February 14, 2014

Love and fantasy: J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien both had doubts about their characters’ relationships


A scale model of Hogwarts (via Wikimedia)

A scale model of Hogwarts (via Wikimedia)

In an article published Tuesday morning in the Guardian, Alison Flood reported that poet W.H. Auden had attempted to persuade J.R.R. Tolkien to “Drop the romance between Aragorn and Arwen from the storyline of The Lord of the Rings, describing it as ‘Unnecessary and perfunctory’.”

The letter, which was written in 1955 and is “Due to be auctioned by Bonhams in London on 19 March,” sees “Tolkien writing to his publisher about the difficulties of completing The Return of the King, the third and final part of his magnum opus.” The revelation comes shortly after Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s recent admission that she may have made a mistake in pairing Harry’s sidekicks, Hermione and Ron.

Though Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are ostensibly very different, the similarly-timed revelations about similarly initialed titans of fantasy sheds light on the way that the social function of fantasy as a genre has changed in the nearly 80 years since Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937.

 In order to understand the social function of Tolkien’s famous fantasy trilogy, it’s important to understand the political and historical context in which it was written. When Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, Europe was still recovering from what had been the worst war in its history and was on the brink of another that would prove even more devastating.  Tolkien himself had fought in World War I, before returning to England and eventually becoming a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.  It was in the early 1930s, while he was a professor at Oxford, that Tolkien began writing what would become The Hobbit.

Though intended as a children’s book, The Hobbit is inseparable from its political context (even if modern audiences are largely ignorant of that fact), and the story of Bilbo Baggins’ grand adventure itself, with its comically English protagonist’s reluctant decision to depart from home, can be read as an allegory of the British experience in World War I. While this allegory may seem essentially benign, more problematic elements of  Tolkien’s political outlook enter Middle Earth (or at least become obvious) in the Lord of the Rings trilogy proper when the new protagonist, Frodo Baggins, is called upon to fight alongside “The Men of the West” to protect his home, “The Shire,” from the forces of darkness. Forces led by the necromancer Sauron and which are comprised largely of Easterlings and Orcs, creatures that toil under the Earth much like the Morlocks (themselves an allegorical representation of a possible future for the British Working Class) in H.G. Wells’1895 novella The Time Machine.

Whatever the specific political message intended by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings—and it is a message that probably requires more serious thought on the part of the public at large—even a rudimentary analysis reveals that he conceived of fantasy literature as having a serious political function. For Tolkien, if not for Auden, the romantic relationship between Aragorn and Arwen was “Poignant:  an allegory of naked hope,” adding complexity to the already complicated political allegory that is Middle Earth.

The same sort of carefully crafted political allegory is perhaps less likely to be found in the contemporary fantasy novel, if the handling of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s recent remarks about the romantic relationship between two of the characters in the Harry Potter series is any indication.  Rowling’s comments, which she made in an interview with Emma Watson that was published in the February/March edition of Wonderland, essentially boiled down to her saying that she did not believe that Harry Potter’s sidekicks, Hermione and Ron, should have wound up to together.  But what is striking is that the uproar surrounding the leaked comments sparked an outpouring of “news articles” from nearly every major media outlet.

It would be unfair to say that Rowling made her comments about Ron and Hermione in order to get back into the news (after all, she spent years writing the series and clearly developed a very personal connection to the characters that she created), but the fact that Rowling’s revelation did place her back in the news in such a dramatic fashion reveals a fairly significant difference between The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. Whereas Tolkien chose to ignore his friend Auden’s advice and include the romance between Aragorn and Arwen in his series in the belief that the relationship might bring hope to a country and a continent devastated by war and turmoil, the romance in the Harry Potter series has taken on the characteristics of a tabloid story, reflecting the fact that Rowling’s audience often identifies with her characters so strongly as to forget political and historical realities altogether.

And it is here that we see the difference between the social function of Tolkien’s fantasy literature and Rowling’s most starkly.  If Tolkien’s use of the genre served primarily to allow him to use fantastic characters and worlds to mediate his potentially problematic political views, Rowling’s novels have created heroes and celebrities that allow readers to forget politics and the real world altogether.


Michael Elmets is a Melville House intern.