Attack of the Pathetic Fallacy

I do not recall when I first encountered the notion of a pathetic fallacy: a literature course, doubtless, but I’ve had many of those. I was almost certainly an undergraduate, because the pathetic fallacy was introduced simply as a term, with a plain, dry definition; I was told nothing of its connotative implications, and we certainly didn’t read John Ruskin’s essay, “Of the Pathetic Fallacy.” The definition I was given was very like the one provided by Wiktionary at the link above: “[T]reating inanimate objects or concepts as if they were human beings, for instance having thoughts or feelings.” It was, I was taught, synonymous with such terms as anthropomorphism and personification. What I was not told was the attitude implicit in the term, expressed in the bit I omitted from the definition above: the pathetic fallacy is “an error in logical argumentation.” Thus does the Victorian Ruskin employ the word “fallacy,” because, for him, art’s paramount concern is to be true, to see the world as it is, so that personification is a frivolous fiction or a lapse of sanity:

[i]t is the fallacy of wilful fancy, which involves no real expectation that it will be believed; or else it is a fallacy caused by an excited state of the feelings, making us, for the time, more or less irrational. (5)

Not that the pathetic fallacy is not pleasing, but “it is only the second order of poets who much delight in it,” while “the greatest poets do not often admit this kind of falseness” (6). Such poets rise above the mind-bending caprice of emotion:

[T]he intellect also rises, till it is strong enough to assert its rule against, or together with, the utmost efforts of the passions; and the whole man stands in an iron glow, white hot, perhaps, but still strong, and in no wise evaporating ; even if he melts, losing none of his weight. (8)

The rational, unpoetical man sees autumn leaves moved about by the wind; the irrational, poetical man sees dancing autumn leaves; but the rational, poetical man sees autumn leaves move as if dancing, his logical mind careful to preserve the self-awareness of simile.

But all of this Ruskinage is preamble! Let’s move on to Tolkien, shall we?

Awakening Metaphor and the Song of Willows

The moment to which I wish to draw your attention, dear reader, occurs about halfway through Book 1 of The Lord of the Ring, as Frodo and company begin their furtive journey to Rivendell by way of the perilous Old Forest. The Old Forest, says Merry Brandybuck, is “very much more alive” than the tame woods of the Shire (121). This “aliveness” is referenced many times as they ride fearfully through the forest, yet Tolkien carefully hedges the hobbits’ perceptions with the language of subjectivity: they “got an uncomfortable feeling” that the tree were watching them, “the trees seemed constantly to bar their way,” “it seemed to them that the Forest relented,” etc. (122, 123).

Having been prepped throughout childhood with spook tales of the Old Forest, the hobbits are emotionally overwrought, alternately panicked and despondent as they get more and more lost. They are, according to Ruskin, in a state particularly susceptible to the pathetic fallacy: “[T]hat of a mind and body in some sort too weak to deal fully with what is before them or upon them; borne away, or over-clouded, or over-dazzled by emotion” (8). Tolkien’s emphasis on feelings and “seeming,” accompanied by the hobbits’ mounting anxiety, encourages readers to be skeptical of these perceptions of “aliveness”–we sympathize with the poor little guys, but they seem only to be lost hikers freaking themselves out.

When, in the end, they leave the deep woods and find themselves in the Withywindle Valley–not the place they’d meant to go–the hobbits’ paranoia about the Old Forest has peeked: they are convinced that the trees have driven them to the Withywindle River for some sinister purpose. However, Frodo and company are also exhausted. After emerging from the stuffy woods, they walk for a time in the cool shade of the willows, then all begin to feel drowsy. This seems natural enough: it’s been a hard journey, and the combination of shade, a cool breeze, and the lulling rustle of willow leaves make for an ideal outdoor nap. The hobbits process these conditions as they have all phenomena in the Old Forest: they personify them.

There now seemed hardly a sound in the air. The flies had stopped buzzing. Only a gentle noise on the edge of hearing, a soft fluttering as of a song half whispered, seemed to stir in the boughs above. [Frodo] lifted his heavy eyes and saw leaning over him a huge willow-tree, old and hoary. Enormous it looked, its sprawling branches going up like reaching arms with many long-fingered hands, its knotted and twisted trunk gaping in wide fissure that creaked faintly as the boughs moved. […]

[…] [Merry and Pippin] looked up at the grey and yellow leaves, moving softly against the light, and singing. They shut their eyes, and then it seemed that they could almost hear words, cool words, saying something about water and sleep. They gave themselves up to the spell and fell fast asleep at the foot of the great grey willow. (127-8)

If one is unaware of what happens next, this is actually a pleasant scene, and also a poetically apt description of napping under a willow tree, which I’ve done and can recommend.

Unfortunately for Frodo and company, the scene continues: the willow flings Frodo into the river, then seals up Merry and Pippin within the fissures of its massive trunk. The old willow is alive. The hobbits’ pathetic fallacy is not fallacious, but precisely descriptive. Their fears are not irrational projections on inanimate nature, but completely justified. The rustling leaves were not like a voice: they were a voice that “rustled and whispered, but with a sound now of faint and far-off laughter” (129). The willow is alive, aware, and active; Tolkien’s emphasis on feeling and “seeming” is a trick, lulling readers as surely as the leaves lulled the hobbits. He permits us to get comfortable in the familiarity of metaphor–and then he wakes the metaphor up, and we find we were never safe, that we walked in Faërie and knew it not.

Rejoicing or a Passable Simulation Thereof?

I certainly admire this as a literary technique, but it’s also made me think about how I read poetry, especially the poetry of scripture. Consider, for example, the following excerpts from two very similar psalms, Psalm 96 and Psalm 98:

10Say among the heathen that the LORD reigneth: the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved: he shall judge the people righteously.
11Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof.
12Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice
13Before the LORD: for he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth: he shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with his truth.

6With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the LORD, the King.
7Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
8Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together
9Before the LORD; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.

Seems to be an awful lot of anthropomorphizing going on here: rejoicing heavens, roaring seas, applauding floods. Still, it’s effective: I imagine crashing waves and swaying trees, and feel I know what it is like for nature to “rejoice before the LORD.” But then comes that kill-joy John Ruskin: the crashing waves just sound like applause, which is also suggested by their movement; the grain that bends in the breeze looks like it’s dancing, but it isn’t, and the susurration of stalk on stalk is most certainly not quiet song. It’s just a lot of inanimate stuff, moving randomly because of the wind or gravity or whatever, which are themselves random and animate. So, no actual rejoicing, really: just an impressionable psalmist caught up in the moment, unaware of his silliness.

But if we read these psalms in this way, what is left? If creation is not rejoicing, but instead doing a passable simulation thereof, at least for those susceptible to such crudities–do these verses say anything meaningful at all? No, if this is our hermeneutic, these verses are nothing but artful filler: there seems to be no room in Ruskin’s conception of nature for a rejoicing creation.

Perhaps, then, we ought to try another conception of nature. I’d like to take a stab at that, taking Tolkien and the psalmists as my guide. That will be the project of another day, though; and, like as not, this post will grow into a Gilmourian serial. For now, I am content if I have made our readers look uneasily at willow trees, unsure whether they will attack or rejoice.

Works Cited

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. London: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

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