Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Quackery at the expense of Tolkien — redux

Ready for a long and belligerent gripe? Then read on! :)

About a month ago, I blogged about an improbable new book, Quest for Middle-earth by Dirk Vander Ploeg, as unqualified a would-be Tolkien scholar as ever there were. I also wrote a scathing review on Amazon which has subsequently, and mysteriously, disappeared from the book’s product page! (It’s still possible to get to the review by viewing my review comments; when you do that, the review shows up perfectly. To save you the trouble, just click here. I’ve opened an inquiry with Amazon about this issue!)

Well, I was reviewing some of the recent articles over at Tolkien Library, when I came across this: an interview with Dirk Vander Ploeg himself. Well, I tried to restrain myself (okay, okay, half-heartedly, I admit), but no, I simply must respond to some of his statements there. Feel free to read along with me. ;)

Asked what prompted him to write a book about Tolkien, Vander Ploeg answers, in part:
I believe that mankind was seeded by an alien race. This explains the “missing link” in evolution. According to certain researchers our DNA was altered, genes spliced, etc. Homo Erectus thus because Home Sapien [sic] — literally overnight. God or what creatures of the time believed to be Gods may have caused this intervention. The Bible and the Book of Enoch agree that the Nephilim took human wives and created a new race of supermen. I believe these were the elves and Tolkien used this storyline in the Silmarillion.
That whirring sound you hear is Professor Tolkien spinning in his grave. Even given the enormous leap required to believe that “mankind was seeded by an alien race”, there is just so much rampant fallacy here. I count at least six unfounded assumptions (not including the unidentified “certain researchers”).

He goes on to say “[t]hese elves were the demigods of history and folklore and had names such as Hercules and Achilles.” So, Hercules and Achilles were Elves?! Obviously, this is just rhetotric aimed at dramatic effect.

And then, “I have always believed that mankind has reached high levels of civilization several times in our past, but natural disasters, such as Noah’s flood, caused them to decline.” So, Noah’s flood was a natural disaster? I thought it was a deliberate punitive act of God? And wasn’t it God’s flood and not Noah’s? Perhaps Vander Ploeg is thinking of Evan Almighty. Or maybe I’m just being picky; let’s move on ...
As I was watching the first two movies it was as if pieces of a puzzle were falling into place, creating a history that I knew was true. Everyone has heard or read stories about dragons, giant eagles, elves, all seeing eyes and trolls. I decided to investigate Tolkien to see if he had knowledge of ancient history and I discovered that he did.
Aha! So the germ of his “research” project was the Peter Jackson film adaptations? The reference to an “all seeing eye” makes that painfully clear. Not good, not good.
I also realized almost immediately that the quest for the ring was actually a grail quest. It was King Arthur and Camelot all over again.
Hardly. The (so-called) Quest of the Ring would more aptly be called a reverse quest. Where the Grail Quest was the search for an object, the Ring “Quest” is a desperate flight into exile to lose one — to destroy it, in fact. No, while there are, arguably, a few subtle echoes of Arthuriana in The Lord of the Rings, the Quest motif itself cannot really be said to be one of them. This belies a substantial misreading of the book. (Of course, we haven’t established yet that Vander Ploeg even has read it, but I’m coming to that next.)

Asked how he first got interested in Tolkien’s works, Vander Ploeg replies with this eye-opener:
I actually had no interest in Tolkien. I had once tried to read the Hobbit and didn’t get 50 pages into the book before giving up. It was only after seeing the first two movies that I went out and purchased The Return of the King and devoured it. Couldn’t wait a year until the release of the third instalment.
Oh dear. From a failed attempt to read a children’s book, to “no interest”, to Hollywood-inspired fan-mania, and finally to a leap into reading some Tolkien at last, but starting with the very end of the story. Not promising at all. And did he ever go back to read The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers? We may never really know.

Then, asked what special qualifications he had for writing this book ... well, you ought to read that one for yourself: you deserve a good laugh. I’m still chuckling over it myself.

Asked where he “researched” his hypothesis, he lists several nonexistent Tolkien books (actually parts of The Silmarillion), together with several popular news stories disseminated on the web. No doubt this is a mere abridgment of the stunning research bibliography in his book. No doubt.

And finally — my personal favorite — when asked whether, during his research, he read much about Tolkien and could recommend anything, he said: “I scoured the Internet plus some old college English literature books. The best way to learn about Tolkien is to read his books including the Similarion [sic].” That’s it?! There are decades of substantial critical and scholarly work on Tolkien, and he overlooked all of it and gave us an egregious typo for The Silmarillion instead. He didn’t even read the Carpenter biography by the sound of it. The “Internet plus some old college English literature books” — I am simply awed by the man’s erudition.

There are plenty of other quibbles I could have made — e.g., he calls the Tolkien / Gordon edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a “prose translation”, when it’s not a translation at all (and it’s in verse), and concludes from this mistake that Tolkien was a “grail historian”, when that poem isn’t about the grail at all — but really, do I have to go on? It should be pretty obvious by now that this book is exactly what I called it in my review of more than a month ago — Balderdash!


  1. Gary Schmidt7/11/2007 11:04 AM

    Talk about the perfect straw man. But Jason, I fear he's probably not worth all the venom ...

    And BTW, what do you have against the nephilim, anyway? :)

  2. What do I have against ’em?! If you’d said gibborim, okay. But nephilim?! Nephilim owe me fi’ty bucks! If you see my cousin Enoch, you tell him that bruthah better collect it for me this week — or else!

    Hahae. :)

  3. I saw your review on Amazon before it miraculously disappeared... it was the point for me to do the interview. It took me over three weeks before i decided to post it at my site. It was sitting there ready to be released and I was wondering... i had asked the right questions and got the answers i was expecting to get. Should i have given comments? Should i have asked more questions... i did not want to make it obvious what i was doing. And in the end decided that most of the readers of my site where smart enough to decide for themselves and just threw it on line. Now i'm happy you react! Hope more will do so. We got his answers now...

  4. Holy crap! I'm speechless. How the heck did this guy get published?!

    I'm glad you gave him "what for"!

  5. Jason

    Great blog - excellent articles. Thanks for the heads up on this one - I had it on my wish list to read. Think I may give a pass. Not interested in reading anything by authors who have not even studies the orginal works of the professor. Thanks, Andy

  6. Beren, wow, I had no idea my review sparked you to do that interview. Of course, I didn’t think you were taken in by him for a second. I noticed you very diplomatically reserved judgment on the book, not having read it yourself. I’m torn between wanting to make people aware of this charlatan and not wanting to give him free publicity. But the caveat lector message won out in the end.

    Cat Bastet, how did he get published? He self-published! Self-publishing can be a wonderful thing, but it also gives any crackpot free license to present himself as an expert on anything whatsoever. There’s no oversight such as you’d get with an academic publisher. Not to mention, the bulk of the proceeds go straight into the author’s pocket (also a good or a bad thing, depending on the particular case).

    And finally, to Andy: many thanks, and welcome! Hope to see your input around here from time to time. I’ve just taken a look at your blog as well. Some great stuff there, too, and it looks like you started yours around the same time I started mine. Is it too silly to call us blog buddies? ;)