Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part IV

I have devoted some 3000+ words to discussing McGarry and Ravipinto’s introductory quote – a quote that isn’t actually from them (even if the article cites it with approval). It’s probably about time I start dealing with what the authors themselves have to say.

Fantasy fiction is based on an assumption that the old ways are inherently good, and that the power structures that are to be protected or restored are ultimately best for all people. Many seminal works of fantasy are suffused with a romantic vision of earlier ages, a melancholy longing for better days, and the certain knowledge that the current generation is but a pale shadow of greater forefathers. Those that came before simply knew better, and the restoration of their ways is something to be celebrated. The future will be at its best when it is most like the past. As Stross notes, such works are indeed frequently consolatory—they encourage the comforting embrace of tradition and the preservation of the known.

Never mind the sudden conflation of the high fantasy sub-genre with the wider term “fantasy fiction” (which presumably includes McGarry and Ravipinto’s own work!) – note the tricksy use of “consolatory”. As I said earlier, the word in the context of Tolkienian fantasy doesn’t mean what the article thinks it means. But McGarry and Ravinpinto have served up some fighting words with the cited paragraph, so I feel obliged to get on my high horse…

Let’s start with The Hobbit (again, I know The Lord of the Rings is the true target, but if we’re getting general with the genre, I think it is only fair to get general with Tolkien). On the surface, the restoration of the Dwarven Kingdom Under the Mountain and the Downfall of Smaug the Usurper would fit this analytical narrative perfectly. On the surface. For once you start digging, strange things start turning up.


Recall the title of the book? It’s The Hobbit – the central character is Bilbo Baggins, not Thorin Oakenshield. The book, at its heart, is an often whimsical look at what happens if you strip away the solid middle-class exterior of our protagonist and place him in a setting rooted in Northern myth and legend – if not a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, then at least a Victorian Gentleman in Hrothgar’s Mead Hall. It’s a study in character development, where Bilbo’s ossified talents for resourcefulness start to awaken – an indictment, if you will, on the conservative dullness of The Shire. Alternatively, Bilbo also does not simply embrace the old warrior ways of those around him – apart from some giant spiders, he does not actually kill anything the entire book, and his very modern “why can’t everyone just get along” mantra is actually the means by which the dispute over the Hoard is settled. It takes our humble and decent protagonist to point out that Thorin simply can’t re-establish the Dwarven Kingdom (complete with Hoard) as it was the day Smaug came – reality is more complicated, and screaming “I am the rightful King, so you must obey!” makes few friends.

Indeed, what you see in The Hobbit is our protagonist ultimately rejecting two forms of conservatism – the smug, middle-class flavour he grew up with, and the haughty, war-like aristocratic flavour he encounters with Thorin (and Smaug, actually – if you look at the language the dragon uses, Smaug might as well be wearing a monocle). Bilbo strikes his own path, using his own brains and own unique sensibilities, whereas Thorin is so caught up in the old ways – complete with greed and violence – that it turns him into a monster. Bilbo’s rejection of mad Thorin is one of the finest moments in the book, as our Dwarf eventually realises – and note that in the end neither Thorin nor even his heirs Fíli and Kíli get to actually inherit Erebor; after all that has happened, it actually goes to another branch of the family – Dáin – whom Bilbo has barely met.

At the risk of invoking a story that was not even a gleam in Tolkien’s eye at the time he wrote The Hobbit, I feel the need to mention a couple of other Dwarven examples here, where Tolkien engages with similar themes. In The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, we encounter the vicious War of the Dwarves and the Orcs – sparked by Azog’s murder of Thorin’s grandfather. Note that the motive of revenge very definitely fits into the “old ways” motif – slaughtering those who murdered your kinsman is about as Northern as mead. But it doesn’t do anyone any good – all that happens is a set of events and memories where “Orcs still shudder and Dwarves weep,” and the final battle of the war, that of Azanulbizar, throws up a truly fascinating exchange:

None the less in the morning Thráin stood before them. He had one eye blinded beyond cure, and he was halt with a leg-wound; but he said ‘Good! We have the victory. Khazad-dûm is ours!’

But they answered: ‘Durin’s Heir you may be, but even with one eye you should see clearer. We fought this war for vengeance, and vengeance we have taken. But it is not sweet. If this is victory, then our hands are too small to hold it.’

And those who were not of Durin’s Folk said also: Khazad-dûm was not our Fathers’ house. What is it to us, unless a hope of treasure? But now, if we must go without rewards and the weregilds that are owed to us, the sooner we return to our own lands the better pleased we shall be.’

Then Thráin turned to Dáin, and said: ‘But surely my own kin will not desert me?’ ‘No,’ said Dáin. ‘You are the father of our Folk and we have bled for you, and will again. But we will not enter Khazad-dûm. You will not enter Khazad-dûm. Only I have looked through the shadow of the Gate. Beyond the shadow it waits for you still: Durin’s Bane. The world must change and some other power than ours must come before Durin’s Folk walk again in Moria.’

Like son, like father: just as Thorin cannot accept that the world has moved on, neither can Thráin. Indeed, what ultimately does Thráin in is that he too has ideas on Erebor, but unlike Thorin, he doesn’t have the advantage of having a sensible modern hobbit along for the journey – so he ends up tortured and mad in the pits of Dol Guldur. By contrast, the Dwarf who does not give into easy illusions of restoring the glories of a lost age – Dáin – is the one who actually ends up ruling a kingdom. Dáin’s grim sense of realism is reinforced by his bitter choice of words – he refers to the once great Khazad-dûm as Moria. Which, as you may recall, means the Black Pit – a graphic description of what the lost homeland has become.

Then there is the failure of Balin’s later expedition: a project presented as noble and well-meaning, but ultimately futile, because sometimes you really can’t turn back the clock, however much you may dream of it. When the Dwarves (finally) learn from their mistakes, it speaks volumes that their post-war settlement project is not yet another attempt at reviving Khazad-dûm, but rather something entirely new in the form of Gimli’s Glittering Caves. We never do find out if Khazad-dûm is re-settled, and that might be for the best.

In considering The Hobbit and assorted Dwarven incidents, we may discern a pattern rather at odds with McGarry and Ravipinto’s analysis above. However much we may long for the good old days, nostalgic conservatism is actually presented in Tolkien as at best tragic and at worst dangerous – something that will become even more clear in the next instalment of this series.

Essay continued.   


One thought on “Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part IV

  1. Pingback: Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Compendium | A Phuulish Fellow

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