remember it clearly once being; never lately does there come a summer day such as we remember, never clouds as white as that, never grass as odorous or shade as deep and full of promise as we remember they can be, as once upon a time they were.

(I just asked Chad whether _Little, Big_ was a diminishing-magic world (I've read it, but quite a while ago), and he paused and then said it was complicated. So take my desire to quote with a grain of salt.)

Or what rickg @ #35 said.

But I will keep this in mind as we go, especially at the end, and see if my impression is supported by the text, or is more attributable to the contrast between the high-fantasy moments and the routine of my daily life. Of course I say that and I'm reminded of Mary Anne Mohanraj's Guest of Honor Speech at WisCon this year. Which is a good thing.

Okay, can I response to the next comments in less time and space, lest this comment approach a whole post?

Chrysostom @ #4, I haven't read those Niven stories, but thanks for the mention.

itshissong @ #9, now you've got me going off on speculation as to whether, if I lived in an age of magical miracles, I would take them for granted the same way I do the Internet (which I'll take over a palantir any day).

MariCats @ #11, thanks for the information--on the whole I think I am in favor of the way things ended up . . .

Jerry Friedman @ #16, I can't parse your statements "In fact, I'd say that Tolkien didn't need disappearing magic to explain how we got from Middle-earth to us. He set Middle-earth in our past (unlike Lewis's fantasies) so magic and Elves could disappear."--can you unpack?

EmmaPease @ #19, Anduril is a well-behaved blade and would suffer itself gracefully to be leaned against walls while Aragorn bathed and such. =>

DemetriosX @ #25, "The king is the general who arrived in the nick of time and turned the tide of battle in our favor with an army of ghosts. Umm...yay?" -- Hah, yes, thanks.

pilgrimsoul @ #31, I don't say that any given society continually progresses, but that it happens on the largest scales.

bluejo @ #32, and seeing your name reminds me that Sean Stewart does the rise, flood, *and* ebb of magic in _Resurrection Man_, _Galveston_, and _The Night Watch_, though since _Night Watch_ and I are not meant for each other, I can't remember what position (if any, and there might not be one) the books take.

Eithin @ #33, a Dymchurch Flit is awesome.

(Oh, my, look at me free-associate and abuse parentheticals tonight. Also relevant to this discussion is "Return," by Tor and's own PNH.)

lampwick @ #38, I agree that the story demands and is much richer for loss, I'm just resisting the idea that it had to take that form, as a matter of personal taste.

hapax @ #40, I don't know whether Prydain holds up to adult readings, but I imagine I will find out in a few years. Earthsea, on the other hand, I should re-read now so I know when to give it to SteelyKid . . .
Scientist, Father
42. Silvertip
@40 hapax: with Earthsea, are you referring to the original trilogy or to the more recent works? If the original, I'd like to hear more. To me, most of the action of the third volume is the accumulation of negative consequences when magic does (almost literally) drain out of the world, and Ged's struggle to stop it. But I'd gladly hear your perspective ...

43. Jerry Friedman
rickg @ #37: That's why I said the attack makes things more urgent for Sauron. But as I think more about it, I'm not sure that's true. The West's army appears to have no trace of a siege weapon (as Sauron knows, since the Nazgûl are watching) or plan to invade Mordor at its most heavily defended point. Sauron could defend with a much smaller force and maybe use the opportunity to attack Minas Tirith (a possibility that Imrahil and the others take measures against).
As pilgrimsoul implied, the urgency for Sauron is the chance to take the Ring, not the need to defend against the West's initiative.

And Gandalf's plan is to make Sauron move his forces to the Morannon, as you say. But it seems to me that moving forces are much more dangerous to Frodo and Sam than those waiting in camps. Indeed, it's moving forces that catch them. (Why they're moving can wait for the next chapter.) And how does Gandalf know that troops won't still be moving between Cirith Ungol and Mount Doom, because they're late coming north or to fill in holes or to prepare an attack on Gondor after Sauron's expected victory at the Morannon? What if Frodo needs more time than this move will buy him? Gandalf may think the probabilities are with him if he can most of the troops to move north, but it seems to me a matter of greater and lesser likelihoods, not the only hope.

I agree totally with you @ #35 that the diminishing of magic is part of an irrevocable and uncompensated loss. The future will be the Age of Man, but it won't even have Men like Aragorn. Someone who speaks a modern idiom could not even think the sentiment of "Thus shall I sleep better." And what I said is what lampwick and other said: This makes the book much richer.

Kate @ #41: So I think Tolkien set his novel in the past because he wanted to write about a magical past. Not another planet or universe, but the past, implicitly contrasted with an inferior present. Diminishing magic is one of his fundamental themes; nostalgia may be his most fundamental. Therefore I see it as the wrong way around to say he needed diminishing magic because his story was set in the past and he needed to explain why there's no magic no. Diminishing magic is the axiom he started from, and he needed to set his story in the past to show the diminution.

(By the way, Niven's story "Not Long Before the End" is a favorite of mine.)

HArai @ #39: I seem to be saying things in too "packed" a way. I know there are lots of examples where something old is better than what followed. What I don't think happens in the real world is that the first is the best. Cultures need to learn such crafts. The first Peruvian stonework (by the Pucara people, long before the Incas adopted the technique, says Wikipedia) is probably not the best.
Hugh Arai
44. HArai
Jerry Friedman@43: I think I see what you're getting at now. In that case I should point out the original stonework Gimli praises would likely have been done at the peak of Numenorean knowledge, when Elendil and his sons established it as Minas Anor. It would have been pretty much all downhill from there :)
rick gregory
45. rickg
I see what you're getting at, but the idea is to force Sauron to bring his troops forward. Mt Doom is deep in Mordor and the idea is to get Sauron to move his troops away from there. The wouldn't need siege weapons if Aragorn or Gandalf possessed the Ring - they'd have the Ring. And, really, do you see Sauron as the kind of entity who would not answer a challenge from Isildur's heir and would hide behind his walls?

I also think you're reading too much into the Gandalf's pronouncement about this being Frodo's only chance. It's not that other things might now work, but this is Frodo's best chance. Time is of the essence here - so Gandalf isn't going to equivocate about alternate possibilities - he puts forth the best option as Frodo's ONLY chance. He wants to motivate people and get them to act - now, not after squabbling over options for days.

As for the diminishing of the world, I agree with others above that it's a necessary thing in the story, it's just that it feels sudden and very complete. After all, the passing of the First Age into the Second and the Second into the Third did not see all races aside from one forsake the world. Magic didn't leave Middle Earth. Even the war and defeat of Morgoth didn't cause this kind of loss and Sauron is but Morgoth's lieutenant. So, while I accept it here, I don't like it and I do feel it's a bit much.
46. joyceman
I find it hard to argue that a diminishing magic world violates our natural inclinitation towards the progression of society. Arent the ideas of 'progress' and 'magic' arising from two opposing paradigms for approaching nature.

Progress is a concept that comes from the rational approach to the universe where we use the scientific method to unravel and understand natural laws and eventual apply them to the betterment of society resulting in progress. Magic is a concept, at least to my mind, which rejects the rational approach and relies on an embrace of faith or a higher power to channel the mysteries of nature. Can there really be any progress in a society constructed on this foundation or is it expecting a cat to bark. I think that stagnation and dminishment are a natural consequence.

"Even the war and defeat of Morgoth didn't cause this kind of loss"

I would disagree with that, the War of Wrath destroyed an entire subcontinent, changed the courses of rivers and mountain ranges, destroyed two of the great dwarf cities, killed of most of the balrogs, dragons and other evil magical creatures of Morgoth and led to the removal of much of the remaining Noldor from Middle Earth.
rick gregory
47. rickg

Yes the War of Wrath destroyed much... but much of the diversity of the world remained. ALL of that diversity is gone after Sauron's fall. There's only humans left. Oh, some dwarves and elves remained in the immediate aftermath, but they were obviously in decline and the trajectory was clear - humans were ascendant and all of the rest will fade.

I agree that the rise of progress comes from the increasing use of reason, but don't agree with your take on magic. Magic isn't about faith in Middle Earth. The inhabitants know that reality is broader than what they see in front of them. They've just defeated a being of another order and in doing so destroyed some of the magic that kept places like Lothlorien as it was. There's no faith required here - the magic is real and demonstrable. When elves go into the West, they're not just sailing off into the sea, they're going to a semi-divine place that they know exists.

Progress, by the way, is overrated in Tolkien's view. Look at the Shire - is there really anything lacking in their lives? Would they really have been better off with iPhones, etc? It's a stable, almost stagnant, society, but the value of continual growth and progress as a good thing are Western views. There's something to be said for a society that's merely good. And then... we have the hankering for adventure - Bilbo, Frodo and the rest.
48. DonnaIsme
Perhaps diminishing magic only means diminishing magic, not that everything is always getting worse.

I am puzzled as to what you mean, Kate, by "For another, the general trend of quality of life and social justice over human history has been upward, and so I am automatically suspicious of nostalgia, because by definition it is a longing to return to a time when my life would suck." At any time in the past your life would suck? How and why?

Speaking for myself, my own suspicion is that science and technological advances do not necessarily go hand in hand with social progress, or the betterment of civilization, even in the long term. Individually, we gain better health care and the solution to and treatment of many illnesses, also many luxuries and toys. As a civilization, though, we gain bigger and better bombs, cars, agribusiness, supertrawlers, plastic bags (millions and millions), biological and chemical warfare... a lot that is definitely not good for civilization or social progress, or even good health, and that mankind as a whole, and especially free societies, are not able to control. In short, the ability to destroy life, human and other, on a devastating scale is out there now, available for who can grab it, and it would be a person with a very sunny disposition who is confident that it will make the world a better place. It almost certainly won't.

There are those who are enchanted by science and technology, and those who are not, and are suspicious and even repulsed by it; Tolkien fell into the latter category.

But I'm not sure the magic-going-away idea has anything to do with social justice or quality of life as you mean it (as opposed to, perhaps, wonder). Isn't it more like magic is the way of life of elves, and when they leave, so does magic? Elves' consciousness is quite different from humans', as is what they desire and produce.
Andrew Mason
49. AnotherAndrew
rickg: I'm puzzled by the idea that all diversity disappears. Hobbits and Dwarves are expanding at the end of the Third Age, (Hobbits to Westmarch, Dwarves to the Glittering Caves).
Yes, the trajectory is clear, but I think it was always clear. Humans were already dominant, having become more so in each age. The majority of Elves had left much earlier; those who remained were in a few enclaves. Most people in the Third Age had probably never seen a Hobbit or an Ent, though Dwarves seem to be a bit more common. Rivendell and Lorien are shadows of the old Elvish kingdoms, Erebor of Moria - and indeed Gondor of Numenor. It is just one step in the ongoing process of decline.
50. hapax
@42, Silvertip:

I was thinking of the original trilogy -- as far as I am concerned, there are no more REAL Earthsea books.

Perhaps it's an artifact of reading them along with so many Arthurian-influenced tales, but THE FARTHEST SHORE always seemed to have a very elegiac tone.

It certainly isn't explicit in the text, but I get very much the feeling that the unBalancing of the world and the draining away of magic was the inevitable consequence of the use of magic -- and to reBalance everything, Ged needed to spend all his own magic, pour it into the world.

The final chapters left me with a sense that even as the Islands entered a new, brighter era under a united king, the old ways of magic would diminish and fade away, just as (symbolically) Ged did; Roke would yield to Havnor, Sparrowhawk to Sword, and the dragons won't be coming to the islands anymore.

But all of this is probably more my reading INTO the text than what is already there -- and I think the way that the later books contradict this (Ged gets his magic back???) is one of the many things that make me dislike them so.
51. (still) Steve Morrison
Ged never got his magic back; but the later books are every bit as bad as you remember, nonetheless.
52. Jerry Friedman
I think that for Tolkien, it was not a matter of giving up magic to gain for progress and social. For him, everything about Middle-earth is superior to the present. First, from his Catholic point of view, people's souls are in better shape. There's no crime in any society we see (except that trying to get a piece of Bilbo's presumably ill-gotten treasure is all in good fun). No one but Wormtongue has any sexual desire outside marriage. Everyone not given over to Evil wants to be ruled by the rightful ruler, who's clearly superior to them. (See, if anyone hasn't, Gene Wolfe's essay on LotR, "The Best Introduction to the Mountains".) No one's addicted to anything sordid, Rings and palantíri being noble addictions. Most people could understand why you shouldn't use evil things for supposedly good ends (including the Dead, as people have been pointing out).

Rhetoric was better then too. The most musical voices were "clear", not the harsh voices of jazz.

We may see ways that our world is better than the Middle Ages or Middle-earth, but I feel sure Tolkien saw everything as being in decline.
53. legionseagle
The Gene Wolfe essay made me feel as though slimy things were crawling all over me. For me, it summed up a lot of the problematic aspects about the stamp which Tolkien set on fantasy as a whole, even though I suggest Tolkien's views, while inherently leaning towards the "the best of everything is in the past" view put forward by Jerry Friedman @52 were inherently much more nuanced than Wolfe's reimagining of them, especially Wolfe's attempt to posit that "Middle Earth" was a time/state of mind which actually once existed in some historical past.
Andrew Mason
54. AnotherAndrew
Jerry Friedman: I cannot believe that Tolkien, as a Catholic, thought that everything about Middle Earth is superior to the present. The world has been redeemed: there is a divine presence among us.

But even granting that Middle Earth is in many ways superior to the present, the end of the Third Age does not mark that transition. It marks the return of Middle Earth to a condition of greater stability and properity, with the restoration of the King. For humans, hobbits and dwarves, things are clearly seen as getting better. (I believe the dwarves even managed to return succesfully to Moria, though I suspect that's from HoME, so not utterly to be relied upon.) In this context, the departure of magic surely is a price paid for something good.

Magic plays a relatively small part in the world of LOTR - it plays a large part in the story, of course, because that's what the story is about, but most inhabitants of the world won't have much experience of it - and its fading is not the same as the end of that world.
55. DonnaIsme
(#53) Seems an unnecessarily insulting response to the essay; I'd read it before, and I re-read it, and see nothing especially offensive about it. While I don't have the historical depth to decide whether I agree with all of it, it is easy to observe the hubris and ignorance of many people today in comparing contemporary life with the civilizations of past ages.

To read the record of the past and listen to the voices of people from centuries ago is to sometimes experience humility and wonder, and sometimes disgust and anger; but the idea that we are on a Star Trek journey to an end where a few more centuries down the road there is justice, comfort and food for all, no one is poor, no one is criminal, and everyone is equal is simply not consistent with human nature. (I enjoy Star Trek, but when I hear Riker smugly tell some troublesome alien that humans have overcome all those problems of discrimination, war, poverty, what-have-you, I want to slap his silly face.)

Or, say, admit that we will never get to that land of Cockayne but we're still on our way, every day and in every way getting better and better, into infinity and beyond, and I'd say it's still not happening. We're stumbling down the road of unintended consequences, where our scientific advances create other, greater problems. Even Norman Borlaug, the agronomist whose Green Revolution saved millions of lives, has pointed out that the problem of feeding billions of people has only been pushed further down the road, not solved -- and I don't think you can find any modern man who's put science to work purely to benefit humanity who can surpass his accomplishment.

OK, that was a tangent. Back on topic, I don't see Wolfe positing that Middle Earth existed in the past; as I read it, he's saying that Tolkien was inspired by the spirit of the heroic age, as found in historical people and the imaginative literature they created. Doesn't seem like a very controversial claim to me.

Does the LOTR really say that things are always getting worse? Or is it saying that we have lost something very precious and irreplaceable? Because, you know, I think it's that idea that speaks to people so deeply. Because it's true in Middle Earth and it's true for us, as well.
56. Subnumine
Legionseagle: That's Gene Wolfe's politics, not Tolkien's. Tolkien knows perfectly well that the world is fallen; there was no age superior to selfishness and special-interest legislation. Good kings may rule with the grace of God, and their tradition lives after them, but look at Unfinished Tales to see what Numenor is like a few generations from Elros, and Gondor is like after Aragorn's death: not too bad, but not the stupid utopia of Wolfe's essay.

Tolkien held that the world is diminishing; Theoden and the Middle Ages remember what we have forgotten; but they remember imperfectly something far better than they were (and since we have the history of the First Age, still marked with fratricidal idiocy as well as heroism).
Jesse Galdston
57. itshissong
@54, AnotherAndrew:

I think you hit the nail on the head. Saying that Middle Earth didn't really get anything in return for losing magic only makes sense if we are speaking from the perspective of either High Kings or readers who love magic. If we look at things from the perspective of your average denizen of middle earth it seems entirely undeniable that the Fourth Age would be better than the Third Age.

To speak in broad terms, the trade off seems to have been a significant loss of the most powerful, talented, and amazing people, skills, and city-states in return for a great leveling out that brings with drastically increased economic and population growth. There are perfectly good arguments to be made on the side of the former state of things but they can't be convincing if they don't account for the dramatically increased standards of living for the vast majority of people in the latter state of things.

@55, DonnaIsMe:

"Does the LOTR really say that things are always getting worse? Or is it saying that we have lost something very precious and irreplaceable? Because, you know, I think it's that idea that speaks to people so deeply. Because it's true in Middle Earth and it's true for us, as well."

I think that's really dead on and speaks to the point I discussed above. I totally agree that the idea of losing something precious and irrepereable is a powerful one. That said, I think that it's always important to recognize that frequently in human history those kinds of losses go hand in hand with the kinds of aggregate gains that I mentioned. Thus, while nostalgia for the grand past is almost always going to have major pull on our emotions and, rightfully so, we shouldn't only look at the losses in isolation.
rick gregory
58. rickg
"...the end of the Third Age does not mark that transition. It marks the return of Middle Earth to a condition of greater stability and properity, with the restoration of the King. "

Actually, no. Most of the Third Age seems to have been fine for most of the population. Don't confuse the tail end of it with the entire Age. As far as I can tell from Tolkien, most peoples' lives didn't change much from year to year. Rohan was in decline at the end of the age, but to project that as its condition for much of the Third Age is unwarranted. Ditto for Gondor, The Shire, etc. The larger events of the age didn't really touch the populace much.

While the end of the Third Age does see a return of stability and the expansion of dwarves and hobbits, we know that this is a burst before a decline. LotR is very clear that the Fourth Age isn't the age of the mortal races... it's the age of MAN. Certainly, the diversity doesn't vanish immediately, but it's very much on its way out. And no, this wasn't the only event of its kind - the Noldor and other elves had left long before - but it *is* the final nail in Middle Earth's history. The future of Middle Earth is increasingly only about humans and there will be no back and forth with other realms. Man has been left to his own fate by the Ainu and their creatures.
59. Jerry Friedman
To respond to a couple of people: I don't think Tolkien thought the world was steadily getting worse in every way. He was undoubtedly happy about Christianity (though few Christians behave as well as many of his pre-Christian hobbits, Rohirrim, and Dúnedain) and probably even the printing press. But I think he thought we had lost something precious and irreplaceable, as DonnaIsme says, and I don't think he thought we'd gotten enough for it, or that we kept what we got. Maybe someone who's read Tolkien's letters can confirm or deny that feeling.

I don't think Wolfe posited that Middle-earth actually existed, and I also don't think he's saying that it's merely Tolkien's inspiration. I think he's saying that the Dark Ages had a uniquely wise view of law and society.

Subnumine @ #56: No doubt Tolkien did see his universe as diminishing, on the whole, but it's striking how much more admirable most of the humans in LotR are than a lot of the elves in The Silmarillion.

Wolfe is so much smarter than I am that I'm not willing to call anything he says "stupid". But I agree with you that he goes too far.

(Also striking: how both Tolkien and Wolfe work the Middle Ages and their childhoods in there at the same time.)
Geoffrey Dow
60. ed-rex
Been reading the comments and have to chime in long before I get through all of them.

The "decline of magic" question, of course.

The book has long (and possibly always) been for me about death, literal and metaphorical. No, that's not quite right.

The book is about the tragedy and loss - or maybe Tolkien's own term, "eucatastrophe", is closer to the mark - that comes with any change.

In the background we have the decline of magic, the passing away of the ents and elves and dwarves and hobbits; and in the foreground is Frodo's own heartbreaking journey.

You could call the book a metaphor for death, or for growing up, or for any change which results in loss - for any change.

alfoss1540 @12 said he or she has hated the conceit since Peter Pan, but for me it's an eternally beautiful story (when done right). Not the decline of magic per se, but the painful reality of change and loss.

For this book, the loss of magic is a perfect accompaniment to the main story; for most others it's a trope which doesn't much interest me, but only because the books that use them don't usually much interest me.
61. legionseagle
DonnaIsme@55 My principal objection to Wolfe's essay is that not only does it conflate "the Dark Ages" (the antiquated and imprecise term he uses for Late Antiquity) with a much later period of feudalism, idealises both eras to the point of fantasy and then dismisses all objections drawn from actual historical observations of the period with a handwavy, arguments that focus on exceptions provide a picture that is fundamentally false, even when the instances on which they are based are real and honestly presented.. Wolfe does not at any point mention whether the existence of the class of thralls, which makes a mockery of his statement It might be better to be a slave than to die, but it was better to die than to be a slave who acquiesced in his own slavery. The society which he is praising as the brightest of times... times of defined and definite duties and freedoms rested on the shoulders of a class of slaves who had most certainly not "acquiesced in own slavery".

Furthermore, in his hymning even of "carls and churls" who had their distinct duties and freedoms, he omits to mention that one of the duties of carls was to submit to being killed, provided their killer could afford the weregild (200 shillings for a carl, six times that amount for a theyn, and, obviously, the One Ring in the case of a king of Gondor and Arnor and a leader of the Elves).

Then we have the hymning by Wolfe of the merits of "Christianised barbarian society" and its implicit denigration of what was going on in the Middle and Far East and in other non-Christian, non-barbarian (except in the strictly Roman sense of the term) between 400-1000 CE.

And then, finally, he decides to blame this whole heap of sentimentalised, ahistorical tosh on poor old Tolkien, who (as Subnumine accurately points out at 56 above) had a far more realistic and historically grounded sense of the workings of feudal and pre-feudal societies and who actually depicts them in LOTR and elsewhere.

You don't have to have a Whig view of history (which I understand you to be arguing against both in your comment @48 and your comment @55) to object to someone making up a whole bunch of stuff which bears no resemblance to history whatsoever, and then declaring it as a revealed truth derived from the works of an author who was, in fact, saying something much more interesting and nuanced.
62. legionseagle
Apologies: some of my code didn't come through and I hit post too early. To clarify the first paragraph of my comment 61 above, it should have read:

My principal objection to Wolfe's essay is that not only does it conflate "the Dark Ages" (the antiquated and imprecise term he uses for Late Antiquity) with a much later period of feudalism, idealises both eras to the point of fantasy and then dismisses all objections drawn from actual historical observations of the period with a handwavy argument that "focus on exceptions provide a picture that is fundamentally false, even when the instances on which they are based are real and honestly presented.." Wolfe does not at any point mention the existence of the class of thralls, which makes a mockery of his statement "It might be better to be a slave than to die, but it was better to die than to be a slave who acquiesced in his own slavery". The society which he is praising as "the brightest of times... times of defined and definite duties and freedoms" rested on the shoulders of a class of slaves who had most certainly not "acquiesced in own slavery".

Sorry about that.
63. DonnaIsme
I think your own argument could use some nuances, as well. Wolfe's piece is, after all, a short essay and can't be expected to delve into everything you mention, nor is praise of medieval Europe necessarily a denigration of anyone/anywhere else, except the deliberate contrast that he makes with the present time.

You seem to have twisted the concept of the wergild severely. It was not the duty of a carl to submit to being killed if the killer had money; this is an absurdity. Wergild (man-gold) was an important advance in social justice, establishing a legal penalty and punishment for killing another human being. It took the place of personal vengeance. (I.e., you killed a member of my family; I kill a member of your family.)

You mention no particular time or place, so I will take my own example, King Alfred's reign, because his legal code still exists and because I have read somewhat of the history of his time, and because the amounts you cite seem to come from that code. A ceorl was a free man, a commoner, as distinct from a slave. A ceorl had a wergild of 200 shillings (a nobleman six times that); a slave had no wergild, because he was property, but he had value, 1 pound, or about 50 shillings. The wergild system did not establish the right to murder anyone; it established punishment.

And it was possible to move back and forth from being a slave. There are records of the church sometimes buying slaves and freeing them, and owners freeing slaves in their wills; given their value, they could probably earn money to free themselves, with some time and effort. Alfred's code allowed them to earn money for themselves on specified days on which they didn't owe labor to their owners. And in hard times people did "sell" themselves to a lord in return for food and shelter (and thus did acquiesce in their own slavery, if you want to quibble this point).

I don't think you are accurate that the society rested on the shoulders of slaves...ceorls were much more numerous than slaves.

You can make a different case looking at serfs centuries later, but I've gone on long enough... I'll add some separate points in a different post.
Kate Nepveu
64. katenepveu
Since I see a couple people responding to this, I wasn't saying that loss of magic had anything to do, either in LotR or generally, with increases in quality of life or social justice. I was saying that: nostalgia seems to go with diminishing-magic worlds, and I am suspicious of nostalgia. That's all.

As far as the Wolfe essay: the first paragraph made it clear that it wasn't worth my time. "(A)rguments that focus on exceptions provide a picture that is fundamentally false, even when the instances on which they are based are real and honestly presented"? Excuse me? Wow, I wish I was allowed to start legal arguments by saying flat-out, "I'm going to ignore evidence that doesn't fit my preconceived notions". Not so much.

Jerry Friedman @ #43, oh, okay, I understand now. Absent a foray into Tolkien's own writings about his intent, and maybe even despite that, I'll stick to my interpretation because it makes the book work better for me.

joyceman @ #46, that depends on the kind of magic, and while a great deal of Tolkien's magic is numinous, a great deal of it is also apparently understandable and reproducible enough that it can be used in craft, after all.

DonnaIsme @ #48, I am frankly stunned that you have to ask just how my life would be different in the past. But let me spell it out: I am a woman of East Asian ancestry. The typical person of these characteristics, at any other time and place in history, would have many fewer opportunities available and a far poorer quality of life. I have, for instance, plenty of food, a planned-for child who was born by medically-necessary C-section, all my teeth, citizenship and the right to vote, a law degree, and an awesome job at which I earn as much money as my husband does. And though I wouldn't have those in every place around the world today, I'm still not deeply or remarkably atypical. So since I like having things like rights and health and intellectual fulfillment, I'm going to stick with the present, thanks.
65. Dr/ Thanatos
Some thoughts:

1) Diminishing Magic. The concluding paragraph of the Silmarillion speaks to this that if the story seemed to go from the High and Great to the dark and dreary that was the fate of Arda Marred i.e. a consequence of the interference of Evil with the Original Plan. I have also long theorized that the influence of the Valar on the Children both directly on the Elves and via the Elves on Men, was not positive; and the Age of Men could not begin until the supernatural playing ground was leveled, removing all Rings, Elves, almost all Palantir, Giant Spiders, Sleepless Dead, Balrogs, their hypothetical wings, and for all I know the Phantom of the Opera from the stage leaving Men to work out their destiny on their own.

2) Diminishing World. The Parthenon, the Coliseum, and portions of the Great Wall of China have stood for over 2000 years; the Pyramids and Sphynx are older. How long does anyone think the remains of the Sears Tower or the Empire State Building would remain if our civilization fell? One could argue that we are more advanced but more ephemeral than our ancestors.

3) Luthien and her spawn. I always took this as a messianic statement. Luthien injected a bit of the Ainur into the Children; I don't think that we are meant to take this as a genetic statement that all modern humans are descended from Queen Beruthiel; I think it's more of a statement that the line leading to Aragorn, the "natural" rulers of mankind will always be there. I would wager that if the Professor were around and were to discuss this he just might bring in a discussion of the House of David, of whom it was also said that the line would not fail. Tolkien, as a christian, would say that Jesus was a member of that line; those of us who are not christians can appreciate that perspective, even if we don't share it. If we take it that when he refers to the line of Luthien, he also refers to the coming of the christ, I can buy that interpretation. I think that talking about 80% of humanity share Arwen's DNA, while theoretically interesting, is perhaps missing the point...
66. DonnaIsme
Following up on the objections that people have to the Gene Wolfe essay, this is what I wanted to say last week, but I had gone on too long already...

Wolfe's main idea is that the Germanic tribes were characterized by freedom, love of neighbor, and personal responsibility, and that it was this strength of character that made them into a force that could defeat Rome. And moreover, Tolkien saw these characteristics and celebrated it in the LOTR.

Freedom: I agree with this one. Roman society was one-third slaves. The Goths and the other Germanic tribes were largely free, organized in a comitatus system of retinues of men who attached themselves voluntarily to a lord, with social obligations going both ways.

Love of neighbor: The neighbors in their tribe, certainly. They did make a lot of war between tribes.

Personal responsibility: It appears to be the quality that is most admired, along with courage, in early Germanic literature. (I am thinking principally of Beowulf and a few other OE poems.) In contrast, it is a logical impossibility for a society based on slavery to claim this as a strength.

Now, as to whether Tolkien was thinking in Wolfe's terms when he wrote LOTR, I would imagine not. Still, there is no doubt that he admired early Germanic society. Theoden is supposed to have been based on a Germanic chieftain or king.

Apropos of "Arguments that focus on exceptions provide a picture that is fundamentally false, even when the instances on which they are based are real and honestly presented"-- my take on this is that (to use another example) when I say that the U.S. is a democracy that elects its lawmakers, don't say that it isn't because the residents of DC don't vote for a senator. It is possible to wrongly characterize using facts that are true in themselves but not representative of the whole. Any statement you make about a society will have exceptions, but it is still possible to generalize and point out a truth.
Kate Nepveu
67. katenepveu
Dr. Thanatos @ #65, 1) that's a more optimistic interpretation that I got out of _The Silmarillion_ and I wish my gut agreed with it. 3) One could also say that if some high percentage of people today have Luthien as an ancestor, then that same high percentage also have the potential for genetically-based awesomeness . . .

DonnaIsme @ #66, my problem with Wolfe's statement about exceptions is that an argument may focus on exceptions and nevertheless be "true" if it explains the existence of those exceptions within the context of the reasons for the general state of affairs. In fact, an explanation of a general state of affairs that cannot account for exceptions in some way is at best incomplete and at worst deliberately closeminded.
68. Jerry Friedman
ed-rex @ #60: The "eucatastrophe" is the happy ending.

legionseagle @ #62: The sentence you quoted from Wolfe, "It might be better to be a slave than to die, but it was better to die than to be a slave who acquiesced in his own slavery," doesn't refer to any time in the Middle Ages. It refers to a moral principle of Wolfe's childhood. He specifies very little about what he admires about the period 400–1000 A.D. in Christian Western Europe—mostly in his last paragraph and in the comparison to the Shire.

I think both you and DonnaIsme are missing the main quality Wolfe sees in that period: Its laws were "few and just, simple, permanent, and familiar to everyone". He believes that's the source of the attitudes toward wealth and poverty that he admires.

I don't know enough history to comment on the truth of that, except that their laws must have simpler and slower to change than ours, but I think he's right that it applies to the "free peoples" of Middle-earth.
69. legionseagle
Jerry Friedman@68

I'm extremely reluctant to claim that any group of people's laws must have been simpler than our own. Less detailed, possibly, but that does not equate to simpler; a superficially simple law such as "Thou shalt not kill" becomes inordinately complex once one starts wondering if it mandates pacifism, vegetarianism and eschewing biocidal disinfectants as well as the obvious.

Also, I find the claim that everyone understood the laws laid on them impossible to believe; King Afred codified the laws, which generally implies that everyone was arguing about what they said, before the codification took place. And here is a sample of the laws of Alfred:

"At the first we teach, that it is most needful that every man warily keep his oath and his wed. If any one be constrained to either of these wrongfully, either to treason against his lord, or to any unlawful aid; then it is juster to belie than to fulfil. But if he pledge himself to that which it is lawful to fulfil, and in that belie himself, let him submissively deliver up his weapon and his goods to the keeping of his friends, and be in prison forty days in a king=s tun; let him there suffer whatever the bishop may prescribe to him; and let his kinsmen feed him, if he himself have no food. If he have no kinsmen, or have no food, let the king's reeve feed him. If he must be forced to this, and he otherwise will not, if they bind him, let him forfeit his weapons and his property. If he be slain, let him lie uncompensated. If he flee thereout before the time, and he be taken, let him be in prison forty days, as he should before have been. But if he escape, let him be held a fugitive, and be excommunicate of all Christ's churches. If, however, there be another man's borh, let him make bot for the borhbryce, as the law may direct him, and the wedbryce, as his confessor may prescribe to him."

The above not a law which I can readily believe everyone understood intuitively.
70. a-j
Actually, legionseagle, I followed that law fairly easily. It's about the punitive consequences of oath-breaking (aka perjury). I suspect the problem lies more with the translation from the original latin or Old English.
71. Dr. Thanatos

I agree with the importance of accurate translation. It's similar to the dreaded translation "thou shall not kill" mentioned above. The more accurate translation from the Hebrew is "you shall not murder." The correct translation removes much of the potential confusion cited by legionseagle.
Geoffrey Dow
72. ed-rex
Jerry Friedman @68:

You're right, sort of, about the meaning of "eucatastrophe". I say "sort of" because those moments of joy, as I believe Tolkien recognized, are also pierced by pain and loss.

No matter that Tolkien believed in the Incarnation and that he saw that as the ultimate eucatastrophe, I don't think he would have argued with me had I asserted that, in the moment, the crucifixion wasn't a particularly good time for Christ's family, his followers or for Christ himself.

Similarly, the eucatastrophy of Frodo's passage over the sea from Middle Earth is not a happy time for Sam and god knows it is a moment which breaks my heart just thinking of it.

Let me try one more analogy. I am quite happy I am no longer 12 years old, but the 12 year-old child I was was is gone, lost forever, and there is a kind of sadness in that loss, no matter the consolations also brought by it.

Whether Tolkien intended it or not, that is the dominant elegy I take from this book, and that is the (secondary) meaning I take from a word which, I admit, he coined.
73. legionseagle

Following what the law is about is the simple bit (though it is clear to me that oath-breaking and perjury (in the modern sense) are two very different things). The interesting bit comes when you try to answer the following questions:
a) Which oaths may be broken, and in what circumstances?
b) If an oath is broken in arguably justified circumstances, what consequences ensue?
c) if someone surrenders his goods to the keeping of his friends while serving sentence for unjustified oath-breaking, what happens to the goods at the end of the sentence?
d) what may the friends do with the goods during the sentence?
e) given the friends are required to feed the imprisoned man during his imprisonment, may they offset the costs of so doing from the goods he has surrendered to their care?
f) if the answer to e) above is yes, what about interest?
g) what may the bishop prescribe to him?
h) who has the duty of carrying out the said prescription?
i) are there any limits on what the bishop may prescribe to him?
j) if there are such limits, and the bishop oversteps them, who has the job of telling the bishop so?
k) and what happens to the bishop then?
l) or, for that matter, to the person who has suffered the excessive prescriptions of the bishop?
m) does the bit about the other man's borh supersede the above, or do we need to go through the first loop even if another man's borh is on hand before considering that fact?
n)how may the law direct him?
o)and, for that matter, his confessor?
p) given the level of discretion afforded to the church in sentencing, how are the civil and sacral boundaries of authority set?
q) do matters differ if the oath-breaker is a church-man?
r)what happens to the person who constrains someone to give an oath wrongfully?
s)what is the difference, legally, between "friends" and "kinsmen"for the purposes of this law?
t)if someone flees (or escapes) and another man does "make bot for the borhbryce, as the law may direct him, and the wedbryce, as his confessor may prescribe to him" does this mean the first man is off the hook and not excommunicate, or not?
u)can the borhbryce and wedbryce man cross claim against the first man's goods for the amount of same, or not?
v)likewise, can the king's reeve make a recompense claim?
x) does the first man get his weapons and goods back at the end of the forty days?
y) who is liable if they have been stolen or damaged in the interim?

and, finally,

z) to whom is an appeal made when the facts of the underlying case are disputed?
74. a-j
I would say that these are issues to do with the implementation of the law, not the law itself. Probably sorted out by common law and precedent. My point is that, at the time, they were probably fairly comprehensible and are not especially incomprehensible now.
75. legionseagle
a-j: the point I was trying to make is that (allegedly) the laws of the period we are discussing were "few and just, simple, permanent, and familiar to everyone". Once you start bringing in precedent (and I agree; it probably did have a large part to play) you are immediately moving away from the alleged standard that everyone know what the laws were. One of the reasons for the Codex of Justinian (which actually falls squarely within the 400-1000 CE period we're talking about, but seems to be ruled out of consideration because of it being Eastern Empire Roman, not Germanic in origin) was that before the days of printing, access to precedents was strictly limited, the authenticity of precedents was in constant dispute and forgery wand illiteracy were genuine problems.

Basically, about the only point in the above list I'll agree with is the word "few"; there does, indeed, seem to have been relatively little black-letter law in Anglo-Saxon England.

Obviously that is much less true in Tolkien's Shire, the only place in Middle-Earth about whose legal customs we get a glimpse. If wills require the signatures of seven witnesses in green ink, and death (and consequent inheritance) can be presumed after an absence of slightly over one year there is obviously a rather complex legal culture, at least as regards property rights.
76. Jerry Friedman
ed-rex @ #72: We agree on what the ending of LotR is like. For some, all the chances of the War of the Ring were fraught with sorrow. But I don't think tragedy and loss is part of Tolkien's definition of "eucatastrophe"; I think those are qualities that he wanted to tinge the eucatastrophe of this book.

Dr. Thanatos @ #71: Many modern translations use "murder" instead of "kill" there, but the root RTsKh is used for both murder and for killing people that's not necessarily murder in Numbers 35, according to this site.

I'm sure that simple commandment has lots of commentary in Jewish law.

legionseagle @ #69: According to this site, the legislative part of the U.S. tax code is 3,387 pages and the regulatory part is 13,458 pages. Even though, as you point out, Anglo-Saxon law was not as simple as people like me might think and was more complicated than meets the eye, I'd still say that compared to our law, it was simple.

Whether we could have simple laws again, as Wolfe said, is another matter. As far as I know, no one in Saxon England had thought of limited-liability corporations, mass trading in securities and derivatives, or many other things that laws have to cover now.

I also have doubts about the law being known to everyone. My vague recollection of Njal's Saga tells me a good lawyer was someone who could come up with laws that no one else remembered (but they must have sounded familiar). Of course, that's at the time Iceland became Christian, but I wonder whether lawyers could cite obscure laws in Christian western Europe. But at least we're talking about what Wolfe actually wrote.

As for Middle-earth, we do get glimpses of the laws of Gondor, mostly in the scene where Faramir and Frodo are talking about the captive Gollum.

That scene has another illustration of the hobbits' fondness for complicated ritual in legal matters. But that doesn't mean the prescriptions and proscriptions of their laws are very complicated. On the other hand, they could be. I have no idea how Wolfe is so sure about the laws of the Shire. Maybe he thinks the relationship between Frodo and Sam could happen only if the laws are few and simple, etc.?

By the way, what the heck does it mean that most of the farmers from Stock to Rushey acknowledge the authority of the Master of Buckland? Can he tell them what to plant or how much to pay their hired hands? Does he make laws for them? Do they submit their disputes to him? Do they pay him taxes? I've been curious about that for a while.
77. legionseagle
Jerry Friedman@76 I'm utterly baffled by Wolfe's contention that the Shire is any sort of Anglo-Saxon society, when to me it comes over so clearly as rural England on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, which is why the express-train metaphor passed over my head on the first twenty times or so of reading; Shire society doesn't "feel" far from the Railway Age, though as the hobbits move away from the Shire they move backwards, symbolically, towards a more archaic and heroic past.

Evidence for the above:

Bilbo and Frodo drink tea and coffee; Bilbo bakes seed cakes in his own kitchen (that implies some fairly sophisticated technology right away; private bake ovens came amazingly late. Try Googling Rumford). The farmers you speak of grow a wide range of crops including taters and pipeweed in enclosed fields - an agrarian pattern which only applied in Britain from the late eighteenth century onwards. Bilbo has "rooms and rooms of clothes" - not something which was in the least common outside aristocratic circles until the more affluent eras of the eighteenth century onwards - and they are styled in a nineteenth century way - waistcoats with brass buttons.

I'd say, by the way, that the Master of Buckland is the local Squire; a number of the farmers are his tenants, he acts as justice of the peace to the extent needed, throws open his grounds for flower shows and perhaps the occasional picnic and his wife is active in "getting up" charities and events for the poor.
79. Jerry Friedman
legionseagle @ #77: I really don't think Wolfe said the Shire was an Anglo-Saxon society. He said they had a quality in common: Folk Law, or neighbor-love and settled customary goodness.

I think everyone agrees about the Victorianness of the Shire. Two more pieces of evidence among many: the ticking clock on Frodo's mantle, and the ability to buy blooming shrubs in boxes to decorate one's party. In September yet. That's what I meant by saying that in both Wolfe's essay and LotR, the heroic age and the author's childhood seem to coexist. Or that's how I could have said it.

Thanks for the comment about the Master of Buckland (especially the flower shows). I take it you think his "authority" is the he acts as J.P., as opposed to whoever does it elsewhere. (The Thain? The Mayor?)

Your comment about tenant farmers is interesting. I'm pretty sure they're not mentioned anywhere, and the only farmer whose situation we know, Maggot, owns his land. Farmer Cotton is "the chief person round here", which hardly suggests the presence of a squire in the Hobbiton-Bywater Metropolitan Area. And I think "yeomanry" is mentioned somewhere.

But how do hobbits of the upper or grammatical class keep food on the table? Rent seems like the main possibility. Tolkien seems to have wanted a gentry class like that of his childhood, but to have cared so little about the economics that he could just gloss it over.
80. pilgrimsoul
The hobbits we know apart from Sam are gentry. The Tooks, Brandybucks, and Bolgers own land, which gives them wealth and status.
JRRT is describing in all of Middle Earth a traditional society where the common folk (at least in public) give deference to the higher classes. Some rationale for this actually existed.
The wealthy had the education and experience as well as the leisure to intervene in public affairs.
The Shire is highly idealized, of course, in that no apparent tensions between the classes exist.
81. (still) Steve Morrison
I'm not at all sure what “the line of Lúthien shall never fail” means. There were certainly descendants of Lúthien who died childless; one example is the Númenórean queen Tar-Telperien, who never married and left her throne to her nephew Tar-Minastir. And going a bit further back, Lúthien’s grandsons Eluréd and Elurín by most accounts perished as children, and only their sister Elwing remained of the entire bloodline. Perhaps the idea is merely that Lúthien will always have at least one living descendant till the end of time?

But as for the question of how our lives would be worse if we lived in some past age, everyone is overlooking the obvious. If we had been born any time prior to the last hundred years or so, about half of us would already be dead. People died in childhood at a horrifying rate through nearly all of history.
Tony Zbaraschuk
82. tonyz
The eucatastrophe of the Passion story is the resurrection, not the crucifixion; the eucatastrophe is the moment when things turn around and joy breaks through. (At the Pelennor Fields, it's when Aragorn unveils his banner).
Kate Nepveu
83. katenepveu
Steve Morrison @ #81, everyone is overlooking the obvious. If we had been born any time prior to the last hundred years or so, about half of us would already be dead.

I was kinda thinking that when I mentioned giving birth by C-section. It wasn't an _emergency_, and I didn't ask my doctor what would have happened if I'd been somewhere without access to what is, after all, major abdominal surgery . . . but I don't much care for the idea, I assure you.

(Next post in the hopper, should be up very soon.)
84. Jerry Friedman
pilgrimsoul @ #80: We do meet some other lower-class hobbits: the Cottons, and the Sandymans and others talking with first Ham and then Sam in inns at the beginning.

Certainly land brings status—and Farmer Maggot, who has some land, has more academic grammar than Sam but less than Frodo, Pippin, and Merry—but how does it bring wealth? I can think of two main ways that are possible in the Shire: the owners employ hobbits to raise crops, or they rent the land for hobbits to live on, work and sell on, or raise crops on. Otho and then Lotho apparently grew tobacco in the Southfarthing. But Tolkien doesn't show us either arrangement, maybe because it would either raise images of the stereotypical grasping landlord or employer, or put him to the trouble of showing fair-minded and useful landlords or employers.

We do know that old Sandyman owned his mill and Lotho bought it, as he bought many other farms and businesses.

All this makes me wonder whether there are enough common hobbits to support the gentry.

Anyway, Bilbo's land doesn't seem to bring him any wealth—there's no mention that any of it is farmed or rented out. Before his adventure, he seems to live off his inheritance from the Old Took. Is it possible he invested it and lives of the returns, or is he using it up?

@Steve Morrison: The only meaning I can imagine for "Never shall that line fail" is that Lúthien will always have at least one living descendant. Then it's not much of a prophecy, considering how many descendants she must have by the time of LotR.
85. legionseagle
I've spent many years being boggled by how the economy of the Shire is supposed to work; I actually wrote a paper called "The Oeconomy of Middle Earth" once, trying to work out how the relatively high maintenance lifestyle enjoyed by Bilbo and Frodo and other gentlehobbits can possibly be sustained in the absence either of technology or vast tribes of domestic servants.

Jerry Friedman@84 I agree that Bilbo and Frodo must be living off some form of investment income, but invested in what? The standard eighteenth century equivalent is "the four percents" but the four percents were Government bonds and the Government raised loans through the Bank of England to finance the Navy and aggressive colonial expansion. No such system in the Shire.

If Bilbo has a rent-roll, who administers his properties during his absence on adventures?

It's the sort of thing that narks me not because I particularly need to see the financial underpinnings of a society to believe in the world-building, but when one moves from seeing Tolkien not as an author of fantasy pure and simple but as some form of ideological guru (and it's something I see a lot in Tolkien discussion circles, not just in the Wolfe essay) the big logic holes start to matter. The "settled goodness" of the Shire depends on a fairly fixed class structure with comparatively limited opportunities for class mobility, those being the usual ones of marriage or, essentially, adoption by the welathy clans who control events (Sam's rise to social prominence in the Shire would, I suggest, have been significantly more difficult had Frodo not gone overseas and left Sam his money and Bag Eng, notwithstanding Sam's prowess in the War of the Ring).

Now, in a fantasy environment you can, largely, overlook the fact that even if you had all the other conditions to make that structure work (a close-knit rural community with adequate supplies of food and no real pressure on resources or significant external threats)someone still has to clean out the nightsoil, draw the water, weave the cloth and dye it and those hard, physical jobs in a pre-technological society take a massive physical toll on those doing them meaning that, for example, Ham Gamgee is virtually crippled by rheumatism at an age when, even without the assistance of the Ring, someone like Odo Sackville-Baggins is comparatively hale and hearty.

It starts to become problematic, for me, when people start seeing Tolkien as a design for living.
86. pilgrimsoul
@ Jerry
That's why I said know instead of meet.
One interesting thing is that Frodo does not dispell the apparently credible rumor that he has "come to the end of his money" and so must return to his mother's family. That does not say land ownership for the Baggins to me. Bilbo obtained treasure that made him and Frodo rich. I don't know what else there could be.
87. legionseagle

Bilbo was extremely comfortably off before he obtained the treasure, though; his mother was one of the three daughters of the Old Took (and I would love to know why Gandalf refers to her as "my poor Belladonna") and Bag End was built largely with her money.

Pippin refers (somewhat modestly, actually) to his father "farming the land near Tuckborough" so the Thain's wealth does seem to come from agriculture.
88. JonR
Diminishing magic, the present world less than and never to return to the better, greater distant past goes against my own worldview also. Things are much better for most of us on the planet today than they have ever been in the past. Most of us would be far, far worse off in a world ruled by hereditary rulers with absolute power. But from what I have learned about Tolkein he was a staunch believer in the 'fall of mankind' from a higher state of grace, in the garden of Eden. So for him it would follow the world was better way back and mankind may struggle but never return to that better time. Magic diminishing and leaving is in accord with such a view.

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