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Tolkien’s Imaginary Nature – Some Thoughts

december 28, 2009

I just finished reading an article by Michael J. Brisbois (”Tolkien’s Imaginary Nature: An Analysis of the Structure of Middle-earth”, Tolkien Studies, vol. 2:1 2005, pp. 197-216) and found it just as though-provoking as the titled suggested it would be. But not all thoughts are good thoughts, of course, and while I found myself nodding in agreement much of the time or even making notes of some rather fascinating passages and ideas, I also disagreed with a number of points and found some fairly annoying errors.

Brisbois’s analysis is structural, something which is obvious even if the title were to be less straightforward. The structure he examines is that of Middle-earth’s nature, which he divides into a basic binary opposition of Passive and Active. These concepts are then subdivided into Essential and Ambient, and Independent and Wrathful, respectively. Passive nature includes ”realist elements” (Essential) as well as ”moral symbolism” (Ambient), while Active nature is more fantastic, with some level of what Brisbois calls ”a level of intelligence, if not outright sentience” but which I would prefer to discuss in terms of volition. Examples include Tom Bombadil and the Great Eagles (Independent) as well as the Balrog and the Ents (Wrathful).

Two problems seem to crop up with this suggested structure. First, it does not seem to be relevant to see it in terms of binary oppositions. I know that Active/Passive is a typical pair, but the subdivisions are not, nor is it quite clear whether Brisbois even mean them to be. Sometimes they are perspectives, sometimes categories, but while I will not deny their usefulness to his discussion, I would like to propose an alternative to this structure of distinct categories and oppositions. It seems to me that in his discussion, Brisbois actually looks at nature along a number of scales rather than in terms of distinct categories, ranging from completely Passive at one end to completely Active at the other – if indeed those are the terms to use: Brisbois also mentions how elements of the setting must first be realistic and progress by the hyperreal (like real, only more so, like oliphaunts or, I take it, mithril) through to the fantastic (205). This is certainly an interesting progression which is valuable for understanding not only The Lord of the Rings but many other fantasy works (possibly but not necessarily mainly those that Farah Mendlesohn calls portal-quest fantasies [1]). If we want to include the Active nature, Brisbois makes this easy, as it is a more fantastic form (204). The examples given quite nicely fits, ranging from hyperrealistic to fantastic: from Caradhras, over the Great Eagles, Old Man Willow and the Huorns, through the Ents and the Balrog, to Bombadil with increasing personification and symbolisation. My order might be arguable, but there is certainly a range here rather than two categories.

Brisbois’s real-hyperreal-fantastic spectrum makes a lot of sense this way. It even allows for the introduction of the Ambient perspective (understood in terms of meaning, influence, symbolism); the more that perspective is stressed, the further we slide along the scale towards the fantastic. (Brisbois makes good use throughout his discussion of Randel Helm’s ”internal laws” of Middle-earth [2], and especially the first and third laws which cover the book’s providentially controlled cosmos and how moral and magical law has the force of physical law, respectively.) The ambience is the magical atmosphere a prophetic red sun or winter-bare landscape, as it were.

Brisbois briefly hints that this scale is a progression over the story, and I agree, at least up to a point, especially as it seems to agree with Brian Attebery’s argument that fantasy protagonists develop in the opposite direction from protagonists in mimetic fiction; from being personalities, (some) fantasy heroes develop into functions [3]. But I believe there is more to it than that. The scale helps us, as readers, to construct and enter the fantasy world (Tolkien would talk about secondary belief here [4]), or, as Brisbois puts it in his conclusion, nature in Middle-earth is ”a clever construction of real and imaginary nature that allows the reader to make a leap from the ordinary to the fantastic” (214). But rather than putting bits of the fictional world’s nature into boxes or casting them in opposing terms, we need to see how minor changes in the portrayal of nature can slide the reader towards or away from the fantastic. That kind of manipulation, not only of natural settings but of all types of fantasy settings, ultimately creates the fictional worlds we enjoy.

Much to ponder, in other words, and mostly enjoyable. What I do not enjoy, however, is to read a critical essay in which the writer displays obvious gaps in his or her understanding or knowledge of the work being criticised. How can a Tolkien scholar claim that Beleriand is submerged by the cataclysm that is the Fall of Númenor? It is perfectly clear from Akallabêth and Of the Rings of Power… that they are two separate events; alternatively, a brief look in the LOTR appendices (Appx B, The Tale of Years, for instance) shows how they happen over 3,000 years apart. Nor are there any ”vile storms” from Mordor that have turned Dagorlad, and certainly not Emyl Muil, barren (205). Believing that is missing the point of the descriptions of Sauron’s evil and Saruman’s imitation of it. I know, I know, I’m nitpicking. And I would happily forgive the writer these mistakes – we all make mistakes in our writing, after all. This text, however, has passed under the eyes of the editors of Tolkien Studies as well as at least one, possibly more, reviewers. What happened? How did these slips pass?

Still, on the whole a piece worth the time it takes to read it and a valuable contribution to the ecocritical Tolkien scholarship as well as to fantasy scholarship in general (even if that is downplayed).


[1] For Mendlesohn’s take on fantasy as falling into the four categories portal-quest, immersive, intrusive, and liminal fantasy, see her Rhetorics of Fantasy (Wesleyan 2008). Worth reading even if you don’t necessarily agrees with her. Check John Clute’s review in Strange Horizons. Back

[2] See Randel Helm, Tolkien’s World (Houghton Mifflin 1974), p. 79. Back

[3] See Brian Attebery, Strategies of Fantasy (Indiana UP 1992), ch. 5, esp. pp. 71-73. Back

[4] Cf. his ”On Fairy-Stories”, The Monsters & the Critics and Other Essays (HarperCollins 1997, pp. 109-161), pp. 131-133. Back

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