Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky. (slithytove) wrote,
Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky.

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Thoughts while showering: II

SO as I was saying, I've explored some abandoned industrial sites a little, and not found them as interesting as I expected. Which itself surprised me. And it reminded me, for some reason, of Tolkien's description of Gollum. Gollum, you will recall, was a hobbit, "the most inquisitive and curious-minded," who found the One Ring, murdered his brother, was expelled from his tribe, and ultimately wound up living in pools of cold water under a mountain:

But as he lowered his eyes, he saw far ahead the tops of the Misty Mountains, out of which the stream came. And he thought suddenly: "It would be cool and shady under those mountains. The Sun could not watch me there. The roots of those mountains must be roots indeed; there must be great secrets buried there which have not been discovered since the beginning."
. . .
All the "great secrets" under the mountains had turned out to be just empty night: there was nothing more to find out, nothing worth doing, only nasty furtive eating and resentful remembering. He was altogether wretched.

It seems plausible that this is Tolkien's criticism of science, which certainly does look at the 'roots' of things, and tries to find out hidden secrets. Gollum is engaging in normal scientific curiosity and exploration. But he's depicted as a mad scientist, and murderer. Other stuff in LotR also hints that Tolkien did not understand, or think well of, the methods of science. For example, this famous exchange between Gandalf the Gray, the good wizard, and Saruman, the fallen/bad wizard, who was originally known as 'Saruman the White':

        "For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!”
        I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.
        “I liked white better,” I said.
        “White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”
        “In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

That last statement has bothered me ever since I encountered it: that breaking something to understand it is wrong. It just sounds so right, so natural, so true, so compelling. And it isn't. It's complete nonsense. Science is all about breaking things into smaller pieces in order to understand them. Reductionism is a major tool of science, and it works.

It's peculiar that I like LotR. I'm pretty much the post-Enlightenment secular rationalist, and very comfortable with the idea that modernity is a good thing, science is a good thing, progress is a good thing. Tolkien, as reene points out here, is against these things, and his imagined world is very much an atavistic world of stasis, or rather, slow decay. There aren't any scientists in LotR. Knowledge is received from—well, probably originally from Iluvatar, Tolkien's conception of God, but it certainly isn't discovered by human or elven effort. Though the many millennia of Tolkien's imagined Middle Earth, there is never anything new under the sun. The elves journey to the West, acquire knowledge from the Valar, pass it on to humans, and that's it. Humans sometimes retain it, and sometimes lose it, but never acquire any more of it, never become better than they were. In Tolkien's world, seeking after new knowledge seems always to be evil. He has no complaint with seeking practical knowledge, for example Gandalf's lengthy detective and spy work that uncovers the fact the Sauron, thought banished, has reappeared in Middle Earth. However, any attempt to better the human, or hobbit condition seems to meet with disaster, and there is at many points during LotR the clear implication that that things were always better in the past: people were better, wiser, stronger, and longer lived; even architecture was better. For example when the party arrives at Minas Tirith, Gimli remarks that there is good stonework in the city, and less good work, and that the latter is more modern.

The world of LotR is a world of slow decay, and it is clear that the victory won by the hobbits and humans at the end is temporary, and the heroic days of the the world are drawing to a close. It is not dark in the usual sense, though, and certainly not noirish. Tolkien seems to believe that heroism and personal happiness are possible, which noir fiction usually denies, but asserts that the world as a whole cannot be made better, nor its decline halted, except temporarily.

And that's what passed through my mind in the shower. Thanks to Reene for that link to the Salon article in her entry. I hadn't seen it, and it was the first negative analysis of Tolkien that I've read that I found convincing. I still love Tolkien, a lot, despite the fact that his world view and mine are 180 degrees apart.

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