I've been thinking recently about the underlying logic of modern commercial Fantasy, and wondering whether we couldn't thumbnail it as mostly concerned with detailing the fault line between the raw and the cooked. So: let me inch towards my main point by starting with a personal anecdote. When I started out as an academic, in the backward and abysm of the last century, my older colleagues were all to one degree or another dismissive of my professed admiration for Tolkien. One, Peter Caracciolo, told me slightly haughtily that Fantasy began and ended with the Arabian Nights; ‘but,’ he added, ‘there is one moment in Lord of the Rings I have always loved.’ ‘Just the one?’ He ignored me. ‘It is when Sam, thinking he is doing Gollum a favour, cooks his fish for him. “What are you doing?” Gollum complains. “Scorching my lovely fish!”’ That has, strange to say, stuck with me.
We aren't surprised if our imaginary world of medievalised or Old English/Norse Fantasy tends to valorise fire. Fire the friend that keeps us warm and cooks our food; the fire around which we gather in groups and which therefore symbolises companionship. But fire warms by scorching, and scorching is more than simply destructive—it is the principle of aridity, of desiccation, that dries up the very juiciness that fans come to Fantasy for. In Lord of the Rings there is only one fire that will destroy a Ring of Power, and it is the one presided over by the novel’s fiery principle of evil himself, Sauron. This reflects back upon the book itself, of course. I think of one of Tolkien's key imaginative resources. Poor old Beowulf—I mean, the text itself, the actual physical object, sole and unique, upon which the words of that poem have been precariously carried down the centuries to us. Poor old Beowulf, scorched and singed in its old library fire. The book got burned!
Tolkien’s ring of power is a plain gold ring, of course, and embodies a series of quite complex valences to do with binding, with vows and marriage. But at the same time as being a blank surface, the ring is also paradoxically (which is to say, magically) lettered. The ring, in other words, is a book. To be sure it is a short book; its whole text is the one ring charm. But a short book is still a book. Looked at this way, Lord of the Rings becomes a strangely self-destructive fable—a book about the quest to destroy a book, a long string of carefully chosen words positing a world in which words have magical power to huge evil. How few books there are in Middle Earth! Indeed, I've written elsewhere about not just the paucity of written texts in Tolkien's world, but the way they keep getting misread. Gandalf scratches his run at Weathertop; the hobbits misread it. The elven door in Moria, beautifully lettered, commands 'speak friend and enter!' and nobody understands its simple instruction. The fellowship find a dwarfish book in the mines, as scorched and battered as poor old Beowulf; but as they read it aloud ('drums in the deep', 'we cannot get out') it becomes true to them, and they repeat the words as suddenly, horribly, appropriate to their own predicament. The repeated theme is the danger of words; their slipperiness but also the ease with which they can move us directly into the malign world of the text. One ring to bind us all. Books are bound, too.
We could put it this way: that Tolkien’s imagination positions itself between two iterations of ‘The Word’, one (oral culture) raw, the other (the printed word) cooked. This is not as straightforward as it might be. As both a Christian and a scholar of Old English, Tolkien has a necessary investment in the spoken word, especially as it is passed between a communion of loving friends: the logos, the face-to-face, the speak-friend-and-enter. The Lord’s Prayer (which Tolkien liked to recite in the Gothic language) was conveyed by Christ to his followers verbally, not in written form. Of course, Christ’s whole life is conveyed to us via a written text.
There are no books in Beowulf, except one—the Borgesian map-for-the-territory that is Beowulf itself. Tolkien works a similar logic: the story we are reading is supposed to have been written in a book by one or other bourgeois hobbit. This is an odd conceit when you think about it, for otherwise there are no libraries, or bookshops, or reading groups in the Shire. But of course the book is directed at us, not at the other hobbits; and of course we want to have our cake and eat it too. We love books. We don’t want to burn books. Except that we celebrate the burning of the book. We prefer the rawness of our imaginary realm unscorched. Gandalf is a ‘raw’ wizard compared to the ‘cooked’ wizardry of Saruman (though he’s not so raw as Radagast is reputed to be; he’s sushi, not the wriggling fish). The world of Middle Earth is a raw world compared to the ‘cooked’ world of 20th- and 21st-century urban living. And so for Fantasy more generally: the word is raw in its immediacy and naturalness, its directness and magic. Magic here is spoken aloud; songs are sung directly to an audience; nothing is written down except the everything that is written down to construe the Fantasy realm. Fire is warming insofar as it supports the wholeness of communion (you’re there with your friends around the camp fire, laughing and swapping verbal stories, singing verbal songs). But fire is a danger too.
‘Book burning’ is an emotive phrase, of course. We like to think that we revere books, hold them in a holy duty of care. Of course, we don’t. I've recently been reading Gillian Partington and Adam Smyth's edited collection Book Destruction from the Medieval to the Contemporary (Palgrave 2014). It's fascinating. The editors start with a vivid description of an ordinary day in a book pulping facility.
In the business of books, production and destruction are linked. Their shredding and pulping on a mass scale is a fact of life. Tens of thousands of books meet this fate every week in the UK alone, the equivalent of a small library. But, expressed in these terms, the reasons for the aura of secrecy surrounding “destruction work” start to become apparent. The spectacle of industrial shredding brings to light some awkward paradoxes We have investments in the written word as a lasting monument, yet its deliberate destruction is routine and even necessary. Books are two-faced; on the one hand they are totems: carriers of culture, values, beliefs. But on the other hand they are quotidian objects: material and ephemeral things, subject to decay and physical obsolescence like any other. We weigh them down with significance out of all proportion to their flimsy paper and cardboard construction. Their destruction, too, is a material fact that is overloaded with symbolism. It provokes unease, sometimes outrage or anger, eve in some cases violence. In 2010, when the Florida Baptist preacher Pastor Terry Jones announced his intention to burn 200 copies of the Quran he provoked a major international incident. The threat, though not executed, was condemned by Hillary Clinton as a “disgraceful, disrespectful act” and was considered grave enough to warrant a personal international from President Obama. A year later, Jones set fire to a single copy of the Muslim holy book, sparking riots in Mazar-i-Sharif Afghanistan in which a UN compound was overrun and twelve were killed. [5-6]They go on to name-check the inevitable reference: ‘hovering inescapably in the background whenever books are burned is the spectre of the book pyres in Berlin’s Opernplatz in 1933. On 10 May that year some 40,000 people, included propaganda minister Josef Geobbels, gathered to watch as truckloads of “decadent” “un-German” books were burned by National Socialist students.’
At the site nowadays is a plaque, marking the spot with the legend (fashioned by Anthony Burgess out of an old Heine play): ‘das war en Vorspiel, dort man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen’: this was only a prologue; where people burn books they will in the end burn people. As Partington and Smythe point out, ‘given the scale of human suffering and death under the Nazis, a solemn monument to the destruction of inanimate objects seems in a principle a strange gesture; disrespectful, even.’ That's right, when you come to think of it. God knows I love books, but it's self evidently much much worse to burn a person. Books can reify our alienation from common humanity as well as enrich the mind and pass knowledge about. Of course, in Lord of the Rings, it is only the bad book (the ring) that gets burnt; and only the bad people (Denethor, Gollum) whom the narrative follows up by burning. But that’s exactly the point. Geobbels of course believed he was burning the bad. And the semiology of burning is of renewal as well as destruction. That's why it works as well as it does in this book and its myriad imitators. A song of ice and fire ends, phrasally speaking, in fire.