Today, on my 11th day of quarantine, I’m wondering whether it’s a bad thing to use nostalgia as escapism.
C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel (yes–he wrote a science fiction trilogy, back in 1938) Out of the Silent Planet has a fascinating take on the uses of nostalgia. The book is clunky and not terribly good, but it has some really interesting elements in it. In fact, I wish Lewis had stuck to this kind of writing rather than move to the kind of popularized theology which later made him so famous; he might have gotten much better at it, and even as it is, he introduced some fascinating concepts. As an example, when the protagonist Ransom (whom Lewis supposedly modeled after his friend J.R.R. Tolkien) arrives on the planet Malacandra, he finds himself among a group of beings called Hrossa and learns from them about a way of life that is in many ways opposed to life on the Silent Planet–earth.
One of these differences involves how a hross views life experiences and the memories they create. As the hross called Hyoi explains to Ransom, “A pleasure is full-grown only when it is remembered. [It is ] not as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing…. What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure, as the crah is the last part of a poem…. You say you have poets in your world. Do they not teach you this?” This point is almost immediately muddied by the conversation that comes after it (Lewis clearly did not develop clarity of exposition until sometime later in his career), so let’s do the unthinkable and simply take it out of context in order to discuss the nature of nostalgia itself.
Nostalgia poses a bit of a difficulty for me. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself embarrassed about a growing tendency towards nostalgia. For example, I’d be saying things to my students, or to other young people around me, and suddenly I’d stop and say, in a rueful tone, “Man, I sound just like my grandmother talking about the old days.” That was enough to shut me up. But today, I’m wondering whether that was the wrong response.
The term “nostalgia” is interesting. The “nost” in it is Greek and comes from the word “nostos” — to return home, while the “algos” is apparently Latin and refers to pain (as in “neuralgia” — “pain due to damaged nerves”). So the word, a fine example of macaronic language (meaning a mixture of languages in one word or expression), actually means “pain in returning home,” but we use it in a difference sense, to refer to a sentimental affection for things past. Perhaps pain in the return home isn’t too far from its meaning, in that nostalgia is often bittersweet: we remember with fondness things from long ago, and lament that they are indeed in the past and no longer part of our present or our future lives.
For me, there’s a bit of a shock involved in nostalgia. As my children grew up and left the house, I found myself with more time to pause and reflect on things, and I realized that I had lived well over half my life without being conscious of the passage of time. Then all at once, it hits you like a ton of bricks. I had my “aha” moment concerning this realization on a business trip (remember business trips? there’s some nostalgia for you!) to San Francisco a while ago. My colleagues and I were discussing the city as we ate some delicious sushi.
“I was here a long time ago, but it sure has changed,” I volunteered.
“When were you here?” asked a colleague.
“Hmmm, it was—” I stopped when I realized that it had been well over 25 years since I’d been to San Francisco. The idea that I could have been walking and talking, indeed sentient, 25 years earlier, hit me hard.
And that conversation happened ten years ago now.
I’ve gotten more used to nostalgia recently, and I wonder whether the current pandemic has helped that along. But I wonder how healthy it is to indulge myself in old I Love Lucy episodes, or to watch all of Downton Abbey, or even, if I apply this to my taste in literature, to read centuries-old books. Is my nostalgia–my attraction to the past–an honest attempt to make sense of my life and to enjoy it fully, as Hyoi the Hross describes it in Lewis’s book, or is it merely retreating into a past that has nothing to do with an alarming present and an even more frightening future? Is nostalgia living one’s life to the fullest, or is it avoiding life itself?
It’s a fascinating question, one worthy of many a late-night discussion among friends and colleagues, complete with a few bottles of wine. What a shame that the pandemic that makes the question pertinent also makes getting together to discuss it an impossibility.
However, that’s what “Reply” and “Comment” buttons are for, and I look forward to reading some of yours below.
Although I’ve never been to a literary cocktail party, I have a certain game I imagine playing at one. (The truth is, I’ve never been to any kind of cocktail party, which is somewhat disappointing. As a youngster, I’d imagined that cocktail parties, like falling into a pit of quicksand, would be a regular part of adult life, and that I would be expected to know how to behave in both situations. Obviously, I was misinformed.)
At any rate, the game goes like this. A bunch of well-read people get together and confess what books they should have read but never have. It would, for those of us who teach literature for a living, be a daring game, one in which public humiliation might lie in wait for us. Who would want to admit, for example, that they had never actually read The Grapes of Wrath? Might the heavens open up, allowing peals of scandalized laughter to descend, if one were to admit, in public, that one’s copy of The Sound and the Fury had never actually been opened? It seemed to me an amusing game to play in my mind, something like Truth or Dare for grown-ups. In an alternate version of the game, I imagine myself going through life with a large deck of cards, each of which has a title printed in large, Gothic letters on its back declaring my inadequacy: Catch-22. Slaughterhouse Five. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ulysses. The list goes on and on.
The other day, I began to work at removing one of the cards from my deck of failure. This did not occur, however, as a determined plan at self-improvement. I am far beyond that stage in my life, having settled into a lazy, perhaps defeatist, sense of who I am and what I can do. Rather, it all began with an invitation to visit a friend’s high school classroom to discuss a play I’d written about C.S. Lewis and Ernest Hemingway. The class had been reading The Screwtape Letters, and, to prepare for my visit, I reread the book.
Lewis was a gifted satirist, there’s no doubt about it. His characterization of Screwtape, the devil who gives advice to his nephew Wormwood, instructing him on how to secure the soul of his “patient,” is brilliant, and I found myself wondering how he had been able to create such an enjoyable character out of a devil. The answer came quickly enough: Lewis had, after all written a short book called A Preface to Paradise Lost. He must have known the poem intimately. And, although I’d never read Milton’s epic poem in its entirety, I’d read bits of it–enough to teach it to college sophomores in the British Literature survey classes I regularly taught. (Another guilty confession: I’ve taught the poem, yet never read all of it.) I guessed, and I think I’m right, that Lewis’s depiction of Screwtape owes a good deal to Milton’s depiction of Satan.
But the question remains: why had I never read Paradise Lost? After all, I’d been teaching it for decades. The omission is nothing short of scandalous. Actually, back in graduate school, I had tried to sign up for an entire class on Milton, but the class was oversubscribed, and we students were required to apply to take it by submitting a letter stating why we thought we should be allowed into it. My letter simply said I knew next to nothing about Milton, that I expected that I would have to teach his work, and that I thought that was a good enough reason to be admitted to the class.
And so I never read the whole poem. It turns out that I had gleaned enough information from my own undergraduate days to fumble through a few class days on Paradise Lost when I began to teach English literature, and so I just relied on that. Over the years, a colleague introduced me to a few of Milton’s poems (notably “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent”), and then, much later, gave me his Milton texts when he retired and cleaned out his office, but they stayed on my shelf, treasured more because they reminded me of my colleague than for any interest I had in reading them.
And then one of my former students took a class on Milton, and suggested we read Paradise Lost together. Neither of us had the time, however, and the plan fell by the wayside. But apparently the idea stayed with me, because last week, as soon as I finished The Screwtape Letters, I dove into Paradise Lost, forcing myself to progress through it. I was helped by the fact that I was teaching Shakespeare, so the language wasn’t nearly as foreign as it could have been. When I found my attention wandering, bored by elaborate rhetorical constructions and erudite footnotes, I read Milton’s words out loud, and this kept me on track. I kept plodding through the poem, line by line, book by book, not worrying whether I was understanding all of it. I studiously ignored the footnotes, for the most part, but read my colleague’s hand-written marginal notes with affection.
And now I can say that I have read Paradise Lost, and that it wasn’t all that bad. I enjoyed parts of it. I hated the parts that were clearly anti-feminist, wishing someone else–maybe Ursula LeGuin or Virginia Woolf?–had dared to write Eve’s side of the story, since Milton had covered Adam’s point of view so thoroughly and unfairly. But as for filling in this gap in my education, I don’t feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. The heavens did not open as I finished reading the last lines of the poem. The Angel Raphael did not come down and pat me on the back. Nor did the archangel Michael arrive with a flaming sword to celebrate my victory over the text. I simply read about Adam and Eve departing Eden, sighed, and closed the book.
Did I learn anything? Just this: those things we put off because they seem too difficult are often not that difficult after all. Perhaps other people want to make us feel that they are difficult so as to make themselves feel smarter, or more worthy, than we are. In all likelihood, they aren’t. But I realize now that reading is a skill that we must train for–much like long-distance running– and I believe that as a society our reading endurance is steadily declining. We are clearly losing the taste for, and consequently the ability to, read long and rambling texts, settling instead for shorter and easier ones, and this will have serious consequences for our intellectual and public life in the coming years. Nevertheless, I believe that if we tackle our reading with confidence and optimism–if we keep to our task, pushing forward one line, even one word, at a time–we can make it through even the densest of texts.
The best part of the whole experience is that I’m now ready to discuss Paradise Lost with my former student. And for this, rather than for finally reading the whole poem, I think C.S. Lewis would be proud of me.
In 1952, Oxford don C.S. Lewis, famous now for having written his seven-book series about Narnia, published a book called Mere Christianity, which remains one of his most popular works. Lewis himself was no theologian; although he had a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Oxford in 1922, he never pursued the study of it, focusing instead on English literature. As a scholar, he is remembered for his contributions to Renaissance and medieval literary studies, not for his forays into theology. In fact, some critics find fault with his works on Christianity; while it is true that he successfully boiled Christian theology down to its most important features, his simplification of difficult concepts may have gone too far for some heavy-hitting theologians. And yet despite these criticisms, Mere Christianity is celebrated and beloved today for being the book that brought countless non-believers to accept Christianity.
I am not interested in Mere Christianity for its Christian message, however, but rather for its ideological goal and impact. I believe that what Lewis did for Christianity–boiling it down to its major premises, its essential elements–is a brilliant tactic and could, if used correctly, help save civilization as we know it. In short, I want to urge one of my readers to write a similar book. This book, however, would be called Mere Democracy.
Why is such a book needed? The answer is obvious: in the wake of decades of corruption, party politics, winner-take-all contests, and win-at-any-cost stratagems, American democracy is ailing. Indeed, some pundits have even declared it dead. Lewis probably feared the same end for Christianity, yet, instead of giving up, he set to work and succeeded in revitalizing the Christian religion with his book.
What would Mere Democracy look like? Here’s my idea: It would be a modest book written in plain language that spelled out the basic tenets of democracy. Rather than providing a lengthy history of democracy and a comparison of different types of government, Mere Democracy would explain to the masses–to those very people who should be safeguarding democracy–what democracy looks like without the corrupting shadow of gerrymandered districts, unlimited corporate lobbying, and mindless populism. It would work to educate and inform, in plain language, those people who are put off by elitism, arrogance, and entitlement. In short, Mere Democracy would spell out the very least a society must do in order to remain democratic. In doing so, it would of course be incomplete and reductive; in its drive towards simplicity and clarity, it would not satisfy political scientists or sociologists; but it could, like Lewis’s book, help millions of people see their world in a new and vital way and convert them into a new understanding of the best form of government humanity has yet discovered.
Somewhere in the blogosphere today is the person who could write this book. Is it you? If so, I urge you to get started. I don’t mean to be alarmist, but the clock is ticking, and we’re running out of time.
Please note: This is a very long post. It is based on a talk I gave yesterday (October 28, 2017) at the C.S. Lewis Festival in Petoskey, Michigan. Consider yourself warned!
The study of myth seems to me to take three different paths:
Anthropological / Archeological: the study of classical mythologies (Bulfinch’s Mythology, Edith Hamilton)
Religious / Transcendent: the spiritual meaning of myth (Karen Armstrong, Joseph Campbell, Sigmund Freud)
Structuralist: the study of the same structures that recur in myths (Northrop Frye, Joseph Campbell, Roland Barthes)
This is all interesting, but I would like to back up a moment. I feel like I’ve arrived a dinner party, and that somehow I missed the first two courses. I feel as if I might get some kind of mental indigestion if I don’t start over at the very beginning.
The fact is, I want to know something more fundamental about myth and its function.
I want to know what it is and how it works.
Specifically, I want to know what distinguishes myth from other forms of story-telling.
Because for me, Story-Telling is what distinguishes human beings, homo sapiens, from all other species on this planet, as far as we know.
Studies have shown that crows have memories
Studies have shown that chimpanzees use tools
Philosophers are now beginning to agree that animals do indeed have consciousness
But we—we should be known not as homo sapiens (wise man, the man who knows), but as homo narrans—the speaking man, the man who tells, who narrates—story-telling man. Because it is clear to me that we humans communicate largely through story-telling, and this story-telling function, this tendency to rely on narration, is what makes us human.
I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a little while as I tease this out. I’d like to say that by the end of this essay, I’ll have some answers to the questions I posed (what is myth, and how does it work, and what is the difference between a really good story and a myth)—but I’m pretty sure I won’t. I may, however, ask some more questions that might eventually lead me to some answers.
So here goes. To begin with, a few people who weigh in on what myth is and what it does:
Roland Barthes, the French post-structuralist literary theorist, says that myth is a type of speech, a system of communication, a kind of message. In a way, Barthes and JRR Tolkien are not really different on this point, incredible as it is to think of Barthes and Tolkien agreeing on anything at all, much less something so important to each of them.
They are both incredibly passionate and devoted to the concept of language
Barthes, in his book Mythologies, which I have shamelessly cherry-picked for this essay, says that the myth’s objective in being told is not really important; it is the way in which it conveys that message that is important.
He says that “the knowledge contained in a mythical concept is confused, made of yielding, shapeless associations” (119).
But this isn’t as bad as it sounds, because myths actually don’t need to be deciphered or interpreted.
While they may work with “Poor, incomplete images” (127), they actually do their work incredibly efficiently. Myth, he says, gives to its story “a natural and eternal justification…a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact” (143).
Myth is a story in its simple, pure form. “It acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences…” (143).
You can see how this view of myth kind of works with the myth-building that Tolkien does in The Lord of the Rings, which works with simple efficiency, whose very images are incomplete to the point of needing clarification in Appendices and further books like the Silmarillion. Yet even without having read these appendices and other books, we grasp what Tolkien is getting at. We know what Middle-Earth is like, because the myth that Tolkien presents needs no deciphering, no real interpretation for us to grasp its significance.
Tolkien, I think we can all agree, was successful in creating a myth specifically for England, as Jane Chance and many other scholars have now shown to be his intention. But is it a novel? Some might argue it isn’t—myself included. In fact, what Tolkien created in The Lord of the Rings is less a myth (I would argue that we only use that term because Tolkien himself used it to describe his work and his object—think of the poem “Mythopoeia,” which he dedicated to C.S. Lewis) than it is a full-blown epic.
For my definition of epic versus novel, I’m going to my personal literary hero, Mikhail Bakhtin, a great thinker, a marvelous student of literature, a man who wrote with virtually no audience at all for many years because he was sent into internal exile in the Soviet Union. In his essay “Epic and the Novel,” Bakhtin attributes these characteristics to epic:
It deals with an absolute past, where there is little resemblance to the present;
It is invested with national tradition, not personal experience, arousing something like piety;
There is an absolute, unbridgeable distance between the created world of epic and the real world.
The novel, says Bakhtin, is quite the opposite. It is new, changing, and it constantly “comes into contact with the spontaneity of the inconclusive present; this is what keeps the genre from congealing. The novelist is drawn toward everything that is not yet completed” (27).
I think the three characteristics of epic described by Bakhtin do in fact match up nicely with The Lord of the Rings: absolute past, national tradition, distance between the actual and the created world. But here’s another thing about epic as described by Bakhtin: “The epic world knows only a single and unified world view, obligatory and indubitably true for heroes as well as for authors and audiences” (35). It would be hard, indeed impossible, to imagine The Lord of the Rings told from a different point of view. We need that distant narrator, who becomes more distant as the book goes on. As an example, imagine The Lord of the Rings told from Saruman’s point of view, or from Gollum’s. Or even from Bilbo or Frodo’s point of view. Impossible! Of course, we share some of the point of view of various characters at various points in the narrative (I’m thinking specifically of Sam’s point of view during the Cirith Ungol episode), but it couldn’t be sustained for the whole of the trilogy.
The interesting thing here is that in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien took the novel form and invested it with epic. And I think we can say that against all odds, he was successful. On the other hand, C.S. Lewis, in his last book Till We Have Faces, took a myth (the story of Cupid and Psyche), which is certainly more closely related to epic than it is to novel, and turned it into a successful novel. This isn’t the time and place to talk about Till We Have Faces, although I hope someday that we can come together in the C.S. Lewis Festival to do that very thing, but I couldn’t help mentioning this, because it’s striking that Lewis and Tolkien, while they clearly fed off each other intellectually and creatively, started from opposite ends in writing their greatest creative works, as they did in so many other things. It’s almost amazing that you can love both of them at the same time, but of course you can. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do.
But I’m losing the thread of my questions here. What is myth? Can we actually have modern myths? Can someone actually set out with the intention of creating a myth? And can a mythic work spontaneously just happen? Another question needs to be posed here: if this long book, which is probably classified in every bookstore and library as a novel, touches on myth but is really an epic, can a novel, as we know it, become a myth? This forces us to tighten up our definition of what a myth is and asks us to think about what myth does.
Karen Armstrong, I think, would say yes, to all three of these questions. In her book A Short History of Myth, Armstrong follows the trajectory of myths through time and argues that the advent of printing and widespread literacy changed how we perceive and how we receive myth. These developments changed myth’s object and its function—and ultimately, it changed the very essence of myth.
Armstrong points out that myths and novels have similarities:
They are both meditative
They can both be transformative
They both take a person into another world for a significant period of time
They both suspend our disbelief
They break the barriers of time and space
They both teach compassion
Inspired by Armstrong and by Bakhtin, I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a stab at answering my questions. And I’ll start by defining a modern myth as a super-story of a kind: a novel (or a film, because let’s open this up to different kinds of story-telling) that exerts its power on a significant number of people. These stories then provide, in film professor and writer Stuart Voytilla’s words, “the guiding images of our lives.”
In short, a modern myth has these characteristics:
It belongs to a certain place and time. Like epic, it is rooted in a time and a place. It might not be far removed from the actual, but it cannot be reached from the actual.
It unites a group of readers, often a generation of readers, by presenting an important image that they recognize.
It unites a group of readers by fostering a similar reaction among them.
It contains identifiable elements that are meaningful to its readers/viewers. Among these might be important messages (“the little guy can win after all,” “there’s no place like home,” the American Dream has become a nightmare”).
In other words, a mythic story can be made intentionally, as Star Wars was by George Lucas after he considered the work of Joseph Campbell; or it can happen accidentally. Surely every writer dreams of writing a mythic novel—the Great American novel—but it’s more or less an accident. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a mythic novel of American, until it was displaced by To Kill a Mockingbird. And I would note here that having your novel go mythic (as we might term it—it is, in a way, like “going viral,” except mythic stories tend to last longer than viral ones) is not really such a good thing after all. Look at Harper Lee—one mythic novel, and that was the end of her artistic output—as far as we know. A mythic novel might just be the last thing a great writer ever writes.
Anyway, back to our subject: a modern myth gets adopted rather than created. Great myths are not made; they become. So let’s’ think of a few mythic novels and see how they line up with my four characteristics:
The Wizard of Oz
The Great Gatsby or Death of a Salesman—take your pick.
The Case of Local Myths—family or friend myths, references you might make to certain films or novels that only a small number of people might understand. A case in point would be the re-enactments of The Rocky Horror Picture Show that take place each year around Halloween.
In essence, my answer, such as it is, to the questions I posed earlier comes down to this:
Modern myths are important stories that unite their readers or viewers with similar emotional and intellectual reactions. Modern mythology works by presenting recognizable and significant images that unite the people who read or view them. As for what distinguishes modern myths from other forms of story-telling, what tips a “normal” novel or film over into the realm of “mythic”—I don’t have an answer for this. I only have a couple of vague, unformed theories. One of my theories is this: Could one difference between myth and the novel (“mere” story-telling as such) be that myth allows the reader/listener to stay inside the story, while the novel pushes the reader back out, to return to the actual world, however reluctantly?
And let’s not forgot what Karen Armstrong wrote about myth: “It has been writers and artists, rather than religious leaders, who have stepped into the vacuum [created by the loss of religious certainty and despair created by modernism] and attempted to reacquaint us with the mythological wisdom of the past” (138). Armstrong’s closing sentence is perhaps the most important one in the book: “If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world” (149). With this in mind, perhaps it’s time to go and read some more, and find more myths that can help us repair and restore ourselves, our faith in our culture, and in doing so, the world itself.
“I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves.” –Jorge Luis Borges
“In short, reading is directed creation.” –Jean-Paul Sartre
As the number of blogs and podcasts about writing multiply with Malthusian abandon, overpopulating our digital feeds, the topic of reading seems much less popular these days. Of course, there are the articles published in the various newspapers and magazines stating that science bears out what every English teacher has always suspected: the act of reading makes us more sympathetic and thus better people. (You can read articles of this kind here and here and here.) But are these articles enough to make us better, more serious, “literary” readers?
Apparently not. And the reason is simple: the creation of better human beings is not the sum-total of what reading offers us. In other words, reading literature is too important an activity to engage in just because it might make us better or more moral people.
That might seem an incendiary statement, but I don’t mean it as one. In fact, I am echoing C.S. Lewis, who wrote in his short book An Experiment in Criticism, published in 1961 and thus one of the last things he wrote, “I have rejected the view that literature is to be valued (a) for telling us truths about life, (b) as an aid to culture. I have also said that, while we read, we must treat the reception of the work we are reading as an end in itself.” But this, he has said earlier, is precisely what most readers simply cannot do.
In this book Lewis theorizes that there are two kinds of readers: the unliterary readers (whom he calls “users“), and the literary readers (whom he calls “receivers.” Users tend to, well, use books to achieve a desired end: entertainment, escapism, gathering information. In fact, it’s not too far-fetched to theorize that the epidemic rise of unreliable news is due to the fact that there are too many users in our society and not enough receivers. According to Lewis, “the most unliterary reader of all sticks to ‘the news.’ He reads daily, with unwearied relish, how, in some place he has never seen, under circumstances which never become quite clear, someone he doesn’t know has married, rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered someone else he doesn’t know.” It’s just possible that these readers and the demand they place on profit-seeking media are skewing the type of reading that is available to us, leaving receiving readers out in the cold and clogging up our news feeds with sensationalist tripe. These users, Lewis might say, would be better off reading mystery, spy, or some other kind of thrilling novels, but their desire for “the news” precludes them from doing so.
Receivers, those who read in a literary way, exert their critical and imaginative faculties to treat the book as an end in itself, not as a link in a chain leading to a desired end. They give themselves fully to the experience of reading. As Lewis says, those of us who want to be receiving readers “must empty our minds and lay ourselves open.” Such readers, few though they may be, can change the way they see things, and in this way, they can help to change the world itself.
Yet the idea that reading makes us better people puts the whole activity of literary reading at risk, co-opting it for some kind of greater, communal good, which is in my view putting the cart before the horse. In other words, reading may be good for human beings, but it certainly won’t be if reading is relegated to the role of making good human beings. This kind of utilitarian advocacy of reading is dangerous. We have already lost so much to utilitarian ideas. In our universities, composition classes have been usurped to create students who can write discipline-specific reports and papers, not essays that allow for exploration and expression. In fact, college itself has become a mere step in the path to obtaining a good job (with the irony that going to college does not necessarily lead to a good job and almost certainly leads to the acquisition of debt). And of course there are those who argue that art must have a political dimension to be relevant. So many intellectual and artistic activities have already been offered up on the altar of utilitarianism. Must we really give up the act of reading, too?
My point is this: only in pursuing these activities in and of themselves–for example, in reading for the sake of reading, in educating oneself for the sake of being an educated person, in painting in order to depict the world, whatever shape it takes–only by doing these things freely, without the thought of some added benefit, can we engage in truly imaginative activities. We should be far beyond the point of saying that reading is good for us, that it makes us better human beings. That’s the kind of thinking that went out of fashion with the death of Jeremy Bentham (whose embalmed body presides over University College London). Instead, we should be asking ourselves this: how do we become better readers? And perhaps more importantly, how do we turn using readers into receiving readers?
Reading is something of a holy act when we do it freely, because it marries the ability to sound out words with the use of our intellect and our imagination, connecting us with the past and propelling us into the future. As Sartre says, “reading is a pact of generosity between author and reader. Each one trusts the other; each one counts on the other, demands of the other as much as he demands of himself.” Reading, as Borges says above, is its own art form. If we acknowledged this, we would be much less tempted to assign it additional value; reading would be enough in and of itself.
Today is Tolkien Reading Day, so I’m going to talk a bit about The Hobbit, which is much more–and much less–than it appears to be. Obviously it’s Bilbo’s journey to the Lonely Mountain to defeat Smaug the dragon—he goes, as the subtitle tells us, both there and back again—but on the way he finds himself, or rather, a version of himself he never knew existed: a courageous little hobbit who gambles with a fortune he really has no claim to, and he manages to survive it all. He grows in several ways, so in The Hobbit, we see the development of a hero. But there are a few things in the novel that I find frustrating, and one in particular, so forgive me if I take the opportunity to get this off my chest.
I’m going to begin by referring, as Barbara Bush did in her extremely successful commencement speech at Wellesley in 1990, to a now famous story from Robert Fulghum’s book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. You’ve probably heard it before: Fulghum is leading a group of children who are playing the game “Giants, Wizards, or Dwarfs” – a life-size version of Rock, Paper, Scissors. The children are instructed to choose what they will be in the game and then go stand with their peers. As they make their choices, a little girl walks up to Fulghum, taps him on the elbow, and asks, “Where do the Mermaids stand?” When Fulghum informs the girl that there are no Mermaids in the game, she surprises him by replying, “Oh yes, there are. I am one!”
Both Fulghum, and later Bush, use this story to celebrate the independence and creativity of a little girl who refuses to be categorized, who thinks outside of the box, even though any teacher could tell you that this girl, charming as she is in the story, will probably cause quite a few headaches for those around her as she grows older. But what Fulghum’s and Bush’s story both seem to miss is that among Giants, Wizards, and Dwarves, there are no female roles. I mean, what’s a girl to do when faced with a game like this, after all? Mermaids do seem like the only option.
I bring this up because we have pretty much the same problem in The Hobbit. I’ve read it many times now, and yet I know a lot of people who have never read the book, or who have started it and never made it through. I’m beginning to think I know why: at least one reason may be because there aren’t any women in the book. None. Bilbo’s mother, Belladonna Took, is mentioned within the first few pages of the novel, but only as a conduit for some adventurous Tookish blood to make it into her son’s prosaic make-up.
So, in the absence of women, what do we do, those of us who are women readers? In other words, if this is a world where there are only hobbits, dwarves, elves, and wizards, and none of them are women, then where in Middle Earth are we supposed to stand? Given this problem, it’s kind of surprising that any women read the novel at all. The really remarkable thing about The Hobbit, then, isn’t how many people haven’t read it, but how many people have.
I wanted to explore this lack of female representation, coming from my frustrating foray into Western films last week. To begin with, I think I can tell you where Tolkien’s lack of women characters originates—it’s pretty easy to see, and it isn’t from Tolkien’s personal life. The fact is, Tolkien was really an anachronism, writing in 1937. By this I mean that he may have been writing a children’s story, but he was borrowing heavily from his area of professional expertise: Old English literature. In The Hobbit, we see a riddle game (The Exeter Book, written in Old English, contains close to 100 riddles, and Tolkien, as a professor of Anglo Saxon, would have known these intimately). We also see elements that are clearly borrowed from Tolkien’s great, lifelong, passion: Beowulf; in fact, as you can read here, Tolkien’s 1926 translation of Beowulf is set to be published for the first time in a couple of months. Like The Hobbit, Beowulf has a dragon, a thief who provokes the dragon, several monsters to kill, and very few women. Beowulf doesn’t concern itself with women; they come into the story, more frequently than in The Hobbit, but they don’t really achieve much, and they don’t stay long. For the most part, it seems women just weren’t considered worth writing about in Old English.
Another way of looking at it is to say that it’s not that women are excluded from The Hobbit: it’s just that they’re not represented. There’s a subtle difference here, actually. The default gender in The Hobbit is male; Tolkien is not interested in the relationship between the sexes, because this story is for children, and sex—as we all know—is not for children. (Or is it? Tell that to Disney, which thrives on marketing sex for children—a mostly sanitized version of sex, but sex nonetheless). Tolkien was clearly looking for a purer form of escape than Disney ever did, however, and he purged his created world of sex in the crudest way possible: by eliminating women from the story completely.
So, to sum up my point so far, in this children’s story that repudiates gender relationships (goodness knows Tolkien has all he can handle negotiating the relationships between the elves, dwarves, men, and goblins in The Hobbit), we have virtually no female characters. But is this really a problem for female readers? Strangely enough, I’d say not really: it might be a problem for very young female readers, but for the most part, women learn pretty quickly in their reading experience not to expect books that highlight the female point of view. For every Jane Eyre, there are five David Copperfields. True, these days young adult literature is changing and there are so many more books written from the point of view of girls—but this is a recent development. Back when I went to school we had to read A Separate Peace and Lord of the Flies—and neither book has any active female characters. It’s no wonder I wasn’t crazy about my high school English classes.
Thankfully, children’s literature has changed, but The Hobbit hasn’t. It persists in the intentionally gender-free (that is, male) world Tolkien created, and its female readers have to do a great deal of work to identify with the characters in the story. We’re probably not even aware that we are doing this work, either. Like many other things we do, it comes naturally to us now—this ideological cross-dressing we do so well in so many parts of our lives. When we read, women often think like men, not because we want to, but because we have to in order to enter the text.
This may sound like a criticism of Tolkien, and perhaps it is, but I think there is good to be gained from reading The Hobbit. First, readers need to notice what isn’t in a text as well as what is in it. If we want to gain from our reading practice and return to our world richer from the experience of reading—which is the only justifiable excuse for reading as much as I do, then we need to see what’s been left out of a story to make it work. (This is basic deconstruction, left over from the 1980s, but it still holds true today.) Second, noting the lack of women in The Hobbit shows us just how powerful a reader’s mind is, in that woman have been able to read, study, and enjoy the book for over 80 years now despite the fact that we’re not represented in it. Third, it’s possible that women readers appreciate The Hobbit precisely because there are no women in the story, as a form of fantasy escape—especially if you have a household full of teenage daughters.
Mostly, though, I want to point out that Tolkien, for all his talent and imagination, went just so far and no further in his creative work. Unwilling to deal with gender issues in his story, he simply avoided them by omitting women completely. Can we say that his friend C.S. Lewis did any better? Not in his space trilogy, and many readers would argue he did even worse in The Chronicles of Narnia (the problem of Susan). But late in life, Lewis engendered a world that turns on a woman’s perspective in a book that should satisfy the demands of any long-neglected female reader: Till We Have Faces, told from the point of view of a woman. It makes me wish that Tolkien and Lewis hadn’t drifted apart, because I’m convinced that Tolkien could have learned a thing or two from his friend Jack if he’d only been willing to listen to him.