Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hitchens re. Lewis & Tolkien

So, today when listening to my current audiobook -- Christopher Hitchens' new autobiography HITCH-22, I came across a passing mention of Tolkien and Lewis. Checking a print copy at my friendly neighborhood bookstore, I transcribed the passage, which turns out to be a footnote on page 78. Since I think relatively few people who enjoy reading Tolkien will be reading Hitchens' book, thought I'd share it -- particularly since there's no mention of it in the book's index.

However, it's pretty dismissive, so if such things annoy you, best to stop reading now. I'll insert a little spoiler space to help:

In a footnote to a passage describing his passion for a fellow student, Hitchens writes:

"It was Guy, now dead for some time but in his later years an amazingly successful seducer of girls, who first insisted that I read the Greek-classical novels of Mary Renault. If this was all he had done for me, I would still be hoarsely grateful to him. While other boys plowed their way across the puerile yet toilsome pages of Narnia, or sank themselves into the costive innards of Middle Earth, I was following the thread of Ariadne and the tracks of Alexander. The King Must Die; The Bull from the Sea: Athens has seldom trumped Jerusalem with greater style or panache."

I'm a bit suspicious of this passage, since it's describing Hitchens (b. 1949) when he was the equivalent of a high school student, apparently roughly 15 or so (circa 1964), which seems about right for folks to read LotR but a bit old to be discovering Narnia for the first time.

The irony, of course, is that Hitchens apparently doesn't know that both Tolkien and Lewis were admirers of Renault's work, particularly the two novels he cites. So while he drags them in to score some points, they wd actually have been in agreement with him about Renault's merits.

current audiobook: HITCH-22
current novel: THE RED PYRAMID


David Bratman said...

I browsed extensively through Hitchens' book on the bookstore shelves, and while I'm not planning on buying it, I certainly would borrow it if I saw a copy in the public library. So count me among the potential overlap of readership.

I'm not sure there's an irony in Tolkien and Lewis sharing Hitchens' admiration for Renault. You don't have to be a good author to admire one. Plenty of authors I wouldn't touch with a bargepole share my admiration for Tolkien. They have good taste; they just can't write.

So Hitchens would surely say, mutatis mutandis, of Tolkien and Lewis were this pointed out to him. His adjectives amount to saying he considers their works hard to read. Well, it's a common complaint. I wonder if he'd like the movies better.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David
re. yr line ". . . I wonder if he'd like the movies better", I (a) v. much doubt so and (b) wd be surprised if he'd go to see them at all. Most of us don't, after all, go to see movie adaptations of books we dislike. There are exceptions of course, and you never know. Weirder things have happened -- like Edmund Wilson's being taken to see YELLOW SUBMARINE in his old age and his rather liking it (apparently he identified with the Blue Meanies).

David Bratman said...

I doubt he would see them, which is why I phrased my comment in the conditional; but the movies do seem to have been designed to appeal to people who find Tolkien and Lewis hard to read. Certainly I've seen a number of comments from people who find the movies much more entertaining than the boring old books; even Jackson and Boyens have made some tentative forays in that direction. That's their privilege; I'm just noting it.

Iaradanduin said...

When idly I followed a Hitch-seeking web-link to the Word-Hoard of Sacnoth, I hardly expected to encounter the author of my favoritest (self-chosen) Christmas present! To borrow from my countryman John Paul Jones, I have not yet begun to savor [I]The History of the Hobbit[/I], but the first dip into its limpid pool of arcana led to the Second Phase's sub-heading on Radagast, which most satisfyingly scratched an itch I've had for decades. Many thanks, both in advance and for that thrill Istaric!

Re the inquiry about Christopher Hitchens which brought me rather late to this more than fourteen-month-old conversation, I'd certainly include myself in that "overlap"(having been much pleased a couple of years ago with a paired gift of [I]The Portable Atheist[/I] and [I]Why Orwell Matters[/I]); I was frankly expecting something a little more savage, scorn for a doddering defender of Fascist Franco, though of course far more gracefully withering than the ham-handed alliteration of my presumptive paraphrase. Apparently he dismissed both our dear Inklings as mere Reading for Boys and not worth the trouble of political condemnation. (Putting aside the question of just what age one should be when encountering authors, I had from my earliest readings in Narnia as a teenager a strong sense of foreboding that the Moral of the Story was poised to spring out upon me at the next turn of the page, so "puerile yet toilsome" seems not far from the mark, if characteristically disdainful.) Even if "costive" be taken in its archaic sense of "slow in action or speech" instead of constipated, "innards" reveals the sort of Swiftian interest that Hitchens would likely have embraced and acknowledged (as well as the inability to spell Middle-earth correctly, the sort of inattention so common in those seeking to deride that with which they're only shallowly acquainted).

I fell in love with Mary Renault when I was twelve, two years before ever I heard of Arda; memories of her [I]Lion in the Gateway[/I] are still the standard by which I measure (and disdain) more overwrought efforts like the recent CGI [I]300[/I].

As a reader I see, or feel for myself, no contradiction in enjoying and even revering the work of authors who might not care to touch one another with a bargepole -- as long as they write well, whatever their quarrels need hardly concern me. Although the difference in their years precluded any such proleptic opportunity, I'm confident that Tolkien could have found much to despise in Hitchens' [I]oeuvre[/I]; I'm extremely fond of them both.

What stirred my ire in the Scriptorium to start with, however, was the close of David Bratman's last post: "That's their privilege; I'm just noting it." Meaning no personal criticism of your calm broad-mindedness, sir, fie upon the notion! Feh! It is precisely because Jackson and Boyens write sooo badly that their "tentative forays" (and Oscar-winning screenplay) are such an affront. It may well be "their privilege", conferred by the acquisition of film rights and subsequently great piles of money, but we are surely not required to respect it, anymore than we are constrained from understanding that the felon set free on a legal technicality is even so hideously, spectacularly guilty.

If you're still awake by the end of this screed, Mr. Rateliff, I'm warmed by the thought.

Iaradanduin said...

My demonstrated incapacity to induce italics will not prove too annoying, I hope . . .