Friday, June 26, 2009

I Am Po-Faced and Dreary

So, last week a fellow Tolk-folk (thanks Jeremy) sent me a link to an article by a New Zealand poet critiquing the so-called 'Tolkien Industry', or posthumous publications of JRRT's works.

The author, Jack Ross, makes clear that he loves Tolkien and he welcomes the release of new material, such as SIGURD AND GUDRUN, and he's eagerly awaiting "accessible editions" of THE LAY OF AOTROU AND ITROUN and IMRAM (apparently not having noticed that the latter is included in HME.IX) and THE HOMECOMING OF BEORHTNOTH BEORHTHELM'S SON. But he deplores the whole phenomenon of Expanded Editions, such as Verlyn Flieger's SMITH OF WOOTTON MAJOR, Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull's FARMER GILES OF HAM, Baillie Tolkien's LETTERS FROM FATHER CHRISTMAS, Doug Anderson & Verlyn Flieger's TOLKIEN ON FAIRY-STORIES, and my HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT (he includes the Hammond-Scull ARTIST & ILLUSTRATOR as an expansion of PICTURES BY TOLKIEN and the recent re-release of MR. BLISS as well). He's ambivalent about THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH, liking the LotR volumes but feeling that "all proportion has been lost" and that twelve volumes are far too many (thank god he doesn't seem to know about the thirteenth volume containing the compiled index).

For those who don't want to read through the whole post, here's how Ross describes my work:

"[Christopher's] most noticeable legacy, unfortunately, seems to be a ragtag and bobtail (to use a Tolkienian term) of mostly American scholars who specialise in ever more recondite and fatuous explorations of the implications of the papers and manuscripts which Tolkien himself sold them so long ago. Is a two-volume History of the Hobbit really necessary, for instance? Especially on top of Douglas A. Anderson's magnificently-illustrated (and basically light-hearted) Annotated Hobbit of 1988 [s.e.e. (=special expanded edition) 2002]?

"The History of the Hobbit is fun to read, mind you. I enjoyed it greatly. But it's not as much fun as it should be. Because it's 900 pages long. Because it's immensely repretitive and overly detail on points of no consequence. Because its author, John D. Rateliff, has no sense of proportion. Because its publishers know that anything with Tolkien's name on the spine will sell in gazillions (take the recent reprints of parts of Unfinished Tales under the stand-alone title of The Tale of the Children of Hurin, for instance). Rateliff, alas, is no Christopher Tolkien."

After this, he goes on to lament that we don't get works like JOURNEYS OF FRODO or THE ATLAS OF MIDDLE-EARTH or Carpenter's biographies anymore, though he makes an exception for John Garth (and, earlier in his piece, for Tom Shippey). Instead, "[f]or the most part . . . what we tend to see now are compendiums of essays by ghastly Academic second-raters, dictionaries and grammars of Tolkien various made-up languages, and other ever more po-faced and dreary reponses to the simple delights of Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings." (emphasis mine)

After that, he goes off the rails a bit, comparing the editions of posthumous Tolkien books to the ghost-written works published under the name of 'V. C. Andrews (TM)' -- which is a gratuitous slander against the Tolkien Estate, who have striven mightily to clamp down on people publishing sequels and prequels and side-stories set in Tolkien's world for years (and an unending and thankless job it's been, too). His conclusion that "Not even the death of Christopher can halt it now" is pretty tasteless by my standards, and I found his statement that "[Tolkien's] legacy has long since fallen into the burning cancerous hands of . . . the professional Anglo-American Academic establishment . . . from [which] there is, I fear, no escape" funny in light of the fact that most of the works he slammed or praised are done by those outside that establishment: independent scholars like Doug Anderson and myself, journalists and professional writers like John Garth and Humphrey Carpenter, archivists like Wayne Hammond, librarians like Christina Scull, and the like, whereas Ross himself IS ensconced in Academia (according to his bio on his blog, he teaches at Massey University).

So, he doesn't like the kind of stuff I do. Actually, I'm fine with that. I'm sorry he didn't enjoy my book more, but I'm glad he at least found some things of interest there. I think it's fair to sum up his position as saying that he doesn't want another version of THE SILMARILLION, or a different draft of the Bombadil poems, but to see those still-unpublished or uncollected Tolkien works get into print. I'm certainly eager myself to see THE FALL OF ARTHUR, THE BOVADIUM FRAGMENTS, SELLIC SPELL, the BEOWULF translations, and the rest get published. But I differ from him in that I'm fascinated by all the new material revealed by the expanded editions of, say, OFS. And, though I'm not a linguist, I'm happy that the linguistic material is being made available for those whose focus is on the languages, since I don't think mine is the only approach, nor innately superior to others.

And there's where I think Ross and I really part company. We both love Tolkien, and we're both delighted by works published both in Tolkien's lifetime and since. But he, given the choice, would prefer that those works that don't interest him personally never see print at all, even if it meant burning the original manuscripts. In this I think he's part of the F. R. Leavis tradition, which assigns moral worth to its own preferences and condemns all that lies outside it. Whereas I most emphatically am not; I'm glad to recognize greatness even in works that leave me cold.

By the way, if you do follow the link and read Ross's full original post, don't neglect the comments, some of which are hilariously ill-informed -- such as the one lamenting that nothing's been published on the tengwar, apparently written by someone completely ignorant of the work of Arden Smith. I could relate to Ross's own comment that "I just know I'm the hapless slave of whatever new bit of Tolkieniana they choose to issue", but unlike him I don't dread having more new Tolkien to read but delight at the prospect. Funniest of all was a poster's prediction that, ten years after their release date, the Jackson films would be so badly dated that no one could watch them except for nostalgia or kitsch value -- apparently he hasn't looked at a calendar lately, or he would have realized that's only two years away now (THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING having been released in 2001).

--John R.

current reading: ALL WHAT JAZZ? by Philip Larkin [1970]


N.E. Brigand said...

I'm glad to recognize greatness even in works that leave me cold.

If a work leaves you cold, what criteria do you use to determine whether or not it is great?

David Bratman said...

Ross has one good point, that there is a lot of routine and dreary academic Tolkien scholarship out there. But that's true of most scholarship, especially in the currently hot pop-culture fields. All those "X and Philosophy" books are pretty dreary, and there was a LOTR one a few years ago. But much less of Tolkien scholarship is like that than he thinks, and I could name many good newish books besides Garth's.

And yeah, I can see a complaint that your book is too long.

But his complaint about flooding the market with second, expanded editions is just weird. He claims it's a publisher trick to protect copyright on the originals, but copyright doesn't work that way and never did. He complains that they include valuable new material. What's the complaint in that? That he feels obliged to buy them? That only makes sense as a complaint if the first editions were deliberately abridged to soak users later on, like endless re-cut re-releases of movie DVDs. Which of course they weren't.

And Artist & Illustrator isn't an "enlarged, second edition" of Pictures, but a totally new book on the subject, actually carefully edited to avoid duplication with Pictures as much as possible.

And there never was an enlarged edition of Letters (if only there were!). What he's mistaking for one is the printing with the new index, the long-wanted replacement for the inadequate original index.

In his comments he complains about the annotations in the posthumous books, evidently having not noticed that volumes like The Silmarillion, The Children of Hurin, and (to an extent) Unfinished Tales were made for exactly his preference of plain readable texts.

And the mistake about "Imram" that you noticed - which he ought not to have made if he'd read the books he lists as closely as he claims, and a general insulting waspishness (the comparison to V.C. Andrews-style posthumous fakery being the worst), all put together make this a post its author should regret.

John D. Rateliff said...

"If a work leaves you cold, what criteria do you use to determine whether or not it is great?"

--Hi, N.E.
--There are various methods I can use. Sometimes I can tell myself. For example, I used to play the clarinet, yet hate jazz. So when I listen to jazz clarinet I can tell how talented the performer is and how well he's performing, but the results is still something I'd never listen to by choice. Similarly, I can read Milton's PARADISE LOST and recognize the grandness of his verse without actually enjoying any of it.

Other times, I can work by inference. If I observe other people responding to a work the same way I respond to Tolkien, or Woolf, or Twain, that's circumstantial evidence that deserves to be taken into account. If I see sustained traditions of criticism and explication build up around an author who doesn't seem worthy of it to me, that suggests that I might be wrong. Also, anyone can have a flash in the pan, but if people are still going back to an author or a book decades later in the same way, that staying power is a sign that there's something there.

So, I think it's quite possible to recognize genius in somebody without enjoying any of his or her works.


John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David

Yes, if anyone tells me my book is on the longish size, all I can say is "it's a fair cop". The IMRAM thing I just put down to absent-mindedness; if Mr. Ross read all the HME volumes as they came out, then it's been a good many years since he read Vol. IX and he may have simply forgotten that IMRAM was included there among THE NOTION CLUB PAPERS. That's be the charitable interpretation, at any rate.

I do give Ross credit that, for all his grumblings and his carelessness about detail, he is a well-informed critic in that he's actually bothered to READ the posthumous Tolkien, which most criticize without ever trying to see what it's like for themselves. But in the end his point of view and mine are worlds apart. I do find myself rather curious about his fiction, and may try to track down one of his books and see if there's any influence there from all his Tolkien reading.

--John R.

N.E. Brigand said...

Thanks for a serious and thoughtful reply to my flip comment. I regret that I shall not be able to respond in kind, except to say that I'm not sure the clarinet and jazz analogy works: could not a musician perform expertly in a genre of no value? A clarinetist can play excellently in a poor composition just as a mason can contribute fine stonework to an ugly building.