Tuesday, February 23

Why Tolkien sold his car

Many people recognize the mid-20th century Oxford university professor J.R.R. Tolkien for his fantasy world of Middle Earth, revealed through the Lord of Rings trilogy and other novels. A little fact that most people do not know is that he sold his car shortly after World War II ended and carried on most of his life by bicycle.

According to a biographer:

"Tolkien became a familiar figure cycling along the Banbury Road, travelling between home and Pembroke College on his extraordinarily high-seated bicycle while wearing cap and voluminous gown."
By itself this may be a curious piece of trivia, but a closer evaluation of Tolkien's belief system begs us (or at least me) to speculate over why he made this choice. The decision to go car free was clearly deliberate. Tolkien bought his first family car in 1931, and in a letter he recalls his first trip into Oxford by automobile in 1911. As a devout Roman Catholic and life-long political Tory, he doesn't exactly fit the contemporary stereotype of the cyclist. What inspired this?

When the editor of the New Republic wrote to ask Tolkien whether Lord of the Rings contained allegories of contemporary England, he declined to draw any precise connections. But he did hint that, as an author, he could not help but write through the lens of his own experience living in Oxford. At one point he responds,
"Though, the spirit of ‘Isengard’, if not of Mordor, is of course always cropping up. The present design of destroying Oxford in order to accommodate motor-cars is a case."
Quick translation: Modor = pure evil; Isengard = corrupted. In his books, Isengard began as a pristine place, but Sarumon (the villain) camped his armies there, cut down all of the trees and soiled the land. Like the ruin of Isengard, the partial destruction of Oxford left him distrustful of modern town planning efforts in general.

(By the way, if you're a Lord of the Rings fan please cut my simplification some slack. I think this is right.)

The idea of disrupting nature for the personal automobile arises in another letter to his son in 1944.
It is full Maytime by the trees and grass now. But the heavens are full of roar and riot. You cannot even hold a shouting conversation in the garden now, save about 1 a.m. and 7 p.m. – unless the day is too foul to be out. How I wish the 'infernal combustion' engine had never been invented. Or (more difficult still since humanity and engineers in special are both nitwitted and malicious as a rule) that it could have been put to rational uses — if any.
It may be tempting to dismiss Tolkien's antagonism toward modernity as a romantic appeal to the pastoral England of his childhood. Yes, he may have been a bit of a Luddite (He didn't like general household appliances much either). Yet from another perspective, his view of human nature as easily corrupted by power can provide a healthy skepticism in the right doses. Not many in the 40's and 50's were questioning the absolute sovereignty of technological progress to solve all the problems of humanity, and most people would agree now with Tolkien that the often utopian promises have fallen far short. There is certainly a place for cautious, if sometimes grumpy, conservatives like Tolkien.

6 comments:

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org said...

Sauron, not Saruman, is the representative of pure evil in Tolkein, so evil that he cannot even be embodied. Saruman is just a corrupted wizard, a peer of Gandalf who has been seduced by Sauron.

Tolkein would not distinguish between the corruption of a place, Isengard, and the corruption of Saruman himself. It is normal, in the world of Tolkein and his literary antecedants, for a landscape and a character to be different manifestations of the same essential story. Saruman and Isengard are the same thing, manifested as man and landscape, just as Sauron and Mordor are.

Consider your slack cut, but still one must correct the record. :)

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org said...

of course, I can never remember how to spell Tolkien, even when it's conveniently at the top of the page, so take my views in the postmodern self-refuted voice that is really the only authority nowdays.

Daniel said...

Jarrett, I knew I had something crossed. It's been a long time since I've read these books, so I had to use wikipedia to job my memory.

But your point about Tolkien does raise some interesting questions about the interrelation of people and places. It was worth bringing up, for sure.

Eric Orozco said...

I don't know, everything is a story to a philologist. Especially for a philologist attempting to reinsert and rework ancient cultures and mythologies in his personal escapist fantasy. I find the genteel rural landscape in England represented quite obviously in the world of the Shire. It's not a leap to see your point Daniel. Tolkien was not above metaphor and similitude. He valued culture. He prized language.

The threat of industrialization and the overcoming of the fundamental powers of the world, which keep it in harmony (the song of the Ainu) is represented quite baldly by Tolkien. Tolkien was in awe of modern man's autonomy and will. We elves and humans are an autonomous agent in the mystery of history, but we are a corrective mystery. God values our independence in contrast to the angels. We are an interesting counternote in the song of history that rescues the entire discordant composition. That comes from the Hebrew scriptures.

Today the threats are different. It is hard to know where the will of man is taking us. Tolkien's counternote dwelt in the heroism of mortals and in the innocence that was in the Shire, for us freedom is a rave party in Zion, deep in a cave away from the prying tentacles of the Matrix. We have come to see our world like hackers.

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John Curtis said...

It is interesting news for me and I am truly amazed to know that Tolkien sold his great car. I think that he have earned a large amount of money on its sale to get a new bicycle.
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