Academics run on a strange schedule. Where other Americans took today off in honor of MLK, I was finishing up my yearly self-evaluation and tinkering with syllabuses. But don’t cry for me–I didn’t go back to work on January 4th, either. Instead on that day I continued working on the Article That Just Doesn’t Quit (Being A Pain In My Rear), same as I have been doing since classes ended back in December. Now that it’s out the door along with a shorter piece, the essay review is starting to feel in hand, and the semester’s research is more or less plotted out, it’s time to get spring’s teaching polished up and finished.

I did take advantage of the holiday to wake up a little later than usual and to dawdle over my coffee a little longer than usual. And let’s not forget how much syllabus-writing is an incremental act prone to much procrastination. All of these preliminaries are meant as context for my admission, that when Bill’s post about narrative conventions referred me to this link about narrative problems in LOTR, I followed it.

Now I’m a fan of Tolkien’s, and I’m not suggesting that I’ve never had this kind of argument in my life. I went on to get a Ph.D. in literature, after all. Arguing about things only geeks care about is what I do.

Still. Woo-ee. Someone needs to tell those people, in the immortal words of William Shatner, to get a life.

To be a bit more serious, if only for a moment, it strikes me that the main problem with making this kind of argument is the difficulty of not merging the two paradigms at stake. That is, there are two (probably mutually-exclusive?*) sets of assumptions going on in the argument:

1. Middle Earth is not like Earth (i.e., it’s got magic rings and Nazgul and flying eagles and shit)

2. Middle Earth is like Earth (i.e., a volcano under the control of a sorcerer-demigod is still assumed to work like an ordinary volcano, needing to build up pressure before it pops instead of responding to a magical pinprick)

I think it’s fairly clear, just from a brief reading of the webpage involved,* that it’s going to be hard to maintain any logical consistency when you’re slipping between two (mutually-exclusive, it seems?*) paradigms. If you’re thinking magically, so to speak, it’s going to be hard to maintain the kind of empirical rigor demanded by scientific proof–and ditto the reverse, where a scientific mind isn’t going to be very good at accounting for magic.

It’s always seemed to me that magic in Tolkien works a lot like magic in Arthurian legend. That is, a sword will get stuck in a stone, for example, and you know that something pretty spiffy must have happened for it to get there. But Merlin isn’t waiting around like some kind of spellcasting toolbox that Arthur can call on every time he needs to fix a well. (In fact, this is basically the approach taken towards magic in Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), and it really doesn’t do much justice to Malory. Though that’s probably Twain’s point, at least as I teach the book. OK, yes, I have been writing this post while working on my Satire syllabus.)

Magic isn’t a substitute for technology, it just exists as a kind of metaphysical fact. If, on occasion, a magician does do something impressive and awe-inspiring, the reader rarely gets a front-row seat watching him make passes in the air and mutter curses under his breath. At least, not in traditional stories about magic of the kind that inspired Tolkien the medievalist.

It would seem that it’s hard to make these distinctions about fantasy fiction, because these kinds of over-literal discussions about fantasy have been going on for a long time now.

If it’s hard to convince someone of your point under ordinary circumstances, it’s going to be much harder when the line between magic and reality is blurred. In which case, as it seems to me, you have two choices: you can either put on your arguing hat, or you can get a life.

*I should be careful to point out that I’m making no grand claims about having looked all that carefully at the argument involved. Not because I have a life, but because there are only five working days of winter break left to me. If I’m going to be parsing arguments carefully, it’s going to be for a more prestigious venue than this lowly blog. Also, they’re going to be arguments I’m professionally invested in.