Deconstructing Tolkien: A Fundamental Analysis of the Lord of the Rings
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.