The Late Dr. Michael N. Stanton, Tolkien Scholar
by Dan Cruver
EDUCATIONAL BACKGROUND: He received a B.A. in English from the University of Vermont in 1968 (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) and a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in 1971. His dissertation was on the English poet Robert Southey.
TOLKIEN SCHOLARSHIP: chiefly Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards: Exploring the Worlds and Wonders J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” (St. Martin’s 2001). Also: ten articles or so in the Tolkien: Encyclopedia (ed. Michael Drout, Routledge, 2006) and “Tolkien in New Zealand” a chapter in Jane Chance, ed., Tolkien and the Modern Middle Ages (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). Plus, assorted papers, talks, etc. at conferences and in local schools and libraries over the years.
[Note: The questions are written as they were originally submitted to Dr. Stanton.]
The Lord of the Rings has grown in popularity the last two decades, in large measure because of the Peter Jackson films. Although I’m very pleased to see this renewed interest in Tolkien’s epic story, in an effort to deepen appreciation for Tolkien’s books themselves, below is a 2006 interview with the late Dr. Michael N. Stanton (July 25, 1938 – December 15, 2011; his obituary), former Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Vermont.
Dr. Stanton, you are currently Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Vermont. What Tolkien related courses have you taught over the years?
I am pleased to say that I began teaching a course at the University of Vermont in science fiction and fantasy in 1972. It was one of the first courses of that kind at any university in the U.S. (one of the first 100 perhaps). It included Tolkien, usually just The Lord of the Rings, and I taught it practically every semester until I ceased teaching in 2001. Unlike many readers, I did not meet LotR until I was a grown man, first reading it in 1965. I think that when you encounter Tolkien makes a big difference in how you regard him: the earlier the exposure the more superficial the response. In the same vein, I feel sorry for young people now who know LotR only through the Peter Jackson films.
What did you like most about teaching these courses?
Well, I got to teach some of my favorite stuff: not just Tolkien but also Ursula LeGuin, Richard Adams, and others in the fantasy vein, and Clarke and Asimov, for example, in science fiction.
I liked the fact that no one else (for a long while) was teaching these materials and I thus could establish a little niche all my own in the departmental structure.
I liked more that the students tended not to be English majors (the course had no prerequisites) nor even literary types, but simply kids who loved the stories and responded with great enthusiasm and greater or less sophistication to them. They were able to broaden and deepen that earlier response I mentioned above, which was delightful. Equally delightful were the students who had heard of Tolkien (as who had not?) but had never actually read him before. To them, it was a revelation; their responses were often a revelation to me.
Would you briefly define the term ‘eucatastrophe’ and provide an example from either Tolkien’s or C.S. Lewis’ writings? Also, I know that The Lord of the Rings itself is technically not a eucatastrophe even though it contains stories that might be classified as such (i.e., Helms Deep). Do you know why Tolkien did not choose to write it as an example of eucatastrophe?
One thing I have noticed is that even though Tolkien coined the term back in the late 1930s, when he was still in the early stages of writing LotR, very few of his earlier critics seem to have picked up on it. Paul Kocher (1972) devotes a page or so to the concept; Randal Helms (1974) hardly more. The first extended treatment I have found was in Ruth Noel’s Tolkien’s Mythology (1979); by the time we get to Tom Shippey’s Tolkien: Author of the Century (2000), we find half a dozen or more pages. Maybe it’s the New Age influence which has brought the quasi-spiritual side of Tolkien into prominence. You could probably deal better with that question than I.
“Eu-cata-strophe” as a word: always important to remember that Tolkien was first and foremost a student of languages, so what did he mean by this coinage?
“strophe” = turn
“cata” = down, against, back
“eu” = good
In our modern usage “catastrophe” has come to mean a large-scale calamity or horror (Hurricane Katrina comes to mind); thus Tolkien’s word means almost the opposite: a large-scale turn toward the good from an originally dire situation. What Tolkien says about it in his discussion at the end of “On Fairy-Stories” is that it is a kind of revelation, a glimpse or feeling of joy not unmixed with sorrow (the two always seem intertwined).
What Tolkien seems to suggest is that “drama” and “narrative” are two independent ways of relating human actions: one by representation, the other by story-telling. He says that “tragedy” is the natural form of drama, whereas “eucatastrophe” is the natural outcome of a told story. an achieved and merited happy outcome, earned by moral qualities like courage and loyalty.
I think it’s important to keep in mind that a “eucatastrophe” does not mean a happy-ending: as Tolkien says in his essay, fairy tales have no ending (“they lived happily ever after” being just a dodge or a time-saver) and as Sam says in LotR itself the old stories just go on and on. When Sam says at the very end “Well, I’m back” he seems to mean that he is ready to resume his life and its story.
“Eucatastrophe” can reside in the way a story is constructed, so as to achieve that turn towards joy, or it can reside in the feelings aroused in the reader: preferably, the first leading to the second.
I think you are right to say that LotR as a whole is not “eucatastrophic” but contains several good examples of the phenomenon. Helm’s Deep may be a very good example; Tom Shippey cites the events at the Field of Cormallen as pointing to “eucatastrophe.” His whole discussion is worth reading: it is scholarly but not, to me, convincing, based as it is on the fact that the Ring was destroyed on the 25th of March, which was the day (in tradition) of Christ’s conception, the Annunciation.
C. S. Lewis, being a much more blatantly Christian writer, may provide better examples. One that occurs to me is from the ending of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the children seem to get a glimpse of Aslan’s realm:
It lasted only a second or so but what it brought them in that second none of those three children will ever forget. It brought both a smell and a sound, a musical sound. Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterward. Lucy could only say, “It would break your heart.” “Why,” said I, “was it so sad?” “Sad! No,” said Lucy. (p. 212)
To answer the last part of your question, Tolkien may not have written the LotR as a whole as a eucatastrophe because he was an artist, and an artist knows that a fictional tale, even a romance, has to have an ending. In other words, his choice may have been based on literary and technical grounds. Or it may be an example of the old conflict between life and art, in which life has no shape, no chapters, no ending except one, whereas a work of art has to have shape and form, and also represent life.
Dr. Stanton, talk about “redemptive” themes in The Lord of the Rings has been fairly popular the last few years. What do you think Tolkien would say about all this redemptive talk?
Tolkien’s response: probably he would treat this kind of discussion along the same lines as he treated talk of allegory: dismissively. I myself have a problem answering the question, who or what is being redeemed? I hope I am not being dense when I suggest that saving the world (which Frodo does in his way) is not the same as redeeming it. Evil continues to exist, as the hobbits find out when they return to the Shire; evil is in hearts and spirits not in rings. There is no suggestion of redemption in the sense we are told that Christ was the Redeemer: no one in Middle-earth is promised or becomes eligible for Heaven or its equivalent; even those who go to the Blessed Realm, like Frodo, can go there only to heal and live better lives; like all mortals, they die at last and Tolkien does not specify a fate for them after that. To those who are immortal anyway, like Gandalf, none of this would apply.
If you take the word “redeem” in a secular sense, you have several examples within LotR; one that comes to mind is Boromir, who has fallen victim to the evil of the Ring trying to wrest it from Frodo, and who redeems himself by sacrificing his life in defense of the younger hobbits in the woods a few minutes later. By this time Gandalf has also sacrificed himself for the Company, but there is no question of his needing redemption.
Can things non-sentient be redeemed? Is the Shire redeemed in any strict sense when Sam has done his horticultural work? Vastly improved, to be sure, or restored, but I think we need to be exact about word usage (else Tolkien’s ghost will haunt us).
Since Tolkien even in a fantasy story can be realistic, it must be said that the unredeemed outnumber the redeemed by a considerable margin. I think of Denethor, Gollum, and Saruman as examples. This is part of the basis for my opening remark that Tolkien would look askance at an extended discussion of this topic.
Who is your favorite LotR character and why?
Faramir, by a long ways. (He also happened to be one of Tolkien’s favorite characters, or at any rate, the character Tolkien thought most like himself, except that, said Tolkien, Faramir was brave). Faramir had most of the attributes a true citizen of Middle-earth would have—he was both a warrior and a scholar, and clearly preferred the latter role. He was skilled and courteous in speech and was both loved and respected by his men. Interestingly both brothers, Boromir and Faramir, were willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater cause; Boromir had to make the supreme sacrifice whereas Faramir lived on into the Fourth Age perhaps to suggest what a model human being should be in the new dispensation.
(Faramir’s relationship to his brother would be interesting to trace: F. clearly loved and admired B., although it is unclear to what extent Boromir deserved those feelings. I don’t think B. tormented his younger brother when they were young, but I’ll bet he teased him unceasingly. “Yah yah, I’m going to be Steward someday and you’re not! Yah yah.” This did not necessarily decrease F.’s affection for B., since at least he was paying attention to the younger boy, which their father Denethor apparently was not.)
All that is an aside, however.
I find Tom Bombadil to be a mysterious and fascinating character. Even though we might have expected him to join the quest since the ring has no power over him, he has no interest in involving himself. Why do you think he’s in the story?
As to why TB is there at all, I can give no better answer than Tolkien did himself, which I quoted in my book. In his letter to Naomi Mitchison (see Letters, #144), he said that TB represents an essentially pacifist and neutralist point of view. Even the very best people in Middle-earth, Gandalf, Elrond, Frodo, are somehow involved in a struggle about power: TB has no interest in power. So he provides an alternative in that sense; he also provides an alternative example for the reader to someone like Saruman or Sauron: TB is “master,” but under him nature is free, whereas the other two seek to dominate and indeed distort nature for their own ends, which include the acquisition of power. What TB does not understand, however, and this is a point Tolkien is making, is that his own existence is dependent on those who are struggling about power: he cannot pretend to be superior to them, for, as someone observes at the Council of Elrond, if Sauron prevails, in the end TB will fall, “last as he was first.”
TB’s being first suggests another function he has: to give perspective on the whole history of Middle-earth. TB is a time traveler in a way, and time seems to be less rigid and linear in his realm than elsewhere: Frodo in TB’s house can have a dream about the end of his own life here in Middle-earth and his translation to the Blessed Realm. TB can carry the hobbits in his house, narratively at least, back to earlier ages. And he gives the younger hobbits weapons, one of which finally defeats the Captain of the Nazgûl at the Battle of Pelennor Fields. So he has that much connection to the plot of the story.