As a canonized work of fantasy fiction, a Hollywood institution, and a global cultural phenomenon, JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is in a class all its own. Not only has the series had tremendous cultural staying power since its original publication in the 1950s, renewed for generations with Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, but it became a lifeline for many people quarantining throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Why have Tolkien’s works captivated us for so long? What does it tell us about our world and about the world Tolkien created that each perpetually has so many revealing things to say about the other? How has the series become the subject of an unending interpretive battle between reactionaries and revolutionaries who want to claim it as their own? And what does it mean to truly love The Lord of the Rings for what it is, warts and all?
In the inaugural episode of her new TRNN podcast Art for the End Times, writer and editor Lyta Gold dives deep into one of the most complex, lore-filled, and culturally enduring works in the fantasy canon with journalist, researcher, and diehard Lord of the Rings fan Talia Lavin. Lavin is the author of the critically acclaimed book Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, and her writing has been featured in outlets like The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times Review of Books, the Washington Post, the Village Voice, and more. She also writes regularly on her Substack The Sword and the Sandwich.
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Pre-Production/Studio/Post Production: Stephen Frank
Lyta Gold: Hi, everyone. This is Lyta Gold coming at you live from The Real News Network. Wait, wait. We’re not live? Oh, you’re going to edit the shit out of this. Okay, that is great. Can I swear on this thing? All right. I’m just going to roll.
I am deeply honored to join the team here at The Real News Network. It hosts a number of spectacular shows that are dedicated to interviews with working people, to the lives of prisoners and to prison abolition, to wide-ranging looks at political and cultural movements throughout the world. But what I’m bringing you is something a little bit different. This is going to be a dedicated arts and culture podcast.
Arts and culture analysis often occupies a funny place on the left. Everybody fucking loves talking about books and movies, but everybody also feels the need to justify talking about books and movies. You will run across these questions like, is cultural analysis something the left should be spending its time on? Is cultural analysis maybe the only thing the left should be spending its time on, given the effects of mass media on our psyches and politics being downstream from culture, et cetera, et cetera? Or, arguably, is this podcast or anything else worth doing at all, given climate change and a hundred other disasters that are coming down the pipe? But that’s why this podcast has this title, Art for the End Times. We’re going to address how we talk and how we think about art and culture, especially at this time when it feels like maybe the world is ending.
But since we’re not the only people in history who have felt like maybe the world was ending, we’ll also look at works that have been popular in the past and are maybe still popular now, and try to tease out these deeper thematic and personal and political meanings that we find. We’re not just going to look at popular art. We’re also going to look at neglected works, underappreciated works, and kind of in general at how art gets made. Spoiler, most of the time that process is super ugly and gross.
I do want to clarify a couple of things this podcast is not going to be about. I’m not really interested in looking at a piece of art and deciding if it has the good politics and is therefore good, or the bad politics and is therefore bad and stupid and nobody should talk about it. We’re always going to be looking at everything here from a leftist and from a political point of view, but if a work is entirely reducible to some kind of political allegory, then usually one of three things is happening: One, the work isn’t very good; two, the criticism isn’t very good; or three, the work actually is a rare example of a genuine allegory, but it’s not that common to find those these days. That’s just to make sure that we’re all clear on our terms and our approach.
Another thing besides allegory that you’re not going to find too much of on this show is contempt. I don’t have a lot of time or a lot of patience for a supposedly left analysis of popular culture that regards people who consume popular culture, which is literally all of us – I don’t like it when people like that are regarded as stupid sheep with bad taste. It’s mean, but I’m not really upset about it being mean. I just don’t think it’s really a left analysis.
There’s this idea that media consumption ought to be difficult or unpleasant. It’s like eating your vegetables, and pop stuff is like junk food, et cetera. There’s some validity here but really, you have to think about how this has roots in this really classist bourgeois mentality where art is something you consume and something you digest. You get it in your body and it makes you a more serious and respectable and upstanding citizen. There’s actually a really long history of this, and I really want to get into it on a future episode, but not this one. In general, though, I want to get past this classist framework around art and what you’re supposed to like and what you do like.
I’m really interested in what people actually like, what works for them. If we want people to engage with more obscure and less popular works, how do we let them know that they even exist? Poptimism aside, there is often a snob factor, and it turns people off of good art they might otherwise like. But even beyond that, there are ways in which the structures of power make it really hard and really frustrating to even make or to find good art in the first place, so I want to talk about all of that.
When it comes to this podcast, I’m coming at this through a couple of different lenses. I’m a fiction writer and I’ve also written a fair amount of cultural criticism. I’m a trained librarian also, which is part of why I’m really interested in these questions of curation and access. How do people find good art in the first place? I’ve held a lot of different jobs. I’ve worked in retail. I worked in a chocolate shop. Okay, you know that I Love Lucy episode where she’s eating chocolate off the assembly line? That was me. I did not last very long at the chocolate shop. After that, I worked for a couple of exploitative non-profits. I once worked for an exploitative small magazine, and that’s all we’re ever going to say about that on the show.
And a couple of years I actually worked in the corporate offices of Marvel Entertainment, so I’ve been inside the belly of the pop culture machine. I’ve seen how the sausage gets made, and it’s gross. It’s very gross. But people do love a lot of that sausage, and I do think love is worth talking about and thinking about and addressing. Even if you don’t take the work seriously, how people relate to things is almost more interesting than what is actually happening. But speaking of love, I want to turn to something that I really love, which is something that a lot of people really love, and something that they still love even here at the end of all things. That’s right, it’s a Lord of the Rings episode, everybody.
All right, so here we’ve got some books that were written in the ’30s and the ’40s. They weren’t published until the 1950s. J.R.R. Tolkien actually sent his son, Christopher, some of the chapters of Return of the King while Christopher was on the front lines in Germany during World War II. It was a pretty dark time as they go.
The books, interestingly enough, while they’re very dark in places, they’re not grim and they’re not hopeless. I think the movie adaptations, one of the reasons that they’ve really lasted, is that they capture that mix of tonalities really, really well. This is very interesting that they remained so popular, because it’s not always true of blockbusters, especially adaptations. Some of them really do not last. But Lord of the Rings has stuck around since it was written and since these movies came out. The movies were essential pandemic viewing for a lot of people. There’s this great headline in Esquire, One Simply Does Not Get through Quarantine Without Watching The Lord of the Rings.
So the story holds up. It holds up and it remains hugely influential on the whole genre of modern fantasy. That’s even though, and maybe it’s kind of because, it’s also really reactionary and bigoted. Don’t worry, we are absolutely going to talk about that part of it. We’re not going to whitewash it. We’re not going to ignore it because a lot of people like me love this stuff, but a lot of right wing and libertarian people love this stuff, too.
I brought in an expert today to talk about this, an expert on both the right wing and on Lord of the Rings. This person is Talia Lavin.
Talia Lavin: Hello. Hi.
Lyta Gold: Hi. I am –
Talia Lavin: That’s quite an intro to follow. I feel now like I have to have a really thoughtful, leftist analysis of Lord of the Rings.
Lyta Gold: We’re doing a fuck, marry, kill at the end. Just so you know.
Talia Lavin: Yeah no, I’m not sure I’ve come with my theory hat or my Lord of the Rings hat fully adjusted, but I think we can just bumble our way through it. Or Bombur our way through it. Eh?
Lyta Gold: I got that.
Talia Lavin: Ba-bow!
Lyta Gold: That was spectacular.
Talia Lavin: Yeah, so I’m really happy to be here. I’m honored that you chose me for the inaugural episode.
Lyta Gold: Well, I really needed to pick something that I really liked and somebody that I really like, and so put those things together, that was Lord of the Rings and you.
Talia Lavin: Hell, yeah.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Quick rundown for people who are not familiar with Talia. Talia is a writer and a researcher. Her book is called Culture Warlords. It’s amazing. I have two copies for reasons. Her Substack is called The Sword and the Sandwich. It’s also great. Talia, you are a self-described sword Jew?
Talia Lavin: Swords Jew.
Lyta Gold: Swords Jew.
Talia Lavin: It’s multiple.
Lyta Gold: It’s multiple swords. Okay, let’s talk about being a swords Jew.
Talia Lavin: I’m queer. I’m also a Jew. Sorry if that really bothers anybody.
Lyta Gold: Not sorry, actually.
Talia Lavin: And I own a lot of swords. There’s a whole thing of sword lesbians, sword queer women, and there are Jews who own swords, too. It’s nice. I have three broadswords and a saber and a bunch of daggers. I like blades for reasons that are actually intimately intertwined with my early psychosexual development and The Lord of the Rings.
Lyta Gold: Do you want to unpack that a little more?
Talia Lavin: I guess doing therapy by podcast is a very 21st century thing to do. No, I mean my first love was Aragorn, movie Aragorn, aka a young Viggo Mortensen who just smolders. And Anduril and the forged from the shards of Narsil. That’s my imitation of Viggo, who’s a little nasal sometimes. He lifts up the sword and he has a sword all the time, and he’s very sexy. I don’t know. There was a wire crossed in me then. I bought a dagger when I was 14 at a Lord of the Rings convention.
Lyta Gold: Nice.
Talia Lavin: And then I let it lie dormant for a while. I think I had a katana, too. My parents were indulgent in that regard, shall we say. They were like, it’s fine. Whatever. Have a katana. But I really only started my current collection a couple of years ago when I was working on Culture Warlords, which is a book about online Nazis. They don’t like me for both ethnic reasons and also because I am consistently anti-Nazi in my writing and in tweets and all the time. I look like I do, which is a not exactly conventionally attractive Jewish woman. It’s like a lot of the stuff they direct towards me is not just violent, but also sexually degrading and violent in that way.
And then I was dating a guy at the time who was bad for me in almost every way, except that he bought me a replica of Anduril. I held it and I felt safer than I had in years. I was just like, I belong holding this blade. Since then, I’ve acquired several more. My walls are adorned with swords. I mean, that’s the story. Now I’m a swords Jew.
Lyta Gold: I also have a sword from an ex-boyfriend and I didn’t put it together that this is a thing that happens, that that’s how you get out of a bad relationship. You get out with a sword.
Talia Lavin: I mean, it’s like ideally, the sword would’ve been given to me by someone who truly sought to empower me, but that’s not quite the case in that situation. But I have since acquired my own swords –
Lyta Gold: Nice.
Talia Lavin: …and given friends swords. Whenever I invite a friend over I’m like, want to see my swords? It’s not that I get off on showing women my swords, it’s more that I like it… You can sort of see the change on someone’s face when they’re holding a sword all of a sudden. It’s a very cool feeling, to hold a very sharp, three to four-foot long length of metal in your hands. Suddenly, you’re a sword wielder. It feels baller.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, it’s funny because it kind of ties into what people love so much about Lord of the Rings and people love so much about the sword fantasy in general. It’s not so much that you yourself would actually hurt anybody, although it’s nice to know that you maybe could protect yourself in some kind of insane situation. But it’s not really about that. It’s just the feeling of strength that you get from something that’s… Swords are really beautiful, I think, in a way that guns are really not beautiful. I mean, there’s some enameled ones, like weird Civil War ones, but no, swords are very pretty. I think that makes a big difference.
Talia Lavin: Yeah, they’re aesthetically pleasing and they feel good in your hand. I bought a plastic sword, like a practice sword, so I could do drills in the park, but I’m a little self-conscious about being a weird nerd doing sword drills in the park. Trying to get over that so that I can actually wield my blades. But yeah, it’s not about wanting to hurt anybody. I just think they’re cool.
Let’s put it this way. Ever since the development of the arquebus in the 14th century and the arbalest crossbow, and then ballistics have taken off ever since then, swords have not been the primary weapon of war for a long time, so it doesn’t necessarily feel like a violent ownership. It’s more like these are things that make me happy and dial into some deep part of my soul that loves Aragorn, wants to be him, whatever it is. I still can’t watch The Lord of the Rings movies without feeling a very deep sexual ecstasy when I see Viggo Mortensen, to the point where it’s distracting to me and anyone else I’m watching with because every time I see him, I’m just like… oh.
Lyta Gold: He can get it. He can get it.
Talia Lavin: He can get it to the point where someone gives up her immortality for him. You know, Arwen?
Lyta Gold: Yeah.
Talia Lavin: I’m just like, I get it.
Lyta Gold: Dick so good, you’d die for it? That’s pretty good dick.
Talia Lavin: Yeah. Dick so good, you’d literally give up your immortality.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. That’s [crosstalk].
Talia Lavin: I still think Liv Tyler was a little bit of an odd choice for Arwen. She’s very beautiful, though, so I don’t… It’s just as far as images of elves go, I don’t know.
Lyta Gold: Some of the things were tricky about the adaptation. Her role was particularly tricky because she’s not particularly present in the books and had to be added in. They did what they could and I’m like, It doesn’t really work, but I’m not mad at it.
Talia Lavin: Yeah. I mean, the scene where she has Frodo on her horse and the… First of all, the Nazgul are so hapless in the movies. I’m like, they’re so threatening and mysterious in the books, but also in the movies they’re supposed to be, but they get defeated by hobbits getting on a ferry. Water.
Lyta Gold: They don’t like water. It’s wet. It’s icky.
Talia Lavin: The hobbits are hiding right below them and they can’t get to it. They can’t sniff them out. The ring is three feet from them. I’m like, how fearsome are they really? They’re like the Home Alone robbers if they raided a Spirit Halloween in the movies.
Lyta Gold: I feel like with all of the bad guys in Lord of the Rings, there’s always a certain sense of I hate my job-ness about them. The orcs very much hate their jobs. This blows. They’re not really into it. The Nazgul, too. They’re like, got to catch these weenie little bitches? It’s very exhausting. [crosstalk].
Talia Lavin: I don’t know. I don’t feel that they’re resentful employees, necessarily, just fairly incompetent ones.
Lyta Gold: That’s true. That’s true. The orcs are definitely resentful.
Talia Lavin: I think the orcs are kind of… They’re not bad at being orcs. Let’s not slander the orcs further here. They want the age of the orc to come.
Lyta Gold: That’s true, that’s true. In the book, it’s a little bit more… They’re fighting with each other. They’re just like, we have to go to war. That sucks.
Talia Lavin: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: There’s a terrible animated version, it’s not actually that terrible, animated version of Return of the King. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it. [crosstalk] –
Talia Lavin: The Bakshi?
Lyta Gold: Yeah, yeah, where there’s… I think the Bakshi is the… I’d have to look this up. He did a Lord of the Rings that didn’t get a sequel, and then later on there was an unofficial Return of the King that was supposed to be the unofficial sequel to that. But in Return of the King, the Orcs get a little song about how much work sucks. I just think about it a lot. It’s very charming.
Talia Lavin: Amazing. I think also, one of the more amazing things I’ve seen recently was there was a Soviet Lord of the Rings film adaptation.
Lyta Gold: I’ve heard of that, but I’ve never seen it. Is it good?
Talia Lavin: It’s on YouTube.
Lyta Gold: Oh my God.
Talia Lavin: It’s [foreign language]. That’s how you say it in Russian. I’ve seen it. It’s hilarious. It’s so bad. It’s well into so bad, it’s good territory. But even they made Aragorn real hot because that’s just… He is. But he’s like, ya, Aragorn! It’s one of the first things he says. It’s always funny to me. I think he’s called Froda Baggins or whatever.
Lyta Gold: Oh my God.
Talia Lavin: You know, Frodo. They all have very silly names. Galadriel appears and she’s just this busty, Russian, middle-aged lady. It’s awesome. It’s so funny, and Gollum is running around in just a Kermit the Frog suit, kind of. It’s so funny. I really recommend it if you want to kill an hour just enjoying extremely silly Lord of the Rings X the Soviet Union. It’s sort of in a Masterpiece Theatre format where a random dude, who I think is supposed to be a Tolkien stand-in with a pipe, is chilling in his drawing room and then stories unfold. It’s also the only film adaptation of Lord of the Rings I’ve ever seen that features Tom Bombadil.
Lyta Gold: Oh, the fans were so hurt by the exclusion of Tom Bombadil.
Talia Lavin: I resent it.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, yeah.
Talia Lavin: Still, it’s a point of contention for me. I’m like, you have five hour-extended versions. You couldn’t throw in a little Bombadil? You couldn’t? He didn’t fit?
Lyta Gold: Just a little for the fans, just him waving, hey.
Talia Lavin: His costume isn’t hard to design. A bright blue, his jacket is, and his boots are yellow. He has a sexy wife. He saves the… But yeah, there’s some critical scenes involving Tom Bombadil, Bombadil, Bombadil, saving the hobbits in the Soviet version, so another reason to watch it. Anyway.
Lyta Gold: That is wonderful. So –
Talia Lavin: You wrote such a beautiful outline and I’ve just tanked it. I’m so sorry.
Lyta Gold: No, no, no. This is great because we’re sort of getting into… The story is universally popular, which is so unusual. It’s really unusual for something to really have this much of an impact, and the fact that the Soviets loved it, too, when Tolkien himself was kind of reactionary and there’s some weird shit going on there.
Talia Lavin: To quote your outline, how did two nice Jewish girls get so invested in these reactionary Catholic fantasy books? What’s your story?
Lyta Gold: I was really into fantasy when I was in elementary school, middle school. I can’t remember when I first read Lord of the Rings. I think I was eight or nine. But I remember I had these paperbacks, with these really corny covers, and I loved them. I literally loved them to death. They fell apart physically because I read them too much. I used to reread them every year, up until my early 20s. I stopped. I read The Silmarillion in high school. I was very popular and very cool for doing things like that.
It’s kind of a funny thing where something like this is, again, universally popular and everybody loves it, but there was, I think, a point especially when we were younger where you had to be kind of… Especially if you were a girl who liked fantasy, you had to be… People would be weird to you about it. Or like the way that you’re shy about practicing swords in the park. Why should that be weird? Everybody loves swords. Why is this a weird thing? Why do we have to be shy about it?
Talia Lavin: Yeah, I think high fantasy especially is such a masculine-dominated genre. The books themselves are all about men tenderly loving one another. I mean, the sort of fear image for me is Star Wars kid because I’m fat and I have a sword. You know that very early viral video of just a fat kid having a great time doing all kinds of sword moves, but that becomes the archetype you’re afraid of. I think when you add in being female to it, it’s just like that’s a whole mess of pottage, baggage, whatever.
I tried to learn Elvish in eighth grade. I would carry around my little Elvish packet that I printed from online. I definitely got teased for it, so that’s fine. I mean, I’m the archetypal nerd that should’ve been stuffed in a locker at some point, but I never did get stuffed in a locker, and so I’ve gone on to become the warped weirdo you see today.
My origin story, I mean it’s similar. My dad read us The Hobbit when we were kids. He was a big Lord of the Rings fan. I was really into more girl-oriented fantasy, big fan of Tamora Pierce.
Lyta Gold: Yes.
Talia Lavin: Who’s wonderful still.
Lyta Gold: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Talia Lavin: Big fan of Dealing with Dragons and all sorts of those books. And then I got to Lord of the Rings and it was like, this is so serious and grown up. I read them, I loved them. The movies came out. As discussed earlier, a major psychosexual development point. I had a Viggo Mortensen poster on my wall. I had then my own photo collage of Viggo Mortensen that I printed out, including a shot from A Walk on the Moon with his bare butt. My parents must’ve seen it, but we’ve never discussed it. Anyway, so you know how in the Earthsea books knowing someone’s true name is how you have absolute power over them?
Lyta Gold: Yes.
Talia Lavin: I told you my fanfic name, and I feel like that’s… You now have absolute power over me. That’s a sacred bond of trust between us, Lyta.
Lyta Gold: It is.
Talia Lavin: You may never reveal it, that I have –
Lyta Gold: I never will.
Talia Lavin: – Sent you my fanfiction.net profile. I was between the ages of 11 and 14. I was writing fan fiction. At 14, I did my, I’m setting aside childish things, and started writing original fiction. But I wrote 50 stories, most of which were Lord of the Rings stories, and I will never reveal my alias except to those who can be trusted with my true name.
Lyta Gold: I looked back at some of your fan fiction and I liked it. I had fun with it.
Talia Lavin: Well, it was my first time writing for an audience, and I was so obsessive about Tolkien that I was driven to write all the time. I don’t think this is actually that uncommon an origin story, is you learn to write by writing, and I wrote a shit ton. So in many ways, fanfiction is how I got my start in writing.
Lyta Gold: This is a pro-fanfic podcast by the way, everybody. In this house, we respect fan fiction.
Talia Lavin: Yeah. AO3 is honestly one of the most amazing loci of creativity today.
Lyta Gold: It is.
Talia Lavin: People write with such dedication. I’m like, okay, I might not be into Qui-Gon Jinn spanking Obi-Wan Kenobi, but it’s cool if you are.
Lyta Gold: It’s slightly off-topic, but it’s an interesting phenomenon that for a lot of people… Not all fan fiction is erotic fan fiction, but there’s so little eroticism in a lot of these pop culture stories that people… That’s one of the things fan fiction does, it creatively adds what’s missing. So people writing themselves into… Even people Mary Sue-ing, which is often women writing themselves into stories where they aren’t. They don’t exist, so they have to imagine female characters where there are none.
Talia Lavin: You mean the many stories of a young Talia tagging along with the Fellowship?
Lyta Gold: But why weren’t you there? It’s actually a legit question. Should you have been in the original story to begin with?
Talia Lavin: I mean, I think every fantasy story should have a chubby Jewish girl tagging along, so I absolutely agree. No, but you wrote in your outline about the missing women. We have to write ourselves into stories like this. I mean in many ways, my early literary escapades… I moved from Lord of the Rings to reading the great Jewish novelists, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow. I read a little bit of John Updike, but that was too much for me. I read On the Road and I hated it. But I was reading all the time, is my point, and there were no women in these books. There weren’t any women that weren’t basically collections of body parts to lust over, and I had to disassociate myself from my consciousness.
I wrote a eulogy for Philip Roth that touches on some of this stuff, where I had to… People who are not straight white men reading the canon of great literature, capital G, capital L, often have to disassociate themselves from their gender or their race or their sexual orientation in order to… It’s this process of disassociation from yourself and enforced identification with groups that have more power than you. Reading all of these male-centric narratives, I recognized there was no space for me and so I muted myself a little bit. I guess these 12-year-old, 13-year-old fantasies of me chilling with the Fellowship were my version of doing that more concretely.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. The one thing I will say for Tolkien, because there’s some messed up reactionary stuff in the books and there’s a real absence of women, but Eowyn still remains a… She’s the most active female character with the most going on. She remains, actually, really quite a good character, and she was formative to me as a kid.
Talia Lavin: Yeah. The famous line in the film is, “I am no man.” But if you don’t mind, I will-
Lyta Gold: Oh, please. Please.
Talia Lavin: Yeah, so first of all, if we’re looking for trans and queer subtext in these books –
Lyta Gold: Oh my God, it is there.
Talia Lavin: It is definitely there. Eowyn is in disguise as a male Rohirric foot soldier or cavalry soldier named Dernhelm and carrying Merry with her, but she’s Dernhelm. And then she unmasks herself at this moment. Here’s the quote. Merry? Is it Pippin? Is it Merry?
Lyta Gold: It’s Merry’s point of view, yeah.
Talia Lavin: It’s Merry, yeah. “Then, out of the blackness in his mind, he thought that he heard Dernhelm speaking. Now the voice seemed strange, recalling some other voice that he had known.” First of all, Eowyn must’ve done some secret vocal training to sound more like a dude.
Lyta Gold: She was taking T on the side.
Talia Lavin: Which is a very queer thing to do. Anyway, “‘Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion. Leave the dead in peace.’ A cold voice answered, ‘Come not between the Nazgul and his prey, or he will slay thee in turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured and thy shriveled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.’ A sword rang as it was drawn. ‘Do what you will but I will hinder it, if I may.’ ‘Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me.’
“Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. ‘But no living man am I. You look upon a woman. Eowyn am I, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone if you be not deathless. For living or dark undead, I will smite you if you touch him.'”
Lyta Gold: I am so glad you read that because she laughs. That is so important, and the movie doesn’t do that. It does not have her laugh.
Talia Lavin: Also, “Begone if you be not deathless”? Amazing line.
Lyta Gold: Badass.
Talia Lavin: But also, “I am no man” is different than “No living man am I. You look upon a woman.”
Lyta Gold: Yes, that’s a good point.
Talia Lavin: It’s a stronger passage in the books. Let’s be real. In the movies, it’s just Eowyn in a helmet as opposed to Dernhelm, a fully…
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Merry recognizes her immediately, right?
Talia Lavin: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: She’s not disguised.
Talia Lavin: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: One of the great things about Eowyn, along with being a trans icon, is she’s like an audience stand-in character in that she doesn’t know if she wants to fuck Aragorn or be him. That’s a key part of her story line.
Talia Lavin: Yeah. I mean, I definitely want to fuck Aragorn, but I may also want to be him. Gender feelings are complex and lifelong.
What’s interesting to me, if you look at the books, is that Dernhelm is a much more fleshed out persona. It’s much more of an authentically… Eowyn enacting a masculine performance and then unmasking herself and saying, “No, I am a woman,” which I think is much more powerful than the film scene. And also, her lines are better. That’s my take. Justice for Dernhelm. Justice for Tom Bombadil. I don’t know.
I mean, I loved the Peter Jackson films. I don’t mean to crap all over them. It’s more like Tolkien is like a thread where there’s so much lore. I mean, there’s just paralyzing amounts of lore and, of course, you can’t unravel that in any movie. That’s part of the joy of being a Tolkien fan, is, I mean, there’s almost no limit to… Even without deep exegesis or whatever, there’s so much lore that you can just spend a year solely reading it, if you’re so inclined.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, yeah. That’s definitely one of the things about it that I think is really appealing. It’s interesting. Again, we were talking about this at the top of the show that yeah, we love it as leftist Jews, but reactionaries love it, too. They often get deep into the lore. Peter Thiel has named five companies after… He’s got a company called Valar. I think he’s got one called Anduril, I’m pretty sure.
Talia Lavin: And Palantir, obviously, which is –
Lyta Gold: Yeah, of course.
Talia Lavin: It’s such a nefarious artifact in the books.
Lyta Gold: I know.
Talia Lavin: It’s literally an all-seeing stone that corrupts your mind and draws you into the all-seeing eye of the Dark Lord, so it’s like he’s not hiding his intent on the world, particularly.
Lyta Gold: I was curious about this, the logic behind Palantir, choosing the name. I did some research on it. The argument that either Thiel or Alex Karp, his partner, made is that it’s like, well, you know the Palantir can be used for evil, but also for good. And if there’s one thing that this story’s about, it’s how artifacts… It’s just fine. It’s just fine. Magical objects, you can’t tell where they keep their brain, it’s fine. Just use them [inaudible].
Talia Lavin: No, and I think the Palantir HQ is called the Hobbit Hole or the Shire or something.
Lyta Gold: Whoa.
Talia Lavin: I mean, it’s just very easily used for evil ends, so do you want to talk about that? Should we talk about the reactionary strain in the books?
Lyta Gold: Let’s do it. Let’s get there. We’ve talked about how sexy they are, whether they need to be or not in these books, and we’ve talked about Eowyn. I think it’s time for the reactionary stuff.
Talia Lavin: I mean, just one coda on that. Especially when it comes to fanfic writers, there’s a saying going around in my preteen years that subtext is an anagram for butt sex. As these stories are so sexless, you almost have to read that in if you are, say, a young, repressed orthodox Jewish teenage girl with nascent sexual interests. You have to invent the eros, and that can be stimulating. It also gives a certain play to the imagination. But anyway, moving beyond that… I’m so undignified on this, your inaugural podcast.
Lyta Gold: I like you being real about this because we’re all just being real about it. And I think reactionaries, too, are getting a degree of eros out of this also. It’s just a different kind.
Talia Lavin: Yeah. Well, so why are these books so innately appealing to reactionaries? Because it’s a reactionary fantasy. It’s an all-white cast of heroes and darkness, blackness, are strongly associated with villains. It’s explicitly built on Western myth and in ways that reactionaries have continued to build on, like this sort of… I talk in my book about how white nationalism is like any other form of nationalism, it requires a sort of building up or creation of a mythic past. In this case, a sort of anachronistic casting back of whiteness into history, so figures like the Crusaders and the Vikings become central to this myth of a glory of whiteness that was and was unapologetic and violent and glorious. Of course, I’m not arguing that that’s what Tolkien was setting out to do. Authorial intent is always… I’m a very Barthesian –
Lyta Gold: Thank you. Me too.
Talia Lavin: – Death of the author kind of a gal. And also, let’s be real. The men of the Eastern Lands, who are explicitly described as dark and swarthy, in the movies they’re presented with kohl on their – K-O-H-L kohl on their eyes, eyeliner, dressed in very reminiscent of Arabic styles. They ride elephants. None of this is subtle. And they’re allied with evil. And then, of course, the orcs are an inferior race. I don’t know if you ever read… There was this piece in McSweeney’s years ago. It was called Unused Audio Commentary by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, Recorded Summer 2002 for The Fellowship of the Ring (Platinum Series Extended Edition) DVD, Part One.
Lyta Gold: Amazing.
Talia Lavin: It’s a leftist critique of Lord of the Rings. At the time I just thought it was really funny, and barely knew who Chomsky or Zinn were, but it’s pretty accurate. Well, I mean some of it is silly. They argue that Gandalf is a drug lord trying to keep everyone dependent.
So it’s like, “Chomsky: Notice, too, that the ‘war’ being waged here is evidently in the land of Mordor itself – At the very base of Mount Doom. These terrible armies of Sauron, these dreadful demonized orcs, have not proved very successful at conquering the neighboring realms – If that is even what Sauron was seeking to do. It seems fairly far-fetched.”
“Zinn: And observe the map device here – How the map is itself completely Gondor-centric. Rohan and Gondor are treated as though they are the literal center of Middle Earth. Obviously, this is because they have men living there. What of places such as Anfalas and Forlindon or Near Harad? One never really hears anything about places like that. And this so-called map casually reveals other places – the Lost Realm, the Northern Waste (lost to whom? Wasted how? I ask) — But tells us nothing about them. It is as though the people who live in these places are despicable and unworthy of mention. Who is producing this tale? What is their agenda? What are their interests, and how are those interests being served by this portrayal? Questions we need to ask repeatedly.” Anyway.
Lyta Gold: I would 100% read a revisionary history of how Sauron is actually a hero. Because I think, to really show my nerd credentials here, I think if you look at Second Age stuff – Stuff that’s supposed to have happened before Lord of the Rings – Sauron’s really the hero of that story. He is standing up against Numenorian oppression. He’s the one guy they’ve got out there.
Talia Lavin: Yeah, yeah. Okay, “Zinn: And here, we receive our first glimpse of the supposedly dreadful Mordor, which actually looks like a fairly functioning place. Chomsky: This type of city is most likely the best the orcs can do if all they have are cliffs to grow on. It’s very impressive, in that sense. Zinn: Especially considering the economic sanctions no doubt faced by Mordor. They must be dreadful.” Yeah, no. It’s just… “From what I understand, Orcish is a patois that the Orcs developed during their enslavement by Rohan before they rebelled and left.”
This is funny and it’s cute and it’s a great article that you should put in the show notes. But more to the point, what they’re satirizing is a very barely veiled subtext of just that our enemies are an inferior race of dark people that have no souls and are soullessly controlled, and then these white heroes come out and… There’s no moral complexity in the story.
Lyta Gold: There’s some kind of on the good guys’ side with Gollum and Boromir, but there’s really… The villains get really no moral complexity at all. Again, there’s some orcs that talk about how they hate their jobs, and I just love that, but they’re bad guys. I mean, they’re fighting amongst each other. They’re really vicious to each other.
Talia Lavin: Yeah, they’re definitionally bad guys. There’s scenes in the movies where Gimli and Legolas are doing their death counts and it’s real funny. It’s fine. Whatever. Fantasy isn’t necessarily meant to reproduce moral complexity, but I think it’s interesting that the lodestar of modern fantasy, which every single book that came out in this genre after Tolkien owes a debt to Tolkien in one way or another, and what he sets up is a chaste, sexless vision of the morally pure vanquishing the dark other. Of course, this is at core a reactionary story.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. One of the things that’s very interesting about the way modern fantasy authors have addressed this and dealt with this is they try to think of ways to write different kinds of the story or write different parts, the joke line from Zinn or whatever about these other places on the map that you don’t hear from. So people trying to talk about the kinds of people that normally don’t get talked about in a story like this. There’s something even about the framing. NK Jemisin has this really great line about it, the Tolkien framing that got put on to everything else. She said, with epic fantasy, there’s a tendency to be quintessentially conservative, and that the job is to restore what’s perceived to be out of whack. So things are fine, everything in the Shire is good, everybody’s happy, but then a bad thing comes and the bad thing must be stopped.
What you see in a lot of contemporary fantasy, which I think is really neat, is you see situations where things are bad to begin with. People live in a society that sucks and then they have to do something about it. You also see a lot of depressing dystopias where there’s not much that can be done, et cetera. But yeah, it’s a problem. And even when people are working in counterpoint to the problem, they’re still working against a thing that’s already there, against that problem that Tolkien raised.
Talia Lavin: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting that another thing that never makes it into any film adaptation is the Scouring of the Shire.
Lyta Gold: Yes. Yeah, and for good reason pacing wise, but not story wise.
Talia Lavin: Pacing wise, also it would be a very sharp break from how we’ve seen the hobbits. But for those who are not incredible nerds –
Lyta Gold: Why even listen to this if you’re not? Get out.
Talia Lavin: Yeah, true.
Lyta Gold: You can’t join our club.
Talia Lavin: Yeah, how have you made it this far? Could you describe the Scouring of the Shire for our listeners?
Lyta Gold: Yeah. The four hobbits go home after throwing the ring in the fire. There’s a big party and then they go home. They get there and what has happened is that Saruman has actually gotten there ahead of them. In the movie, I think he dies at Orthanc. But in the books, he’s gotten there ahead of them and he has decided to move into the Shire and fuck everything up, but he’s working behind the scenes.
Talia Lavin: Also, he’s using the pseudonym Sharkey, which is amazing.
Lyta Gold: It’s a great name. All-timer. Yeah, he and Wormtongue are there working behind the scenes. What they’re doing is they’re making the hobbits… They’re actually making the hobbits orc-like, which is interesting and more… It’s one of the things that might make orcishness sort of more interesting than an evil race, is if orcishness is an attitude where you are suspicious and you treat other people badly and you’re really greedy and you want things for yourself.
They’re turning the Shire into… It’s a kind of capitalist nightmare. They cut down trees, they cut down the famous Party Tree, and they’re interested in really turning the Shire into an industrialized powerhouse. And so these four very tired hobbits when they get home, they have to… You go home, but home isn’t the same. They have to try to [crosstalk].
Talia Lavin: Engage in brutal vigilante justice?
Lyta Gold: They do and it’s awesome. It’s great.
Talia Lavin: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: They engage in brutal vigilante justice against the sheriffs. There’s these appointed little sheriffs going around with these feathers in their hats. They’re little hobbits thinking they’re a big deal, and then our four heroes have to beat the shit out of them. That actually rules.
Talia Lavin: I think we’re used to seeing Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin as innocent and it’s like, let’s cleanse our homeland and kill the cops. Tolkien was super popularized in the hippie movement, this sort of back to the land element to it, a pre-industrial purity and anti-industrialization message which comes out super clear in the movies when you see Saruman being like, we will cut down trees, and then the literal trees come and destroy his industrial waste-making pits.
Just to talk about the reactionary potential of that narrative, especially in this time of climate change. There is a real risk that eco-fascism will gain extraordinary appeal, that you need pure people and the right people to cleanse the earth, that the earth must be cleansed of the inferior and impure. And the perennial concern that the wrong people are reproducing too much, and the wrong people always happen to not be white. Even within this nominally anti-capitalist, nominally environmentalist message, that can also be taken and used in very destructive ways.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s certainly true. I mean again, the universality of its appeal is a good thing and it’s a bad thing. It’s universal because it’s a rich enough text that people can pull the meanings that they want from it and ignore the ones that they don’t. I think the best way to approach a thing like this, the fairest way to approach a thing like this, is to be honest about what’s in it and be honest about what’s good and what works for you, but not to ignore the things that don’t work for you and not to ignore what’s messy and not great about it.
Talia Lavin: Yeah. Oh yeah, you also mentioned that Sean Parker of –
Lyta Gold: Oh, yes.
Talia Lavin: – Facebook billionaire fame had a Tolkien-themed wedding. It’s like any other uber popular, ascendant cultural property in that yeah, people read what they want. You have to push a little bit to read in queer and anti-capitalist subtext into the book, but… I mean, and I’m saying this in a little bit of a self-serving way as someone who now writes on Substack, but I am reluctant in general to cede spaces to the worst among us. And to cede, especially, a story and a myth as powerful as this, to the worst people.
There are some things that become completely tainted by their manipulation, association, appropriation by far-right movements. I don’t think Lord of the Rings has hit that point yet. I think that the more people unabashedly love it and read what they need into it and also critique it and understand it as almost a master text of the modern imagination, there’s all kinds of exegesis you can do and all kinds of critique that you can engage in while also loving it for what it is, which is a very deeply thought out escapist fantasy with its own philology and lore and history and myth. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful thing with some darknesses in it that we can examine fearlessly while still loving it.
Lyta Gold: Tolkien has, actually, a line in his essay On Fairy Stories, which they can find the PDF online. I’ll put it in the show notes. It’s great. It’s a really interesting essay. He wrote it in the ’30s, I think even before he wrote… Yeah, it must’ve been before he wrote Lord of the Rings. He was working on The Silmarillion and maybe even The Hobbit at that point. One of the things he says is escape is one of the main functions of fairy stories. People have scorned this, but why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or, if when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls?
I find this really fascinating because for a long time and until relatively recently, fantasy and sci-fi weren’t taken as seriously, not as seriously as realism. But the idea that people didn’t want to be part of the world was seen as contemptible. These nerd girls reading these sword and sorcery stories, that’s contemptible. But why wouldn’t you look around this world and be like, I don’t want to be part of this world? It’s actually an extremely reasonable response to the horrors of modern capitalism or just the general crap of modern life, is that you don’t want to belong.
You can want to go back to an imagined and very sinister reactionary past that never existed, too. That is a reaction that you can have. But the impulse towards escape is not really a bad thing at all. In fact, it can be very fruitful.
Talia Lavin: Yeah. I mean, I have many reasons to agree with you there. I know that for me, as a teen with a lot of feelings and stuff I was escaping from, including a deeply reactionary religious environment, these were a lifeline for me, these books and the books that I fell in love with after. I don’t feel shame for the fact that I’ve used literature as an escape. Part of the essay that you cited was like, “In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word. And, what is more, they’re confusing, not always by sincere error, the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter.” Are you deserting reality or are you engaging in a needed escape?
So here’s a topic we skipped in the outline. I think this is one that both of us will talk about gladly, which is that dwarves are Jews.
Lyta Gold: Yes, apparently. I only found this out relatively recently.
Talia Lavin: Oh, I’ve known this for a long time.
Lyta Gold: That’s very funny, because I know people who find this very upsetting and offensive and I know other Jewish people who are really bothered by this. I find this fucking hilarious. So if you want to explain how dwarves are Jews.
Talia Lavin: Yeah, so Tolkien just outright is like, yeah, dwarves are Jews. It’s not subtle or hidden. It’s not something that he feels any shame about. The dwarvish language in the books is a Semitic language, which you can tell, and Tolkien was a philologist so he did his homework on that. There’s lots of [h sound], Khazad-dûm and whatever. It’s not subtle. Again, nothing about Tolkien is ever subtle, ever.
Lyta Gold: It’s not subtle, but somehow I 100% missed that. The thing that really gets me, specifically there’s this word… I guess I didn’t realize that it’s supposed to be baruch, because it’s like Baruk is how it’s written on the page. I didn’t put it together. It’s a word that the dwarves yell when they’re in battle. It means ax or something. The fucking idea of dwarves being out in the battlefield yelling brachas, davening out on the battlefield, that is the funniest shit. In some ways, we should probably be offended by it. The dwarves are very stubborn and whatever, but there’s something about that that just absolutely slays me.
Talia Lavin: Well, I think it was in an interview. Someone maybe asked him or maybe he just volunteered it. He’s like, oh yeah, dwarves are Jews. It wasn’t like, oh, how dare you accuse me of that, like, say, Captain Wizard TERF over there –
Lyta Gold: Oh, God.
Talia Lavin: …Being like, what do you mean my hook-nosed banking goblins are reminiscent of anti-Semitic stereotypes? Tolkien’s like, no, dwarves are Jewish. As to why it would be offensive, I think it’s less that they’re short and argumentative, which, fair enough.
Lyta Gold: It’s a read. How can you be mad? That’s a fair read.
Talia Lavin: That’s fair. It’s more like they’re obsessed with gold.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, little bit of that.
Talia Lavin: Like, obsessed with gold. That’s their primary motivator a lot of the time. But if you think about it, as far as European fantasy goes, Tolkien’s dwarves are noble. They’re brave, they’re strong, they’re smart, they’re funny. I actually like the idea of dwarves as Jews and Jews as dwarves or whatever.
But yeah, here’s the quote from 1964 from Tolkien: “The language of the dwarves is Semitic in cast, but leaning phonetically to Hebrew (as suits the dwarvish character). The dwarves, of course, are quite obviously, wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews?” Because they’re short, bearded, argumentative, and love gold. That’s a little bit reductive but at the same time, Gimli’s one of the Fellowship. They march. He’s an honored comrade. He’s played more for comic relief in the movies than he is in the books. But also, dwarves are strong. Dwarves are fearless. I’ve looked at dwarves and lots of different fantasy races. In D&D, I always play a dwarf for this reason, usually a sexy dwarf with a long beard and big titties.
Lyta Gold: That’s amazing. I love that for you.
Talia Lavin: That’s my D&D character template. I don’t know. Whatever.
But okay, in Terry Pratchett, dwarves are all the things mentioned above and they also love books and arguing. That’s very central to them. The depiction of the Dwarf king is he’s in a room lined with books. He talks about how everything is settled by passionate debate in dwarven society. In the Witcher books, the Witcher novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, the dwarves are all of that, they can carry massive weights and walk really fast, and they’re also the bankers.
Lyta Gold: Oh, dear.
Talia Lavin: Every bank in the books is run by dwarves. And, there are pogroms against dwarves.
Lyta Gold: Oh, shit.
Talia Lavin: Against non-humans in general, but specifically there’s a dwarf banker who is actually portrayed as a very noble character. The sorceress, Yennefer, has saved his family from pogrom and he’s like, so you’re good at my bank for all time. He’s portrayed as a very honest and thoughtful character. I mean, this is a Polish fantasy writer. It’s interesting how much more explicit that whole dwarves are Jews thing was.
George R. R. Martin doesn’t have any dwarves. In general, his take on Tolkien was like, what if there were women in it, but they were raped?
Lyta Gold: All the time.
Talia Lavin: He puts more grit and gore, which I respect, but those are reactionary in all kinds of ways.
Lyta Gold: George R. R. Martin has a really interesting criticism of Tolkien that I think is really valuable, which is that… He’s specifically talking about the orcs and how weird it… He’s like, so what happens after Return of the King? Does Aragorn just genocide the orcs? Does he kill all the little orc babies? That’s really fucked up. I think the point is really, really valid, but I don’t think his books answer that question at all, since everybody’s just incompetent and cruel in varying ways.
Talia Lavin: The George R. R. Martin books are inspired, above all, by the Wars of the Roses which are just really sad, fucked up stories of how lots of brave people kill each other for essentially no reason. There’s maybe one guy that’s historically uncomplexly evil, Richard, Duke of York, and even he was basically just trying to be king because the king was pretty incompetent and/or insane at the time.
Lyta Gold: There are Richard, Duke of York defenders. Just FYI if they come after you for calling him evil. There’s a society.
Talia Lavin: Just to reiterate again the fact that I’m a massive nerd, after I was reading and watching Game of Thrones, I got really into the history of the Wars of the Roses because I’m like, what is this? Where does this come from? It is definitely a huge basis of Game of Thrones, but also some of it is George R. R. Martin’s own erotic fantasies of rape.
They’re such rapey books and I’m like, there’s a middle ground between sterility and a rape fest. There are many ways to portray sexuality that just don’t involve such colossal and staggering amounts of rape. The TV show was criticized for how much rape it included, but the books are rapier.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, if anything.
Talia Lavin: It’s not like they departed from the books to add more rape. They took out some of the rapes.
Lyta Gold: One of the things that’s frustrating about depictions of women, and we want more female characters in things just to represent the actual balance of humanity but… This happens –
Talia Lavin: Not like this. Not like this.
Lyta Gold: Well yeah, just not constant… Not like the only role is to be sexually assaulted. That would be kind of nice.
Talia Lavin: Right, and there are sexual assaults in the Game of Thrones books that are unabashedly portrayed erotically where you’re like, George, you were typing this with one hand. Let’s be real. Anyway, but we’ve strayed quite far afield. Anyway, the point is dwarves are Jewish and I think that’s awesome.
Lyta Gold: The hook-nosed banking goblins are pretty bad in JK Rowling, but one small thing that kind of works in Tolkien’s favor when it comes to dwarves and Jews is that everybody in the books is obsessed with gold and power. He very neatly symbolized that in a single ring, which is a really… The ring as symbol, it’s really like an all-time perfectly simple, perfectly evocative. Just structurally how it’s functioning in the story, it really, really worked.
Yeah, everybody’s after gold. The fucking elven king’s after gold. If you read The Silmarillion, if you heroically trudge into Silmarillion, you find that the elves are very obsessed with gems and they make terrible decisions around that. Yeah, so everybody’s greedy. Everybody’s [crosstalk].
Talia Lavin: Also, the dwarves are very skilled craftsmen in almost all iterations of them, where if something’s dwarven made it’s excellent. I guess Jewish goldsmiths and silversmiths have had reputations in Europe. Swordsmiths, eh. But I’ll take it. You know what I mean? But the point is that it’s very easy for outsiders to maybe say, they’re just making it up. Dwarves aren’t Jews. What are they talking about? But then, no, Tolkien literally said it.
Lyta Gold: He literally said it.
Talia Lavin: It’s not a stretch. He said it in the ’60s: Dwarves are Jews. I based their language off Hebrew.
Lyta Gold: They’re literally out there davening on the battlefield.
Talia Lavin: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: It’s so cute.
Talia Lavin: They’re saying brachas out there. That’s my middle name, too, Bracha.
Lyta Gold: Oh, really? Oh, that’s nice.
Talia Lavin: Yeah. Two other just miscellaneous stuff about Judaism and fantasy. One thing that annoys the shit out of me, and this happens a lot –
Lyta Gold: Let’s hear it.
Talia Lavin: … is when fantasy authors use golems but don’t have any Jews in their books. Terry Pratchett, who I otherwise love unabashedly and unalloyedly, is very guilty of this. He has golems and they’re a whole race. They’re called golems, they’re made out of clay, they have a scroll of truth in their heads. And yet, there’s one mention of Jews in Tolkien’s books, which is that reformed vampires who only drink animal blood get jobs at the kosher market because –
Lyta Gold: This is Pratchett?
Talia Lavin: Yeah. Because kosher meat has to be drained of blood.
Lyta Gold: Makes sense.
Talia Lavin: Which, that line has stuck with me for years. It’s a throwaway, but I thought it was such a funny bit of world-building. But I’m like, you have Jews in your books, maybe, theoretically, or something. You have a kosher market in Ankh-Morpork, so why would you make the… He gives them more of a Mesopotamian or Sumerian type origin. I’m just like, come on, you can’t steal our myths this way. It bothers me.
And golems show up in the Witcher books and games, too, but they’re just like elementals that you fight. In certain ways, automatons. I’m like, no, they have a very specific origin story, which is to be a protector saving the Jewish community from pogrom. Stop using golems if you’re not going to have Jews. Don’t do that.
Lyta Gold: No golem appropriation. We’re against it.
Talia Lavin: Well, if you must use a golem, and I understand why you would want to because they’re awesome, you can’t deracinate it from its source. Anyway, that’s a miscellaneous Jewish fantasy complaint. And yeah, we can have sexy fantasy that isn’t… And women in fantasy that aren’t objects of rape all the time.
Lyta Gold: It’s funny, because I’m 100% going to talk about this book on my next episode, but in Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, if you want a book that is, one thing, Jewish as hell, it’s a fantasy book and stars women who do not get raped… You see, it’s funny because you say that and I’m like, maybe there was one actually in there, because it’s so common for that, but it is at least not a major plot point. Spinning Silver is a great fucking novel. I love it.
Talia Lavin: I put out a call asking for more female-led fantasy fiction. So many people brought up Spinning Silver. In general, when you have almost 160,000 Twitter followers, if you ask for a recommendation things get really chaotic. I haven’t even begun to chip away at that book list because it’s so big. But lots of smart, thoughtful, queer fantasy, women-led fantasy, fantasy that’s not so white-centric got thrown my way. I’m excited to delve into that. Just because I’ve been hitched to the [canon] for thus far in my life doesn’t mean that I must continue with it.
I also stopped reading fantasy for like 10 years. I only picked up when Game of Thrones became popular. I was ashamed of it. I was trying to get away from my nerdiness, I guess. Now I’m just like, it’s not the core of who I am. Why would I deny myself those pleasures? I’m the person escaping the prison, not the deserter of the field.
Lyta Gold: There’s a ton of really good fantasy being written and talked about. Part of the problem, and this is a drum I know I’m going to hit a lot during this show, people don’t talk about… I mean, they’ll talk about Tolkien as we are. They’ll talk about George R. R. Martin and they’ll talk about Witcher and all that. They don’t talk very much about novels that are by women about women.
There’s so many, and there’s so many that are really, really, really good. Naomi Novik, she’s fantastic. NK Jemisin, who we’ve talked about. These are really, really talented writers. People will be like, well, I’ve been meaning to read Ursula Le Guin is usually as far as people will get for how much women in fantasy or sci-fi they’ve read. It’s very tiring. It’s a conversation I’m very tired of having, because there’s so much stuff out there. But again, if you don’t know what’s out there and people aren’t talking about it, how can it… But yeah, I think –
Talia Lavin: I mean, this is how I wound up as a teenager reading Philip Roth and reading Saul Bellow and reading Jack Keroauc. I just didn’t know what was out there. I didn’t. I was largely self-educating, and so the lowest hanging fruit or the stuff that was the best known was what I would reach for. I mean, I was lucky enough to have an inclination to have the run of the public library as a kid, so Tamora Pierce was super foundational for me, other female-centric YA fantasy books. But as an adult now coming back to a genre that was so formative and which I deserted for so many years because I believed it was in some way shameful, I’m going to come back to it with my faculties intact. Before we end this very long –
Lyta Gold: I know, we do need to wrap it up.
Talia Lavin: …Inaugural episode, can we just talk for one second about the most romantic story in Tolkien?
Lyta Gold: Yes. Again, Lord of the Rings is very sexless, Hobbit is very sexless. The Silmarillion, which I’m not only a Silmarillion apologist, at this point in my life I actually like it better than Lord of the Rings. Which is a crazy thing to say because it’s kind of a weird, failed experiment that never actually quite worked. It was really Christoper Tolkien, his son, who put it together. [crosstalk] It really doesn’t… Yeah.
Talia Lavin: For context, The Silmarillion is basically the mythos back story. It’s like the prequel-ish, sort of fleshing out the myth, the gods, the backstory of Middle Earth.
Lyta Gold: Yes, and it’s set during the First Age. It’s more of a collection of little stories rather than a single… There’s an overarching narrative, but it’s not at all like a novel. It’s a really fascinating artistic experiment in general. I’m really obsessed with it.
Talia Lavin: It’s very interesting.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. It’s also super horny.
Talia Lavin: It is horny.
Lyta Gold: Which is great.
Talia Lavin: I’ll also say just one… For returning to Lord of the Rings as an adult. I’ve started mostly processing books that I’m not reading for research on audiobook because I just have a very audio soul. But the audiobooks of Lord of the Rings, first of all there’s a poem every two pages and it’s really long. They’re always presented as songs. The reader on at least the version I had sang them all.
Lyta Gold: Oh my God.
Talia Lavin: So it became very hard to take it seriously or really get immersed because every page, it would be like, and now, we’re going to sing about elves a bunch. But one of the poems that appears quite early is the story about Tinuviel. That cues into this super romantic story, which is the story of Beren and Luthien. It’s chapter 19 of The Silmarillion. I mean, it’s a long poem. I’ll just read the first two lines. I’m not going to sing them, but I’ll read their first two stanzas quickly.
Lyta Gold: I wouldn’t judge you.
Talia Lavin: No, I don’t know the tune. This appears in Fellowship.
“The leaves were long, the grass was green, the hemlock umbrals tall and fair. And in the glade, a light was seen of stars and shadow shimmering. Tinuviel was dancing there to music of a pipe unseen, and light of stars was in her hair and in her raiment glittering.
“Then Beren came from mountains cold and lost he wandered under leaves. And where the elven river rolled, he walked alone and sorrowing. He peered between the hemlock leaves and saw in wonder flowers of gold upon her mantle and her sleeves, and her hair like shadow following.” Anyway, it goes on for many, many stanzas but that story is fleshed out. Luthien is her name. Tinuviel is the nickname her lover gives her. It means nightingale.
And the story is bananas. Basically, in the story of Beren and Luthien, he’s a mortal man. She’s an elf. It’s echoed in the story of Aragorn and Arwen in that she gives up her immortality for him. A lot of shit happens along the way. They fall in love immediately in the woods, as one does. Her father has made some vow not to kill men or something, so he can’t kill Beren even though he wants to. So he sends him to Morgoth, who’s Sauron’s boss. He’s like the dark god of the Tolkien world. He has these elven jewels that he’s stolen called the Silmarils in his iron crown.
And so, in a very King David sending Uriah to the front lines kind of a way, he’s like, okay, I’m not going to kill you directly, but you have to prise the jewel from the crown of the scariest dude in the world, surrounded by Balrogs and all sorts of evil things. Only then when you bring that to me as a dowry can you have my daughter. Beren’s like, fuck yeah, I’ll do it. Winds up getting taken prisoner, of course, and Luthien –
Lyta Gold: By Sauron, our good friend from Lord of the Rings.
Talia Lavin: By Sauron, yeah, who apparently has the ability to create werewolves.
Lyta Gold: Yes, and turn into one.
Talia Lavin: Yeah, and turn into one. Werewolves kill all his companions, but he’s languishing in the dungeon. Tinuviel decides to save him.
She disguises herself as a… She hangs out with this very wise talking dog who consents to allow her as his steed. Her song is immensely powerful. It has the ability to blind enemies and paralyze them and cause spring. She’s this elemental singer. There’s some poetry in it. Tolkien really loves his own poetry. It’s not the most sophisticated, but it’s charming.
Anyway, Tinuviel is riding this super dog who’s disguised as an evil hellhound. She’s in disguise as a vampire. She shows up at Sauron’s tower for a showdown and demands that he release Beren or… Her dog friend kills Sauron.
Lyta Gold: They beat the shit out of him. That’s my favorite. I love this thing. I can’t believe nobody brings it up in Lord of the Rings at any point. That one time, Sauron got his ass kicked by a princess and her dog.
Talia Lavin: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s awesome.
Lyta Gold: It’s amazing.
Talia Lavin: Sauron comes out as a werewolf to fight the dog and –
Lyta Gold: He gets trucked.
Talia Lavin: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: Full on trucked.
Talia Lavin: His ass gets kicked and then Luthien, Tinuviel, is like, hey, Sauron. Go to your master. Get the fuck out of here, and he changes into a vampire. There’s just werewolves and vampires all of a sudden.
Lyta Gold: I think it’s a vampire bat, has always been my guess about what that image is supposed to be, rather than… But I think it does say literal vampire, so I don’t even know. I don’t know what’s supposed to be happening here. It’s very Halloween.
Talia Lavin: Yeah, no. “Then Sauron yielded himself and Luthien took the mastery of the isle and all that was there and Huan released him. Immediately, he took the form of a vampire, great as the dark cloud across the moon, and he fled, dripping blood from his throat upon the trees and came to Tar-nu-Fuin and dwelt there, filling it with horror.” So yeah, Sauron had his vampire phase.
Lyta Gold: Who didn’t have a goth phase, though?
Talia Lavin: But the story goes on. Basically, now they have to go get the jewel so they can marry, and so they go and defeat the final boss, basically by Tinuviel singing. She uses her sex appeal. She bewitches Morgoth and then she’s like, surprise. Blinding song, and here’s my shadow cloak of sleep. And then Beren pries the gem from the crown because Morgoth falls asleep under Tinuviel’s spell.
He tries to get the other ones out, but his blade shatters and hits Morgoth in the face. But they get out somehow and they love in the woods. Essentially, the end of the story is she chooses to give up her immortality for him and die, but their seed goes… It’s heavily implied that their progeny go on to be the… Anyway.
Lyta Gold: Far more characters in Lord of the Rings are descended from them. You’d be surprised.
Talia Lavin: Yeah, so the point is there’s vampires, werewolves, and a kick-ass magical princess who destroys dark lords by singing, and it’s buried in chapter 19 in The Silmarillion. My email address that I’ve had since I was 14 still has the word Tinuviel in it for that reason.
Lyta Gold: This is exactly why I love The Silmarillion. It’s batshit, but the stories within it are wonderful. The style, the way it’s told, nothing about it ever quite worked, but that story owns. She’s such a badass. She sings before the Valar, other gods of Middle Earth, and she makes them cry. It’s an Orpheus and Eurydice, but with the genders reversed and then they changed up the ending. It’s just magnificent. It’s wonderful.
Talia Lavin: I would totally read a novel that was just the story of Beren and Luthien taken a little bit down from its hyper mythos way and making them real people, but keep the werewolves, vampires and magic singing. I’m on board.
Lyta Gold: Bollywood musical of Luthien and Beren.
Talia Lavin: Oh my God.
Lyta Gold: Right?
Talia Lavin: Genius.
Lyta Gold: The songs are already there.
Talia Lavin: Genius. Yeah, they can sing Tolkien’s mediocre poetry.
Lyta Gold: Oh, no. They can make up some different –
Talia Lavin: They can make it beautiful.
Lyta Gold: They can make up some different songs. That would be okay.
Talia Lavin: Ooh, if it was translated into Urdu –
Lyta Gold: Yeah, maybe it wouldn’t be so annoying.
Talia Lavin: …And accompanied by amazing mass dances, it would be magnificent. I’ll just say this was such a lovely conversation that wound up being two hours.
Lyta Gold: I’m so sorry that it went so long. We have to do a very fast fuck, marry, kill.
Talia Lavin: Oh, yeah.
Lyta Gold: I was going to have Aragorn be one of the three, but obviously that’s too obvious. Okay, we’ll do fuck, marry, kill Boromir, Faramir, Legolas.
Talia Lavin: Ooh, okay. Fuck Faramir because he seems like he would be fine. He’d probably cry after missionary. Marry Boromir because I love a tormented dude, and Sean Bean is real sexy. I’m sorry, but I’m not a Legolas girl.
Lyta Gold: I would also kill Legolas, but I’d probably… Yeah.
Talia Lavin: Whatever. It’s the age of men, man. Move along with your fae self. Sean Bean is so good at playing sexy, doomed noblemen. Okay, so do I get a fuck, marry, kill to you?
Lyta Gold: If you want to do one on the fly, go ahead.
Talia Lavin: Okay. Fuck, marry, kill Aragorn, Celeborn, and Haldir.
Lyta Gold: Oh. Mostly, I find the elves, with the exception of Thranduil in The Hobbit movies, Lee Pace who is a star, who’s the only thing that makes those movies bearable, I mostly find the elves very annoying in Lord of the Rings.
Talia Lavin: Fair enough. They are. Although, I mean, come on. Elrond. It’s Hugo Weaving.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, but he’s half human, which is a whole thing. All right, I think marry Aragorn because that ho is loyal and I like that. Celeborn’s been with Galadriel a really long time and I bet they’re kind of freaky, so fuck Celeborn and kill Haldir. He’s weird. I don’t get him. He’s too broad-shouldered. [Was bad casting].
Talia Lavin: Did you know that Celeborn’s name in Sindarin is Teleporno? Tolkien just throws that out there and I’m like, oh. Oh, you sweet summer child.
Lyta Gold: There’s a character in Silmarillion. The name must be pronounced something like HOO-ar, which sounds actually far worse with a British accent.
Talia Lavin: Hur!
Lyta Gold: Yes. Terrible. The master of linguistics did not think that one through.
Talia Lavin: Well, yeah. Teleporno.
Lyta Gold: Teleporno. I love that. I think that’s the perfect note to end on. Go forth and read the Teleporno fanfics of your dreams. Yeah, thank you so much for joining me. This was so much fun.
Talia Lavin: Yeah, and if any of your listeners want to check out even more of my shit than me talking about Lord of the Rings for two hours. So the primary place where you can find my writing is Substack. It’s called The Sword and the Sandwich. I do sometimes write about swords. I had a post called Notes on Some Cool Swords Part One, but I most often write about right-wing extremism. Every Friday, I’m going methodically through Wikipedia’s list of notable sandwiches and discussing sandwiches. This week’s was the bagel.
Lyta Gold: Bagel’s not a sandwich, not on its own.
Talia Lavin: Well, I mean bagel sandwiches as a concept, the bagel in general.
Lyta Gold: That’s true.
Talia Lavin: Whatever. It’s my party and I can subvert it if I want to. So yeah, if you’re in the mood for swords and/or sandwiches. I’ve been working on a really long piece about child abuse in the evangelical community. So it’s like child abuse, swords, child abuse. Child abuse, bagels, child abuse is how the past week has gone. Please check it out. You can also find me on Twitter at @chick_in_kiev, which is a terrible chicken pun that I came up with while I was living in Ukraine, or just Talia Lavin. Lyta, honored to be your first guest. I hope that this gets edited into some coherent and lovely discussion.
Lyta Gold: I think it will be. Thank you so much. This is so great.
Talia Lavin: Okay, bye.
Lyta Gold: Bye. Thanks, everybody, for joining us. I am Lyta Gold and this has been Art for the End Times. If you enjoyed this episode, which of course you did because it was awesome, please go to therealnews.com/support where you can support this show and all of the other many wonderful shows on The Real News Network. We’ll see you next time.