"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
J.R.R. Tolkien believed that myth is inherently true and material progress inherently evil. You could call that radical, reactionary or romantic, but it’s a distinctively modern phenomenon. Modernity and the Enlightenment notion of progress have to exist before you can reject them, and once again we see that “The Lord of the Rings,” for all the magic it employs to repopulate England with its ancient wraiths and spirits, belongs finally to the 20th century.
This is partly made clear by the presence of hobbits, those sensible if small-minded late-Victorian villagers, and partly by the “applicability” (the word Tolkien preferred to “allegory”) of the War of the Ring to various events of the modern age, from the battle against Nazism to the Cold War and the atomic bomb to the Industrial Revolution and the backlash against it. (As I have already suggested, I find this latter parallel the most convincing of the three.) But Tolkien’s modernity lies most clearly in his anti-modernism. To borrow a concept, perhaps outrageously, from German philosopher T.W. Adorno — who might be considered a kindred spirit from a vastly different tradition — Tolkien issued his own Great Refusal to the myth of Enlightenment, preferring the enlightenment of myth.
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In a lengthy and inadvertently hilarious screed published in the wake of the Channel 4/Waterstone’s poll (whose result she called a “bad dream”), Germaine Greer defines the central characteristic of Tolkienian literature as “flight from reality.” This is true enough if you understand the ideological content of her terms, so that “flight” means “thoroughgoing rejection” and “reality” means “the accepted liberal narrative of material and political progress.” Although educated in terms that modernist critics and authors had to respect, Tolkien attracted a readership of millions with a disreputable genre and the message that almost everything valued by the modernists was empty and evil. Dear oh dear indeed.
T.A. Shippey is actually brave enough to compare this quintessentially anti-modern writer to the avatar of literary modernism himself, James Joyce. If Shippey is not quite as solid a literary critic as he is a philologist — his claim that “the dominant literary mode of the 20th century has been the fantastic” is daring, if overstated — here he strikes a telling blow. First there are the coincidences: Joyce and Tolkien were close contemporaries from neighboring nations, had similar class and religious backgrounds and are best known for one work, highly original, immensely influential and encyclopedic in scale (“Ulysses” and “The Lord of the Rings,” respectively). Moreover, both labored long and hard over a successor work, written in still more inscrutable language, which proved impenetrable to all but their most devoted fans (“Finnegans Wake” and “The Silmarillion”).
There are deeper correspondences, and here Shippey could have gone further and included Vladimir Nabokov as well. All three, you might say, have strong qualities of boyishness; they are precocious and erudite, lost in their own worlds. All are obsessively interested in language and indeed in linguistics. (Joyce, as my father could have told you in considerable detail, was something of an amateur philologist.) Each, in Shippey’s phrase, “engaged in deep negotiation with the ancient genres of epic and romance” (see “Ulysses” and “Lolita”). Each was fascinated by puzzles, games and systems of taxonomy, and employed them as matters of both form and content. Yet the differences, says Shippey, are more instructive than the similarities:
Tolkien’s approach to the ideas or the devices accepted as modernist is radically different because they are on principle not literary. He used “mythical method” not because it was an interesting method but because he believed that the myths were true. He showed his characters wandering in the wilderness and entirely mistaken in their guesses not because he wanted to shatter the “realist illusion” of fiction, but because he thought all our views of reality were illusions … He experimented with language not to see what interesting effects could be produced but because he thought all forms of human language were already an experiment. One might almost say that he took the ideals of modernism seriously instead of playing around with them.
All right, but one might also say that with the 20th century in the rearview mirror and the boundaries of high and low culture virtually dissolved, Tolkien’s outsider status isn’t what it used to be. For all its idiosyncrasy, “The Lord of the Rings” looks more and more as if it might belong to two distinct but interconnected literary traditions. One of these reflects the growing literary respectability of science fiction and fantasy, and would include Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, J.G. Ballard, Samuel R. Delany and various others. (Tolkien has a legion of imitators and emulators, but that is a separate phenomenon.)
The second category is really the leading offshoot of modernism itself, and might be dubbed Great Weird Boy Books, meaning weighty tomes that mix realism and fantasy along with various forms of language and discourse, much of it technical or abstruse, while aspiring to a mythic dimension. Such a list would include “Ulysses” and “Lolita,” to be sure, but also “Gravity’s Rainbow,” “Catch-22″ and “Slaughterhouse Five.” You could add books by William Gaddis, Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace; you could reach outside the overeducated pale-male demographic for Ralph Ellison or A.S. Byatt or Delany or Margaret Atwood.
If we’ve gotten anything useful from postmodern literary theory (which is a debatable proposition), it’s the idea that a book always reveals and conceals things that neither the writer nor the reader can control. Tolkien may have intended “The Lord of the Rings” as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” as he once wrote, but relatively few readers since the 1950s have received it that way. As Shippey makes clear, Tolkien’s world is one of virtuous pre-Christian monotheism rather than paganism, and his “eucatastrophe” (Tolkien-C.S. Lewis parlance for a great moment of deliverance), when the One Ring is destroyed and Sauron’s works are unmade, carries faint but distinct pre-echoes of Christian salvation and resurrection. But to those who saw Tolkien as a liberatory spirit of the counterculture, a lover of trees and hater of machines, the Christian dimension was simply irrelevant.
Tolkien was indeed a lover of trees and hater of machines; he was also an unregenerate Tory, even a monarchist, who distrusted modern notions of democracy and equality and resented the increasing dominance of the left in intellectual life. Those who embraced Tolkien from the ’60s onward had of course not seen his letters of the 1940s, in which he praises Francisco Franco, suggests that it may not matter whether Adolf Hitler or the forces of “Americo-cosmopolitanism” emerge victorious from World War II and even remarks, “There is a great deal more force (and truth) than ignorant people imagine in the ‘Germanic’ ideal.”
Although Tolkien’s defenders have done their utmost to rationalize and contextualize it, there is a troubling fixation on racial and ancestral purity in “The Lord of the Rings.” Aragorn (usually described as “Aragorn son of Arathorn”), the returned king who assumes his rightful throne by epic’s end, is descended from the Númenorean line of Elendil, which confers fair skin, great height and beauty, exceedingly long life, valor in battle and healing powers. The further away from this ideal ancestry Tolkien’s humans get, the darker, cruder and less reliable they become.
In fairness, Tolkien never suggests that racial purity makes a decisive difference between good and evil; the Woses are noble savages who value freedom, while the sinister Lord of the Nazgûl is a great king of Númenorean descent who was twisted to the will of Sauron. (Further philology: Tolkien’s English word for the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths, was aptly chosen, since “wraith” is related to “writhe” and “wreath,” and carries the meaning of a bent and twisted spirit.) Even the dark-complexioned Southrons and Easterlings who fight for Sauron’s armies are seen as valiant but deluded, and those who surrender to Aragorn’s forces are shown mercy.
But there is no mercy for the Orcs, a subhuman race bred by Morgoth and/or Sauron (although not created by them) that is morally irredeemable and deserves only death. They are dark-skinned and slant-eyed, and although they possess reason, speech, social organization and, as Shippey mentions, a sort of moral sensibility, they are inherently evil. In short, they are by design and intention a northern European’s paranoid caricature of the races he has dimly heard about, far away to the east and south. In a letter to a potential film producer, Tolkien explains them as “degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” As a representation of the Other, to use contemporary critical terms, they could hardly be more revealing.
And yet, and yet. If Tolkien’s racial typing is dismaying, it is also the product of his background and era, like most of our inescapable prejudices. At the level of conscious intention, he was not a racist or an anti-Semite. In his letters, he decries the racial situation in his birthplace of South Africa, and he knew and liked several Jewish academics; when someone wrote to ask whether his last name was of Jewish origin, he replied that he “should consider it an honor if it were.”
Furthermore, like “The Lord of the Rings” itself, Tolkien’s political and social views were so peculiar that he can genuinely be claimed by renegades and revolutionaries almost as easily as by Jesuits and aristocrats. In 1943 he wrote to his son Christopher, “My political beliefs lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) — or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy … Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you care to call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers.”
It was the entire terrain in between anarchy and monarchy — the so-called rational forms of government, from socialism to liberal democracy to fascism — that he disliked. (The Shire had virtually no government or police force before the arrival of Saruman.) He loved England but not Great Britain and still less its empire; he had little preference between the American and Soviet behemoths, but once said he suspected the Russians were “not quite so dismal.” He was a hardcore Luddite who would no doubt have been horrified by the Internet; he gave up driving in 1939 after seeing what cars and road building had done to his beloved English countryside, and even in later years when he had become rich he never owned a television set or a washing machine.
“The bigger things get the smaller and duller or flatter the globe gets,” he wrote to Christopher in another wartime letter. “It is getting to be all one blasted little provincial suburb. When they have introduced American sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass production throughout the Near East, Middle East, Far East, USSR, the Pampas, el Gran Chaco, the Danubian Basin, Equatorial Africa, Hither Further and Inner Mumbo-land, Gondhwanaland, Lhasa, and the villages of darkest Berkshire, how happy we shall be.”
This I think is the Tolkien who survives, the cantankerous, politically unclassifiable, anti-globalization Tolkien who is clearly our contemporary — jibes against feminism included. In trying to return a lost sense of myth and mystery to his little corner of the world, he also sought to make the globe as a whole less small, dull and flat. He lived in a provincial suburb for virtually his entire adult life — he was a Christian after all, and accepted that this is a fallen world — but fought against the spreading ideology of suburbanism more fiercely than any black-clad rioter smashing a Starbucks window. “There is only one bright spot,” he added in the “Anarchy and Monarchy” letter, “and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations … But it won’t do any good, if it is not universal.”
Although the subject of sex in Tolkien deserves its own article — he is writhing in his grave, a tormented wraith, as I write this — it is one of the key contradictory elements in his work and requires a brief visit. Despite what some critics have suggested, I see no homosexual element in “The Lord of the Rings”; rather, it is a “homosocial” realm of intimate, affectionate relationships among men, of a kind that has virtually vanished from modern life. From his school days in Birmingham onward, Tolkien spent his intellectual life in just such a realm, sharing his innermost thoughts and visions with Lewis and other friends around firesides and in Oxford pubs. Frodo and his courageous servant Sam — who indeed saves the entire quest from disaster — undoubtedly love each other, and their love is both physical and emotional, in fact platonic in the truest sense. Tolkien intended to reflect the complex cross-class relationships between man and officer, servant and master, that he had encountered as a World War I lieutenant.
That doesn’t mean, on the other hand, that “The Lord of the Rings” is ever fully comfortable with heterosexuality. Its female characters are little more than idealized figures of inspiration or decoration; Eowyn, the warrior-princess of Rohan, is the only real exception. (Was her original a female graduate student who braved the pipe smoke and postprandial glasses of port?) Her courtship by Faramir of Gondor is stylized and awkward but at least has the flavor of real emotion. If you still believe that the book has no more explicit depiction of heterosexual activity than that, however, I suggest you take another look at the disturbing encounter between Sam and Shelob, the huge and evil female spider, at the end of Book Four.
But I am mainly here to praise Tolkien, not to bury him, and one bizarrely sexualized scene between hobbit and arachnid does not spoil my enjoyment of “The Lord of the Rings.” It is a book too long for some of its purposes and too short for others; its highfalutin language gets more archaic as it goes along, and it never quite lives up to the menace and tension of the journey from the Shire to Rivendell in Book One (a judgment with which Tolkien apparently agreed). I don’t believe for a moment that it is the best book of the 20th century, or even that such comparisons are meaningful. But it is a distinctive, even definitive, modern work of rebellion against modernity and, in the words of Tolkien’s publisher and friend, Rayner Unwin, “a very great book in its own curious way.”
It is not merely the scale of mythic invention or the grand storytelling that distinguishes it but also its tragic vision, the profound melancholy mentioned by Lewis. Few if any heroic quests have ever had such a sense of human frailty and weakness; although Frodo brings the Ring all the way to the Cracks of Doom where Sauron forged it, in the end he is overcome by temptation and claims it for his own. He is redeemed only by chance, or by divine grace, which in Tolkien’s world comes to the same thing. He has shown mercy to the treacherous and miserable Gollum, who becomes the accidental agent of Frodo’s and the world’s salvation. But Frodo, the book’s ostensible hero, fails in his quest and is left, like the knight who guards the Holy Grail, with a grievous wound that can never heal (an Arthurian parallel Shippey has not noticed).
Even the victory wrought by the Ring’s destruction is a sad affair, in many respects closer to defeat. Much of the magic and mystery drains out of Middle-earth after Sauron’s fall, leaving behind an ordinary, only slightly prehistoric realm dominated by human beings. Tolkien’s most beloved characters — Gandalf, the High-Elves Elrond and Galadriel and the hobbits Bilbo and Frodo, both of them indelibly marked by the Ring — depart over the western seas to a paradisiacal nowhere that none of us on this shore will ever see.
Tolkien liked to present himself to friends and readers as a contented fireside hobbit, fond of tobacco, simple food and late mornings in bed, and there can be no doubt, reading his letters, that he was immensely gratified by the outpouring of love and enthusiasm his work engendered. (And immensely irritated by some of it; when a woman wanted to name her Siamese cats after his characters, he replied that they were “the fauna of Mordor.”) But in reality he was a strange and complicated man who wrote a strange and sad book, whose complex of meanings we will likely never determine.
I think the best answer to the dear-oh-dear, flight-from-reality crowd is to point out that Tolkien’s Middle-earth is not an imaginary world but an imaginary history of our own world. For all its fantastic and immortal creatures it is after all a vale of tears, and “The Lord of the Rings” is not a triumphalist fantasy but a lamentation and farewell for all that is past or passing. Tolkien should of course have the last word on this. Less than a third of the way through his epic he sounds a melancholic note that reverberates throughout his story and prefigures its ending. It is perhaps the loveliest piece of prose in all his work, and it reminds us that he understood myth not only in terms of philology or sacred truth but also as writing of tremendous clarity and affective power.
Frodo and his companions depart by boat from Lórien, the enchanted forest of Galadriel — a sort of earthly paradise, which Shippey thinks Tolkien may have borrowed from the medieval poem “Pearl” — near the end of Book Two. But it seems to be Lórien that is slipping away from them,
like a bright ship masted with enchanted trees, sailing on to forgotten shores, while they sat helpless upon the margin of the grey and leafless world.
Even as they gazed, the Silverlode passed out into the currents of the Great River, and their boats turned and began to speed southward. Soon the white form of the Lady was small and distant. She shone like a window of glass upon a far hill in the westering sun, or as a remote lake seen from a mountain: a crystal fallen in the lap of the land. Then it seemed to Frodo that she lifted her arms in a final farewell, and far but piercing-clear on the following wind came the sound of her voice singing. But now she sang in the ancient tongue of the Elves beyond the Sea, and he did not understand the words: fair was the music, but it did not comfort him.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)