Wrestling With Blind Spots: Death of the Author From Complications

As I have mentioned before, I generally advocate the Death of the Author position when dealing with literature – the idea that interpretation is a matter for the reader to decide, not the writer. It is why I reject the notion that J.K. Rowling’s Dumbledore is gay – not because of homophobia, but because the character as portrayed in the Harry Potter series has no sexuality at all for the first six books, and has an ambiguous relationship with Grindelwald in the seventh (I personally read that relationship as an intellectual one, not a sexual one). Dumbledore, as I read him, has no more sexuality than Gandalf, gay or otherwise – if Rowling had wanted to make the character homosexual, she should have put it in the bloody book.

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All well and good. This is also why I generally baulk at telling people how to interpret Wise Phuul or my short stories – someone else’s interpretation of the published text is as good as mine, since a text exists to be read, not written. The exception is where the interpretation is insane, of course, but then I am human as well as an author.

But today I stumbled across an old Ferretbrain article from 2010, which got me thinking about the subject again. Amongst other things, the article distinguishes between comprehension (e.g. Hogwarts is the name of the school), speculation (e.g. Ron Weasley did job X after leaving school), and interpretation (e.g. Slytherin is an evil House). It further suggests that speculation can only be seen as a worthwhile activity by authorial intentionalists, and that Death of the Author has no use for it. This, I think, is mistaken, since I see speculation as existing outside the authorial intentionalist/Death of the Author divide – this is not about deriving deeper meaning from a text, but from the pleasure of interacting with it on its own turf, an extension of the willing suspension of disbelief (we know what we’re reading is fiction, but what if it were real?). I myself write speculative material on Tolkien as well as interpretive.

So I don’t agree with the article completely… but it did start some soul-searching on how I go about interpreting texts, and, well, I have found myself wrestling with my own potential blind spots. Oh dear.

Because, at the end of the day, is there a substantive difference between Rowling saying that Dumbledore is gay in an interview, George R.R. Martin providing bonus information on Westerosi heraldry and House Words, or J.R.R. Tolkien revealing that Maedhros is a red-head in The Peoples of Middle-earth (bearing in mind that Maedhros’ hair colour never features in the published Silmarillion)? It’s all extra-textual stuff – which under Death of the Author ought to be discarded in favour of what is in the actual text. And while I have been harsh on Rowling, I have never called Tolkien up for the Maedhros hair colour thing, or any of the various interpretative essays he wrote about his invented world. Surely what is good for the Rowling goose is also good for the Tolkien gander?

These aren’t rhetorical questions either. I have been pondering ways of differentiating them… hence this essay. Basically, I think the article’s comprehension/speculation/interpretation divide is a useful place to start – and I would say that Rowling’s statement about Dumbledore’s sexuality intrudes on the reader’s freedom to interpret in a way that Tolkien and Martin do not.

Martin giving worldbuilding details on banners or words belongs very much to the factoid/comprehension side of things – it fuels speculation, but not interpretation. Knowing the Bolton House words does not affect the way one reads A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s just there, as an optional bonus for those who enjoy such things. Same with Tolkien’s note about Maedhros’ hair colour, which is of interest to fan artists and anyone trying to construct a theory of Elvish hair genetics, but which is of zero thematic or character interest in The Silmarillion.

Duel at the steps of royal palace in Alqualonde by EKukanova

Dumbledore’s sexuality, by contrast, does not simply invite speculation. By revealing such an integral part of personality, it invites interpretation – how we read the character’s actions and interactions is affected by the revelation. Someone not aware of Rowling’s interview will be reading a slightly different Dumbledore from someone who is aware, which is simply not the case with the Maedhros hair colour example. Which is poor form, as far as Death of the Author goes.

Well and good, then. But one can choose fuzzier examples. What about Anthony Goldstein, the Jewish wizard at Hogwarts, whom Rowling mentions as being in her original list of students? On one hand, he was in the original list – which makes him a genuine part of the world-building, not a post-hoc attempt to burnish Hogwarts’ diversity credentials. On the other hand, the way Rowling uses him in the Guardian article isn’t quite analogous to the Martin or Tolkien examples – she is using something that isn’t in the published text to shape the way we interpret the text. She is trying to get us to read Hogwarts as full of representation and diversity, when cutting Goldstein from the published book actually creates a different effect.

(A better approach to encouraging a diverse interpretation of Hogwarts might have been to let the readers do the interpreting for themselves. The black Hermione debate from several years ago – something I might actually do a Youtube video on at some point – is a brilliant example of an adaptation using ambiguity in the text, in this case Hermione’s skin colour (which is never specified, and which is utterly irrelevant to her character in any case). Diversity achieved on the stage… without the author necessarily needing to tread on people’s toes. Whether Rowling endorsed the casting, or how she personally imagined the character, is actually irrelevant).

OK, so thus far we have been seeing Rowling using extra-textual information to influence interpretation of the published text, whereas Martin and Tolkien use extra-textual information to fuel speculation and immersion. Totally different, right? So is Tolkien then off the hook? Well, no. Because if revealing Maedhros’ hair colour is different from revealing Dumbledore’s sexuality, we have still yet to establish how Tolkien’s essays and letters are different from Rowlings interviews – since those essays and letters often do stray into interpretation. Raving hypocrite that I am, I even went so far as to use such interpretative tools for my Denethor analysis and my look at Sauron’s motivations – the ideas that Denethor is an excessively political leader, or that Sauronian evil differs from Morgothian evil, are straight-out authorial intentionalism.

Perhaps. I am not going to argue that the subsequent publication of Tolkien’s Letters or the History of Middle-earth series turns such information into part of the text – we are not dealing with story here (draft or otherwise), but rather explicit authorial commentary on the text. It is no different from Rowling’s interviews… except in one important sense. Whereas Rowling seems to want to claim credit for stuff that is not actually in the books (i.e. the wise old mentor figure being an example of queer representation in fantasy), when Tolkien comments on his writings, there is generally at least some textual foundation to his commentary.

Recall that my objection to Dumbledore’s sexuality is that Rowling’s comments (which posit a sexual Dumbledore) contradict the basically asexual nature of the book figure. I am willing to look the other way for Tolkien, in that his Denethor and Sauron comments chime with the published story. They do not set interpretation off on a fresh direction, or put a new spin on the material, only help clarify what is already there. On those occasions when Tolkien’s extra-textual commentary does not gel with the content of his actual fiction – Laws and Customs of the Eldar, for example – I cheerfully call him up on it. Laws and Customs is not useless, of course, since it shows how far Tolkien’s stories were straying from his Catholic intent, but I do not think one should use the essay to interpret The Silmarillion or the other First Age stories. Celegorm and Maeglin simply do not fit. Similarly, I reject Tolkien’s very late Unfinished Tales Galadriel essay, on the basis that it contradicts The Lord of the Rings. It helps that the Rings version is more fun and less whitewashed, so there are aesthetic considerations too – I’m the reader, I can do that, because, well… Death of the Author!

Which brings me full circle. Maybe my literary blind spots aren’t as bad as I feared. Maybe I only use authorial intent in a cautious, supplementary manner, rather than as a stand-in for the text itself. In which case, hooray? I do have to acknowledge, however, that the sin of Rowling, who wants to stamp a particular interpretation on her work, is one that affects us all – authors are human, and it is very human to want one’s work to be the one that exists in a Platonic state in our brains, rather than the one that exists in the imperfect and messy form on the page. But it’s the page version the reader deals with, even if we try to mean what we say, which, in light of the fun of unconscious and unintended themes and ideas, is probably for the best.

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A Spring Twilight

Out in the Dunedin Botanical Gardens yesterday:

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2018 was a very mild winter, and spring has got off to a golden start. Damn it – I live in Dunedin. Where’s the rain?

Dunedin Fantasy Writer Event

My first public event as an author. Woohoo!

Genre 8 - Flights of Fantasy 11 October 2018 - for web (1)

Tolkienian Speculative Guessing IV: YOU… SHALL… PASS!

Time for some more Tolkienian alternate history. Today’s topic is one that has bothered me ever since I stumbled across this at the Tolkien Sarcasm Page – yes, it’s a Balrog question. But not THAT Balrog question. Another one:

What if the Balrog of Moria got its paws on the One Ring?

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It is not difficult to imagine how this scenario comes to be – the Balrog knocks Gandalf into the chasm before our wizard can break the bridge, and then hunts down the remaining Fellowship with ease. Much as the Watcher in the Water seems able to sense the Ring (and hence attacks Frodo), it is entirely possible that Durin’s Bane would be similarly triggered by Frodo’s presence, so inspects the charred and mutilated corpse of Mr Baggins, and finds a certain precious piece of jewellery…

What happens then?

Well, there are four possible outcomes, and we shall get to them shortly. The issue is that this question throws up a couple of subsidiary questions:

(i) How intelligent are Balrogs?

In short, we don’t know. They are unquestionably powerful – and get significantly more powerful as Tolkien’s writings go on, until Tolkien envisaged there only being seven of the creatures, but whether they are intelligent or more agents of raw destructive force, is unclear. While the latter view has been popularised by the Jackson movies (try finding an image of the Balrog that was not influenced by those), my own view is that the Balrogs, as Maiar, are intelligent. These are demons of creepy shadow as much as they are demons of destructive fire. Consider Gandalf’s account of the Chamber of Mazarbul:

Then something came into the chamber — I felt it through the door, and the orcs themselves were afraid and fell silent. It laid hold of the iron ring, and then it perceived me and my spell.

‘What it was I cannot guess, but I have never felt such a challenge. The counter-spell was terrible. It nearly broke me. For an instant the door left my control and began to open! I had to speak a word of Command. 

In light of later events, this “something” is the Balrog, and much like the other known Maiar of Middle-earth, Sauron, the Istari, and Melian, it has a brain. It can detect magic, and perform its own terrible counter-spell, to the point where it nearly breaks Gandalf himself – and Gandalf is no slouch at magic. If Durin’s Bane can do this, I think it has sufficient intelligence to use the One Ring, if it chose – we are not talking a more fiery Shelob.

Also, while Letter 210 points out that the Balrog doesn’t speak, I think there is enough evidence over the course of the mythos that Balrogs are capable of speech if they desire (see here for a compendium of evidence).

(ii) Was the Balrog of Moria on Team Sauron?

Again, the answer to this is unclear. On one hand, we have this quote, from Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age:

“And [Sauron] gathered again under his government all the evil things of the days of Morgoth that remained on earth or beneath it.”

Durin’s Bane is an evil thing from the days of Morgoth. It is beneath the earth. A literal interpretation of the quote says that, yes, the Balrog is one of Sauron’s servants. After all, the Balrogs are used to taking orders from Morgoth – so why not Morgoth’s second-in-command?

This degree of literalism is not something I am happy with, however. In my opinion, the quote could just as easily refer to the fact that the Orcs tend to live underground too. After all, where does this leave the mysterious Nameless Things, assuming one can call them evil, since “even Sauron knows them not”? Sauron can hardly command something he does not know about. Moreover, the text of The Lord of the Rings refers to the Ringwraiths as Sauron’s most terrible servants – the Balrog is a far more terrible entity than any mere Ringwraith, secondary in power to only Sauron himself (and maybe Smaug). Which means the Balrog is not a servant, but a free agent.

My biggest objection to applying “on earth or beneath it” literally, however, is that the behaviour of the Balrog is inconsistent with it being Sauron’s agent in Moria. As mentioned, Durin’s Bane is a monstrously powerful being – able to kill the bodily form of one of the Istari, and adept at magic – so if Sauron had control of it, why waste it on a backwater like Moria? Why not summon it to Mordor, and put it in command of the army? As it is, the Balrog behaves like a mysterious side-line figure to the late Third Age, playing no part in the Orc-Dwarf battles, even though its intervention would have been decisive. It is something that the Orcs themselves avoid…

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But back to the question of what would happen if Durin’s Bane found the Ring. As mentioned, I think there are four possibilities:

(1) It ignores it. The least-likely option – I do think that the Balrog, as a magical Maia, would have some appreciation for what the Ring is, but it is possible (after the intruders have been dealt with) that it returns to slumber on the lower levels of Moria. This possibility would be most consistent with Balrogs being unintelligent, or at least having no interest in what the Ring offers, and would likely lead to the Ring falling into the hands of Orcs – whereupon a short-lived Orkish kingdom in the Misty Mountains gets stomped on by a (conventionally) victorious Sauron.

(2) It sits on it, Gollum-style. This would actually be consistent with the Balrog’s behaviour thus far – for a creature of such immense power, it does not seem particularly ambitious, and what could the Ring promise the Balrog? It is corrupted already! Sauron would defeat the West conventionally under this scenario, but actually getting the Ring off an (intelligent) Balrog would be tricky, assuming that the Balrog is a free agent – Sauron might not want to provoke it, which would render his victory amusingly incomplete.

(3) It returns the Ring to Sauron. If you believe the Balrog is under Sauron’s governance, then this is the most likely possibility, though it is also a potentially headache-inducing one. Would the Ring tempt the Balrog into betraying Sauron, or would it, like the Ringwraiths, simply follow orders? Part of the difficulty with this question is that we never actually see how a truly evil creature would react to the Ring’s lure, but assuming the Ring does end up with Sauron, then we all know the result for Middle-earth.

(4) It chooses to use it. The most likely option, I think, and easily the most fun. This requires an intelligent Balrog, and one that is either a free agent or else a servant that has been corrupted into rebelling against its master. Since Gandalf could have used the Ring against Sauron (Letter 246), the Balrog certainly could, which turns the War of the Ring into a deliciously complicated four way struggle – Sauron vs the West vs Saruman vs the Balrog. One could imagine Denethor and Saruman trying to prolong the Sauron/Balrog evil civil war as long as possible, though the Elves might find themselves in a tricky situation, especially since Galadriel lives not too far from Moria.

In summation, scenarios (1) and (3) result in a complete Mordorian victory, (2) an incomplete one, and (4) absolute chaos. (4) may be the only conceivable situation where a (temporary) Gondor-Mordor Pact becomes non-ludicrous, depending on what the Balrog actually wants to do with Middle-earth. Sauron wants to enslave the world, not destroy it, but the Balrog might be more Morgothian there… in which case, yes, Sauron becomes the lesser evil. The actual mechanics of how such a War might play out are otherwise impossible to tell without knowing more about Balrog psychology – the extent to which it can be negotiated with, and how it would go about its conquest.

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Other Tolkienian alternate histories:

  • Part I – The Ringwraiths don’t run at Weathertop.
  • Part II – Galadriel acquires the Ring.
  • Part III – Fingolfin lives.

German Play Scene – 2018

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German Play all done for another year.

Features of fantasy that (in my opinion) need to die horribly – A Compendium

I have just noticed that while my fifteen part rebuttal of McGarry and Ravipinto has earned itself a special compendium to keep everything together, my very first blog series, Features of Fantasy that Need to Die Horribly, is not being kept together, despite it now being in seven parts (six from 2016, one from 2018). It is together, in the sense that all the parts are under the Cliche section, but as time has gone on, other posts have found their way into that section too.

So today, I figured I would rectify that, and give the series its own little compendium.

To be updated, of course, as future posts are added to the series.

Not a Reading Challenge: August (+ Writing Update)

Completed reads for August:

  • Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
  • Beren and Lúthien, by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Writing-wise, there has been another short story, Wednesday’s Cup Final. This one is YA-flavoured (which is deliberate), and features the Norse Gods trying to rig a football match. Yes, really.

But right now I am busy with German Play memorisation.

Tolkienian Speculative Guessing III: Time Flows Still at the Iron Hill

Having taken a look at what might have happened had the Ringwraiths acted rationally, and what might have happened had Galadriel claimed the Ring, today is another venture into the muddy waters of Tolkienian alternate history…

What would have happened if Fingolfin did not despair in the aftermath of the Dagor Bragollach?

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Recall that in The Silmarillion, the fourth of the great battles of Beleriand sees a crushing victory for Morgoth. Fingolfin, the High-King of the Noldor, loses his mind to despair, and rides to the gates of Angband to challenge the Dark Lord to a one-on-one duel. Morgoth wins, of course, but not until after Fingolfin wounds him seven times.

(For perspective, our Elven lord has just ridden to the gates of Hell itself, challenged the Devil to single combat, and given the Devil a lasting limp. The scene is that breathtaking).

But suppose Fingolfin does not throw it all away on suicide by Dark Lord. Suppose that the patient, determined Fingolfin who led his people across the Grinding Ice for twenty-seven years reasserts himself. That he decides to wait another day… what happens?

Well, the Doylist approach is that we are suddenly robbed of both Ted Nasmith’s visual depiction of the duel and Blind Guardian’s auditory version. And this lovely piece of Tolkienian prose:

“Therefore Morgoth came, climbing slowly from his subterranean throne, and the rumour of his feet was like thunder underground. And he issued forth clad in black armour; and he stood before the King like a tower, iron-crowned, and his vast shield, sable unblazoned, cast a shadow over him like a stormcloud. But Fingolfin gleamed beneath it as a star; for his mail was overlaid with silver, and his blue shield was set with crystals; and he drew his sword Ringil, that glittered like ice.”

Damn it, Fingolfin, why be cautious? So much art is hinging on you…

From a Watsonian angle, Fingolfin surviving might mean that much of what we think of as The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings never happens. And, for the purposes of Tolkienian alternate history, it is the in-universe Watsonian approach that is of interest. The problem is that it is much easier in this situation to say what doesn’t happen, rather than what does…

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Fingolfin surviving does not alter Beren and Lúthien, so Finrod Felagund still dies, and Thingol of Doriath still ends up with a silmaril. It is possible that Celegorm and Curufin are more hesitant with their designs on Lúthien with their uncle still alive, but I doubt it – Celegorm was thinking with his penis, rather than his brain, and, frankly, the political fall-out was disastrous enough as it was without needing Fingolfin to slap the Sons of Feanor down personally.

The first major point of difference is the Union of Maedhros and the Nirnaeth Arnoediad. While Maedhros may still instigate the grand alliance of Elves, Men, and Dwarves, it is much more likely to be named the Union of Fingolfin… which helps public relations no-end, because it lacks the toxic association with the Sons of Feanor. This means that Orodreth and Nargothrond are likely to send their full quota (Thingol and Doriath remain unlikely). Assuming similar tactics to the actual Nirnaeth, having Orodreth rather than Gwindor in charge of the (much larger) Nargothrond force means that the battle goes more smoothly for the Union, since Orodreth is not going to be provoked via Gelmir. It is also possible that Fingolfin might avoid Maedhros’ mistake of declaring himself too soon (a guess, rather than an assertion. Quite apart from the Union, Maedhros did err earlier in getting himself captured by Morgoth, so our red-haired Elf-lord is not the best at anticipating the Dark Lord’s responses).

So a larger Union force, with better tactics… this gives the Elves and allies a better chance of winning the battle. The objection is that Uldor will still betray everyone, and everyone always blames Uldor, but I would point out that Uldor is a mercenary bastard, and mercenaries know that a winning side pays better than a losing side, regardless of promises. So Uldor might even re-rat on Morgoth. Potentially. Alternate history is fuzzy, fictional or otherwise. I am going to stick my neck out and suggest that Fingolfin not dying turns the Nirnaeth into a victory (and, of course, it acquires a different name…). So the War of the Jewels returns to the pre-Bragollach status quo, with a couple of differences – the Elves are going to be far more cautious in how they go about a revived Siege of Angband, and the Anfauglith is still a desert.

A victorious Nirnaeth no longer requires the Men of Hithlum to fight a rear-guard battle to allow Turgon to escape. Húrin is not captured, and his family is spared Morgoth’s curse. It is still possible Túrin goes on to make poor life choices (for possible, read nigh-certain), but he remains in Hithlum, absent any curses, rather than going to Doriath. So Saeros lives. He never interacts with Petty-Dwarves. So Beleg lives. He never comes to Nargothrond. So Finduilas lives, and indeed marries Gwindor. Nargothrond itself survives. Túrin and his sister never encounter Glaurung, averting their incest and suicides. Meanwhile, Brodda, Aerin, Brandir, and Glaurung himself live.

Húrin never has to watch his family destroy itself. So he does not wander through Beleriand. He does not accidentally tip-off Morgoth as to the general location of Gondolin. He does not kill Mîm, and bring the Nauglamír to Doriath. Without the Nauglamír, Thingol never gets the idea of putting the silmaril as part of the Necklace, so never gets into a dispute with the Dwarves. So Thingol lives, Melian never abandons Menegroth, and Doriath is never left vulnerable to attack (the Sons of Feanor are not getting past the Girdle). Meanwhile, Húrin never throws himself into the Sea by way of final despair. In short, the tragedy of The Children of Húrin never happens, and Nargothrond and Doriath remain standing.

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And the third hidden Elven realm, Gondolin?

As mentioned, Húrin does not tip-off Morgoth, but one can go further. With Hithlum still under the rule of the House of Hador, Tuor remains there – and does not hear Ulmo’s message. So Tuor never comes to Gondolin, and never falls in love with Idril (Idril still rejects Maeglin, as before). With Morgoth’s forces cooped up in Angband, Maeglin does not get captured by Orcs. Between there being no Tuor in Gondolin and not getting tortured in Angband, Maeglin does not betray the city. So Gondolin survives too.

Meanwhile, no Tuor-Idril marriage means no Eärendil. Someone else is going to make that pilgrimage, if it happens (and, as we’ll see shortly, there might not be time). No Eärendil means no Elrond or Elros. So Rivendell never gets founded, and the line of Elros never gets going. So if Númenor happens, it’s a different royal family. No Elendil, no Isildur, and, eventually, no Aragorn. Fingolfin’s fateful bout of despair alters The Lord of the Rings out of all recognition, never mind The Silmarillion – assuming Thangorodrim gets broken at all.

So all this adds up to a status quo scenario with Nargothrond, Doriath, and Gondolin all continuing happily, and a large number of people living, or not being born, rather than dying. The Noldor once again lay siege to Angband, and Morgoth is unable to break out, again. Does Fingolfin not despairing therefore lead to an eternal stalemate?

Well, no. Something is going to break the stalemate.

And, if I were to hazard a guess, that something is going to be Ancalagon the Black and the winged dragons. With the eventual prospect of Ancalagon unleashed against Fingolfin’s Noldorin forces, rather than against the entire Host of the West, time is certainly on Morgoth’s side – as is the Doom of Mandos, of course. Meawhile, an Ancalagon loose over Beleriand endangers Gondolin, and potentially Doriath (depending on whether the Girdle of Melian extends upwards), though underground Nargothrond is as safe as anywhere. And, with the silmaril still stored safely in Menegroth, who would think to use it in a desperate voyage to Valinor? Never mind Eärendil, there might not even be time for a Voronwe.

The answer to the question of what happens if Fingolfin does not despair?

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Everyone, Fingolfin or otherwise, ends up as food for a gigantic flying lizard.

(Which as a concluding side-note, ties in perfectly with Tolkien’s themes. Fingolfin’s death and the Nirnaeth Arnoediad are simultaneously explorations of the grand futility of the Northern Theory of Courage, and an exploration of how evil’s victory is itself self-defeating. Based off the above, a Morgoth that loses the Nirnaeth would ironically be in a better position than one that wins it… and recall from the Music that the most triumphant notes of evil are turned to good. Clever guy, that Tolkien).

Cracking the Social Code: Class in Tolkien’s Shire

I thought I’d take a look at that infamously enduring social institution – class structure. But not real-world class structure – Tolkienian class structure, of the variety that George R.R. Martin thinks is somehow lacking in Middle-earth. Yes, today we are delving into the social code that Tolkien uses to describe The Shire, that strange little modern imprint on a world that is otherwise so resolutely pre-modern.

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That Tolkien’s Shire has a class system is obvious: everyone can spot the difference between Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee – the pair are close friends, but one is in a socially superior position. Ergo, Sam famously considers Frodo his “master” and tugs the proverbial forelock. But in considering The Shire as a whole, the class dynamics are more complex, to the point where Tolkien’s subtle social coding sometimes goes over the reader’s head. This goes double for readers who apply their own, localised, notions of class structure – English class structure (on which The Shire is based) is not purely a matter of wealth and income. Wealth and income play a role, but they are just components of a wider whole.

A true upper-class Englishman is part of a landowning family, and the family has a title to go with it. The old family home may be a bit shabby these days – maybe parts of it are starting to crumble, maybe Mad Uncle Cecil got a bit too heavily into horses, alcohol, and debt – but land, title, and genealogy carry the day. Another key factor is that the true upper class never care what others think of them. They can be eccentric as they like, and it won’t affect their social standing. Society is also very forgiving of their foibles, to the extent that a social faux pas (like, say, being a Roman Catholic in the nineteenth century) is something they can generally get away with. It might be hushed up, of course, not mentioned in polite company, but it will never destroy them, in a way it might destroy someone of the middle-class.

If you read the previous paragraph, and suddenly thought “hey, that sounds like the Tooks!”, you have been paying attention. The Tooks are Shire aristocracy in the most classical sense (Pippin even makes a passable stab at being the Bertie Wooster of Middle-earth). They have the title (the Thainship), the landed estates (Tookland), the ancestral family home (Great Smials), and a reputation for unbridled eccentricity, which everyone in The Shire has come to put up with… because they are Tooks. It’s what they are, while their enormous wealth is more-or-less treated as a social bonus. The Brandybucks are another good example. They too have title (Master of Buckland), lands (Buckland), ancestral family home (Brandy Hall), and a reputation for being a bit different, though in their case the reputation is tied up with a whiff of “being a bit foreign” – they’re from the other side of the river, don’t you know. Oh yes, and none of them work.

This brings us to one of the great misconceptions about The Shire’s class system – it even appears in the McGarry and Ravipinto article linked above. The Bagginses are not true upper class. Bilbo and Frodo are both upper-middle-class, on account of their Took and Brandybuck mothers (Bungo and Drogo Baggins definitely married up), and Bilbo’s wealth certainly does not hurt, but here the coding is very different. There is no title associated with being a Baggins – Bilbo is a mere “Bilbo Baggins, Esq,” in Thorin’s contract, a gentleman but not an aristocrat. Bag End is a comfortable property, but it lacks the scale or history of the Took or Brandybuck homes, and while it might possibly come with rental properties attached (Bagshot Row?), we are not talking landed estates. It is altogether more modest.

The clincher, however, is Tolkien’s use of “respectability” as a descriptor. Recall that the true upper-class never care what others think – they are above social embarrassment. Not so the middle-class, who must work night and day to preserve a particular social image, and so we find the Bagginses making boring predictability their defining character-trait. They are stalwartly unremarkable and normal, and Bilbo’s eccentricities hurt his reputation far more than one would normally expect (luckily for Bilbo, he doesn’t really care – our Mr Baggins is a class rebel). For another literary example of this respectability signifier, consider the Dursleys from Harry Potter. Their distaste for wizarding nonsense is not simply a comment on Vernon’s bigoted personality (though he is bigoted), but also a comment on the Dursleys’ social standing. Decent, middle-class people don’t go in for robes and wands!

Yet another distinction between upper and middle-class is ambition. A true aristocrat never obsesses about rising through the ranks, since one cannot rise when one is already at the top (Rowling accordingly errs by categorising Slytherins as both aristocratic and ambitious). A middle-class person, on the other hand, may desire social mobility, generally through substituting obscene amounts of money for titles and tradition.

(Working class social mobility is a bit distinct, and is something we shall discuss later).

Image result for social climbers wisteria

Tolkien plays middle-class social climbing in two ways. The first is for laughs. Bungo Baggins (Bilbo’s father) builds Bag End for his Took wife, but uses her money to pay for it. Drogo Baggins (Frodo’s father) hangs around his Brandybuck in-laws for the free food at dinner parties. Neither Bungo nor Drogo are presented as bad men, however: it is a gentle humour, making light of men marrying up, then taking advantage of the situation (Tolkienian men tend to marry up).

The second way is a darker case study: the Sackville-Bagginses. The Sackville-Bagginses are middle-class, of course (in the drafts, Otho is even explicitly a lawyer), but are incredibly pretentious – hence the hyphenated, Frenchified surname. Tolkien provides us with some interesting insight in a letter:

Customs differed in cases where the ‘head’ [of a family] died leaving no son. In the Took-family, since the headship was also connected with the title and (originally military) office of Thain, descent was strictly through the male line. In other great families the headship might pass through a daughter of the deceased to his eldest grandson (irrespective of the daughter’s age). This latter custom was usual in families of more recent origin, without ancient records or ancestral mansions. In such cases the heir (if he accepted the courtesy title) took the name of his mother’s family — though he often retained that of his father’s family (placed second). This was the case with Otho Sackville-Baggins. For the nominal headship of the Sackvilles had come to him through his mother Camellia. It was his rather absurd ambition to achieve the rare distinction of being ‘head’ of two families (he would probably then have called himself Baggins-Sackville-Baggins): a situation which will explain his exasperation with the adventures and disappearance of Bilbo, quite apart from any loss of property involved in the adoption of Frodo. 

Note the distinction between the ancient Tooks (old money), and the more recent Sackville-Bagginses (new money). Note also Otho’s ridiculous ambition, which speaks entirely to his frustrated middle-class status. He and Lobelia could quite easily fit into Keeping Up Appearances.

The nouveau riche aspect of the Sackville-Bagginses comes to full flower in Lotho. Inheriting a property base from his father, Lotho is a man with drive, who intends to supplant the traditional order with a new way of doing things. Money from commerce gets translated into power, via hired thugs, which enables a temporary usurpation of normality. Which means that the traditional order – the actual upper class of The Shire – is not happy:

You see, your dad, Mr. Peregrin, he’s never had no truck with this Lotho, not from the beginning: said that if anyone was going to play the chief at this time of day, it would be the right Thain of the Shire and no upstart.

In the end, the Tooks reassert themselves in what amounts to an inter-class collaborative revolution. Calling it an aristocratic restoration is to over-egg the pudding, however. It’s really a battle between hobbits of every social class and external usurpers. Lotho himself is long gone, destroyed by his own ambition.

So much for the middle-classes, who in contrast to the upper-class, do actually work from time to time (c.f. Grubb, Grubb, and Burrowes, the auctioneers from The Hobbit). What of the working class? The agricultural labourers, since The Shire has no urban society in any real sense?

Well, it rather goes without saying that Tolkien was rather fond of them. It’s the social class Samwise Gamgee comes from, after all, and the Cotton family play a key role in the Scouring. Salt-of-the-earth types, certainly, with hearts firmly in the right place, some adorable foibles, and perhaps a forgivable whiff of self-satisfaction when they sit down to a well-earned beer at the Ivy Bush.

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That well-earned self-satisfaction is a rather more than a joke, however. One key aspect of working class culture is regarding “good honest toil” as the bedrock of personal identity – sticking with one’s mates, getting the (physical) job done, and not shirking. It is a very collectivist mindset, with a flipside being a distaste for anyone having ideas beyond one’s station. Heaven help you if you come across as thinking you are better than someone else (and lest anyone think I am slandering here, I have working class family. I have seen this in action).

This sounds counter-intuitive – the middle-class dream of upward social mobility (the Sackville-Bagginses want to become upper class), so why wouldn’t the working class want to become middle-class? Simple: aspiring to move into a higher class is so associated with being middle-class that rejecting the premise is (or at least was) itself part of working class identity – there’s no room for bourgeois decadence or affectation in a community where, as mentioned, one’s worth is measured by one’s plain honesty and commitment to thankless toil. Ted Sandyman is Tolkien’s case-study here – a working class hobbit with aspirations beyond his station, who accordingly falls in with another social climber (Lotho) and ends up on the wrong team when Sharkey turns up. Ted wants to be something he’s not, just as Lotho wants to be something he’s not.

But wait… if the working class identity involves rejection of upward social mobility, how does one explain Samwise Gamgee’s rise to prominence? Sam becomes master of Bag End, and then subsequently Mayor – with no negative social repercussions. Well, yes. But one has to contrast Sam with his dark counterpart, Ted. Ted has aspirations and ideas, whereas Sam remains very much grounded. Sam has upwards social mobility thrust on him via the generosity and friendship of Bilbo and Frodo, rather than any innate desire to climb the social ladder, and when he does climb the social ladder, he gets away with it because (unlike Ted) he is so resolutely humble. Sam doesn’t marry upwards (he marries into working-class Cottons), and never picks up airs. That said, the Gaffer tells Sam in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t “hold with ironmongery whether it wears well or no.” Tolkien plays the scene for laughs – contrasting the epic adventure that has earned Sam this “ironmongery” with hobbit mundanity, but when considering the social code of The Shire, this is actually working class identity seeping through into the text. The Gaffer is rock-solid working class – from his viewpoint, this strange affectation Sam wears is to be distrusted.

Unfortunately, this notion of not having ideas beyond one’s station is pretty much the only way Tolkien engages with the working class in his portrayal of The Shire. Because there is a further flipside to the importance of “good honest toil”… working class respectability. Quite apart from affectations being out of place, shirking, or unseemly behaviour is also frowned upon – it is what distinguishes the respectable working class from the non-respectable working class, and as Terry Pratchett notes, when one is at the bottom of the social ladder, the space between the ladder’s rungs gets very significant. Tolkien only ever provides us with respectable working class hobbits (Gamgees, Cottons) – even the Sandymans (Sandymen?) fall into this category, since their fault is “big heads”, not laziness. We certainly never see hobbit beggars.

In terms of the text’s lack of engagement with working class respectability, while it may draw accusations that The Shire is excessively idealised, I think Tolkien can be defended on two grounds. Firstly, having a criminal underclass would not have improved the book – though the middle-class Lobelia actually does regard the Gamgees as potential midnight burglars, which just shows she does not understand how the working class operates. Secondly, Tolkien plays the class structure for gentle laughs. For all the darkness of the Sackville-Bagginses and Ted Sandyman, they are still creatures to be laughed at. Subtle jabs at a criminal underclass are a different matter.

***

That concludes our look at The Shire’s class structure, and Tolkien’s engagement with social coding – the eccentricities of the Tooks and Brandybucks, the respectability of the Bagginses, the social climbing of the Sackville-Bagginses, and the salt-of-the-earth nature of the Gamgees, all of which have a particular reference to British cultural norms. There is much to unpack here, all the more so since, of course, the story spends most of its time outside The Shire. Far from neglecting class, Tolkien provides us with an elaborate (for a fantasy novel) referencing of the subject – not so much a critique, but at least a commentary.

 

2018 German Play

As in 2016 and 2017, I am involved in the 2018 German Language Play for the University of Otago. This year, it is a stage adaptation of the YA/Fairy Tale novel, Krabat, by Otfried Preußler.

Krabat Poster

I am playing Hanzo, one of the miller boys.