Nicholas Gourlay's Reviews > Meditations on Middle Earth: New Writing on the Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien

Meditations on Middle Earth by Karen Haber
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Apr 17, 09

bookshelves: essay-s, non-fiction
Read in August, 2006

Originally written on 8.30.06 on www.sffworld.com.blog/779.html
I did sometyhing illogical for me a few hours ago. I read an essay while engrossed in a novel. I don’t do things like that. It requires too much concentration for me, especially just reading any essay. But maybe, just maybe, I’m evolving.
I put down ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ by Jean M. Auel to read ’How Tolkein means’ by Orson Scott Card. Maybe I had a hair up my butt, but I just felt it had to be read. No time like the present. And I am thoroughly glad that I did. I have been a member of the Barrowdowns.com forum for about 5 years now. And I have put so many holes in my copy of ‘Lord of the Rings’ that you would mistake it for swiss chesse. So it was a relief to read this:

“What Tolkien wrote is obviously not ‘serious’ but ‘escapist’.
“Those who read ‘seriously’ have no possibility of escape. They are never inside the world of the story (or at least cannot admit it in their ‘serious’ discussion of it – God forbid they should be caught committting the misdemeanor of Naïve identification). They remain in the present reality, perpetually detached from the story, examining it from the outside, until – aha! – the sword flashes and the literador stands triumphant, with another clean kill. It is a contest from which only one participant can emerge alive.
“Escapist” literature, on the other hand, demands that readers leave their present reality, and dwell, for the duration of the story, within the world the writer creates. “Escaping” readers do not hold themselves aloof, reading in order to write of what they have found. Escapists identify with protagonist, care about what they care about, judge other characters by their standards, and hope for or dread the carious outcomes that seem possible at any given moment in the tale. When the story is over, escapists are reluctant to return to prison of reality – so reluctant that they will even read the appendices in order to remain just a little longer in a world where it matters that Frodo bore the ring too long ever to return to a normal, that the elves are leaving Middle-earth, and that there is a king in Gondor.”
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- Taken from “How Tolkien Means’ by Orson Scorr Card – Meditations on middle Earth (pg 157-158)

Although I don’t fully agree with this, the basis is solid for me. My experience reading LOTR the very first time was magical. Never will I read it the same again. That applies to all novels of course, but must novels I read I do go into them a ‘escapist’ metality. The other times I have read LOTR I went to work with a ‘serious’ mentality, trying my hardest to break down structures, over turn rocks for hidden meanings, searching my heart and sould for all symbols, metaphors and allegories (even though Tolkien declared his distast for allegory in all its form, when Catholicism is such a part of you…) The experience just hasn’t been the same. I actually hadn’t even noticed it until I read Mr. Cards essay.

“Because Tolkien , like most storytellers in most societies throughtout history, value stories as stories, not as essays in disguise.” – “But Tolkien was a convert to Catholicism, and the deep story of Catholicism was a part of this worldview. It is bound to show up in his stories, not in an allegrical, conscious, encoded way, but rather as the-way-things-work.” – OSC

This written from a man that is a devout Mormon, and has portrayed some of his characters with Mormonism as his worldview (ex: Ender). I loved the Ender series, and once more will read them again. I think the next time I read it (LOTR/ENDER), I shall, ‘Get back to my reading roots’ and enjoy it all over again. The great storytellers are the ones whose characters become as real in our memories as our friends and family. My experience will never be the same as another’s but at least I’ll have one.
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message 1: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan An interesting perspective; one which I haven't really considered much before, but of the cuff I'd have to say that Card's division between serious and escapist is a bit simplistic. I too have worn out copies of LOTR, and have read Ender's Game twice, so our experience there is similar. But thinking about it, I don't think I've read either, or anything other fiction for that matter, as purely one or the other. I think it's quite possible to actively evaluate the symbolism or subtexts the author is presenting while still enjoying the story at face value. We all know the One Ring is quite obviously a symbol of evil and its corrupting influence, but it is also a very real thing that the characters must deal with; and while their reactions to it can be seen as Tolkien's commentary on the human response to evil, they still carry the story forward. I think authors, the good ones anyway (and I would include Orson Scott Card in that list so it's surprising to see his thoughts here), write on multiple levels, not just to provide an escape.

Maybe it's just the engineer in me coming out, but I try to look at everything, literary or otherwise, in a synergistic manner; no one part can be completely separated from the whole. Each individual component must be understood for what it is in and of itself, but cannot be divorced from its place in the overall scheme. This is as true of characters and plot devices as it is of units in a chemical process. To read in a purely escapist manner, or to read something written as pure escapism (see the Harry Potter series) is like eating only cotton candy: tasty for a while but ultimately unfulfilling. And yes, I know it's possible to lose sight of the forest for the trees, and I do tend to focus more on simply the escapism of the story the first time I read something. In the end though, half the fun, and almost all of the lasting, real-world importance, comes from determining how the author was relating his fictional characters to our actual reality. And if they can make the ride itself amazing into the bargain, so much the better. Tolkien does this brilliantly, as does Card (at least in Ender's Game; I'll get around to reviewing it eventually). Off the top of my head, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Watchmen, and Neil Gaiman's Sandman are all excellent examples of complex, multi-layered works which are also great fun to read.

I'll have to see if I can track down this essay and read the whole thing; it's got me thinking. Thanks for posting this, it's always interesting to see how people respond to what they're reading.


Nicholas Gourlay No problem Jonathan. I did write that review a few years ago and I can't stand firm to my same belief. I as well will have to reread it again.




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