Monday, January 19, 2015

Anne C. Petty and Tolkien's View of Evil: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXXII

My mind and my conversation tend to move down certain set grooves which become irksomely apparent once you get to know me.  Several of my friends once suggested turning any conversation at which I was present into a Bingo game with squares labeled "Connecticut," "Cthulhu," "Tolkien," "Tennyson," and "That one time we were playing Exalted when...".  It's a pretty fair observation.  In that spirit then, I'd like to take up one of my perennial topics: the thought and fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien.

I'm currently about half way through a book by a Tolkien scholar I hadn't previously encountered, Anne C. Petty.  The book is Tolkien in the Land of Heroes.  As Tolkien criticism goes, it's a fairly typical work which admittedly seeks to look only at "the big picture" of Tolkien's general themes in the "big three" (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion).  Where I have felt so far that Petty has moved the ball forward is in handling Tolkien's view of Evil.  Petty is plainly in dialog with big guns on this topic Verlyn Flieger and Tom Shippey.  I think, however, that she combines and refines the work of each of these authors by adding categories to their thought (such as "Sacred" and "Secular" embodiments of Evil as well as honing in on "External" versus "Internal" forms of Power) and attempting a more faithful interaction with the orthodox aspects of Tolkien's Roman Catholicism (though here she still lacks the nuance of the late Stratford Caldecott).  Petty's commitment to the writings of Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) is a little off-putting for me, but I haven't seen that skewing her analysis so far in the book and in the case of Tolkien's attitude toward Evil it encourages her to take a comparative view that is broader than that of other authors I have encountered (as evidenced by her examination of the role of Satan in the Christian Scriptures and her cross-referencing of it with evil as presented in Northern Literature without immediately throwing the two into opposition).  While Petty's analysis is admittedly truncated given the purpose of her book (the "Big Picture"), I do think that so far it nicely avoids Flieger's temptation to read Tolkien through the lens of her commitment to another thinker (Barfield for Flieger, Campbell for Petty) to the point of making Tolkien subservient to that thinker and Shippey's tendency to try and divide Tolkien's thinking into "orthodox" and "pagan" spheres and stress the tension between them (especially where Tolkien would have ardently stresses unity or denied the allocation of a particular idea to a particular category).  I will be curious to see if these improvements continue all the way to the end, especially in the case of Petty's devotion to Campbell.

That said, has anyone else out there read Tolkien in the Land of Heroes and would be willing to share their thoughts?  I know we have some Mythguard fans out there who might be a little more up on the current state of the field than I am.

No comments: