Deconstructing Tolkien

Deconstructing Tolkien: A Fundamental Analysis of the Lord of the Rings
Edward McFadden

This book is not what I expected. To a recovering academic, the title Deconstructing Tolkien: A Fundamental Analysis of the Lord of the Rings suggests certain things. While I am not a literature type, easily befuddled by discussions of lit theory, subtext, and symbolism, my political science background does mean that I tend to read things in certain ways. The intellectual toolkit once applied to economic reports and diplomatic incidents turns itself now upon science fiction. Thus, words like “deconstructing” and “fundamental analysis” make me expect a certain dry, probing dissection of the source material. Because McFadden declines to advance in this assumed line of attack, refugees from The Ivory Tower are left facing a basic question of criticism.

McFadden is an editor, not a professor, so he opens the text with a different set of tools. This is the bait and switch, as it were. He approaches Tolkien from the perspective of a fan and uses more of the editorial eye to unpack the stories. In some ways, this is unique and interesting, especially as he slips in other authors’ short stories between the analytical essays. I suspect that not everyone will appreciate McFadden’s attempt to trace lines of influence into and out of The Lord of the Rings, but it is certainly different. I most enjoyed the H.G. Wells story; in general the older works that McFadden supposes Tolkien drew on were more fun to read than later stories that obviously borrowed LOTR’s themes.

It is McFadden’s own essays that cause the consternation that worries away at my bosom. He tends to explain LOTR rather than analyze, if that can be a distinction with a difference. He manages at times to illuminate certain parts of the story, but often as not is writing opinion. There is much of what McFadden likes and dislikes, with less digging into meta-contextual ideas, the discourse of the time period, or fundamental world views. He proposes lessons to be drawn from the tale, virtues like loyalty and courage, but not what those indicate about Tolkien himself or the state of the genre at the time. McFadden tells us that Tolkien’s influence is daunting in fantasy, which it is, but does not trace themes and archetypes through modern fantasy.

What kills me is not that McFadden chose the path that he did, but that my reaction to that is so strong. In many ways this gets to the heart of literary criticism: am I to evaluate the book based on its stated goals and the accomplishment thereof, or on its potential? Or, to be blunter, do I let the author define his own success or do I get to do it for him? Deconstructing Tolkien succeeds at what McFadden wants it to do. For a certain reader at a certain time in his or her reading history, this is an ideal book. It opens up the first pages of the admittedly vast body of work on Tolkien, setting the reader on a path to a deeper reading of LOTR. A more discriminating reader, however, is going to walk away from the book disappointed. I wanted it to be more – more detailed, more demanding, more complex. I wanted Tolkien explained to me by an author with vastly more experience and wisdom than I have, to wit, someone with a PhD in lit theory rather than simply a fan.

In the end though, maybe it isn’t up to me to decide. McFadden never set out to write the book I wanted to read, so it doesn’t seem fair of me to judge him harshly for it. Taken in terms of his modest goals, the book is a modest success. Since I neither commissioned nor even paid for the book (it was a free promotional download somewhere), I probably don’t have any right to condemn it for not being what I thought it could have been. That is, I suppose, the eternal curse of the critic.

7 thoughts on “Deconstructing Tolkien

  1. You ask an interesting question, “Do I let the author define his own success or do I get to do it for him?” Let me offer the answer Umberto Eco would give (and anyone who’s read my posts here knows how much I admire and respect Eco), “When an author has finished his work he should die, so as no longer to trouble the path of the text.” Once the author sets loose his oeuvre, that work assumes a life of its own, over which Eco contends the author should not have any control, if indeed he can have such control.
    On the other hand, Maurice Ravel, the great French composer, was reputed to have said, “One need not ‘interpret’ my work; it suffices to play it.” There are an increasing number of composers who, by markings in the score and highly specific instructions given before, after, and in the midst of all of the notes, attempt to insure a uniform performance every single time. Carl Vine of Australia comes to mind. His two piano sonatas are brilliant in the extreme (not to mention extremely difficult), They are also chockablock with pointedly specific instructions, the net effect of which is to remove from the performer any discretion whatsoever (though I’m told Vine witnessed a performance of his Piano Sonata No. 1 in which the pianist disregarded much of the composer’s specific directions, and that Vine came away mightily impressed and promised to re-think his corseting of the pianist to the lengths he has attempted).
    On balance, however, I vote for the reader as the one defining success. A written work exists to be read. There’s an interesting metaphysical conceit, often found in the works of Alberto Manguel (e.g., “The Library at Night”), in which one’s books cheek by jowl on the bookshelf whisper their secrets to each other at night. It’s an interesting thought, all this intertextuality, but some living person eventually has to unpack and extract meaning. Otherwise, the book is only a tree falling in the forest that nobody has or will ever hear.

  2. Fundamental means important, basic, elementary, essential, vital, elemental, etc… The author seems to be saying it’s the basics, which are important. I also got the sense a chunk of the target audience for this book was movie only folk, and for them this book would have been all eye opening newness, and some of them would have read the books, which was mcfadden’s stated goal. You seem to want mcfadden to have written a different book. Oh, and FYI, you don’t need to hold a phD to be an expert. In fact, most phDs are semi-clueless about most things outside their field. And English lit is barely a field.

    • I tried to be clear in the intro that to someone with my background, “fundamental analysis” has a different meaning. I do wish that I had read a different book, but I understand that I am not the target audience, and so don’t ding the author for it. It’s good at what it wants to be, it’s just not what I expected.

  3. Fair enough. I guess what got my dander up was the condescension in your piece. But you did say you were recovering. :/P

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