Tolkien, Modernist

It’s not actually a revolutionary idea to suggest Tolkien is a modernist, but it’s still so counter to everything he said and tried to do that it’s worth blogging about. And, anyway, today was the Autumnal Equinox — or the Evenlength, if you like words derived from Middle English (ȝevelengðhe). It’s also Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’s birthday, so I started re-reading The Lord of the Rings. As one does. And I was reminded of the whole modernist thing by his poetry of all things.

I actually have a bunch of old blog posts about Tolkien and the calendar re-read. In short, Tolkien was very careful to plot the novel along the calendar. It’s our calendar in every way except that every month has 30 days, no more or less. But the days of the months correspond to what we think of them as, so the 22nd of September is Autumnal. I recommend doing this at least once — I have completed it once, and done about half two other times.

But about modernism. OK, so Tolkien was in love with old things, particularly Old English things, and he wanted to bring those back to his writing and to the culture at large, which he thought was leaving good stuff behind.

We tend to think of modernists as, well, modern, cool with the contemporary. But that’s not really what that word means. It actually means a group of writers, mostly contemporary to one another, who were uncomfortable with the assumptions of the world they grew up in and pushed back against it, doubting what they’d been promised and looking for new answers.

Or old answers. Because Tolkien isn’t the only person to look backward. Eliot might be the most famous modernist to do so. His poetry can helpfully be narrated as a slide toward something. Prufrock yells about society’s emptiness and how the rich are like whores; Waste Land thinks everything is emptied out and the structure of religion could help fill the hole; the Four Quartets are overtly Christian, appealing to faith in the monotheistic god. That’s… that’s a pretty obvious narrative arc. And one that’s perhaps as nostalgic and referential as Tolkien’s. Waste Land is full of references to art and literature, most from certain “golden ages,” such as Wagner’s operas, Dante’s Inferno, and Homer’s Iliad.

Sound familiar? To me, Tolkien does the same stuff. Often just as blatantly. OK, so Eliot’s original title for the Waste Land was “He Do the Police in Different Voices.” It was about multiple voices. So maybe Eliot ping-pongs back and forth way more, but Tolkien’s cobbling together of multiple things is just as widespread, just veneered over with a stronger narrative line since only one narrator is working here.

So about that poetry. Go on. If you’ve read LotR and I tell you not to recite Tom Bombadil poetry, what do you think of? “The road goes…”

Yes, I’m using what some consider the most hackneyed poem in the novel as my evidence that Tolkien is working as a modernist.

Version one, when Bilbo leaves Hobbiton:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

Version two, when Frodo leaves Hobbiton:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

Version three, when everything’s over and Bilbo, finally really old after all his years, falls asleep talking to someone:

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

So I have two points to make, really. One is simply about variation. Bilbo is eager while Frodo is weary. And then, finally, Bilbo is weary but with the satisfaction of being finished and passing the baton.

But all this is contextualized in the narrative, right? They’re just changing stuff to demonstrate characterization. Well, sure, that’s true. But it’s also true that they’re overtly old-fashioned, with words out of order to meet a meter and regular rhyme. So, I dunno, consider that a novel repeats a poem three times, but messes with it a little bit each time? The first time so quietly you might not notice, and then the second time so far forward in the book you might have forgotten the poems altogether!

The second point is about the conception of the Road. It sounds old-fashioned as well, very fairy-tale like, but it isn’t, not really.

He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step onto the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’

That’s not old-fashioned at all. If you’re a peasant in 12th century England you know exactly where that road is taking you, because, like Sam, you know every inch of the ten square miles around your house. It’s a modernist conceit to consider that the lovely little road that runs by your house could take you to the corner store or to war. Tolkien is firmly modernist if for no other reason than that he fought in World War I. You can find plenty about that out there, I don’t need to go into it. The idea is that starting from anywhere in the world, on the plainest road around, you could get swept off into danger or boredom or chaos and you can’t keep your feet under you, and that’s painfully modern. And the only way off the road is death, since that’s where Bilbo is going when he recites his final version. The poem tracks not a sentiment of a couple of characters but the backbone of the entire novel, that it can seem just fine, but there’s a wraith at the back door waiting for you.

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