Saturday, September 20, 2008

On Tolkein and On Being Abroad

Both from Michael Dobson's LRB piece on a history of literature in English in the long(ish) 17th Century, which apparently tries to play up the contributions of the Celtic fringe. The first, a marvellously scathing judgment on one of the most turgid, reactionary, quasi-autistic adolescent reads of all time, beginning with the book's interest in James Macpherson's Ossian, and offering the Lord of the Rings as a reason to be glad the interest is not more widely spread:

Among the archipelago's tales of legendary warrior heroes, [the book's author] is more interested in James Macpherson's Ossian [than Malory's Morte d'Arthur] which he laments, 'has yet to be assimilated to Eng. Lit.' Long may it remain unassimilated. The last time anyone tried to incorporate Macpherson's all-too-imitable cod-Gaelic woodnotes wild, they produced The Lord of the Rings. Complete with twee Saxon hobbits, suspiciously Welsh-looking dwarves and intolerably fey Celtic elves, Tolkein's kitsch epic may well be the most archipelagic work of modern times, comparably only to the one about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman who go into a pub.

Second, in the course of making the point that the relevant Other for many writers of English in the period was not a Celt whom they were anxious about the integration of into a civilized metropolitan kingdom, but rather various potential Continental aggressors, already civilized and perhaps capable of not just subverting the established order, but obliterating it, an observation about taking his children abroad, who have been

subjected in their turn to holidays in Scotland, and Wales, and Cornwall, and Ireland: after all, the experience of being English in the other parts of the United Kingdom and Ireland is a vital part of their rich native birthright of discomfort and alienation. But they have also been conscientiously transported to the Continent. As I myself noticed after I finally got a passport and went on a school exchange visit to France in 1975, the enigma, the significance and the embarrassment of being English within Britain are nothing compared to those of being British within Europe.

It helps if you speak the language, at least a little, although that then leaves you in the position of perpetually being at risk of mortification by co-nationals who loudly advertise their inability to do likewise. Oh the perils of being middle-class.