The Professor and the Dragons

Courage is found in unlikely places. Be of good hope!

People always look at me a little strangely when I confess, usually under duress, that I’m a Tolkienophile. I blame the culture of “fandoms” and a certain Peter Jackson for this. As a kid, the one thing that could probably get me quite murderous was people comparing LOTR to Harry Potter.I am sometimes told that it is a childrens’ book  (inspite of the author’s own declarations to the contrary) and that it is comparable to Potter. Superficially they seem alike: strong elements of “magic”, a parallel universe and a stylized war between good and evil. But that is where the similarity ends.

I always struggle to define why Tolkien’s works are so different from that of almost any author I have read. I could point out the unique, detailed way in which he has constructed his universe. The careful manner in which matters as seemingly trivial as languages, names and geography are constructed, in order to make the whole thing not just consistent but astonishingly believable, shows his wide and deep knowledge of Western European languages and literature, knowledge that betrays his day job as a reputed Oxford professor. I could also mention that Tolkien was a poet of no little skill ; that half the charm of his works is lost in the film adaptations (atleast, for me) because the hundred-odd poems in the text were necessarily erased. (They did keep part of Eomer’s Song in the Pelennor Fields scene).  I could point out his skilful writing  which is clear enough to illuminate his scenes and characters and situations but never so dramatic that it overwhelms them. But none of these is the real reason why I keep on reading and re-reading The Lord of the Rings, ever since I got my first look at it some eleven years ago.

Tolkien’s writing – or his artificial universe, if we can call it that – is imbued with a very pure, almost religious sensibility that is never clumsily done, never obvious. Probably some conscious echo of his strong Catholic views, it stands behind every one of his sentences. It is this sensibility that gives it a unique character of hopefulness: of the promise of a future that may be better than the past, of a triumph against temporary setbacks. In a world filled with books and films that revel in cynicism and hopelessness, it seems almost like an act of defiance to read a book as beautiful as this one, almost like a confession of immaturity to say one loves it and prefers it to things that are more “realistic”.

This does not mean that Tolkien wrote a pleasant fairy-tale. Much of the book, especially the latter part, is surprisingly wistful, “laden with the sadness of Mortal Men”. And there is no mistaking the themes of sacrifice and suffering that run through it: the central character transforms from a likable but normal person to a tormented wanderer who finds no psychological peace, even at the end, when he finally takes a ship for the far green country under a swift sunrise.  Bitterness and despair are explicitly discussed and their ramifications laid out. Through the voice of Denethor, we hear the tragic results of pride, bitterness,  and hopelessness :

“…soon all shall be burned…It shall all go up in a great fire, and all shall be ended. Ash ! Ash and smoke blown away on the wind !”

But even if all is doomed to failure – and it is clear that there is very little hope for our characters– Tolkien’s point is that we must not give up, we must stand to our posts even to the uttermost. Strange it is to hear such a forthright assertion of hope, even in fiction, from a man who lost most of his friends in the First World War and lived through the horrors of the Second. And it is alluring to return to something that promises  to be “a light in dark places when all other lights go out”.

(March 25 was Tolkien Reading Day).



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One response to “The Professor and the Dragons

  1. Many of my friends in R sold Tolkien to me through these newspaper articles that denounced him as a lunatic – he’d apparently spent years in solitude so as to ensure his visions of Middle Earth weren’t distorted by, well, Earth. Such massive commitment to the finest of details, as you mention, reminds me one of those Tolkien-sellers’ favourite John Updike quote – Give the mundane it’s beautiful due.

    Yaar ab to padhna padega, nahi? 🙂

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