Friday, April 24, 2015

Jo Walton's Two Thoughts on Tolkien

So, since getting back from my latest trip I've continued to read, on and off, Jo Walton's WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT [2014]. This is a very dip-able collection, given that it's composed of a hundred and thirty blog posts made over the period of more than two years (July 2008 thr Febr 2011). I've also felt no compunction about skipping around and reading the individual entries in whatever order took my fancy, since for the most part they're independent of each other -- the exception being  when she does a block of entries on the same author, such as the five on Cherryh (none of which so much as mention any of the Cherryhs I've read), the fifteen on Lois McMaster Bujold, or the eighteen on Steven Brust (which I think is at least seventeen too many).

Naturally, the first one I read is the one on Tolkien, specifically THE HOBBIT (#122, Sept 2010, p. 412-416). Walton takes the standard line that THE LORD OF THE RINGS is a masterpiece and THE HOBBIT isn't but is merely "journeyman work" (obviously, I disagree). There are a lot of good points in this piece, which I'd like to return to another time, but for now I wanted to highlight two really interesting comments she makes towards the end of her piece.

First, she points out what shd have been obvious but which in fact had never occurred to me before, nor do I recall ever seeing it commented on before: Bilbo has no servants. That seems perfectly normal to us reading THE HOBBIT today, seventy-plus years on, but as Walton points out it wd have been remarkably unusual for the time. Even the Tolkiens, who were by no means as rich as the Bagginses, had servants. Bilbo not only does his own cooking but his own cleaning, including doing the dishes. Yet by the standards of the time a large home like Bag End wd have had a sizable live-in staff: maids, cook, butler, et all. We do find out in THE LORD OF THE RINGS that Bilbo had a gardner (Holman), but that seems to be about it.

Second, does it make any difference to the story that Bilbo is male? To evoke what C. S. Lewis wd have called a supposal, would the story be any different if this were one of the tales of one of those hobbit-lasses we hear tell of who went off on adventures after listening to Gandalf's tales? If this were, say, Belladonna Took's adventure, wd the story be much the same with just the names and a bunch of pronouns changed?  I'm inclined to think Walton is right in suggesting that it wdn't change the story much, which is an interesting thought.*

More on her book as a whole once I've had a chance to finish reading it.

--John R.

*for one of Tolkien's oft-overlooked intrepid female characters, see the dragon-killer Miss Biggins in the revised (1960s) version of his poem "The Dragon's Visit".

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