Vaccaro, Christopher, ed.: The Body in Tolkien's Legendarium: Essays on Middle-earth Corporeality.
"Do bodies matter in Middle-earth?" is the question governing the essays collected in The Body in Tolkien's Legendarium--to which editor Christopher Vaccaro responds with "an unqualified 'Yes'" (1). Covering a range of inquiry into the body and its significance in Tolkien's oeuvre, the collection presents essays that closely examine not only the contrast between the "wholesome ... physical enjoyments" of the Shire and the dark desolation of Mordor, but which also explore the complex interplay between the two realms.
The discussion of the body in Tolkien's oeuvre is divided into four sections. Part I, "The Transformation of the Body," is comprised of three essays on transformation, with a particular focus on the way that Frodo's body is affected by his engagement with the extreme violence of war, receiving wounds inflicted by supernatural enemies, and by his "becoming-incorporeal" due to the task of bearing the One Ring. Part II, "The Body and the Spirit," consists of two essays examining the Body and the Spirit with essays on "Health, Ecology and the War" and "Ore Bodies, Perversion, and Redemption." Part III, "The Discursive Body," raises issues about the discursive body with a consideration of the feminine body, the queer body, and the mythic body; and Part IV, "The Body and the Source Material," concludes with a discussion of the body and source material in Tolkien's oeuvre. This review will discuss a representative essay from each section in some detail to highlight key ways in which the subject of the body is carefully considered in contemporary, material contexts while at the same time engaging Tolkien's metaphysical concerns, accounting to some extent for the enduring interest in this work despite the conflict to which it gives rise in relation to contemporary gender, race, and cultural studies discourse.
Looking at corporality and transformation in Part I, Anna Smol's essay, "Frodo's Body: Liminality and the Experience of War," discusses the way in which Frodo's body bears the larger problems of physical assault in the pursuit of the redemptive or salvational quest, an important theme in Tolkien studies. Smol claims that, "Frodo's body is the territory on which [the hobbit] battles to maintain his physical and psychological integrity" (39). Unlike most of the other characters who occupy either the material or the metaphysical world, Frodo, according to Smol, occupies a liminal space between the two, and his major conflict is to "resist the disintegration of other boundaries that shore up his sense of self: those between human and animal, animate and inanimate, life and death" (39). Like many of the essays in the collection, the emphasis in this chapter is on the loss of the potential to recapture "normal hobbit pleasures" (41) from a time before the balance of power shifted to the dark side of things; Smol contrasts the "healthy, red-cheeked hobbit" (41) body with the "blind, twitching, slumped and starved" (41) creature that Frodo becomes as the demands of bearing the weight of evil represented by the ring permanently consume and transform him. While clearly Tolkien crafts a myth of epic struggle between good and evil, Smol points to the subtle, complicated problems arising in the blurring of boundaries between the two which occurs on the site of Frodo's body. Important for contemporary readers of Tolkien, Smol's analysis points to the tensions between the modernist desire for the continued progression of an integral self and contemporary experiences of a deeply fractured self. This section also includes an article addressing Frodo Baggins' unhealed wounds by Verlyn Fleiger, and another that speaks more generally to the questions of corporeality and transformation by Yvette Kisor.
In keeping with essays that tease out these contemporary problems of postmodern identity, Jolanta Komornicka offers a positive spin on the monstrous in Part II, where she considers the potential for redemption in "The Ugly Elf: Ore Bodies, Perversion, and Redemption in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings." She argues that ores are not merely empty, beastly creatures but distorted versions of the overall potential for good and evil in humanity. As such they retain the potential for redemption from evil, even though Tolkien's actual narrative does not show this happening. Komornicka cites Tolkien's discussion of the monsters in Beowulf as the basis for his complex rendering of the ore body: " [it is] ... most important to consider ... how and why monsters became 'adversaries of God,' and so begin to symbolize ... the power of evil, even while they remain ... mortal denizens of the material world" (84). For Komornicka, this points to the way in which Tolkien complicates the opposition between good and evil, subscribing to an Augustinian view that for a thing to exist it must possess a degree of each. Because the ores require food, are capable of a sort of care as they tend hobbit wounds, and because they have language, they possess souls that becomes visible in connection with their horrible physicality but which is still a core essence nonetheless. As the ugly body of the ore results from the transformation imposed via torture on the beautiful body of the elf, it is not the result of an actual act of creation on the part of the characters representing the forces of evil but a distortion of the ideal original form; as such, it thus retains some vestige of that ideal, some potential for return or redemption. Matthew Dickerson contributes a discussion of health and ecology in the wars of Middle Earth to this section as well.
Metaphysics has fallen out of favor in discussions of cultural bodies in the past several decades, but remains important in any consideration of Tolkien's work. In Part III, Gergely Nagy's essay, "A Body of Myth: Representing Sauron in The Lord of the Rings," offers a subtle and comprehensive look at the metaphysically discursive body as compared to a simple, physical body. Nagy points to the fact that "Tolkien never questioned the traditional soul/ body dichotomy of Western Christianity ... [and] the body is always an essential aspect of the individual's existence" (121). As Sauron is originally a part of the metaphysical Valar or sub-pantheon, his body is necessarily a discursive representation of the physical world, a form that is determined by his "knowledge of the creator's intention ... [or] what [he understands] of Iluvatar's totality" (123). Further, because he fails to ascribe to the creator's totality, along with his predecessor Morgoth, he foregoes the changeable form available to characters of his order and takes on a fixed physical form, "black and hideous" (123), which nevertheless remains discursive as its materiality is perceivable only through the ascription of these kinds of open-ended descriptors (hideous, terrible, dark, terrifying). While it could be argued that Sauron must have some human-like physical form if he is to "wear" the One Ring, Nagy's study continues to argue that the "Ring itself becomes not only a symbol for Sauron but something nearly identical with him" (124). For the material beings who fight against him (elves, men, dwarves, ents, and hobbits) and for those who fight for him, Sauron is only accessible through the act of description. He is named and felt, but not seen in the normal sense of the word. Because he does not condone his name being either written or uttered, the work of naming him falls to others, either his servants or his enemies. The name attributed by those who battle against him is an Elvish word (meaning "abominable") and is, according to Nagy, one which Sauron would not choose for himself (124). With only a "Lidless Eye" to indicate a material form, visible when someone looks in the Palantir for example but appearing more as a feeling of evil than a real body, Sauron's physicality depends on his ability to convey his "power"--power "always said to rest in his gaze, his capacity for discernment and ... knowledge of subjects" (125) rather than on any actual body, implying that he tends to invade the body of the other through his affective capacity and thus defeats or subjugates them. Also in this part, Robin Anne Reid offers an interesting linguistic account of female bodies and femininities.
"Emblematic Bodies: Tolkien and the Depiction of Female Physical Presence" in Part IV discusses the way the female body is iconically depicted in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Here, James T. Williamson outlines the "conventional and figural" depictions of four major female characters: Goldberry, Arwen, Galadriel, and Eowyn, noting that Eowyn is "the only fully human female to receive sufficient development" (144). Williamson observes that Eowyn is rendered as both lovely and strong, embodying the best of the feminine and masculine traits. Because she departs from Tolkien's conventions, largely drawn from those of Medieval literature, Williamson argues that Eowyn's possession of the masculine Rohirrim emblems (sword, silver mail, helm) indicates her capacity as a warrior but also denies her womanhood. Furthermore, her engagement in the masculine activity of waging war in response to Aragorn's perceived rejection turns her toward a madness made visible in the shift of her eyes from gray to "on fire." This is not entirely bad, Williamson contends, as it "permits her to engage in battle with the chief of the Nazgul at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields" (145) and, through this, effectively interrupt the enemy's progress. While in another article in Part III of the collection, "Light (noun, 1) or Light (adjective, 14b)? Female Bodies and Femininities in The Lord of the Rings," Robin Anne Reid wonderfully problematizes Eowyn's redemption from this "queer" madness as she later marries Faramir and becomes a healer, Williamson points to the ways in which this turn from the self-destructive (anti-social) is actually a recuperation of the life-giving force that women emblematically and universally represent in The Lord of the Rings. Rounding out this section, Jennifer Culver contributes a discussion of the gifting economy in Middle-earth in "Extending the Read of the Invisible Hand: A Gift Looks for Gain in the Gifting Economy of Middle-earth," and Christopher Vaccaro in "Tolkien's Whimsical Mode: Physicalities in The Hobbit" offers an analysis of the whimsy Tolkien weaves throughout The Hobbit that reflect his ability to shift from "high" to "low" styles of writing.
As this sampling reveals, the essays in this collection are wide-ranging in their appeal, and in many cases the authors contend with and problematize the overt stylized physical idealization across Tolkien's oeuvre. Some, like Flieger's contribution, "The Body in Question: The Unhealed Wounds of Frodo Baggins," in Part I, are quite esoteric and would be most interesting specifically to Tolkien scholars. Others, like those I have chosen to discuss here, are broader in scope and provide interrogations useful to a wide range of scholarship, including use in advanced undergraduate courses in twentieth-century literature, religious studies, and fantasy fiction.
Missing from the collection, however, is a pointed consideration of contemporary discourses on otherness as concerns the binary of good and evil. Perhaps the most obvious example is the opposition of the corrupt, dark, "slant eyed," deformed characters, and the fair, tall, and athletic good characters. Even the hobbits, who are small, grow either more fair or taller after their relatively successful encounters with the "dark" Lord. For decades, scholars as diverse as Rosi Braidotti and Judith Halberstam have posited the "monstrous" as a material figure to resist the alienation of oppressive power. Aside from Reid's thoughtful but brief evocation of queerness, this collection fails to address historic and contemporary studies of otherness and power. As Tolkien's work continues to hold wide popular and scholarly appeal, I offer that it becomes imperative to evaluate fully and critically the work in terms of ongoing race, feminist, and queer studies. This would go toward offering some insight into why, for example, in the year 2001 Peter Jackson and his crew render the cinematic Sauron as a fiery vagina dentata. Limiting the discussion to Tolkien's concerns for exploring and sustaining a particular type of Christian moral universe potentially works to alienate that portion of the population that perhaps recognizes its own physical body in the dark-hued, the "slant-eyed," and the bent or "deformed," but which insists upon its own interest in forging a moral universe in which that portion might puzzle out the complex ethics of contemporary life alongside the tall and fair.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 19, 2019|
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