Tolkien and Stephenson

When I was in grade school, I developed an exceptionally close friendship with a classmate of mine named Mark. I am pleased to say that this friendship continues to this day. Burdened though it may be by geographic separation (to say nothing of academic rivalry), our friendship flourishes. I hope that it shall continue so for many years.

That we became friends seems in retrospect, as it did at the time, quite natural. Indeed it could hardly have been avoided. We were bookish, nerdish, scholarly children in a public school which praised athletic accomplishment and ease of access to psychoactive inebriates. In a small school in a small town, we could hardly have failed to become well acquainted; our temperaments being such, we could hardly have failed to become brothers.

We shared many things, not the least of which being our reading material. We put ourselves to the same texts and then concerted our energies to their dissection, foreshadowing a collegiate environment, and the apogee thereof at that. We read Wittgenstein, Melville, Marx – yes indeed, we were a veritable pair of artis baccalauriate, though in miniature.

In 1999, there was a book released which my late father had seen reviewed by the New York Times. The subject matter alone was sufficient to intrigue him; the assessment of the reviewer demanded his location of the book. I managed to find a copy for sale before he did, and presented it to him as an early birthday present. I was thirteen.

He read it very quickly, and then passed it off to me. I read it in six days. All 1,087 pages of it. Granted that I did very little else during those six days. Yet I hold them to be amongst the most enjoyable in my life.

Mark was next given the book, and dispatched with it in similar alacrity. It was passed back to me again, and I reread it. It was then returned to Mark that he might remake its acquaintance. Since then, I do not believe either of us has let more than a year come between our rereadings of the work. I myself have done it eggs-to-apples far more often than I care to consider.

Cave ab homine unius libre, indeed.

Thereafter we fell to discussing it. Mostly in conversation with each other, but occasionally via eMail. I recall sending Mark one particular eMail of which I was very proud, so much so that I forwarded it to my father likewise. It was perhaps my first substantive venture into literary analysis.

It has been, according to my archives, 9 years since I last sent him an eMail relating the Cryptonomicon of Neal Stephenson to the Middle-Earth fantasies of J. R. R. Tolkein. Too long has it been, truly too long. The path has grown dusty; I must reblaze it.

(Therafter I shall undoubtedly send him what I have written, proving indeed that my time spent as a liberal arts student has been at least as valuable as his time spent pursuing a study of higher mathematics. Though I should point out that he is now into the second year of his doctoral studies. Something of which, I assure you, I am constantly aware.)

Yet the origins of this eMail, this essay, were not spawned from such brute necessity; such rationalizations occurred to me only later, during a course of editing. The topic occurred to me as I was riding my bicycle on the wood-path that leads from my house to his, going to pay a friendly visit on his mother, my middle school English teacher. I was just gliding over the gentle curve of dirt that comes under tire as one passes by our dear secondary school. Inspired by a desire to prove that my distance from that edifice was substantive, despite my sudden physical proximity thereto, I started talking to myself. I roved about inside my head, waiting for a topic to present itself.

I finally found myself having debate – with myself – concerning a short story that I was then in the process of crafting. The nature of the story was as allowed me to unleash my materialism and greed into the expanses of my imagination, by having a character with a large disposable income set out to locate, design, construct, and furnish his dream-house, his hermitage of hermitages, his Absolute Retreat. I was enjoying the story’s crafting, despite the fact that it was then entirely without driving conflict. O, I was fully aware that, even in comparison to my other humble exploits into prosody, it didn’t have a hoot in hell’s chance of being read by anyone, anywhere, ever. Though I have substantively altered the story, pursuant to the independent study I completed with Polina Barskova upon that very subject, I delude myself little that it is whatsoever publishable this side of some sort of Writer’s Shangri-La.

As part of this exercise I was ruminating concerning the sort of library I would like to build for myself, so as to have my character build it for himself in due time. My mind drifted quickly from the design of the room and the wood to be used in the shelves, on to the nature of the books themselves. I was debating primarily between aesthetics and practicality – Is it worth it, indeed, to own a beautiful original?, or even a lapidarily-enhanced tome, an icon to the word? Or might a common reprint suffice?, just something enough to be able to be read? That is, assuming it is well-made and durable and will in short hold up better than my copy of Crypto, now in four pieces and missing its covers and held together by rubber-bands alone.

I confess a certain native partiality for ancient books and beautiful bindings and the like. I expect that it is mostly their value that attracts me, for they are not most of them any different than a mass-market paperback with the identical words within. Except in cases of extreme age, when the book was printed under circumstances which by themselves are worthy of remembering (& the book, acting as a memento thereof, has a secondary function, a secondary inherent text shall-we-say), I should think that the ability to access the text itself would be far superior to any external ornamentation, such as leather-binding or the like. First Editions hold little interest to me, and authorial signatures not much more; somewhat, if I was the one to secure that signature; but they are only particularly valuable if they were signed to me as a result of knowing the author personally, else they are about as epistolatory as eMail spam. Then still I should rate this connection with the author to be no equal to a signature from a friend who was involved in my receipt of the book – viz an inscription to a Christmas-present from a loved one, as opposed to a jot from an unknown writer at the end of a book-store queue. I know that the math homework I have scribbled into the back page of my copy of Crypto is more dear to me than the signature of Dr. Seuss on my 1st edition of Horton Hears a Who, that is for certain.

Truly, indeed, one so young as myself should not be taking such airy flights of nostalgia.

Conversely my 1835 edition, in oddly damaged leather, of Godwin’s Lives of the Necromancers, is very dear to my heart, and I should have to admit it is moreso than the equivalent would be in a modern hardback, however perfect the condition. A good part of this is due to the fact that it is a work of the occult, and such tomes draw the entirety of their appeal due to their archaism & anachronism. As well such a book, it occurred to me, drew much of its appeal due to my love for the Arturo Perez-Reverte novel El Club Dumas, which dealt exclusively with bibliophilia as relates to the collection of ancient works of the occult. Not only is it two texts in one, now I also have paratexts to contend with. My cup runneth over.

As well I remembered, upon recently picking up The Hobbit to check a quotation, the lovely feeling within me occasioned by stroking its beautiful cover. My copy of the book is done up in leather, a beautiful emerald-green, the lettering hand-tooled and the binding, though machine-fastened, done so using the best rather than the (more common) worst of modern technology. It is not, that is to say, mass-produced; it is a glorious tome, and by virtue of the fact that its presentation echoes strongly of the storyscape presented within, this makes it all the more easy for me to lose myself in the story within it.

Thus, despite the acknowledged fact that I am a terrible romantic, I see no particular reason to discourage such a tendency in myself, if it allows me the better to enjoy the fictional – for my meditations on the potential (intentional) confluences of fiction and reality, and the benefits thereof, you shall have to wait for a different eRant, I apologize :)

Why else, then, move towards wood paneling in a home, if drywall would be sufficient? Why not all people live in cubicles, in coffin-hotels of the sort popular along the Pacific Rim and the novels of cyberpunk noir?

The answer I suppose is the same as with any art – because it is a motivator which encourages people to go out and do, thus to earn it for themselves by making the money to buy it, or to succeed in making it themselves. I can only imagine that, should humanity ever come to that bad-50s-science-fiction scenario of cocoon/womb/hives, the desire for escapism would be only stronger – and such as The Matrix would not be a means of involuntary control, but voluntary escape – or, failing the technological capability to provide that, people would read 10 novels a day and even I would get published. But I digress.

Yet another reason for this phenomena, singularly related to The Hobbit, then occurred to me. A further cause of my enjoyment at having that particular book so bound (and a wonderful gimmick of The Prof’s, I might add) was the fact that, within the text of The Hobbit, it is related that the text itself, as the reader has it, is likewise extant within the universe that the text details – one might say, that the text creates. Thus the simple act of reading places the reader within the universe of which they are reading. THE HOBBIT is in fact only one portion of the title of this (fictional) doppelganger to the (actual) text – the full title is “There and Back Again, A Hobbit’s Holiday”. We are told that, after a few generations, subsequent information was appended to this text; the entirety is named, from its final resting-place and basic optical chromatography, “The Red Book of Westmarch”

Troves of information on this subject might be easily discovered online, as with all lore and legend pertaining to Tolkien’s Oxford-addled mythmaking imagination.

This is even more strongly noted in The Lord of the Rings, where the Red Book of Westmarch has appended to it the tale of which the recent movie trilogy was made. The Prof provides a “title page” to this tome, occurring in the pages of the published (might we say, real-world, or rather, “mundane”) novel which demonstrates its (fictional) author’s difficulties in finding for it an appropriate appellation. The following titles are in the book, but are scratched out:

“My Diary.

My Unexpected Journey.

There and Back Again. And
What Happened After.

Adventures of Five Hobbits.

The Tale of the Great Ring,
compiled by Bilbo Baggins
from his own observations
and the accounts of his friends.

What we did in the War of the Ring.”

The following is the title ended upon:


With the subtitle:

“(as seen by the Little People; being the memoirs of Bilbo and
Frodo of the Shire, supplemented by the accounts of their friends
and the learning of the Wise.)”

And subsequently was added:

“Together with extracts from Books of Lore translated by Bilbo
in Rivendell.”

When considering the works of the Professor, my mind often moves to an appreciation of one facet or another of the works of Neal Stephenson, particularly, of course, from Crypto. This not the least of which because of the numerous references within the latter to the former. Randy, my particular favorite of the novel’s numerous protagonists, even has occasion to divide the world into segments based upon the system of racial divisions found within Middle Earth (viz. Dwarves, Elves, Wizards, Gollum, et cetera).

Now, Randy might call himself a Dwarf till his face turns whatever shade of hypoxia you prefer. Yet between his departing of the Shire (viz Academe and his girlfriend Charlene’s crowd of home-brew relativists), his subsequent work out sojourning with his Party (as a stockholder and employee of Epiphyte (1) and (2) Corp.s, respectively), his various burglar-deeds (viz sitting on top of his car outside of the only 24 Jam in the Western hemisphere, overlaying Tombstone’s hard drive with seven layers of random bits (O! I want Crypto-props for the obscurity and specificity of that reference! Hominem unius libri timeo, indeed!), and the final scene, where, as in the prophecy discussed in The Hobbit, “the river runs with gold”, I say, between all these things, one might assume him to be exceptionally closely related to the protagonist of the Prof’s stories, Bilbo or Frodo (one or the other, or a confluence thereof, depending on one’s choice of paratexts).

And I could go on, comparing the helicopters which bring antibiotics to America Shaftoe in the jungle to the Great Eagles that, presumably under orders from the control tower of Deus Ex Machina Airlines, save Sam and Frodo from the feet of Mt. Doom – the fact that Golgotha is located on or about a volcano where “a few lahars of lava” come rolling down now and again, truly similar again to that particularly ill-named hill down Mordor way – UNIX and the Rings of Power, both forged down in the dark – sojourning and company-forming – programming and mythopoesis – Root’s Ares as Sauron, embodied by old General Wing, and Athena floating down as old Goto Dengo himself.

…I expect were I to continue in this vein I should quickly leave the realm of letter and stumble into that of the master’s-thesis. Besides, I believe I suggested the relation between the two books sufficiently in my last email on this subject, back in 1999. Let us continue building upon that foundation, however stale it may have grown in time. From that substantive cellar, then, let me work to build one humble little spire. Let me offer this small comparison to the aforementioned title page.

When Randy is flying back to the Sultanate of Kinakuta from the Phillipines, he wishes to relate his own holiday excursion which was to him as was Bilbo’s journey to that brave little Hobbit. They both even had the same trouble at the end – namely a treasure which, though extant, could not be moved, thus not be capitalized upon. It was even of the same substance, that is, gold. To express himself thus, he:

…opens up a document template that Epiphyte uses for internal
memoranda and begins to lay out certain facts that will be fresh, and no
doubt stimulating, to Avi, Beryl, John, Tom, and Eb.


This is subtitled:

A tale of adventure and discovery in the majestic rain forest of
northern Luzon


Randall Lawrence Waterhouse

One does not have to be Dr. Gunter Enoch Bobby Kivistik to see the similarities between the two inter-textual texts of these two hairfooted heroes, though one and not the other be the bannerman of the numinous.

A comparison of these two inter-textual stories, even at their most reduced, might show definitive differences between the two. Bilbo’s treasure, that of Smaug’s horde, could not be moved, and was eventually abandoned, a few sacks of coin being the only recompense secured by the party’s thief for his efforts. Frodo found no treasure to speak of; he did his duty, and when returning home was for a long time pleasingly bored and occasionally angsty, until he had to depart the world (sailing the Good Ship Metaphysical Interlude) in order to find the feeling that his actions had been rewarded. A lovely coincidence, indeed, that such reward existed in tangible quanta of goodness, floating in the higher aether of Tolkien’s metaphysic. But of my criticisms of absolutism in fiction I shall give you an inkling later.

Conversely, the treasure mentioned in the aforementioned story of Randy’s (what might be called his Epiphyte(1) treasure, or his Bilbo treasure) was inaccessible to him, for he lacked the proper abilities to take advantage of it (this was the Message he was being Sent by Someone). He had to abandon it, a stack of gold bars, as you recall, in the middle of the jungle, unprotected even from the elements. However, with hard work, intelligent work, indeed the culmination of multiple generations of thoughtful plotting, his Epiphyte(2) treasure, Golgotha, was able to be fully capitalized upon – and the Japanese war gold, hidden in the Philippines during the latter’s occupation, was recaptured, making Randy among the wealthiest men in the world.

Goto-san, having built the treasure-crypt, named it Golgotha in homage to the untold dead who necessarily preceded such a concentration of wealth. The name, of course, means Place of the Skull. Yet the name is equally appropriate to Randy’s efforts, not to build it, but to locate it, thus to exploit it – for no monument to the powers of intellect and motivation might better exist than a fountain of treasure, and all the increased shareholder value it implies. And its other potential societal benefits, suggested by the novel, that I shall not get into here, for the sake of my tiring fingers and your tiring eyes both.

One might therfore go so far as to say that, not only does Randy succeed where his grandfather failed, but that Randy, /in the modern world/, /IN THE REAL WORLD/, managed to succeed even further than did Bilbo, lost in the land of the ancient and the fanciful, with all the abilities of a fantasy author’s pen on his side.

In this manner, as an inspiration for action in the real world, as a statement against the reliance upon fiction to the exclusion of fact, as an attempt to demonstrate the romantic capacities of the modern world in all its complexity, technology, and rationality, one might even say that Cryptonomicon is more ambitious, more powerful, more /successful/ a novel than The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings.

But I return to this last paragraph above, and cannot but call to mind what Enoch Root said to Randy in the jail cell in Manila, somewhere around 800 pages into Cryptonomicon. “Have not picked up the postmodern unwillingness to make value judgments?”

In that spirit, I shall not dissimulate.

I say Cryptonomicon is a better book than The Hobbit.

When I sent Mark this paper as an eMail, it included this post-script:

P. S. is a full digital text of the book. Great if you’ve lost your Crypto – or if your copy, like mine, is in four separate pieces, no more than two of which ever seem to be in the same place at the same time. Trying to read my copy of Crypto is like trying to contend with Brownian goddamn motion. Maybe I’ll buy a new copy – although considering the afore, perhaps the eText is the most suitable way to enjoy this particular book, moreso, even, than a leatherbound edition would be. Ah! and it comes full circle!


~ by davekov on 26 April 2009.

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