Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Tolkien Week: The Lord of the Rings and Gothic Fiction

This week, in honor of Tolkien Week and to celebrate the release of The Sword of Six Worlds, I have a variety of guests sharing their thoughts about J.R.R. Tolkien and his influence on their own work. Today's post comes from C.L. Holland, a British fantasy writer and poet. She has been published in Daily Science Fiction and several other places. You can visit her website, or follow her on Twitter.

“I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?” - The Lord of the Rings and Gothic Fiction

When I agreed to write something for Tolkien week, I had the idea of revisiting my work on The Lord of the Rings and the Gothic. There’s a lot to be said on the subject, and about Gothic features in fantasy and science fiction as a whole Frankenstein is, after all, both a Gothic text and one of the earliest written examples of science fiction. LoTR, although it’s fantasy, shows some noticeably Gothic features.

One of the common tropes of the Gothic is for novels to be in the form of “real" documents. Dracula is a famous example of this, since it's made up entirely of journal entries, letters, and newspaper clippings. Frankenstein opens with letters, and the novel itself is presented as a journal with more letters within it. The same motif can also be seen in Melmoth the Wanderer and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

LoTR is also presented as being based on actual documents. As Tolkien notes in the Prologue, the novel’s predecessor The Hobbit is a selection from a (fictional) record called the Red Book of Westmarch. The Prologue goes on to discuss other “records” connected with Middle-earth (the world of the novel) and refers to LoTR as a history, an illusion furthered by the lengthy appendices in the back.

However, there is a difference between the use of “real” documents in the Gothic and in LoTR. In the Gothic these documents are often presented as collections of personal documents, letters and journals written by individuals about their experiences. LoTR, on the other hand, is not presented as a personal document at all.

The Gothic and fantasy often divide their characters into “good” and “evil”. In the Gothic such divisions are usually simplistic: Hyde is the evil to Jekyll’s good; Dracula is evil, the vampire hunters are good. This division is not always so overt, for example in the moral ambiguities of Frankenstein. LoTR follows the same general pattern of signposting good and evil: orcs, trolls, and Sauron are evil; whereas elves, hobbits, and Gandalf are good.

However in LoTR as in the Gothic, good characters can be tempted to evil. There are the obvious examples of Gollum and Saruman, who have been tempted even before the novel begins. Within the novel Boromir tries to take the Ring, and Galadriel, too, considers taking it when Frodo offers it to her. Frodo himself gives in to the lure of the Ring as he stands at the edge of Mount Doom. Ready to cast the Ring into the fire, he instead decides to keep it for himself.

Where LoTR differs from the Gothic is redemption. Boromir redeems himself by sacrificing his life trying to save Merry and Pippin from Saruman’s orcs, and Galadriel by refusing to take the Ring when it is offered. Frodo is redeemed by the actions of Gollum, who in trying to get the Ring falls into the fires of Mount Doom with it–an accident which arguably redeems them both. For the truly evil characters, there is no redemption. The same is true of Gothic villains: there is no redemption for Frankenstein, or Dracula.

A less obvious way in which LoTR resembles the Gothic is in its portrayal of vampirism. This doesn’t necessarily mean traditional blood-drinking, but the effect this particular brand of evil has on the characters. Dracula is one of the Gothic’s most famous monsters, and there are parallels with the novel in LoTR.

The critic Brian Rosebury wrote that the good in LoTR is diverse, whereas evil tends towards homogeneity–it negates all that is “not self”, through consumption, or through enslavement.* This consumption has obvious parallels with vampirism–the vampire, too, consumes all that is “not-self.” Shelob is not the only creature in LoTR that literally consumes others. Although Gollum was once likely “of hobbit-kind” he eats raw meat and fish, worms and beetles and is rumoured to eat hobbits, children, and carrion.

This negation of the not-self through consumption can been seen in Dracula in the figure of Renfield. He eats flies, but also collects spiders, to which he feeds the flies, and sparrows, to which he feeds the spiders. After being refused a cat, he eats the birds. Like Gollum he also evidences cannibalistic tendencies. In one of his saner moments he tells Mina how on one occasion he tried to kill his doctor “for the purpose of strengthening my vital powers by the assimilation with my own body of his life through the medium of his blood.”

Vampires, like Rosebury’s description of the evil in LoTR, are homogenous. Although they are nominally male and female, either sex can procreate and they do so in the same manner–by homogenising their victims into either corpses or other vampires. The One Ring also homogenises its victims. Gollum, Bilbo, and Isildur all call it “precious”, and it unnaturally extends the lives of its owners, while turning them into shadows of themselves. As Bilbo tells Gandalf, “I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread”.

LoTR is far from the only fantasy story showing features of Gothic fiction. You don’t have to look any further than the labyrinthine passages of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, or even Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books to see it. It could possibly be because of the links between fantasy and its parent, the fairy tale - but that’s a subject for a whole other blog post.

* Brian Rosebury, Tolkien: A Critical Assessment (Basingstoke: St Martin’s, 1992).