Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Tolkien's Scouring of the Shire (Disagreeing with Plank)

1) Suppose ONE Single work by GKC had Inspired Lord of the Rings ...?, 2) In Defense of the Tom Bombadil Chapters, 3) Tolkien's Scouring of the Shire (Disagreeing with Plank)

In a collection work called A Tolkien Compass, 1975, I met a few decent comments, but also a rather bad one by one Robert Plank.

My primary interest is not in the literary value of Tolkien's work, that is declaring it good or bad.

Those who have a real interest in literary value have so not so much in declaring a work "good" or "bad", but in elucidating what kind of good or what kind of bad.

... in the same way that, as a psychiatric social worker, I would study a client's story about himself or one of his dreams.*

That Plank is a psychiatric social worker certainly explains why his comment is bad, but does not make it good.

In reading The Lord of the Rings**, you have probably noticed that "The Scouring of the Shire" is a separate and independent episode, a unit that pretty much stands by itself. Yet it is almost impossible to read with enjoyment and understanding, either alone or with the rest of the trilogy.

No, I have NOT noticed that, especially not the part about it's being almost impossible to read with enjoyment and understanding.

If Plank is the kind of man who cannot read it with enjoyment and undestanding, so much the worse for Plank, at least as far as Tolkien criticism is concerned, and he actually here admitted that perhaps he was not understanding it correctly.

If it was near impossible to read with understanding per se, it was so to him. But if it was so to him, perhaps it was NOT near impossible per se, but only due to his incapacities as a reader of that kind of statement.

Something which may be true about his "understanding" of his "clients" as well.

It is equally important that "The Scouring of the Shire" differs from other episodes in Tolkien's work in respect to the question of fantasy versus realism. The New York Times Book Review recently carried an article on paperbacks favoured by young readers. [Enumerates: Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Hesse's Steppenwolf, Herbert's Dune along with LotR] The reviewer describes the dreamlike quality of the works, their heros' unusual powers and the mixture of the real and the fantastic in these stories.

Confusion about genre vs ontology.

You have real vs invented (ontology). You also have within each ordinary vs. marvellous (genre). The marvellous is not obviously always invented (except on the prejudice of atheism: Gospels are marvellous enough, but we Christians will not agree with atheists they are invented). The ordinary is obviously NOT always real. Sherlock Holmes being invented is no more real than Gandalf. And Gandalf having marvellous powers is not what makes him invented, for he shares them with St Raphaël, of whom the book of Tobit has sth to say, and which happened for real.

But supposing I were wrong, supposing Gospels and Book of Tobit were invented (which I do not admit), even so, a writer who admits (on Plank's view presumably wrongly) this distinction between marvellous quality and fictive ontological status, as JRRT in fact did, would not have in general the kind of intention to be dreamlike when writing the marvellous that an atheist like Lord Dunsany or Lovecraft*** would have (there is even a short story Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath). A writer who, even if he were wrong in believing so, believed that the marvellous exists for real (and Tolkien did believe angels and demons do exist) would not be automatically off the realistic responsibilities while writing the marvellous.

Although this describes Tolkien's work in general it does not quite obviously function as a description of "The Scouring of the Shire." [LOOOOOOOOOONG enthusiasm over the fact that the chapter is "not fantasy".]

There are, in that sense, lots of other passages which, in that sense, are "not fantasy".

Everything (nearly) which goes on between Frodo, Sam and Gollum, from their meeting to the betrayal, is of extremely ordinary (critic's jargon: "realistic") quality. This is true of nearly all of Book IV. On the other hand, much of book III is equally devoid of "magic". Much, not all. The Silmarils Palantir at the end are clearly as much magic as technology. Internet? Well, how does it function without wires and connexions, just by the nature of the stones? How come it is locked to "one channel" (Sauron's)? How come Aragorn can unlock it for his purposes, not by skill as a hacker, but by strength of holy will (like an exorcist destroying the bad magic of some cursed object)?

And there are the ghosts too. Plus one could characterise ents as slightly paranormal. Burnham forest does not often take literal walks to Dunsinane.

But by and large, books III and IV are realistic fiction - and this purported expert on Tolkien criticism does not even know it. He thinks "The Scouring of the Shire" is unique in this respect.

In a geographical sense, of course, the chapter is fantasy, as much as Westmark series by Lloyd Alexander : Shire and Westmark are as hard to find on an accurate map of the world we travel in as Ruritania and Syldavia and Borduria. And harder than Narnia.°

Now of course, when I call "The Scouring of the Shire" a realistic story, I do not mean to imply that events are described exactly as they would happen in reality.

When we speak of realistic story, as opposed to documentary or docufiction, we speak of sth other than reality. We speak of a conditional, which certainly motivates the would, but while we are doing it, we are - on any rational view - out of the scope of exactitude.

A documentary can portray events exactly as they did happen in reality. A docufiction can portray events less exactly like what happened in reality - or more exactly.

But when we speak of fiction, we speak of hypothesis and therefore of non-reality and therefore of a realm from which exactitude is excluded.

However, I suspect Plank has a preconceived idea of how events happen in reality, and that his reading of the chapter reveals to him that Tolkien did not share it.

That MIGHT be the reason why he (and the kind of likes of himself he implicitly cited in my third quote - "you have probably noticed") did not find it easy to read with enjoyment and understanding in the first place.

Indeed, if he is a social worker of ANY kind (psychiatric or otherwise), he is involved in the kind of system which Tolkien describes as "gathering and sharing" and criticises as "does more gathering than sharing". Indeed, if he is a psychiatric, he lives off the "gathering" (that is, off tax money), but does no "sharing" (that is, he does not hand out money or even food stamps, he's just there to control the life of clients).

Perhaps not the best moral position from which to get the point of that chapter - unless you have the lucidity or humility (or both) to accept you are part of the butt end of a joke.°° But the passage goes on:

Tolkien gives us the essence of reality by altering many of its circumstances, especially by miniaturizing it. His story is a realistic parable of reality.

For once, I agree. I only think that is the case with lots of other passages, including frankly supernatural ones.

The political changes were not essentially constitutional changes. The laws have been perverted more than amended. The traditional offices have not been abolished, but new power is wielded by a new ruling group.

That also I agree on. While it isn't near to describing the Russian Revolution, from October 1917°°° to end of Civil War, it does describe, not miniaturised, but somewhat exaggerated, at least from Tolkien's view point, what happened in England after WW-II with Labour Party abolishing many old freedoms, but even more what had recently taken place in Eastern Europe West of Soviet Union, just after the War, in very quick successions of deft moves and sham legalities. One can argue this was also the case with Nazi Germany 1933. One can hardly argue it was what happened in Austria 1933 or in Spain 1936 - 39. Or in Portugal 1926 with Mendes Cabeçadas and Manuel de Oliveira Gomes da Costa and Salazar.

The essantial political innovation is the rise of an unprecedented police force, headed by the chief Shirriff.

This however, reminds more of the Cheka than of early stages of Italian fascism. During the Matteotti trial, Il Duce was accused of having a Cheka, and he replied he had not a Cheka, but the Soviet Union had (alas, he was going to get a secret police somewhat later, but not yet while the Matteotti case was ongoing).

Democracy has been simply defined as "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." Fascism is its antithesis. It is government of a clique, by a clique, against the people-like the government of the shire~ before the scouring.

It is a good definition, indeed, of a bad oligarchy. It is not a good description of all historical fascisms.

Communism at least starts out with a lofty ideal (whatever may become of it later) but the group that usurps power in the shire~ does not even pretend to idealism.

It pretends to efficacy, as did Communism under Five Year Plans. Communist idealism was, like Social Democratic one, an idealism of "gathering and sharing". And Saruman had given the idealist aspect of the Shire, back in his dialogue with Gandalf, when he took Gandalf captive - in a scene not without the marvellous.~~ The scene where he says Istari could rule men for their good - by their superior wisdom. Actually, it sounds a bit more like the idealism of UFO fans than the actual words of proto-Communists and proto-Socialists like Marx and Engels. However, many UFO fans now are also Communists, even look to UFO's as the salvation of Communism (which was to all purposes kind of killed in 1990), and the more humdrum idealism of "from each according to his capacities, to each according to his needs" is very closely echoed in the excuses for the "gathering and sharing" régime.

We also get Puritan meddling with private lives, actually more typical of Social Democracy in Scandinavia than of Communism in Eastern Europe.

Here Plank does us the service of quoting Farmer Cotton and admitting his summary is better than any he could provide

There wasn't no smoke left, save for the Men; and the Chief didn't hold with beer, save for his Men, and closed all the inns; and everything except rules got shorter and shorter.....

I am reminded of the fact that outlawing alcohol, sth tried in US (by Republicans) and in Scandinavia in various measures, Sweden more than Denmark, Finland more than Sweden, was commented on by Gilbert Keith Chesterton, in a novel of which the last chapter could be called "The Scouring of England" - I speak of course of "The Flying Inn". See below, Chestertonian reference, above the other notes. Actually, book II of LotR, the nine setting out from Rivendell against a much mightier Sauron, also has sth to do with this book. A small company is set against the in England omnipotent Lord Ivywood and his ally, the "adapted Muslim", Misysra Ammon. The captain, not unlike Aragorn, and having been a king of a sort until international politics ruined it, ends up facing the armies of the character Omar.

I suspect very strongly that as much as this chapter is against the cultural taste of Plank, so is the book by Chesterton. But then, what do you expect from an Ivywood or a Misysra?

Communism is based on the theory of class struggle, while fascism preaches the unity of the people, which means in practise that everybody is treated equally badly.

Funny, I find it is rather Communism and Socialism which provides the equally badly part.

Then, I disagree with the writer about Italy and am not the kind of man who identifies Nazism and Fascism. Or for that matter Military Junta of Argentina and Fascism.

Whatever the initial ideas, Communism in Soviets soon became and Communism in Eastern Europe West of Soviets from the start was very unequal, but treating everyone badly, with material but not totally freedom related benefits for those helping to enforce Communism. However, the idea of an élite is explicit in Lenin before 1917 and becomes apparent in practise in Sweden too, well before 1976 when they temporarily lost power. Next we start with a quote from the novel, by farmer Cotton, then Plank comments:

He'd funny ideas, had Pimple. Seems he wanted to own everything himself, and then order other folk about.... Folk got angry, but he had his answer. A lot of Men~~~, ruffians mostly, came with great waggons, some to carry off the goods south-away, and others to stay. And more came. And before we knew where we were, they were planted here and there all over the Shire....

And just as those who helped the Fascists and the Nazis into power saw their mistake when it was too late, so Pimple-pardon me, Lr. Lotho Sackville-Baggins-goes to his reward. He is murdered and perhaps eaten.

To me that sounds like a more accurate description of Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the years after 1945, than of Austria 1933, Spain 1936 - 39 or Portugal 1926. OK, Mendes Cabeçadas is going to oppose Salazar, but then he is a freemason. Those who did regret that Dollfuss and Franco and Salazar were in power were most usually not those who had helped them into power. Unlike those who regretted that Stalin and Lenin came to power. Or the Communists who were not Communist enough in Budapest 1956 and in Prague 1968. Or the people who were pro-Communist in 1945, but even so ended up in Communist prisons. Obviously, the cannibalist part of the charge is more typical of Orcs than of men, but might in a way stand for the evil of abortion, equally a very nasty and unnatural thing, and in fact liberalised or even enforced (as in China) by Communists. And Henry Makow describes how Freemasons, thinking they would be well treated by Communists for having helped them into power, were often the first ones to be shot.

Christine Arnothy (RIP) dans son roman autobiographique de 1955 décrit un Juif qui sort assez librement tant que Budapest est sous feu, qui se tire même bien d'un rencontre avec les Allemands, mais qui est fusillé par les Communistes, parce qu'il refuse de travailler (comme l'aurait fait un gardien à Auschwitz aussi, ça c'est génuine et n'est pas nié par les révisionnistes), et ceci, si j'ai bien compté les jours, un samedi.

Saruman bears two striking resemblances to Mussolini. Mussolini started his carreer as a local labor leader+ and became the most ruthless oppressor of the labor movement+. Saruman also is a turncoat. Secondly, just like Mussolini Saruman comes to a miserable end, utterly lacking in the theatrical glory of a Goetterdaemmerung.

I wonder if the theatrical glory of a Ride of Walkyries will not accompany the battle of Harmageddon. Now, Mussolini, while not dying a very glorious death, was nevertheless executed by those disaffected with him - those who thought he had betrayed them. Thereby in a way following his orders (after their view of the betrayal part) "if I lead you, follow me, if I command you, obey me ... if I betray you, kill me". He was a very passionate, in certain ways wayward man. Not so Saruman, who is a chilly calculator. Saruman is really closer to both Lord Ivywood and Misysra Ammon than to Mussolini. He is the personality type of a Stalin, or of the régime which ordered soldiers to stand by a nuclear bomb test in Bikini Atoll, telling them that radioactive radiation was the least they had to worry about ... in order to study the diseases caused by it. Or who accepted to test LSD on people. Mussolini was not quite that either.

As to the turncoat charge, we are not dealing with a man who promised in 1922 to keep up the often Marxist trade unions, rather he had pretty clearly shown that, though he wanted some fighting for workers' rights (something he was arguably faithful to under Salò Republic, whatever wrongs it otherwise did on instigation of German Occupany) he was not accepting to have it on the terms of the Marxist Unions.

Saruman had come to power in Isengard precisely under the pretense of fighting against Sauron, a pretense used to save his real lord at the Fall of Dol Goldur. That is really, and not just from a Marxist class war perspective, being a turn coat. And a traitor. Mussolini would have a right to turn in his grave at hearing the comparison.

I must say, this is about where I feel I have to stop reading Plank. Er, actually, not. One more.

Another reason Tolkien thinks it is easy to overthrow an oppressive government is that he overrates the impact of courage. ... Yet discussion and persuasion are the lifeblood of democracy.

But the scouring was not supposed to be "an act of democracy". It was supposed to be an act of military valour, in order to restore a situation where the republican and half democratic and half aristocratic constitution of the Shire can get back to working as it should. I cannot see why such an act would have to be democratic in the parliamentarian sense of the word.

Without courage, you do not kill dragons. Another goodie from Chesterton : "fairy tales are more real than realism, not in saying that there are monsters, but in saying they can be overcome." Cannot find the reference, any more than Chesterton could find all references.

Hans Georg Lundahl
Nanterre UL
St John of the Cross

PS, I will not spare you another Chesterton quote, from The Well and the Shallows:

But it is much more important to insist on the large human and historic matters mentioned at the beginning of this article. Dollfuss died like a loyal and courageous man, asking forgiveness for his murderers; and the souls of the just are in the hands of God, however much their enemies (with that mark of mere mud that is stamped over all they do) take a pleasure in denying them the help of their religion. But Dollfuss dead, even more than Dollfuss living, is also a symbol of something of immense moment to mankind, which is practically never mentioned by our politicians or our papers. We call it for convenience Austria; in a sense we might more truly call it Europe; but, above all (for this is the vital and quite neglected fact), it would be strictly correct and consistent with history to call it Germany. The very fact that the name of "Germany" has been taken from the Austrians and given to the Prussians sums up the tragedy of three hundred years. It was the tale of the war waged by the barbarians against the Empire; the real original German Empire. It began with the first Prussian shot in the Thirty Years' War; it ended with the shot that killed the Austrian Chancellor.

Whether we call it the Empire, or the Old Germany or the culture of the Danube, what Austria meant and means is this. That it is normal for Europeans, even for Germans, to be civilised; that it is normal for Europeans, even for Germans, to be Christians; and, we must in historic honesty add, normal for them to be Catholics. This culture always incurred the hatred of the barbarians to the north-east; and in the nineteenth century a barbarian of genius, named Bismarck, actually managed to transfer to Prussia the prestige that had always normally belonged to Austria. ...

As both Stalin, Lenin and Hitler looked back on Bismarck, I think the spirit of Bismarck in all its incarnations, rather than just either Nazi or Communist may be meant by Saruman. It also shares with Saruman the distinction of ending guilds and privileges and introducing industrialism in a rough capitalistic form./HGL

Chestertonian reference:


The Flying Inn
(1914) Hardcover – June 2, 2008 (facsimile)
by G. K. Chesterton (Author)

Or the essay The Dregs of Puritanism in Utopia of Usurers and Other Essays:

By Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Other reference:

Amazon : I Am Fifteen and I Do Not Want to Die: The True Story of a Young Woman's Wartime Survival
Paperback – April 1, 2010
by Christine Arnothy (Author)

Other notes:

* My emphasis. ** Italics in original, as per convention of italicising names of works. *** I can't recall what H. P. stands for, though it could have stood for Harry Potter, but doesn't. However, Harry Potter abbreviating as H. P. could be a reference to H. P. Lovecraft. °If you really insist on getting the joke and don't, try a map of Italy in the Roman Antiquity times. Like Punic Wars. °° I had to have the humility, when reading Silence of the Lambs, to find that the book, written just after I left secondary high school, to notice that the crook, when analysed, came forth as having a background very close to mine, before becoming the kind of monster he became. Shy with girls, enjoying to sit beside them etc. But this humility might be beyond Plank. Thus also the lucidity. °°°October Julian Calendar, though already November in the Gregorian one. A little earlier, 13th of October in Fátima in Portugal was one day before 1st October, also a Marian apparition feast, in Czarist Russia. This means that the Revolution happened during the last 13 days of Julian october which coincided withthe first 13 days of Gregorian November. ~ It is "the shire" rather than the correct "the Shire" in the text. Now twice. ~~ A mortal man would have died very soon if exposed on top of the tower, as Gandalf was. And while the dialogue lasted, Saruman was doing magic enhancement of his coat, originally white, now many coloured. ~~~ Men is capitalised in original novel, since by hobbits used as a kind of ethnonym opposed to hobbit. So is, like all usage, with one exception, in the novel Shire. + I take it we are dealing with an U. S. American. He means, I presume, labour leader. Leader is not Latin. Labor is not Old French, Anglo-Norman or English. But it is the way U. S. Americans now spell the Old French, Anglo-Norman and English word Labour, derived in its turn, not from nominative labor (that might give sth like Labre), but from the accusative laborem. Same observation for "labor movement".

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