44 Comments
Jul 8Liked by Henry Oliver

I loved this (and I read The Hobbit out loud to my daughter, and I totally agree with the overall premise!). But I don't think your objection to Richard Hanania really holds water.

The key thing with Tolkien is that he manifestly expects us to notice the incongruity - to see the sheer oddity of the very middle-class English Bilbo engaged on this heroic quest for treasure with dragons and elves and dwarves and the like. A lot of the humor of The Hobbit (and it is a very funny book) depends precisely on that incongruous meeting of different world-views. But the incongruity also allows us to appreciate the sheer heroism that Bilbo finally is able to steel himself to: precisely because he doesn't look like a "classic" hero, his courage is all the more noticeable and moving.

But with the modern "social justice" anachronisms that Hanania critiques, we are precisely supposed NOT to notice, NOT to perceive them as anachronisms. We are supposed to pretend that there is nothing odd about the multi-racial sisters in The Little Mermaid, or about a world where people of different races fail ever to mention their skin-color, even while commenting on other aspects of their physical appearance. And that is jarring in a different way, one which feels much more damaging to the coherence and believability (in a broad sense) of the story-universe.

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Glad to hear you also read it to your children! Such joy!

He made his comment as if it was a rule of literature but it manifestly isn't. He may or may not have a point about certain films, but his generalisation was wrong, as in my view so many generalisations about literature are. I don't have much of a view on the woke point, as such, just on the general idea. (Though I think he needs to account for why we are happy to take the idea of e.g. a talking mermaid family at face value if we cannot accept the rest of it...)

I wrote about anachronisms recently: https://www.commonreader.co.uk/p/when-is-it-acceptable-to-change-historical?utm_source=publication-search

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"Race" as we know it is a social construct, based in the specific history of this world. "Whiteness," for example, was invented in the 17th century, to provide a logical and practical basis for color-based slavery.

There's no reason to suppose that a fantasy world must have race working the same way, if it has race at all.

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The words "as we know it" are doing a lot of work there. Long before the 17th century, people noticed racial difference, thought about skin color as a marker of racial difference, constructed explanations for racial difference (see e.g. Hippocrates' Airs, Waters & Places for an early example), created implicit hierarchies based around racial difference. Similar things happen in every human society I am aware of.

If a creator wishes to hypothesize a fantasy society where that is not the case, then by all means they can do so: you could make great fantasy/SF worlds like that. But they would need to construct it rationally, so that it makes sense, explaining what kind of society would have such an anomalous approach to ethnic markers - not simply throw people of different races in there and ignore the fact.

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To be clear, I did not say "race" was invented in the 17th century, just the "white" category.

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Yes, and I've often heard that suggested. But I wonder if even that is true, at least in the strong form you would need for the argument here.

In Wolfram von Eschenbach's 13th-century epic poem Parzival, one of the main characters, Feirefiz, has skin that is mottled black and white, like a checkerboard, and it is explained that this is because he had a white father and a black mother. Now, this is of course biologically nonsensical (presumably Wolfram had never actually met a mixed race person, or perhaps even a Black person), but I don't see how one could make sense of it except on the assumption that in 13th century Germany "whites" were seen as a category of people distinct from "blacks" as a category.

What is certainly true is that in the 17th century, "Blacks" as a group began to be held to have all sorts of negative qualities, with the corresponding positive qualities given to "Whites" as a group - and that did indeed arise as a concomitant with and justification for color-based slavery. But there is a difference between saying that a particular set of qualities were ascribed to the group "white people" in the 17th century, and saying that the idea of "white people" as a distinct group arose in the 17th century. The former is clearly true: I doubt that the latter is.

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I mean, it’s not really disputed among historians in the relevant fields. If you’re interested, some books are:

Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (1996), by Kim F. Hall

The Invention of the White Race, Vols. 1 & 2 (1994 & 1997), by Theodore W. Allen

The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture (2000), by Roxann Wheeler

Short of that, the intro to this Wikipedia article is an accurate short summary, and what follows may answer some of your questions.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_people

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You will surely enjoy Le Guin’s piece on “Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings” in her essay collection “The Wave in the Mind”.

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Jul 8Liked by Henry Oliver

Yes, it’s a marvellous essay - though she is talking about rhythm in thematic treatment, rather than metre. But metre in prose is everywhere, once you look. I first noticed this scanning passages from Moby Dick. A huge part of the force of the writing.

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oh yes, sounds great! she is grossly under stocked in the London Library...

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Thank you, Henry, for these wonderful facts about one of my favorite authors (the other being his Inkling friend Jack).

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I am also reading Narnia atm, splendid books!

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It is lovely to be reminded of a favourite childhood book later in life. All beloved books hold special places in the heart, children's more than others, perhaps.

Thank you for the insight on Tolkien's metre - I enjoyed reading the book out loud to my boys, and now I see why.

The Hobbit has something else that raised the bar for books in my childhood: a brilliant map. Like the Winnie-the-Pooh Hundred Aker Wood by EH Shepherd, it is the cartography of wonder that I would flick back to when my young mind was choked on words guzzled too quickly and needed a pause for digestion.

Those maps are still guides to landscapes I take seriously today.

Did you ever visit The Eagle and Child in Oxford, where he and CS Lewis met to talk books as The Inklings? A 3D proto-Substack, if ever there were one. It has closed, I think. How one fails to make money in a tourist Mecca running a pub where the Lord of the Rings author drank is totally beyond me.

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Sorry to hear it has closed! I used to drink there, once upon a time...

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I really love Tolkien's illustrations and maps in The Hobbit. When I was a kid I didn't like them, I found them too simple; but now that I'm an adult I love them. In particular, I appreciate self-illustrated writing. (See also: Moomintroll.) It feels like a privilege to see visually how the author imagines the world they've created.

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I want a whole large book of his maps...

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I always love learning more about Papa Tolkien!

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Wow, thank you for this! Currently reading the Hobbit for my 2nd/ 3rd time. I did not know much about the specific details of how Tolkien used his knowledge of language for those small details like Bilbo’s name and Bag End and all that! I even took a class on Tolkien, along with a general obsession with his work, but mostly knew of the influence of medieval history and some of the Norse mythology influence.

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Jul 9Liked by Henry Oliver

It is, and has always been, one of my favorite books ever since I was a little kid. It’s been too long since I read it. I had better go find it and immerse myself again.

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I've been dying to read the Hobbit for a second time after the first was in elementary school read by the teacher. It seems everyone else is dying too because i've been on my library's waiting list for the past 4 months! Though I never noticed it as a kid, I have heard but never really could fathom the uniqueness of Tolkien's writing. This was a nice article for someone like me. Thank you for sharing!

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My then 15 year old brother read 'The Hobbit' to me as bedtime reading when I was seven. Life and books were never the same after that adventure.

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This is really interesting! I read a lot on creative writing, but rarely do I take prose into account. Yet it is such an essential part of the art form. Thank you for the reminder!

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Jul 9Liked by Henry Oliver

Tolkien kind of falls in the category of Well Told But Not Well Written, except it's not that badly written. Nicol Williamson did a marvelous reading of The Hobbit, which is posted on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ggm7XM-3dF8&ab_channel=ZEST123

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Jul 8Liked by Henry Oliver

I finally read A Wizard of Earthsea for the first time a couple of years back, and I was dumbfounded by the attention she pays to the use of meter - once you start noticing the iambs, amphibrachs, anapaests and all the rest, they're there on every page, practically every paragraph.

(What a book 'Author of the Century' is, by the way - it really unlocks the great river of myth and fairy tale and language and epic that Tolkein was connecting his work to)

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Jul 8Liked by Henry Oliver

Makes you think they were written to be read out loud, parents reading to their kids.

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JRRT read it out loud to the Inklings, ofc, and Lewis talked about stories being "for the ear"

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@Chris you would like this

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Jul 8Liked by Henry Oliver

I just started this, for the first time: I read LOTR for the first time when I was 41. The only Tolkien I read “young” —already in my 20s— was The Silmarillion! In any event, I’m not a fantasy or genre reader and am always very tense about prose, and I have no idea why people are down on his; it seems good to very good to me, nothing extraordinary but never anything foolish or embarrassing or that reduces my trust in him!

So far, this book is a total blast, and I’m very excited to read it to Kizzy someday!

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I love them both and have become much more interested in genre fantasy in the lazy few years (though I no longer see the line) — it’s cool to read these books later on! More people should!

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ugh typo sorry

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