Alex and Travis Talk Tolkien – The Sequel (Part Two): The Appeal of the Medieval

Being the third part of a conversation that started months ago. The original, wherein we talk about The Hobbit can be found here and the first half of our Fellowship talk can be seen here.

Alex’s Response:

Heh. I can’t lie, most of the reason I roped you into this conversation was because I knew you would be spitting mad about my reaction in some way. To keep my response short: I get why the appeal of Tolkien is in the scope, why the characterization is archaic, and I did read it with an open mind. Like I said, I did enjoy Fellowship quite a bit. Just not without reservations.

But I do think the pleasures of Fellowship outweigh the reservations. Like I mentioned in the first half of this piece, one thing I particularly enjoyed were the touches of the medieval. Chris and Andrew had a pretty great discussion about this when they wrote about Hild last month, but the Medieval period we see in pop culture is very rarely anything but a mess in terms of accuracy and spirit. I won’t dive too deep into complaining about it, suffice to say reading history books about the actual events of that period in European history has been really eye-opening over the past few years.

Raedwald was a guy who knew how to party.

Perhaps even more illuminating, actually, has been reading some of the great fiction of the middle ages. In the past two years or so I’ve read Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, The Poetic Edda, and several Icelandic Sagas. Uniting all of those works, but most notably Beowulf and the sagas, is this sense of lurking mystery to the world. In the era after Roman organization and learning collapsed a lot of certainties suddenly disappeared. Most Europeans, of course, never went more than 20 miles from home in their lives in this age, so what’s it to the common folk of England, I guess. But even the elites who did the writing have a markedly larger amount of known unknowns than their ancestors. It’s quite easy to read Beowulf and understand why the ancient Anglo-Saxons would endlessly repeat a tale about a king who could valiantly fight (and even kill) monsters and dragons. Those were not creatures of fantasy in 845 C.E., but physical representations of threats like warfare, famine, plague, and even mundanely creepy things like mist over marshes (which…I get it. That shit’s mysterious and disastrous then as now.) All of this inspires one of my favorite lines in all of literature, when Beowulf fights the dragon that is his doom:

“His fate hovered near, unknowable but certain.”

That, to me, is the Medieval mindset in one line of alliterative verse. It can be pulled apart a million ways, but still comes back to the eternally vexing tension of knowing that your die is cast (i.e., we will all succumb to death eventually), but not knowing how, when, where, or even why. Life is always mysterious, but in a world filled to the very brim with uncertainties, the only real firmness is found in the eternal uncertainty of death.

What I assume the Barrow Downs look like.

Which is a long way to say that I loved it when the hobbits didn’t know what the fuck was going on. When Frodo and company only know the true power and portents of the Ring in vague terms I thought Fellowship was at its finest. Their journey to Rivendell is one that drinks deeply from that Medieval uncertainty. For example, their walk across The Shire being plagued by black riders who seem mortally threatening for reasons they cannot quite articulate was spectacular in its slow build of uneasiness. Sure, Tolkien sort of let himself go with Tom Bombadil’s exploits in subsequent chapters, but that low level of dread from the riders’ sniffing was enough to keep me going. But then the creeping horror of the Barrow-wights, the lonely and somewhat treacherous outpost of civilization that was Bree, and the empty lands full of wilderness and ruins stretching away to the east were all excellent. It was a journey without a certain destination and overarching mythos. By contrast, the Council of Elrond stalled my reading completely (I read literally all of Lonesome Dove in a break from that chapter) and the subsequent journeys through Moria and Lorien and the Riverlands didn’t recapture that same mystique.

Stupid larger mythology butting its head in.

Obviously, I want your larger thoughts on what I said here and maybe some words before I launch into Two Towers sometime later this month, but I wanted to close with a question for you. From your wider reading of Tolkien, does his other Middle-Earth writing capture that feeling I liked so much in Book One of Fellowship?

Travis’s Response

*drinks more*
Well, we’ll have to disagree about the Council of Elrond. As a history nerd, that chapter is full of deep insight into the world at large, glimpses of what the hell is actually going on in the world around them. There’s a brief insight into exactly how old Elrond is when they discuss his being present at not only the Last Alliance, which overthrew Sauron at the close of the Second Age, but that he remembers the banners flying at the breaking of Thangorodrim, which effectively culminated in the fall of the reign of the Elves as masters of Middle-Earth and brought an end to the First Age. Remember, The Silmarillion didn’t exist at this time, and so flashes into how deep and elegant a world Middle-Earth actually is are few and far between.
I’m also puzzled as to how you didn’t receive the same creeping feeling of dread as the Fellowship quietly paced through Moria, which is overrun with orcs and a rather pesky Balrog that has all but shut down commerce in one of the major trading centers of Middle-Earth, to say nothing of bringing ruin to the Dwarf Kingdom of Durin. However, I will agree that the suspense of Book One is unparalleled in the series, as there’s more to seeing the glimpses of the past looming as the Ringwraiths threaten the Fellowship than hearing about how royally boned the free people of the world are by Sauron’s eminent return. That’s one of the times where I feel that Tolkien’s writing for a brief moment becomes greater than his skills as a world-builder.
As far as that feelings stretching into his other works, I feel that The Silmarillion has moments where it rivals such suspense, though it reads as far more of an epic poem than does Fellowship. In particular, what works for Tolkien’s history of the First Age is the fact that anyone who’s reading it most likely has an understanding of what goes down in Lord of the Rings, and its play as a tragedy (we know that most of these Elvish princes are doomed, they know it, yet they continue to fight Morgoth) loads it with a certain sense of fatalism that stirs the blood; I challenge you to read about Fingolfin’s solo assault on Morgoth and not be thrilled.

Alex would like to bet all his money on the tall one

Elsewhere, we see less of Tolkien as an author and more of Tolkien as a lore-master and singer of epic stories from the past. Considering that only LOTR and The Hobbit were published during his lifetime, there wasn’t much of a chance for him to explore the narrative of Middle-Earth. Most of what we have are leftover writings, unfinished tales (literally the title of one of his books), and aborted drafts collected and assembled into working order by his son, Christopher Tolkien, who resembles Plato in the way he idolizes his father and uses him to make greater points about the sprawling world of Middle-Earth. (However, CT remains completely absent from the world as an original voice; everything he does is meant to bring his father’s work to life and nothing else. I’d be very intrigued to see exactly what Christopher Tolkien could contribute under his own powers and merits, rather than another assembled copy of one of his father’s translations of Old English verse.)
I think for next time, I’ll lead off with a conversation about The Two Towers, probably my favorite part of the whole of the series. Next time, I’ll pose questions for you and we’ll see what happens. Until then, happy reading!

Alex Bean

A life-long Midwesterner, currently living and working in Chicago. Primarily writes here about television and film (which is what he accrued crushing debt to study in school), but will write about books, sports, video games, or whatever else strikes his fancy. He's the one who thinks baseball is really boring.

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