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Interview with Robert T. Tally Jr. on historicizing ‘The Hobbit’

Someone once explained to me that she had found the key to J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels: they turned out to be allegories of the Cold War and possible thermonuclear catastrophe.

This was ingenious, or at least imaginative. It felt downright pedantic to mention The Hobbit was published in 1937, or that most of The Lord of the Rings was written before the end of World War II. The interpretation, if valid, implied an element of prophecy that the author never claimed. Anyway, it was not clear what insight into the books themselves would follow.

That said, this student of Tolkien had at least one salient critical premise: more can be going on in a work of literary fantasy than just make-believe. And when the author is someone with an expertise in Anglo-Saxon philology, which Tolkien (1892–1973) taught at the University of Oxford for decades, the quasi-medieval ambiance may be something besides escapist stage-setting.

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit: Realizing History Through Fantasy: A Critical Companion (Palgrave Macmillan), Robert T. Tally Jr. avoids reductive shortcuts while also presenting Tolkien’s first work of fiction as deeply historical. The author, a professor of English at Texas State University, says little about Tolkien’s life and times yet nonetheless develops his analysis around a major bio-bibliographical point: The Hobbit, as with the three volumes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy that followed, overlapped with Tolkien’s legendarium (a vast mythology modeled on the Finnish epics and Nordic sagas he studied) but also differed from it fundamentally by being novelistic.

Pursuing a line of thought opened by the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs in The Theory of the Novel (1916), Tally understands The Hobbit as existing in a radically different order of things from the epic. In epics we find figures of heroic nobility who embody the virtues admired by both gods and humankind. (Everybody knows what heroism is and what the virtues are.) By contrast, the novel is a literary form suited to a secular modernity. Its characters are made of common clay. There is little consensus over values and even less that is foreordained. And in those respects, The Hobbit is populated by novelistic characters created by an epic-minded author. Hobbits are not magical or supernatural; they are, basically, small humans. Nor are they inclined to adventure, having a strong preference for the comforts of ordinariness. And when their world goes into upheaval, their stories naturally resonate with human experiences of massive change.

I asked the author a series of questions by email. The following transcript incorporates his answers, slightly edited for length, with his cooperation.

Q: You don’t historicize The Hobbit in the naïve or narrow sense of interpreting it as a fictionalized response to real-world events. Your approach owes a great deal to the American Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson—the subject of your first book. What does it mean to read Tolkien as a Jamesonian?

A: “Modernism” is a dirty word among many Tolkien enthusiasts, and perhaps for Tolkien himself, but I see his desire to “create a mythology for England” as a powerfully modern thing to attempt, more like Yeats or Joyce than most mere medievalism. Also, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are clearly novelistic in form, even if they deal with “epic” or “romantic” ideas.

In his work on postmodernism, Fredric Jameson refers to the “attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.” Coming from an entirely different direction politically, I think Tolkien was deeply concerned with the modern world’s inability to “think historically,” and thus his desire to connect elements of the medieval historical world with our own time, even if—or especially if—that meant using fantasy as a way of sort of tricking us into “realizing” history.

That’s my thesis, I guess, if there is one in particular. Tolkien’s own personal position on this comes with a conservative, traditionalist and religious sensibility, but I hope that a sort of “political unconscious” to this can show how there is a Marxist critical interpretation available that could show how the fantasy form and the stories themselves can serve more liberatory ends. In this, of course, I am following Marx on Balzac, Lukacs on Walter Scott, Jameson on Wyndham Lewis and others, or similar ways in which Marxist criticism has found value in “conservative” artists.

Q: Before following up on that, let me ask you about treating Tolkien as writing some kind of allegory of World War II or the Cold War, or what have you. What are your thoughts?

A: In his 1966 preface to the paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien himself explicitly repudiates the WWII allegory, noting that much of the plot was already worked out beforehand. But he does indulge a bit in speculating how that would’ve looked, with Sauron as a sort of Hitler and Saruman as Stalin (e.g., Saruman’s brief faux alliance with Sauron being something like the Molotov-Ribbentrop [Pact]? Saruman was never on Sauron’s side, of course, as becomes clear in the text itself). Anyhow, Tolkien writes:

“The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dur would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.”

Tolkien then distinguishes between his views of “applicability” and “allegory”: “the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” So I guess we can say that, if The Lord of the Rings helps people make sense of the War or the Cold War, that’s perfectly acceptable, so long as they don’t assume Tolkien himself intended that to be the only way to read the novel.

Q: You quote Lukacs’s description of the typical hero in Walter Scott’s historical novels as “always a more or less mediocre, average English gentleman [who] generally possesses a certain, though never outstanding, degree of practical intelligence, a certain moral fortitude and decency which even rises to a capacity for self-sacrifice, but which never grows into a sweeping human passion, is never the enraptured devotion to a great cause.” That sounds exactly like Bilbo Baggins! But Tolkien’s long-term creative effort—from which The Hobbit and the later novels spun off, to the author’s own surprise—was a grand cosmic mythos modeled on Nordic and Finnish sources, which only became available to readers posthumously. How does the “realism” of The Hobbit (so to speak) connect with the author’s mythopoetic side?

A: The “accident” of The Hobbit forced Tolkien to make decisions once his invented world was in print. Of course, any other writer might well have treated it as a one-off, and even the demand for a sequel would not have required that he bring in this history of the Noldor and their wars with Morgoth, the fall of Númenor, etc. But Tolkien had this passion for myth, language and world-building, so he tried—in his view, he likely failed—to integrate everything. In The Hobbit itself, apart from the reference to Gondolin (”the Goblin Wars”), Moria, the Necromancer (whom we learn is Sauron) and a few other things, the world doesn’t require any knowledge of the earlier mythmaking.

Bilbo provides us with an intermediary between the present and this mythic or legendary past, and as such, allows us to connect the lessons of the distant past to our own historical situation. I follow Lukacs (and, I guess, Hegel) in the sense that there is both a continuity and a break between the epic and the novel, and Bilbo is an utterly novelistic hero (or nonhero) who suddenly finds himself in an “epic” adventure, as represented by a world-historical individual like Thorin, plus the fantasy elements (pre-eminently, the dragon Smaug). This winds up “working” very well, even if Tolkien himself was troubled by the anachronisms and other misfits.

In his early drafts of the Silmarillion story, he played with different ways of getting at the history, including a bizarre sci-fi version where some Oxford professors travel in time to the era of Gnomes in the First Age. (Another version had a bard from that era jumping into the future [our present], I believe.) But with Bilbo, we “discover” this grand history along with the protagonist, who is contributing to the “making” of that history even as he comes to recognize that he is a part of it.

Q: The eminent British science fiction and fantasy author Michael Moorcock has long been a fierce critic of Tolkien—among other things, for a narrative tone he compares to Winnie the Pooh. While The Hobbit is unapologetically a work of children’s literature, you find more of interest In Tolkien’s storytelling voice than Moorcock does. What, in sum, is he missing?

A: Isn’t “Epic Pooh” a marvelous essay? I think Moorcock’s critique is well taken. Indeed, some of what Moorcock is complaining about in works like The Lord of the Rings are the things Tolkien advocates for in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” in particular, the role of “consolation.” As far as the childish language goes, Tolkien himself somewhat regretted the narrative style (”silliness of manner”) used in The Hobbit, and it changed in The Lord of the Rings (even more so in the attempts at The Silmarillion). But Moorcock notes that even in The Lord of the Rings, elements of this Pooh-like conspiratorial narrative voice is there.

By the way, I do not think Tolkien is a great prose stylist, although he often has marvelous turns of phrase, and his description of places can be really good at times. The dialogue is not always very good, especially among the “great” [characters such as] Aragorn. For me, the “world” itself is the real star of Tolkien’s work, so the narration and description are all part of that.

I don’t think Moorcock is wrong, but I do think he’s taking his initial antipathy and failing to move beyond it. He is sympathetic to Orcs like I am, but he mentions this only to dismiss Tolkien for making them “the old Bugaboo,” whereas I am interested more in engaging with Tolkien’s “world” in which these attitudes—and the attitudes of Grishnákh and Uglúk, Shagrat and Gorbag—are on display but also available for critique.

A big part of Jameson’s relentlessly dialectical approach, what he calls in the last chapter of The Political Unconscious “the dialectic of ideology and utopia,” is the sense that there is always something “positive” to be found in even the most ideologically suspect or “negative” text. I was talking with one of Fred’s former grad students, who related that Jameson had told him something like, “If you cannot find something of value in the text you’re reading, it may have more to do with your reading than with the text itself.” Along those lines, I’m pretty sure I mostly agree with Moorcock, but I am also on the lookout for things about Tolkien that can be rallied to the side of “utopia” (in Jameson’s sense). The great socialist fantasy writer China Miéville once notoriously referred to Tolkien as “a wen on the arse of British fantasy,” although he later wrote a blog post in which he listed “Five Reasons Why Tolkien Rocks.” I suspect Miéville is right both times!

Q: Well, this is awkward … You’d like to reclaim Tolkien for a utopian left project, but his fiction enjoys a cult following in the European extreme right. It has for decades. In the U.S., a recent Tolkien-inspired TV series drew howls of outrage for casting non-Caucasian actors as hobbits. White supremacists seem to be staking a claim for Middle Earth as some kind of homeland. Do they have a case?

A: It’s a somewhat difficult question, but the short answer goes something like this: Tolkien himself would almost certainly have opposed the far-right use of his work, but that work does contain a lot that fuels their beliefs.

Famously, Tolkien was very critical of Hitler and of fascism, arguably because he supported an even more conservative, less demotic and less modern form of racial-cultural bigotry! That is at least in part the argument of Australia-based historian Robert Stuart, whose book Tolkien, Race, and Racism in Middle-earth came out last year. Stuart details in chapter after chapter the racism (or racialism) to be found in Tolkien’s writings or personal views, yet each chapter ends with a defense of Tolkien against white supremacists, neo-Nazis, etc. Stuart’s book is the best yet as far as research into the question of racism in Tolkien, but he basically insists that Tolkien’s racism would still not be fodder for the far right today.

I find that a bit unconvincing. If you are a white supremacist, you will undoubtedly find a lot in Tolkien to support your views. Nearly all “good” characters are “fair”-skinned, for example, whereas most of the enemies are “swart” or “slant-eyed.” If the “West” is where the so-called “free peoples” are from, the enemy armies are made up of many Easterlings, Southrons and Orcs, who, as Tolkien wrote in a letter, were to appear “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” There are also “Wild Men” who fight for Saruman (they are described as “dusky” or “dark”), but then Ghan-buri-Ghan and the Drúedain fight for the “good guys,” so it’s not entirely one-sided as far as light and dark features go.

Tolkien also likened the Dwarves to “the Jews,” although he does so in a somewhat admiring way. (However, as Stuart notes, this sort of “philo-Semitism” is itself racist, inasmuch as it views “the Jews” as a completely separate and distinct people from other Europeans.)

So, yes, there is much in Tolkien that serves as legitimate fodder for the far right wing’s racist beliefs. A bigger problem is the simplistic good-versus-evil arguments that are attached to the racial hierarchy, and there Tolkien at least provides glimpses of different ways of reading. One of the reasons I think reading Tolkien “against the grain” is needed is to counter the interpretation by the far right, and Tolkien does give us enough detail and sometimes ambiguity (or, really, complexity) to justify these readings. So I argue.

Q: Tolkien had a place in what we now think of as 1960s counterculture, extending at least through Led Zeppelin lyrics from the 1970s. Back then, if you could write your name in Elvish script, you also assumed that hobbits smoked more than just tobacco. The Hobbit and the Rings trilogy must have been on many a rural commune’s shelves. The books haven’t changed, but everything about their reception has. How do you historicize all this?

A: I don’t know that the hippie, rock ’n’ roll, counterculture enthusiasm for Tolkien is, in fact, all that different from the right-wing love of Tolkien today. Not only have we found that many on the putative left back then later became right-wingers—how many of those Summer of Love types voted for Reagan in ’80 and ’84, after all?—but we’ve also seen a shift in what counts as left/right at the cultural level in the U.S. The anti-authority sensibility that made us cheer for Billy Jack or the Bandit in the 1970s is almost a defining feature of the Trumpers or Tea Party types in the last decade. I think of Rambo, who in First Blood was leftish, long-haired, fighting a bigoted sheriff, but soon the avatar of American empire.

Some of it had to do with the timing. The Lord of the Rings was first published in 1954–55, but the paperback edition came out in 1966. I suppose “escapism” is part of its appeal, along with the idea of a quest-adventure (and a sense of purpose and meaning that accompanies it). In class, we often joke about the hippie-like hobbits who smoke a lot of “pipe-weed,” are notoriously unambitious, if not lazy, and always have the munchies. (Ever the linguistic stickler, Tolkien regretted using the term “tobacco,” a Carib word unknown to medieval Europe, in The Hobbit, which is why “pipe-weed” is the preferred term in The Lord of the Rings.)

Then there’s just the genre, where a taste for adventure stories becomes so central. (Even Huckleberry Finn or Moby-Dick, seen as themselves countercultural, had some of that appeal, right?) Tolkien was convinced that there’s always been an adult audience for fantasy/myth/etc. of The Lord of the Rings, and he viewed the popularity of the novel as a vindication of that. The anti-industrial, pro-“nature” stuff also likely had great appeal for “counterculture” types, and perhaps the idea of a “just war” even appealed to many in the antiwar crowd. (That they could so easily overlook the racism is pretty telling.) Tolkien himself was appalled by the response of (especially) young Americans, whom he referred to as his “deplorable cultus” (deplorables!).

By the time Gen Xers like me read The Lord of the Rings, the hippie thing was a bit of a joke. (I did read The Harvard Lampoon’s “Bored of the Rings” with relish.) Perhaps my sympathy for Saruman and even Sauron comes out of my time—anti-Reagan, etc.—but I don’t know that my sympathies would’ve had that many adherents among people my own age. Many have noted that the Peter Jackson movies, which introduced millions to The Lord of the Rings, came out in December 2001 (2002 and 2003), making it the first major epic-franchise of the post-9/11 and War on Terror era, the landmark event for millennials. Certainly, there were those who saw some allegory in those times, just as today we heard pro-Ukrainian folks referring to Russian soldiers as “Orcs.”

Q: Speaking of which, I understand you regard the Orcs (called “goblins” in The Hobbit) as an unjustly maligned community and have taken up antidefamation advocacy on their behalf. How’s that going?

A: Yes, I am a notorious Orc sympathizer. In fact, the first thing I ever published on Tolkien was my pro-Orc article, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Orcs.” I initially submitted it to Slate or Salon, but it was rejected, so I added my footnotes and submitted it to Mythlore, a Tolkien studies journal. That article discusses the origins of Orcs in Tolkien’s world—he debated their origins (corrupted Elves, initially), but in the end, according to [J. R. R.’s son and literary executor] Christopher, Tolkien viewed Orcs as being corruptions of Men—and his own misgivings about them. Specifically, Tolkien thought that, as sentient beings, they ought to be able to be redeemed (like Gollum, say), but then they are not treated as such in the books. I think it is clear from the text that Orcs are just people, a race or several races of people, perhaps, but they are so literally “demonized” that, unlike the “evil” men (Dunlendings, Easterlings, etc.), they are killed (never captured) without remorse. Legolas and Gimli even play a game over who can kill the most Orcs, a lurid spectacle, especially since we’ve at that point already met Orcs who don’t even want to fight in the wars.

Tolkien provides enough information in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to show the “humanity” of the Orcs, and that’s why I’m such an advocate. They have families, “capital” cities (hence larger societies), multiple languages, different cultures, as well as human, all-too-human desires, as comes out in the dialogue between Shagrat and Gorbag, for instance. (They wish for an end to the war, and they long for a world where there are “no Big Bosses.”) I also don’t trust the Elves, a hereditary elite of immortals for whom change itself is seen as “evil,” whereas many of us—even the less Orkish ones—would like to see more change in the world.

Humorously, I gather that Tolkien in his personal life often referred to anyone boorish, loud, mean-spirited or uncouth as “Orcs.” (For instance, I read that, when he heard a noisy motorcycle ride by, he’d mutter, “Orcs!”) In a way, then, Moorcock was right to interpret the orcs as “the Mob—mindless football supporters throwing their beer bottles over the fence,” since that’s sort of what Orcs are in the stories. What they are not is demons, monsters like the Balrog, say.

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