Thursday, January 09, 2020


National Review has a reminder from Prof. Joseph Loconte about an episode early in WWII, shortly after the publication of The HobbitTolkien spoke about dragons to an audience including children on the first day of 1938. He was in favor of teaching children about monsters, reasoning that they already had some idea of them and were afraid.  The stories tell the other side, of heroes and of victories over monsters.

The relative lightness in tone of The Hobbit, compared to the deeper and wider dangers of The Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien began soon after,  used to suggest to critics that LOTR was "about" WWII.  That was easily enough shown to be false, given Tolkien's many other comments on the matter and the gradual revelation that the core story was begun during WWI.  Yet it has never seemed much of a stretch that the tone of the latter work was influenced by the dark days England was going through at the time. Loconte brings out a quote I had not seen before, also from 1938 of Tolkien writing to his publisher about a possible "New Hobbit:" Tolkien confessed to his publisher that his new story was no bed-time fable: “The darkness of the present days has had some effect on it.”


Grim said...

To Tolkien’s point that fighting dragons is work for a hero alone — a friend might help, but not too much — it is Wiglaf who helps Beowulf beat the dragon, but it’s Gollum who helps Frodo defeat the Dark Lord. Saint George and Lancelot beat their dragons alone. Sigurd does, through trickery. Bard the Bowman does, with the help of a thrush and Bilbo.

But Bilbo’s dragon is a little different than the others. Smaug was a kind of force for stability. It’s when he dies that everyone comes running to war, and all these men and elves and dwarves die in the Battle of Five Armies (as well as many goblins). That’s something Tolkien already isn’t thinking about anymore by the time of LotR. Evil grows, menaces; it does not provide stability through power. And whereas Smaug’s death and the horrid loss of life that followed it produced a new flourishing, LotR is much more sad and sober about the costs even of victory.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

My first car, a VW Hatchback, was named Wiglaf.

I had never thought about that idea that Smaug was a force of stability. In the structure of the two works, Smaug and Sauron represent similar figures, yet I had never figured out that reversal you mention. Good stuff. Tolkien does barely mention it in LOTR, though in a real history it would have been very big in everyone's mind still. It's mostly Frodo and the other hobbits who reference those events, such as Pippin when he thinks he is going down in the last battle.

And the bit about fighting alone or with a friend, Tolkien does walk both sides of that. Bilbo is alone, but Frodo has Sam, who was absolutely necessary. The idea of the sidekick is almost automatic in modern heroic storytelling - often an earthy or primitive person who is shrewdly wiser than the educated folks surrounding him, such as Jim in Huckleberry Finn or Tonto to the Lone Ranger. I will have to think about where that comes from, and if it is common in older literatures. Feel free to point out any that occur to you. I may make this a separate post.

Grim said...

I suspect that when you start with "sidekick," people will immediately think of Sancho Panza as the core example. Yet Panza -- more comic, less wise although his transformation over the story extracts the wisdom inherent in Quixote's foolishness -- was already prefigured in late Medieval literature. Malory's Le Morte Darthur has Sir Dinadan, who accompanies Sir Tristram through many adventures (most of which are omitted from most contemporary redactions of Malory, as modern readers tend to want to follow the 'big story' of Camelot's rise and fall rather than the innumerable adventures and jousts and tournaments that interested the Medieval readers). Dinadan is frequently not amused with Tristram's dragging them into apparently hopeless combats in order to satisfy the demands of chivalry, but he becomes attached to Tristram over time in a similar way.

What you're looking for in terms of the 'wiser than the educated folk' is probably prefigured there, as these kinds of characters are neither the high folk of their stories (not Arthur or Lancelot, say), nor the low folk of the stories either. They stand in between the low folk and the hero, not in between the high folk and the hero; the hero is on his way to being one of the high folk (as Gandalf ends up telling the hobbits they have become, when he sends them to handle the Scouring of the Shire while he retires to talk with Tom Bombadil).

I think Jim and Tonto aren't the same kind of figure as Sam. Sam absorbs a quality from another kind of sidekick figure, which is the Merlin-type figure. Arthur doesn't have a sidekick like Dinadan, he has Merlin. Merlin is the one with the sacred vision, on whom Arthur can rely (until Merlin disappears). Sam is sensitive to the wisdom of the great, of Gandalf and Galadriel, and he's able to convey what he absorbs from them in the dark travels through Mordor. Even from Bilbo he had already absorbed some elvish. He's a sponge who, like a sponge, is by his own nature prepared to absorb and carry a quality (wetness, in the analog) that must be gotten elsewhere. In that way he is like Panza and Dinadan, who are transformed by their association with greatness (even if that greatness is a little mad).

Jim and Tonto have their special wisdom from their own essential nature. Jim's suffering as a slave brings it forth in him; Tonto has it from his connection to nature as a figure of primitive man. It's a common criticism that this kind of essentialism is insulting to African/Native Americans, and perhaps it is. Sam has an essence, too, though; it's just not the same essence. He was never going to come up with elvish or the wisdom of Galadriel out of himself, but he is fitted by his nature to be extraordinarily sensitive to and retentive of it.

Grim said...

In American literature, from which Tonto and Jim are drawn, Chingachgook Quequeg.