The OF Blog: Borges Month: Borges on Tolkien (from Jorge Luis Borges: Conversation, with Richard Burgin)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Borges Month: Borges on Tolkien (from Jorge Luis Borges: Conversation, with Richard Burgin)

Found this via a Google search last night and thought it might be of some interest to those who have read both Borges and Tolkien:

Question: I’d like him to comment on how that relates to the creative aspects of the reader, that he brings to his reading of Borges. I feel sometimes as though…

Borges: Well, how is the case of Borges different from the case of any other writer? When you are reading a book, if you don’t find your way inside it, then everything is useless. The problem with The Lord of the Rings is you’re left outside the book, no? That has happened to most of us. In that case, that book is not meant for us…

Yates: In Chicago, last night and here before and every place else, people come to Borges eager to find out his opinion on Tolkien.

Borges: Well I could never…I wish somebody would explain it to me or somehow convey what the book’s good for. Those people say if I like Lewis Carroll, I should like Tolkien. I am very fond of Lewis Carroll, but I am disconcerted by Tolkien.

Yates: Last night you mentioned the difference between Tolkien and Lewis Carroll. You said Lewis Carroll is authentic fantasy and Tolkien is just going on and on and on.

Borges: Maybe I’m being unjust to Tolkien but, yes, I think of him as rambling on and on. (pp. 162-163)


What are your thoughts on this?

23 comments:

Neth said...

When was this interview? It seems to comparible to nobel prize-winning economists who think everything is rosy just before the economy self destructs.

Hal Duncan said...

I'm with Borges. Gotta admire his ability to be merely puzzled by Tolkien, in fact. I can't talk about that book without mumbling bitterly about the fifty gazillion pages of walking through some trees.

Larry said...

Ken,

It isn't an interview, or not precisely. It was from a lecture tour with Q&As and a moderator. The book was published in 1976, but I believe the questions took place in 1967-1968, when Borges spent six months giving lectures to audiences in the thousands.

Hal,

I liked LotR a bit more than either you or Borges, but I do agree that the rambling was quite excessive in places.

And now, for unintentional comedy: Read these comments. My personal favorite to date is:

"Why am I supposed to give a shit what a markedly less successful and important author thinks of Tolkien?"

If they only knew...

Neth said...

I'm not arguing that Borges got the rambling part wrong - very few fantasies don't ramble on too much. But he really missed the boat on the 'authentic fantasy'. 'Popular' culture has since defined 'authentic fantasy' as Tolkien, however much it can be argued.

James said...

I may well be the odd sort of fantasy fan, given that I have never read Tolkien, nor have I ever had any desire to do so.

When I first started reading fantasy, I avoided his work with the excuse that, since I wanted to become a writer, I did not want to be exposed to his work because I did not want to be influenced in any way. Now, several years later, I have very little interest in reading anything in the epic/high fantasy vein.

Larry said...

Ken,

I think it's a semantics matter, in that "fantasy" was usually applied to a different sort of story than a faux history with a few trappings of the Norse. Considering how much Borges loved the Eddas, I'm surprised he expressed only puzzlement over what was then a cult classic.

But things do change. Such as a group of people under 40 on a forum who have little idea just how influential Borges has been in the creation of other types of fantasy works ;)

Neth said...

true, though for a long time (continuing even today) fantasy and Tolkien were synonymous. I may not agree that they should be, but that doesn't change the reality.

Eric M. Edwards said...

I am a fan of the Hobbit - and when I was a child, I read my copies of Lord of the Rings until they fell apart, and then bought new ones.

As a much older adult and in the midst of writing my own first fantasy novel, I've been reading LoTR to my children - having already worked out way through Beowulf, Don Quixote, Wind in the Willows, Alice and Wonderland, and a host of other books first.

And I have to say - it's boring me to tears. There are some great scenes - but they are so far and so few in the middle of what feels not just long winded (oh, how I wish Gandalf would simply shut his snide, chattering mouth - or that he had never returned from Moria full stop) but embarrassing. The more epic and nattering parts are simply unbearable.

The Flying Halftrak said...

What's rambling for you is gorgeous prose for me. What I can't stand is people passing off "taste" (which is perfectly fine) as irrefutable. Often when people discover they don't like something that others do (which again, is perfectly fine) they then act like they've made some grand "discovery" and have somehow managed to enlighten themselves when the rest of the world still has the wool pulled over their eyes.

The Evil Hat said...

But what influence Borges had on other fantasy works is irrelevant. People are reacting to his criticism of Tolkien by saying that it doesn't matter what he thinks, and I don't see how Borges's own success or lack of success changes that at all. Why, again, must those under 40 lovers of Martin/Tolkien bow down because an author, no matter how influential, dislikes Lord of the Rings?

E. L. Fay said...

I'm honestly surprised Borges didn't seem to pick up on the metafictional aspect of LOTR (if that's the Tolkien he read). It's an epic about epics and the making of an epic. I would think that'd be right up Borges's alley.

Janie said...

Oh, come on guys, Tolkien is just Tolkien. He created a myth for England. He wanders off the path, but he's valid.

Don't take interview out of context.

Borges is great, but NOT perfect.

S.M.D. said...

I agree with the last statement. Tolkien does go on and on and on. Particularly the Council of Elrond scene...

But the guy deserves some credit for what he did to fantasy and what he managed to produce, which nobody has yet been able to recreate to the same extent.

Dave Cesarano said...

Tolkien is a product of his environment and literary upbringing. The greatest works of Victorian and Edwardian English literature were verbose and rambling when compared to the pulpier American stuff that was emerging, especially during the early 20th century. Dickens was payed by the word and his writing shows. In some ways, guys like Orwell actually stray from some of these British literary norms, but Orwell was something of a contrarian in his day.

Borges' criticism of Tolkien isn't as poignant as Moorcock's. Look up "Epic Pooh" online. Moorcock's criticism is actually the best I've ever read, because it is based on a philosophy of writing--Moorcock picks apart Tolkien's style by comparing him to A.A. Milne's "Winnie-the-Pooh" writing. Borges simply says Tolkien rambles, but Moorcock says that Tolkien's voice is a lethargic call to snuggle up, close your eyes, and drift to sleep in warm, fuzzy comfort.

For myself, I agree that much of Tolkien's work reads that way. But Tolkien changes his voice based on the situation. At times, he eschews the "Winnie-the-Pooh" voice for something epic, bold, and archaically triumphant (much of the Battle of Pelennor Fields reads this way). At times, he reads like a medieval chronicler. If you're paying attention, you can catch when his style makes these shifts.

But to just say that he's rambling the entire time... That's actually doing a disservice to him. Moorcock's criticism actually took a look at Tolkien and backed up his opinion with examples, and couched it in personal taste (Moorcock found Tolkien's security-blanket style to be antithetical to his own approach). Whether I agree with Moorcock or not, his approach to criticism is much better and more instructive than Borges' in regards to Tolkien's writing.

Derrick said...

So I have to ask, why does it matter what Borges thinks of Tolkien? I truly don't understand why it matters to me as a reader.

I love Tolkien. If others don't, that is cool. But don't try to turn why 'you' dislike Tolkien into why 'I' should dislike Tolkien. Love it or leave it...

Bangkok_Dangerous said...

I have a feeling Borges never read The Silmarillion, middle-earth's creation myth and 'history'. It stands head and shoulders above any other writing done by Tolkien and is breathtaking in its melancholic beauty and pathos.

This is from someone who finds LotR and Hobbit boring.

Larry said...

In this secular age, so few hagiographies are produced. But it is interesting to read statements here and elsewhere that remind me of that when it comes to particular writers, to writers whose influence has been relatively constricted. What intrigues me (when it doesn't irritate me slightly) is how in regards to Tolkien, most, if not virtually all, of the talk surrounding Tolkien is how his writings "started 'modern fantasy'" or something of that ilk, rather than placing him within the larger literary conversation (outside of the cursory nods to his day job as a philologist and a summary mention that he was influenced by Finnish and Germanic myths).

That is what I wonder what might underlie this discussion. There seem to be some who place Tolkien at the apex of something that really has no apex to begin with in the first place, since literary discourse outlasts all individual writers and movements. In fact, it might be legitimate to question whether or not the literary path that the Tolkienistas have taken might be akin to a little eddy that tries to separate itself from the literary stream of discourse, creating something that might last a few generations but which also threatens to become stagnant if a greater interaction with the larger literary world continues to be constricted.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

Neth said "true, though for a long time (continuing even today) fantasy and Tolkien were synonymous. I may not agree that they should be, but that doesn't change the reality. "

If the interview took place in the last 60's, Larry said 67-68 if I remember right (just woke up) then this link could prove useful in providing some context. It's a scan of an article from 1959 from a magazine called New Frontiers called "Can We Live Without Fantasy Fiction?"

As a glimpse into the genre 50 years ago it is fascinating.

One of the things that is really wild when reading it from the modern day perspective is to see just how vastly different the genre of "fantasy" is defined in the two eras. What was widely considered fantasy then is not the same as what is widely considered fantasy now. This was written in the JRR who phase of the genre.

The article covers weird fiction, pulp fiction, the death of the fantasy magazine market, predictions about the future of magazines in general.

Also twice in the article the words new and weird are paired together in an interesting bit of historical serendipity.

Here's a quote taken drastically out of context but is interesting when you account for the coming Tolkien boom:

"Which leaves the fantasy crowd exactly where they were -- without a voice. And with no prospect of one in the foreseeable future."

And with that I'll sign off as I feel like some sort of poseur these days wading into SF/F conversations as I've fallen increasingly out of touch.

Adam Whitehead said...

"I have a feeling Borges never read The Silmarillion,"

That much is certain, since the 'interview' took place a year before it was published ;-)

Brian Lindenmuth said...

I never actually gave the link did I? Shit. Lemme go did it up again.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

Here is the link

http://www.fanac.org/fanzines/NewFrontiers/NewFrontiers1-12.html

Chad Hull said...

I feel there is some contextual displacement here. Both the the quoted excerpt and the time that has passed with the interview. The latter I don't think can be objectively rectified.

We've learned that if you say anything bad about Tolkien the internet will hate you; be careful Larry.

The Flying Halftrak said...

It's not that you can't say something bad about Tolkien. You can. China Mieville has repeatedly criticized Tolkien but I don't think any less of him.

Again, it's the passing off an OPINION based on TASTE as authoritative that I find irritating.

 
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