Archæology

The assorted finds of Artefact Publishing

Heredity and Middle-earth

Michael finds Tolkien's obsession with blood and birth distasteful and is unsympathetic to that world view. Obviously that’s a matter of taste, and not to be argued over, but I think it’s worth pointing out that it is of a kind with some attitudes today. Just recently Carla said if my ancestors promised certain rights to a group of people, I expect to honour those promises, and it is precisely that connection which Tolkien is emphasising as having reality in Middle-earth. These connections between people and peoples are not only by blood; oaths are important bindings between those who are unrelated by blood or marriage, as with Finrod’s oath to aid the house of Barahir.

Also, just as fairy-tale princesses are beautiful, because or as an indicator of their virtue, so the Edain are greater than other Men because of their contact with the Elves and their faithfulness. Here the world view adopted by Tolkien for his work has been reified, made real in the story.

Moreover, these familial, dynastic and racial strands are a cornerstone of Arda's history, is almost what history is. It is useful to recall that the Children of Ilúvatar were a theme of Ainulindalë, the Great Music of Creation, and it is no stretch to see in those strands of blood the threads of music in that theme. The reality of kinship in Middle-earth is a large part of that world’s cause and effect; it cannot be removed or dismissed without destroying any sense there is in the work.

Posted by jamie on July 20, 2003 13:09+12:00

Comments

I don't think Tolkien's mythology is at all of a kind with modern attitudes, such as feeling responsible for one's ancestors' actions. Tolkien is concerned with blood, contamination and virtue, and to him you can't possibly be as good as a person if your ancestry isn't up to scratch. (Indeed, if your blood isn't the very best, you are physically a lesser person: don't live as long, are shorter and less fair etc etc etc.) This may well be a vision perfectly consistent with Tolkien's mythology, as I allowed in my original review, but it is still extremely distasteful, as I hope you'd agree.

If Tolkien's attitudes were modern (i.e., descendents feeling responsible for and a connection with the past), then faithful Beregond of the guard in Minas Tirith would be just as capable as Aragorn of raising the Dead to fulfil their ancient obligations, and becoming King. But no, he gets to fulfil the faithful dog role and continue to worship Faramir.

Blood and ancestry are important mythic tropes in all sorts of traditions (Jesus has an important human ancestry too), and their power can't be denied. And yes, this stuff makes Tolkien's story more consistent. What we shouldn't do is pretend that it isn't also distasteful.

Posted by: michael on July 21, 2003 12:02+12:00

I think you’re slightly overstating the case against the ability of individuals to be better or worse than their ancestry would indicate. That aside, however, I also think that the jump from believing oneself an inheritor of one’s ancestors’ actions to having that be literally true, and consequently a determinant of many of the physical (and, to a much lesser extent, psychological) qualities of oneself, is not entirely alienating to the modern mind.

As for distasteful: yes, when taken from that fiction out into the real world, but that’s not at all how I approach the work. That is to say, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest in Tolkien’s works, and I don’t naturally think of it in other contexts. My distate then feels an artificial thing, because to take the attitude out of the books is (for me) to make it unconnected to the books.

Posted by: Jamie on July 22, 2003 09:35+12:00

Hmmm... Almost makes me want to read Tolkien again. Haven't read the rings since I was 17 and clueless. In fact, that's the only time - I found it a bit blokey and violent. But maybe I'd appreciate some of the other levels now.

Posted by: Fi on July 29, 2003 10:58+12:00

I'd suggest that being born into a family can create two things:

  1. an expectation that you will live up to some ideals, and
  2. some skills and information which will help you to achieve them.

Also Faramir and Boromir have the same blood, but different stories.

Saruman betrays everyone horribly. I've not yet run into a reference of his heritage that I can remember, but I don't think he is of any less noble birth than Gandalf.

Posted by: .carla on August 15, 2003 00:01+12:00