Michael Tolkien

     APPENDIX 4.  Moral and Political visions and duties


(Note that some of this material was incorporated in the main text of the second, more developed lecture on Fantasy)


    T's fantasies have been variously charged with lack of political meaning or commitment, not confronting the urgent issues of power/government that this century has faced. One instance is Auden's implicit reservation about the capacity of Quest to do this in his citation of Auerbach's 'Mimesis'. Knightly adventure consists of 'exploits...accomplished at random which do not fit into any politically purposive pattern...'( L pp 238-9) But T. pointed out that Frodo's duty was in any case 'humane' and not political ( L pp240-1), to save an entire civilisation from an evil tyranny, not merely to subvert a faction. This becomes all the more clear to him and to us as he travels more widely in the world: one of the reasons for the quest structure where adventure is indistinguishable from the acquisition of insight and wisdom. In another letter of 1956 T. stresses that Frodo is in what he calls a 'sacrificial' position,' in which the good of the world depends on the behaviour of an individual in circumstances which demand of him suffering and endurance beyond the normal...He is in a sense doomed to failure, doomed to fall to temptation or be broken by pressure against his 'will': that is against any choice he could...or would make unfettered, not under the duress...'(L p.233) Furthermore, T. felt there was an irony in that while he was conceiving of the plot of L/R he did not 'forsee that...we should enter a dark age in which the technique of torture and disruption of personality would rival that of Mordor and the Ring and present us with the practical problems of honest men of good will broken down into apostates and traitors.'(L p.234)

    A moral purpose is sensed by Sam when he is faced with taking over the mission after Frodo's supposed death from the onslaught of Shelob. Sensing the proportions of his master's task he is reluctant to put himself forward, and yet ' if...Mr Frodo's found and that Thing's on him...the Enemy will get it. And that's the end of all of us, of Lórien and Rivendell, and the Shire and all, and there's not time to lose or it'll be the end anyway...more than likely things are all going the Enemy's way already...'(T/T pp759 ff) This is in fact a poorly articulated realisation that no one was the 'proper' person. None of the fellowship was. ' They did not choose themselves'.

    But there is an historical force at work ( one combining ancestral, dynastic, territorial, cultural complexities) however laudable e-political or disinterested certain individual motives may be. This is highlighted by a figure like Denethor (See esp.RK pp 783 ff). Thorin's vision is equally distorted by his narrow political obsessions after the discovery of the treasure under The Mountain.( . pp 248-51) Bilbo, too, though more venally motivated, anticipates Frodo's agonised choice between two conflicting demands: personal loyalties and insights and the general good of a cause. Denethor's determination to preserve the realm of Gondor at all costs corrupts his capacity for wider vision. The massed forces of Mordor are to him a rival political force.(L p.241 §2) But in the history of Middle Earth this polarised attitude is already established as a tragically insidious defect in the terrible wars of the Elven Lords in The Silmarillion. In particular in Fëanor's attack on the Teleri ( S pp 101-2 ) and the desertion of his kin in the sea passage to Arda (S p.105) Similarly fatal are the attitudes of Thingol of Doriath when beleaguered by evil (S.p199) And the political paranoia of Ar Pharazôn of Númenor, egged on by Sauron, threatens to bring about the downfall of an entire civilisation. (S pp 324 ff.)

     T. reminds us in his proposed letter to Auden (L pp 241-2) that the Beowulf poet used but went beyond the political rivalries of ancient Scandinavian peoples and created a heroism against dark and perplexing forces of monstrous proportions which were challenging the entire balance and structure of human life, putting minor feuds into perspective. T's fantasy shares this 'humane', enlightened visionary quality. In the very genesis of his world, the creation myth in The Silmarillion, there is a malicious shadow, fuelled by pride and greed, that darkens Valinor, the dwelling of the creative powers, and it is constantly reemerging in different forms to menace, ensnare and infiltrate the endeavours of Elves and Mankind.


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