Friday, December 7, 2012

Scaling Down War: the Narrative Function of Hobbits

I was reading  The Return of the King this morning and I came upon a passage that I believe demonstrates a key narrative strategy if not pioneered at least put to good work by J.R.R. Tolkien, namely, the act of suturing together two distinct narrative scales: the epic and the mundane. Consider the passage. Pippin is conversing with a guard of Minis Tirith, Beregond, and he's complaining about his serving duties to Denethor, Steward of Gondor:

"I have kicked my heels at the door of my master's chamber for many slow hours, while he has debated with Gandalf and the Prince and other great persons. And I'm not used, Master Beregond, to waiting hungry on other while they eat. It is a sore trial for a hobbit, that. No doubt you will think I should feel the honour more deeply. But what is the good of such honour? Indeed what is the good even of food and drink under this creeping shadow?" (89, Ballantine Trade Paperback).

I love this image of Pippin standing off as Denethor absently eats a spread of delicious food amid an important conversation with Gandalf. I imagine a look of sincere frustration on the poor hobbit's face.

We have here two separate worlds brought together through the experience of the hobbit: (1) the epic world of politics and cities and dark lords and armies being debated by Denethor and Gandalf, and (2) the quotidian world of food and drink and boredom experienced by Pippin. We have here two scales brought in contact with each other: the global-political and the local-experiential. Denethor and Gandalf are concerned with politics and the logistics of fighting a war; Pippin is concerned with grabbing an ale and some food. But both Gandalf/Denthor and Pippin are reacting to the same historical situation, the coming of the great war of the ring.

This juxtaposition of multiple narrative scales in the same scene makes, I think, Tolkien's portrayal of the experience of war--in spite of it being fantastical--somewhat realistic. In reading these novels, you're not simply dwelling on the level of the epic, a narrative mode that somewhat cruelly relates the death of thousands and political backs and forths with scant a comment. You also get to connect with the participants in the war on the level of their personal experiences. For example, the reader is introduced to Beregond's son in the previous chapter. He is not simply one of the many guards of Minis Tirith who die in the approaching seige.

To put it simply: Tolkien uses the mundane perspective of the hobbits looking onto great things, important meetings, in order to "humanize" the experience of the war of the ring, to scale it down to an accessible level for his reader.

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