Tuesday, June 17, 2014

About a Popova Piece...and a Bit of Rebuttal

A friend of mine suggested that the Society blog consider Maria Popova's 13 June 2014 Brain Pickings piece "Vintage Illustrations for Tolkien's The Hobbit from around the World," hinting that it might do the kind of thing in which the Society is interested. The piece points out a number of older illustrations for Tolkien's children's work, although it notes Tolkien's own comments regarding children's literature in opening. Sections for several early editions of the text are provided, in which a brief introductory paragraph precedes representative illustrations from each edition. Popova makes a point of providing examples from multiple languages and countries, displaying an admirable attempt to resist the kind of field-narrowing Helen discusses in an earlier post. It is the kind of project that would be good to see expanded and offered more detail, perhaps along the lines of Barry Gaines's Sir Thomas Malory: An Anecdotal Bibliography of Editions, 1485-1985.

One matter of note in the piece is the blending among some of the artists represented (but neither Tolkien nor Jansson) of medieval and later clothing among the characters, particularly Bilbo. (The images from the Tolkien text do not show Bilbo, while those from the Jansson edition seem to tie to the idea of The Hobbit as bedtime story, with the night-capped Mr. Baggins depicted.) In them, the eponymous hobbit lounges about in waistcoat and breeches, looking very much like he is in a shoeless form of Regency court uniform. Yet the disparity of historical reference does not strike the eye as odd--partly because Bilbo is described as wearing a buttoned waistcoat, among others, and partly because the issue of historical accuracy in fantasy referentiality is fraught. While some fantasy series attract some censure because of their inconsistency of invocation, the cornerstone of the genre does so only rarely, if at all. (References to examples and counter-examples would be welcome in the comments below.) How many bat an eye at the hobbits of Lord of the Rings dressing as they dress among the robed and mailed mighty ones of Gondor and Rohan? How many balk at brocaded vests with chain mail beneath? And what of pipe-weed, that typifying halfling past-time ripped from its historical colonialist context and shoved into an otherwise medievalist milieu?

Certainly, scholars have a duty to the truth. Those who are medievalists are obliged to point out to those who are not that the medieval was not as it is often depicted. But if they will do so, then they need to do so for all--and there are many who are introduced to the study of the medieval through Tolkien. His works are foundational to the fantasy genre and to current genre medievalism (as the Society officially recognizes). If those works which derive from his are to be chastised for their inaccuracies, then his must be the more so, both because they serve as the example from which others work and because Tolkien was in a position to know better. He was a scholar of the medieval, after all, and even if understandings of some particulars have changed based upon information developed since his career ended, many broader views have not. And if his works are not challenged on such grounds, perhaps those who look into the uses and misuses of the medieval ought to be a bit less condemnatory of his successors when they do the same as their forebear. This does not mean that the deviations should be ignored or that they should be allowed to promote incorrect understandings of the medieval unchecked and unremarked, but they may perhaps be considered as something other than mere mistakes.

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