Commentary: The Critics Speak

squire: Here I’ve posted snippets of a few more various critical essays that relate to this chapter, and to what we’ve been talking about this week. Any one of them is interesting; feel free to read and respond to as many or as few as you like.

an seleichan: What a post, Squire. I have to save this for future reading. Will you leave your website up for a bit, so I have a chance to ponder all this info?

dernwyn: It's rather obvious that a lot of people do not want to believe that Tolkien wrote a story for simply the story's sake, and did not spend weeks in pre-planning the plotlines and parallels and religious and cultural undertones.

N.E. Brigand: But even Tolkien... in his letters will admit that the LotR has some resonance and some purpose, that a story is only good if it's doing something more than merely thrilling.

dernwyn: Quite true Heh, that was a tongue-in-cheek post: a grumble about over-analyzing, followed by my own over-analyzation.

True, Tolkien did appreciate it if people found a good purpose in the books!  But I wonder what he would have thought of some of these "deeper" treatises: one can only excavate so far, before the groundwater seeps in and muddies the site.


Shippey, in The Road to Middle-earth, argues that the infamous connection between hobbit and rabbit (which Tolkien tended to deny) may be found in the fact that the word “rabbit”, and rabbits themselves, were not common – were ‘out of place’ – in medieval England, just as the bourgeois hobbits are ‘out of place’ in the fantastic world of Middle-earth.

squire: A. Does this illuminate the episode of Sam, Gollum, and the rabbits, for you?

dernwyn: (Love the background on rabbits - which Tolkien would of course have been aware of.  Perhaps he had a vestigial memory of cooked rabbit prepared by his mother in their days of poverty, and applied the necessity of the poor finding nutrition from whatever source was available to Gollum's rejection of the basic needs of life.)


Lewis and Currie, in The Uncharted Realms of Tolkien, pursue the identity between hobbits and rabbits down the hole of the ‘beast-fable’. This includes a deliberate rebuttal of Shippey’s argument, above.

squire: B. Are Lewis & Currie on solid ground here, or lost in a warren? How would you grade their work vs. Shippey’s?

Lúthien_Rising: And I'm really not sure why we need to have a special connection between hobbits and rabbits at all. They're a small, catchable animal. Isn't that enough?


Rosebury, in Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, analyzes why Gollum cannot eat healthy food.

squire: C. I get the part about cannibalism, but what does Rosebury mean that Gollum’s degradation harmonises with Augustinian theology?

an seleichan: Anyway, to try to hazard a guess on this point:

Since God cannot create anything evil, then evil is not a created thing. It is not a "thing" at all. It is a no-thing. It is only a perversion of something good, or an absence of something good. That is all.

Secondly, we are all sinners and all prone to sin and none escape sin. Only grace provides escape from the consequences of our sin. Sin makes one turn further away from God, further and further until one is deep in sin and far from God. It is only grace, again, that allows us to reconcile with God and get out of a state of sin. Although inevitably we will return to sin. It is not our nature to BE evil, but it is our nature to CHOOSE not to be good, or to be confused about what good is in a particular situation.

So maybe Roseberry is trying to say that Gollum (and the orcs, and Sauron) are not outside of the natural, they are not created evil, they are perverting good to chose evil and getting further into the muck. They eat bad things the way they destroy and deny all that is good. They are "allergic" to good because of the perverted state of their souls. They are a riff on the Augustinian scale of the nature of evil, sin, and free will.

Except the orcs...but then, it is not necessary for me ALWAYS to bring up the dam* orcs, is it?


Chance, in Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England, maintains that Book III is about intellectual sins, but that Book IV is about corporeal sins, the body—about food. She cites the focus on the disgusting Gollum, Shelob, the Dead Marshes, the rabbit stew episode, even the hospitality of Faramir and Gollum’s hunt for fish in the Forbidden Pool.

squire: D. Do you agree? Do you think this is a useful way of thinking about Book IV?

Lúthien_Rising: critic critiques Just because there's a lot of food and hunger (the second being more about the body than the first) doesn't mean that it's about the body. This seems to discount key themes of journeying and interdependence (I'd argue, if I were at all awake today, that the latter is more what Book IV is "about" if we have to have that sort of aboutness).

squire: Not a Chance

As much as I think there is validity in examining Tolkien for ideas and themes that he himself may not have been conscious of - since his mind was deep and vastly read, I think he created a work of greater complexity and depth than he himself could consciously be aware of - I like to see arguments that ultimately stick to what he wrote.

Chance goes too far in constructing an elaborate "Seven Deadly Sins" argument for Books III and IV. She doesn't back up her bald statements that the villains in Book III "Wormtongue, Grishnakh, and Saruman all display aspects of the higher sins of pride, avarice, envy, and wrath" but the villains in Book IV "Gollum and Shelob both illustrate the lower sins of gluttony, sloth, and lechery." Grima displays lechery, Gollum displays avarice. Shelob displays pride and wrath. Gollum and Shelob neither exhibit lechery - Shelob's femaleness does not extend to physical sexuality.

"the difficulty in communication through or understanding of words or gestures in book 3" can easily be seen as well in book 4: Sam's and Faramir's inability to communicate with Gollum is central to Gollum's story. "the perversion of body personified in Shelob is expressed by the difficulty in finding food and shelter, or hospitality, in book 4" would seem to ignore the difficulties and bodily mortifications Merry and Pippin undergo in Book 3 - and the hospitality of Theoden's hall is the subject of half a chapter in Book 3 as well.

"Each book centers on the adventures of only part of the Fellowship, the nobler members in book 3 (Legolas, Gimli, Aragorn, and Merry and Pippin) and the more humble members in book 4 (Sam and Frodo)." Well, noble is not really in opposition to humble anyway, is it - but if you think Frodo is humbler than Merry or Pippin, all I can say is, I disagree. 

What I perceive is that Chance got an inspiration, a concept -- and flew with it in convincing language. She never bothered to check if it was actually correct against the text. Her basic idea about the differences between Books 3 and 4 is tantalizing. It needs to be rigorously tested against the Books themselves, starting with the full awareness that the two books were never intended to occupy a 'volume' of their own that would force them into this kind of critical opposition.

Frodo's journey and Aragorn's journey are an essential duality in Tolkien's structure, and those definitely are represented by Books 4 and 3. Likewise East and West, Saruman and Sauron, Faramir and Eomer, are other dualities that Tolkien himself acknowledged.

To go further and say that "body and mind" are a meaningful duality sounds great at first reading, but actually it requires a lot more intensive inspection of the actual text, and a lot more subtle and convincing argument, than Jane Chance seems at all capable of.

N.E. Brigand: Brooding on Shelob. She seems at least...what's the word? Fecund? Fruitful? Prolific?

"Far and wide her lesser broods, bastards of the miserable mates, her own offspring, that she slew, spread from glen to glen, from the Ephel Duath to the eastern hills, to Dol Guldur and the fastnesses of Mirkwood."

squire: Lust her eyes on Oh, Shelob's female, all right. I just meant that her female sexuality seems constrained to the bizarrely perverted motherhood you cited. Lust or lechery, feminine wiles or entrapment for sex, does not seem to be her thing, despite many a critic's attempt to class her as an "evil woman" in Tolkien's character box. I think Chance makes one of her strongest points in a seriously flawed analysis when she calls Shelob's evil sin "gluttony". That is what I read very strongly in Tolkien's descriptions of her and her place in the story.


Croft, in The Great War and Tolkien’s Memory, draws on Paul Fussell’s seminal The Great War and Modern Memory.  She points out that the use of pastoral conventions in Tolkien’s fantasy fiction serves the same purposes as it does in other, more realistic, post-WWI writing. She notes that the Shire primarily stands for the pastoral, but that the Ithilien episode also has pastoral qualities.

squire: E. Do you think this is intentional on Tolkien’s part? What has Tolkien changed in his version of the pastoral ideal from the mainstream tradition, especially in Ithilien? Does Croft’s construction hold up to Tolkien’s changes?

            *door slam*



 Sinex, in Tolkien’s Haradrim and the Medieval Construction of the Other, attempts to link the Haradrim warriors described in this chapter to medieval cariacatures of the African Saracens, citing the Haradrim’s use of red and yellow colors, and reading Gollum’s and Sam’s statements that the Haradrim are “large” to mean they are distinctly larger than the men of Gondor.

squire: F. Do you agree with Sinex’s interpretation?

Lúthien_Rising: These strikes me as particularly convincing.


Drailog, in Oh You’re Hopeless, seems to agree with Chance and Rosebury, but also reveals a hitherto unknown literary connection relating to this chapter.

squire: G. Should Jim Carrey have been cast as Gollum in the New Line films, to follow this new interpretation more closely?

an seleichan: that Sam I am I do so like that Sam I am.

I am fascinated by the Dr. Suess connection, for one thing.

FarFromHome: That Sam I am had me going for a bit, too - until I noticed the reference to Mashed Taters! Very nice bit of academic parody! And wouldn't it be neat if it were true? Although I find it hard to imagine Tolkien enjoying Dr Seuss - it's a bit of an acquired taste which, in my experience, most Brits don't really get. Since Tolkien didn't like Disney (if I remember his letters correctly), I doubt if he'd have liked The Cat in the Hat and the rest of the Seuss oeuvre much either.

But since it's such an interesting thesis, I've been googling around to try to find a bit of corroborating evidence - the picture of Sean 'Samwise' Astin in his Dr Seuss 'Sam I Am' sweater. No luck so far.

an seleichan: what, you don't think it's a joke, do you?

From there to here and here to there, funny things are everywhere. So they say.


a.s. (who wasted a lot of Google time before the light dawned, BTW)

dernwyn: And they [the critics] don't consider the things that really do matter: for example, had Tolkien ever actually read any Dr. Seuss, and if so, what did he think of it?


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