The Road Goes On and On, Part Two

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[page 18] part I: theme and form by lin carter notes on Tolkien {Title art: The title appears in large block letters. The letters in "Tolkien" are stylized with curves at the ends of pen strokes.} While Professor Tolkien's THE LORD OF THE RINGS is beyond all question, in W. H. Auden's phrase, "a masterpiece of its genre", and certainly what the Boston _Herald-Traveler_ called "one of the best wonder-tales ever written -- and one of the best written", it is definitely not, as so many of its readers seem to think, either unique or unprecedented. In the course of a full-page review in the book review section of the New York _Times_ for January 22, 1956, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mr. Auden remarked, anent the third volume of the trilogy, "I believe Mr. Tolkien has succeeded more completely than any previous writer in this genre in using the traditional properties of the Quest, the heroic journey, the Numinous Object, the conflict between Good and Evil while at the same time satisfying our sense of historical and social reality" -- thus recognizing that the trilogy does, indeed, belong to a _tradition_, and is not to be considered as a literary "mutant" such as _The Circus of Dr. Lao_, for example. But what, or rather, _which_, tradition? In attempting to place THE LORD OF THE RINGS in one or another classification of fantasy literature, we face something of an embarrassment of riches. It could well be called an Imaginary World fantasy (like _The Dying Earth_ or _The Well of the Unicorn_), a Fantasy-Adventure (such as the 'Conan' [page 19] fictions or de Camp's _Tritonian Ring_), or even a sort of adult fairy-tale. However, I much prefer to consider it as being nothing more nor less than the latest, and perhaps the supreme, example of the Epic Fantasy Novel. Regarded as an Epic Fantasy, it is the most recent work in a body of literature whose earliest origins may be traced back to the very roots of Western literature themselves, the Homeric poems. Just as the two central themes in Tolkien are the War theme and the Quest or Journey theme, so we find in Homer the Journey theme to be the basic framework of _The Odyssey_, and the War theme that of _The Iliad_. The origins of the Epic Fantasy, rooted as they are in Homeric Greece of the 8th Century B.C., and the continuity of this school of imaginative literature, form a study so extraordinary and entertaining that I am surprised they have never been traced for modern fantasy enthusiasts, intrigued with this form of writing. _1._ _The Outline of Epic Fantasy_ With the decline of the Greek creative impulse coinciding rather curiously with the brief and ultimately lethal rise of Athenian power and influence to imperialistic levels, the epic as an art form was lost until its revival in post-Carolingian Europe, despite transitory but fruitful, brief periods when it flourished in Alexandrian Egypt, to produce the _Posthomerica_ and the _Argonautika_, and in imperial Rome, resulting in the epic literature of Virgil, Lucretius, Lucan and Statius. The translation of the epic into Europe produced a wealth of fine literature, such as the _Song of Roland_, _The Lusiads_, _The Cid_, and something like three hundred other epics, which, however, actually represented a debasement and corruption of the Classical epic form into a lower level or artistic effort which proved at length so unsatisfactory as to stimulate into being a form of epic literature which demanded, on the one hand, a weaker degree of poetic genius on the part of the author, and on the other, a smaller knowledge of Classical mythology and a less intense artistic interest on the part of the reader. This was the folk-epic and [page 20] the prose romance, both widely popular in medieval Europe and both ultimately to result in a literature larger in extent and influence, if smaller in content of genius, than the Graeco-Roman epic literature. While the Romance preserved several basic elements of the Epic, such as the larger-than-life hero, heroine and villain, the element of the supernatural and the direct intervention of divine influence into mortal affairs, and the preoccupation with warfare as a basic plot ingredient, it also incorporated a mass of material both alien and inimical to the Epic: the archetype of the Wizard, unknown in Epic literature until this era, and the use of magic _per se_. In the Epic, demons and mythical monsters such as the dragon and the griffin, evocations of the dead and descents into the Netherworld, appearances and actions by the Gods and Immortals had constituted almost all of the supernatural element. Magic, that is, the actions of mortal wizards and witches, enchanted weapons, spells and cantrips, the intervention of fairies and elves and such devices were foreign to the spirit of the Classical Epics, which actually and to a large part were regarded as religious works. Homer, indeed, became most certainly the "Old Testament" of the Greek religion, and Virgil to the Romans represented what we today would call an inspired, prophetic writer. So we see this debasement of artistic integrity carried out even on the minor level of the supernatural plot-element, for magic is a debasement of religion, a corruption that substitutes the charm for the prayer. (If any reader wishes to challenge the above flat statement that the Wizard was alien to Epic literature, by mentioning the witch Circe in the _Odyssey_ and Odysseus' conversation with the Wizard Teiresias during the "descent into Hades" in the same poem, let me point out that Circe was a goddess, daughter of Helius the Sun, and the Blind Seer Teiresias was a prophet of Apollo.) Although the Romances toyed occasionally with the "Matter of Troy", most frequently their plots were evolved from native folklore such as the Arthurian Cycle, the legends of Charlemagne and the Twelve Paladins, the fabulous history of Alexander the Great, the Crusades, and such new mythic materials. During the Late Middle Ages and early Renaissance the Romances branched out into Grail Quests and Traveler Tales, and the whole field became so hopelessly corrupt as to be laughable. This was partially due to the radical transplanting of a corpus of National myth entire into another country, as when the Italian romancers began writing Arthurian romances which were originally Celtic-Welsh-British-French, and we got such weird admixtures as the _Perceforest_, a vast prose compilation that links up the Grail Cycle with the legendary Alexandrian romances -- or Aristo's _Orlando Furioso_, whose title echoes the "wrath of Achilles" in Homer, whose characters are some from Charlemagne's France, some from Arthur's Britain, some from native Italian folklore -- all of whom go traveling around the world like characters in a Traveler Tale like John De Mandeville or Baron Munchausen. The thing becomes hopelessly tangled when the English poet Spenser borrows almost the whole style and substance of Aristo's romance, transfers the whole thing back into Britain again, and rings in traditional British fairies, Italian conjurors, and Celtic figures like the lady knight, Britomart. And there the whole thing stopped. With the rise of the prose novel, however, we are back in business. The early novelists, as well as the later, found a fertile field awaiting their explorations: they found an almost unbelievably complex universe of styles, plot-structures, tricks, gimmicks, traditions, and forms awaiting a further translation into the novel style. So laughable had the whole, thing become, though, that at first Romance was exploited for pure humor, or for satire. _Gulliver's Travels_, for example, is an excursion into imaginary geography not too alien to Homer's mythical Mediterranean islands or Aristo's Scythia, Cimmeria, Hyperborea and points south. The Romance concepts of imaginary journeys and quests into countries of make-believe became a province peculiar to the new field of children's books, and writers like Lewis Carroll and George MacDonald began utilizing devices whose ultimate origins were the Greek epics. [page 21] Parenthetically, let me at this point define those devices, as they are now inseperable @inseparable@ from the Epic Fantasy, and we shall soon begin talking about them. One such traditional plot-device is to open your tale in surroundings, or among characters, familiar to your audience, and by degrees (once the reader had "identified" and become "comfortable" with them) to carry him further and further into your make-believe world. So Swift's Epic Fantasy opens with a discussion familiar to his readers, Nottinghamshire, Cambridge, etc., and through the familiar and credible device of an ocean voyage and shipwreck, carries his reader into Lilliput, Brobdignag, and the Flying Island of Laputa. So Carroll at first presents Alice in an ordinary English countryside before transporting her into Wonderland. So Baum sets Dorothy's home on a Kansas farm before a familiar Kansas cyclone carries her off to the Marvelous Land of Oz. And, indeed, so old Homer began both his epic poems against the familiar background of the Trojan War, before sending Odysseus to Ogygia, Scheria, Aeaea and the Island of the Cattle of the Sun. _The Iliad_, of course, being a 'War' Epic, involves no imaginary geography. Another such device is the motivation of the Quest. Most writers in this form cannot resist lengthy and involved descriptions of the lands of their invention, and incorporate into the story vast areas of descriptive prose which deal with the boundaries, terrain, customs, religion, home-life, mating-, feeding-, and clothing-habits of the inhabitants. In order to connect these descriptive passages into a progressive narrative, and also to keep the reader interested, it became traditional to motivate the Quest or Journey. Odysseus is wandering because of the grudge Poseidon bears against him. Jason is seeking Colchis and the Fleece of Lamphystrian Zeus. Dorothy is traveling to the Emerald City to ask the Great Wizard to use his magic powers to send her home. Hercules is journeying over the earth to perform the twelve labors assigned him by King Eurystheus, in punishment for his slaughter of his own children during madness. And Alice, at least during most of the first book, is simply trying to find the White Rabbit. In the Grail Romances, Lancelot or Galahad or Perceval or Gawain are seeking the elusive Sangraal. Other stylistic hallmarks of this species of literature are, (1) inordinate length, (2) an enormous cast of characters, and (3) travels over a vast portion of the earth. As for length, both of the Homeric poems are far longer than the 'modern' epic, _Paradise Lost_, which well exceeds ten thousand lines. The Finnish _Kalevala_ is an epic so long the standard English translation is printed in two volumes. Nikos Kazantzakis' _The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel_, most recent of the world's epic poems, is 33,333 lines long. A prose epic mentioned above, _Le Perceforest_, is several times the length pf @of@ an average contemporary novel. _The Faerie Queene_ is some 35,000 lines long, but the honors of being the longest poem in English belong to a weird, unreadable and nightmarish epic called _The Dawn In Britain_, by travel-writer Charles Daugherty, is so incredibly long it is printed in TWENTY SEVEN @TWENTY-SEVEN@ VOLUMES! To return to Epic Fantasy: the field was rescued from its emergence into children's literature by a number of 19th Century English writers, earliest of whom was George MacDonald. MacDonald, author of _The Princess and the Goblin_ and other children's fantasies, produced in 1858 a dream-epic called _Phantastes_, laid in an unknown nightmare world unconvincingly identified with Faerie. Another novel by the same author, _Lilith_, duplicated the imaginary dreamscapes of _Phantastes_ and made quite an impression upon various writers, among them his personal friend Lewis Carroll, whose two _Alice_ books, as well as his neglected masterpiece, _Sylvie and Bruno_, are dream-stories laid in nightmarishly unreal and illogical worlds. It remained for the talented, imaginative and brilliant English poet and novelist William Morris (1834-1896) to virtually single-handedly restore this species of literature to the position and plane of serious art it held before the decline of the Epic impulse into Romance. In a series of magnificent epic-length fantasy novels, such as [page 22] _The House of the Wulfings_ (1889), _The Wood Beyond the World_ (1895), and his masterpiece, _The Well at the World's End_, he brought a new dignity, epic resonance and heroic flavor back into the field. Perhaps the time was simply ripe for such a re-emergence, or perhaps those pioneering works of Epic Fantasy were conditioned by Morris' broad literary interest in more elevated forms of Romance -- for years before any of these novels were published, he printed translations of Homer, Virgil, _The Volsunga Saga_, and translations of a few Icelandic sagas, plus, in 1867, an original full-length epic poem, _The Life and Death of Jason_. In a later essay in this series we shall examine in depth the extraordinary influence of Morris' prose romances on the evolution of Tolkien's trilogy; suffice it for now to describe these Epic Fantasies as vast novels of extreme length -- _Well at the World's End_ must be nearly 300,000 words -- involving years-long quests over landscapes completely original and world-wide in scope...tales of heroic and magical adventure written in a crisply inventive prose that savors both of the deliciously antique language of the Grail Quests and the succinct quaintness and freshness and economy of Mallory. At this period, bear in mind, Fantasy as a major and distinct literary field had not yet emerged fully from the mainsteam @mainstream@ of prose literature. It was not until the first quarter of the present century, when E. R. Eddison picked up the torch from William Norris, that the Epic Fantasy became an established branch of imaginative prose. Written in 1922, _The Worm Ouroboros_ fulfills perfectly the requirements of the Epic Fantasy Novel: enormous length, sprawling and invented landscapes, a numerous cast of characters of heroic virtue and villainy, and strong elements of supernaturalism and magic, plus a not-too-adroit blending of both War and Quest themes into one connective narrative. Eric Rucker Eddison, the Yorkshire-born author, was influenced by much the same works as William Morris, and drew from many of the same sources. An early novel, _Styrbiorn the Strong_, draws from the Scandanavian Heroic Literature, and his version of the _Egil's Saga_ parallels Morris' translations from the Icelandic. There is much of the Greek Epic influence, both in the heroic mold of the people in _Ouroboros_, and the tags and references to Classical literature in its "sequel" or "sibling", _Mistress of Mistresses_ (1935). The third volume in what has only recently proved a tetralogy, _A Fish Dinner at Memison_, brings much of the puzzling eccentricities in Eddison's prose and plot-structure into clearer focus, and introduces many of the characters in all three books as masks or receptacles for the archetypical figures of Zeus and Aphrodite. With the recent publication of the fragmentary and incomplete fourth book of the tetralogy, _The Mezentian Gate_, we now have in final form the supreme example (before Tolkien) of the Epic Fantasy in English literature. Here, again, we see the beginnings of a story in familiar landscapes. _The Worm_ opens against English contemporary scenes and is swiftly shuttled, through the dream-mechanism of MacDonald and Carroll, to the World of the Worm, unconvincingly and unneccessarily @unnecessarily@ equated here with the planet Mercury. We see the Homeric war of Witchland and Demonland, and the heroic quest of the Lords Juss, Spitfire and Brandoch Daha for their lost brother, the Lord Goldry Bluszco. The further novels in the Eddison tetralogy explore the World of the Worm in fuller detail, and elucidate the mysteries of the first book. Eddison has prepared the world for the coming of Tolkien. _2_. _The Tolkien Trilogy as an Epic Fantasy_ Professor Tolkien, as an educated and well-read, literary-minded English scholar is certainly acquainted with the entire range of fantasy literature, with the possible exception of those advances in it made in this country under the extraordinary stimulus of the fantasy and science fiction magazines. His acquaintance with Epic and verse-saga may be assumed from his early writings on _Beowulf_, Chaucer and such; his knowledge of Arthurian romance is proven by his work on _Sir Gawain and the Green Knight_; and if his reading had not included of itself Morris and Eddison, it seems [page 23] certain that his close friends, the fantasy novelists C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams must have urged their works on him. His frequent borrowings from Morris alone are too numerous to be accidental, and shall be detailed in the next essay in this series. In _The Lord of the Rings_ we see what must be the finest and purest example of the Epic Fantasy yet conceived. Every attribute and element of the Epic Fantasy touched upon in the course of this study, may be found in Tolkien's masterly pages, enhanced and integrated in a final perfected form. The last inconsistencies have been resolved; the last rough outline smoothed and blent. Tolkien's epic occurs upon Middle-Earth, a Scandanavian term meaning the World of Men. Both the Foreword and certain portions of one or another Appendix make it fairly clear that we are here dealing with our own Earth at an earlier, pre-mythological age, and certain incidents within the architecture of the tale itself identify it with our world (such as the obvious parallel between the gradual withdrawal of the last of the High Elves from Middle-Earth and Queen Egeria's leading the fairy races from the Lands of Men into Faerie on "that Friday night when the Great Star blazed high over Bethlehem, when the day of the Old Gods ended, and the new day was born, and magic perished from the earth", which is found in traditional Fairy Literature). As his tale bears no relation to the world of today, Tolkien has the choice of either introducing a strained and artificial prefatory English opening (as in Eddison) to serve as the familiar springboard leading into his invented universe, or must make some portion of the World of the Ring correspond closely to England. He selected the letter. W. H. Auden has remarked on the slowness and difficulty of the opening forty pages of the first volume, the Shire scenes, apparently without being aware that what Tolkien was doing was in the full tradition of Homer, Swift, Carroll, MacDonald and L. Frank Baum: the Shire, lovingly and comfortably depicted, with all its tiny cultural anachronisms, such as fireworks, greeting-cards, umbrellas, doorknobs and pipesmokers, is a parallel-in-miniature of rural England and a traditional necessity, designed to help the reader start off in familiar surroundings before brearing @bearing@ him away to more alien country. Stylistically, it may owe something to Kenneth Grahame and _The Wind in the Willows_. And -- to emphasize the allusion and make it even stronger, Professor Tolkien has utilized a remarkable device I have not seen before in Epic Fantasy. I mean his place names in and around the Shire, which is itself an English word meaning "county" are compounded from English words: the Brandywine River, Weathertop, Buckland, Bywater, etc., and such personal names as Samwise, Proudfoot, and so on. As we leave the Shire, the farther we get from it the less meaningful become place and personal names. The Mark still has traces of English meanings, and the names in Rohan are somewhat Scandanavian in flavour. Once we are out of this territory the names are completely foreign, as they would be to us were we to travel from America into Persia or China. This is an example, not only of Professor Tolkien's meticulous attention to the details and traditions of Epic Fantasy, but to his innate genius in avoiding marring his narratives with the frequent lapses in taste and invention that annoyingly deface so many earlier Epic Fantasies. The motivation he introduces to justify his usage of the Quest theme, i.e., to avoid Sauron's certain conquest of the West, his supreme talisman, the One Ring, must be destroyed; it can only be destroyed in the place where it was fashioned, that is Mount Doom in Mordor, therefore a journey must be undertaken across the world from the Shire to the lands of the Dark Lord; this motive, I repeat, is the strongest, most consistent and logical in all of Epic Fantasy. His blending of the two main themes of the Quest and the War is beyond all question the most adroit, subtle and flawlessly merged of any in this school. His use of the stock, archetypal figures of both Epic and Romance, such as the Wise Old Wizard (Gandalf, a far stronger and more interesting character than Eddison's Dr. Vanderrmast), the Villain-Hero (Boromir, a powerful blending of hero and antihero [page 24] of Homeric stature), the Faithful Companion (Samwise, who seems to owe something to Sancho Panza another Epic Fantasy), the Wicked Magician (Saruman, a small masterpiece of characterization), and the others, his use of these familiar figures, I say, is fresh, thoroughly believable, firmly characterized and exciting. His background detail, cultural data and so on are more completely worked out, more consistent and almost more inventive (Eddison's cultural detail is broader and more imaginative) than anything I have seen in Epic Fantasy. As Mr. Auden truthfully observed, "By the time the reader has finished the trilogy, including the appendices...he knows as much about Mr. Tolkien's Middle Earth, its landscape, its fauna and flora, its peoples, their languages, their history, their cultural habits, as, outside his special field, he knows about the actual world." How few flaws mar Tolkien's prose epic! If Sauron never really appears on stage, never seems completely a real being, and vanishes as easily as a pantomime ogre in the last act, yet reflect how powerfully, how overwhelmingly, his dark shadow hangs over the entire tale from beginning to end, permeates every scene and ever chapter with brooding menace. And if certain elements necessary to a world, even an imaginary one, seem puzzlingly absent -- such as any references to religion -- we may console ourselves with the thought that religions are also conspicuous in their absence within Eddison's world as well. (Notes on Tolkien, II: _Names and Places_ is now in preparation, and, hopefully, will appear in the next issue.)

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