Gradations of Humanity

Thinking more about Gombrowiczean themes in J.R.R. Tolkien …

The interdependence of the three central characters, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, is the best literary example of the blending of people, the “interhuman church,” that I can think of–and here I include even G’s own novels! The Lord of the Rings–at least, the core narrative of the ringbearer and his two companions–is a perfect literary expression of G’s “terrible chains” that, like it or not, bind different people to one another in secret and powerful, destiny-altering ways.

In the chain of persons bearing the ring–Gollum, Frodo, Sam–Frodo is a kind of intermediate figure, holding in suspension the opposite forces or archetypes represented by his “fallen” and his virtuous companion. Tolkien writes (in his letters) that the small and the human requires the noble, lest it fall into the base, just as the noble requires the small and the human lest it veer into arrogance. Or something like that. Thus, between Gollum the fallen and Sam who refuses to countenance him, there is Frodo who binds them both to himself. This relationship among these three characters is the human core of the whole trilogy.

The reality of things is, one person cannot reach across the chasm, yet by linking hands they can. Sam cannot “touch” Gollum himself, both are morally repugnant to the other. Frodo’s courage is seeing past the ring-spell of belief that the quest is, like the ring, “his own.” Seeing that he needs these two others and that the three of them form a chain of redemption. Thus, Gollum, Frodo, and Sam form a human chain. Chain. Change. Redemption (as in ex-change).

We all introduce something to someone else. We all are a conduit, a tube, that carries a thing to another thing (and thus god back to god, god back to godself).

Is the elevator operating? Is the elevator working?

This “chain” goes beyond strictly the human in Tolkien–it links the human to the nonhuman, and even life to death. Tolkien’s books are about the ways people blend into each other, the ways things blend into things, and even the way life blends into death.

It is often said that Tolkien’s books are about death. I think Tolkien’s books are about the specter of death, and about states of un-death that can be lived in life if you are not on your guard, or if you have endured too much suffering. The books make a thought experiment about death through the device of a race of people who are immortal and long to be able to die in the same way that mortal men long to be immortal.

For such a dark story, it is strange how few characters actually die in it. It seems (at least) like Tolkien was afraid of letting a character die. Characters fade away. Or sail away. And they have been around for a long, long time, so it’s not like they really had births or childhoods either. It seems like he was afraid of defining things at the edges. He is reluctant to show death in its senselessness. He is reluctant to show an ending of things. He had trouble ending his book. His stories, they fade out rather than terminate.

The races of beings that populate Middle Earth also share this quality. They are hard to define, ambiguous at the boundaries. And because of his reluctance to define and delineate, Tolkien propogates new and intermediate forms that plug the conceptual gaps. For every two kinds of thing in his world, there can be found a third thing between them, some intermediate phase in creation. There’s always this blending, forms merging one into another.

In this way, Tolkien was like Nature. Nature also, if you look closely, produces these intermediate forms, these secondary and tertiary forms of things, different in very slight ways. Middle Earth oddly resembles the natural world, with its astonishing spectra of species. What S.J. Gould called (referring to the Burgess Shale), “wonderful life.”

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