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I've been thinking about Tolkien lately, in large part due to kate_nepveu's chapter by chapter reread of LoTR that she's blogging about on tor.com. And thus, while reading John Buchan on Sir Walter Scott's novels, I was struck by this:
I am willing to go farther and argue that, without some such salt of the pedestrian, romance becomes only a fairy tale and tragedy a high-heeled strutting. The kernel of romance is contrast, beauty and valour flowering in unlikely places, the heavenly rubbing shoulders with the earthly. The true romantic is not the Byronic hero; he is the British soldier whose idea of a beau geste is to dribble a football into the enemy's trenches; he is some such type as the Georgian sea-captains who wore woollen underclothing, and loved food and wine and the solid comforts of the hearth when they were not about their business of fighting; or some warrior like old Sir Andrew Agnew at the battle of Dettingen, who thus exhorted his regiment: 'My lads, ye see these loons on yon hill there; weel, if ye dinna kill them, they'll kill you.' All romance, all tragedy, must be within haling distance of our humdrum lives, and anti-climax is the necessary adjunct to climax.
(From: Some Notes on Sir Walter Scott, The English Association Pamphlet No. 58, March 1924.)

I can say nothing about how this applies to Scott, and I don't share Buchan's dismissive view of fairy tales, but it nonetheless struck me that this is something I now love in Tolkien that, when I was a teenager, put me right off of his novels. I couldn't figure out how to understand that mix of the mundane and the exalted; how could a book have both elves and Gaffer Gamgee? My ideal fantasy novels in adolescence were Guy Kay's Fionavar, in which (as I recall from quite a distance now) everything happens at a fever pitch all the time and there's absolutely nothing ordinary about anyone or anything. It's my impression that most modern Tolkien-imitating fantasy fails to imitate that part of it. And from there I was reminded of Pebbles on the Shore a 1916 book of essays by Alfred George Gardiner (writing with the lyrical pseudonym Alpha of the Plough) that I read a few years back. In response to someone claiming that the prime minister isn't taking war seriously, Gardiner writes:

But all the same, so far from being shocked to learn that Mr. Asquith can talk about poetry in these days, the fact, if it be a fact, increases my confidence in his competence for his task. I should suffer no pain even if I heard that he took a hand of cards after dinner, and I hope he takes care to get a game of golf at the week-end. I like men who have great responsibilities to carry their burdens easily, and to relax the bow as often as possible. [...] There is nothing more mistaken than the view that because a thing is serious you must be thinking about it seriously all the time.
Which when I first read it put into sharp focus for me a lot of the humour in LotR, as well as the moments in which some of the characters (in my memory it's most often Sam & Frodo) have a chance to slacken their metaphorical bows, drink deep of pure water, and refresh themselves in body and spirit before returning to their task. My adolescent self did feel like serious things must be taken seriously All The Time. Now, in my early 30s, I am glad for moments of respite, however brief they might be.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 29th, 2009 01:25 am (UTC)
The Buchan quotation helps me grok Witch Wood and Greenmantle a bit more clearly. Do you have title/year handy, by any chance?
Jan. 29th, 2009 04:09 am (UTC)
I haven't read any of John Buchan's books yet, although I spent last summer reading everything by Anna Buchan (who wrote as O Douglas) that I could get my hands on.

I'll have to keep this in mind when I get to those two novels.
Jan. 29th, 2009 11:27 am (UTC)
Thanks for that. I love the way writers link back to one another through the years. I loved Buchan in my teens and I'm feeling the urge to re-read coming on. I didn't read much Sir Walter Scott (mostly his poetry), but I did like Ivanhoe. It would be interesting to see whether that would stand a re-read.

You are right though. I think I appreciate the mundane bits of Tolkien more now in middle age than I did when I first read it in my teens and wanted just the High Drama and Magic.
Jan. 29th, 2009 10:50 pm (UTC)
That is really interesting, and for me is tying into my vague reading query, "Where are the peasants in fantasy?" That's part of the practical side of things not being in a fever pitch all the time: the infrastructure that allows the nobles to go about all their questing and scheming, and meanwhile keeps everyone fed and clothed.

I found one of the most striking things about the LotR movies- which I loved- was a long shot of Minas Tirith, that showed... NO fields of foodstuffs around the city. None. And that was enough of a cognitive dissonance that i went "Huh?" and started wondering how they fed everyone. I mean- the novels didn't mention it much, except with the hobbits- but I'd just assumed that OF COURSE a big city would be surrounded by agriculture!

So now I'm looking for peasants in my fantasy. And it's not an easy search!

I'll admit I have a bit of a bias toward peasant rebellions... but a notable peasant presence will do.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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