Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tolkien as a Christian Writer

Stephen Lawhead is a fantasy, science-fiction and historical fiction novelist moderately well-known in Christian circles for his celtic-themed and religiously inspired work. In his essay, J.R.R. Tolkien, Master of Middle Earth, he explained that the principle influence Tolkien’s work had on him was not in structure or content but in purpose. He, apparently, was brought up to believe that all of a Christian’s artistic energy must be channeled directly into evangelism, but Tolkein’s work freed him from this and allowed him to be satisfied writing from a Christian perspective without all of his work being the gospel in disguise. In this essay he claimed to have, despite the lack of a Christian allegory or evangelistic message, seen “Tolkien’s Christianity written on every page”; while this is certainly both hyperbole and metaphor a more nihilistic evaluation of Tolkien’s mythology will show the argument to be false, and the entire “Christian” good vs. evil structure to be philosophically flawed.
Many christian writers, many of them quite scholarly, have made these same assumptions regarding Tolkien’s work; their critical, collective, mistake is to focus exclusively on The Lord of the Rings, often referencing its popularity following Peter Jackson’s films, and entirely ignore the Silmarillion and its derivatives. Another excellent source for this kind of analysis would be the Histories of Middle-Earth series, though due to time constraints (it is a twelve volume set) they will not be considered here.
While Tolkien was a Christian, a Roman Catholic, the spiritual themes and underlying divine order present in his work, much more explicit in The Silmarillion than in The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, are more similar to pagan Anglo-Saxon spirituality mixed with his own post-WWI despair than to Judeo-Christian ideals. What Lawhead emphasized most in his essay, and what many conservatives lament being lost from modern literature, was a clear, even absolute, view of good and evil; and of the triumph of good over evil. And on the surface Tolkien’s work does seem to oppose relativist existentialism (it is nearly always clear who the “good” and “bad” characters are, and the protagonists are almost always “good”). This view of Middle Earth, however, required a rather shallow reading of his works, or perhaps a reading only of The Hobbit (which was a intended as a children’s tale).
In the Christian tradition good always triumphs over evil. In the gospels this is accomplished through love, God’s love overcomes the evil of the world and is victorious in the resurrection of Christ. The idea of love as the supreme force has been imitated in any number of great works of literature, but it is not present in Tolkien. Of his major stories, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion divided into four discernible plots - The War of the Jewels, Beren and Luthien, The Children of Hurin, and The Fall of Gondolin, love is a major theme in one of them (Beren and Luthien), a minor theme is three more (LOTR, The Children of Hurin, and The Fall of Gondolin), and the deciding, positive factor in the resolution of the conflict of none.
In The Lord of the Rings the ring of power is destroyed because of chance (or divine will, depending on interpretation). In The Hobbit “good” barely triumphs at all, and when it does it is for no very good reason, Beorn simply appears and saves the day. In the Children of Hurin “good” is decisively defeated, the lies of Glaurung (the doom of Melkor in actuality) overcome the nobility of Turin and Nienor and they die in despair. Love is in fact used against the protagonists, urging them toward their rather Oedipal doom. In The Fall of Gondolin the result is similar, the overwhelming power of Angband destroys the glorious city of Gondolin and the protagonists, Idril and Tuor, barely escape. Again, love is a destructive force, driving Maeglin toward the betrayal of his city.
In the greater story of the Silmarillion, the War of the Jewels, love is likewise absent, Feanor and his sons do great evil in the cause of revenge and are utterly defeated. The victory of the Valar over Melkor is accomplished by sheer might. Only in the story of Beren and Luthien does love even approach the dominating force it is in the Christian gospels. Love is clearly the motivating force behind the actions of Beren and Luthien, and because of that supreme love they are eventually able to be together. Their victory however, is minor: it is “joy in midst of weeping,” a defiance of evil but not a triumph over it. Thus, thematically, Tolkien’s work is not Christian in nature. While the protagonists are often very loving, romantically (Beren and Luthien, Aragorn and Arwen, Idril and Tuor) or platonically (Frod and Sam, Turin and Beleg), they are never victorious because of their love. Or rather, evil is not vanquished by love. It is vanquished by the will of Illuvatar, by the order of Eru over the chaos of Melkor.
Contrary to the view presented in The Lord of the Rings films, elves, though immortal, are neither perfect nor sublime. Many times in the Silmarillion elves are shown to be just as malevolent, rash and greedy as men or orcs. Thus, while certain characters can be said to be good or evil, the distinction is not as clear as many reader seem to assume. Or rather, there is an absolute evil, orcs can be nothing else and neither Sauron nor Melkor has any underlying “good” motivations, but there is no equal (or greater) and opposing good. One can assume that Illuvatar, the creator god of Tolkien’s cosmogonic myth, is far greater in power than his creations, but he is absent from the rest of Tolkien’s work. Acting in Illuvatar’s stead are the Valar, created beings on the same level as Melkor - principally Manwe, Ulmo, Aule, Orome, Mandos, Tulkas, Varda, and Yavanna (also Lorien, Nienna, Este, Vaire, Vana, and Nessa). Unlike Melkor, whose will is the definition of evil, the Valar fall somewhat short of the good they champion, while always intending well they are capable of failure and are quite nearly defeated by Melkor on several occasions.
Both in the Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings “good” is ultimately victorious over “evil”, but at a cost few other fantasy authors are willing to admit. Even after Angband has been destroyed and the Silmarils recovered the sons of Feanor again attack and commit a kin-slaying to reclaim the jewels, before being killed themselves. Christianity, and Christian inspired literature, always portrays a solution to the ills of the world. A messiah myth, a conquest of evil or some other crucial change that promises to produce a better future. The Lord of the Rings is in this vein, the last evil lord is defeated and destroyed, his servants are scattered, the kingdoms of the Numenorians are re-built, and everyone is supposed to live happily ever after. This is very different from the conclusion of the Silmarillion, where it is written that everything has passed into darkness and ruin and that this was ever the fate of the world and if there is a solution even Manwe and Mandos do not know of it. Even in the Lord of the Rings though, and this is mirrored to a lesser degree in The Hobbit, the very thing the protagonists wanted most to protect is despoiled. The world is never exactly as it was, there is no new heaven and new earth. Not all scars heal, thing are never truly made right again.
All of this, the misunderstanding of Tolkien’s work by Christians, may be more the fault of a misunderstanding of Christianity than of Tolkien. It is doubtful that Tolkien, living in the era he did, would agree with this interpretation of his work; informed as it is more by post-modern literature than medieval epic poetry. The problem lies in an understanding of the Christian narrative, the unfinished story of the Hebrews. According to the prophecies of St. John the legions of heaven are coming to wage a final war just as the Valar fought the War of Wrath, but just as the Valar attacked not the unfaithful Morquendi but Angband itself, Christ, garbed in white robes dipped in blood, is coming to enchain Satan, not to destroy the evil nations of the world. Thus from a Christian perspective the war between good and evil must be seen as completely above the actions of ordinary men, apart from any narrative that occurs within it. In neither tradition are men (or elves) ever victorious over evil (even in The Lord of the Rings, where men come to closest to victory, it is a chance misstep, not the goodness of Frodo, that defeats Sauron). Men are utterly outmatched by evil, only through divine intervention - the War of Wrath, the destruction of the Ring of Power, the resurrection of Christ - can victory be achieved. Authors like Lawhead and the vast majority of fantasy and science-fiction writers, in whose stories ordinary men defeat evil, are deluding themselves; such stories do not reflect the essential nature of the world we live in, and thus, unlike Tolkien’s work, are essentially false - fiction in the truest sense of the word.

Special thanks to Wikipedia, Emily Smith, and Scholastic Inc.

Friday, January 14, 2011

I Hold Four Hydras III

I know I cannot swim and still I dream of diving deep into subterranean waters where the world is lit by flowering polyps, those who
Have never seen the ocean floor nor felt its membranous sands might still have
Found any of its treasures for white and deadened they drift to
Her like vapor in the currents of the farther waves

I know I cannot swim and
Have never seen the ocean floor nor
Found any of its treasures for
Her like vapor in the current

I know I
Have never
Found any of
Her like

I hold four hydras
And one slips from my grasp
Three hydras to demarc the tide

Special thanks to Rachel Carson and, as always, Seattle University Housing And Residence Life

Saturday, January 8, 2011

I Hold Four Hydras II

I am aridity, I am the cracked and the dry
Have you no moisture?
Found you no well?
Hers is the water and the life and the glory

I scratch the seared earth until I
Have ten bloody fingertips
Found are the wet sands
Her power, the moon, hid before dawn

I, amid red sands fine
Have, feet worn grey and splayed
Found, upon the blasted heath
Her. And know no road to the city or the temple

I ache and sting and
Found no dwelling place beyond my crystalline spheres
Her sight etched there ‘til all goes to dirt

I hold four hydras
Dead and limp
Reeking of all necrotic things

Special thanks to St. Matthew, Chiori Miyagawa, Mark Moffett, and, once again, Seattle University Housing And Residence Life

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Books I Read Over Winter Break

Cat’s Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut (re-read)
I wish I could be a Bokononist.

Slaughterhouse 5 - Kurt Vonnegut (re-read)
Anyone who thinks that WWII was a just war should read this book.

Timequake - Kurt Vonnegut
Possibly the most wandering, tangent-filled, anti-novel I have ever read. Should have been a collection of short stories. At least half of the paragraphs had no direct relationship to the plot, and instead were personal anecdotes relating, often but not always, to the unsuccessful first attempt at the novel. Discussed free-will, the general terribleness of life, and how humans can live in such a pointless world (much the same as every other novel he has written but more explicit).

War Dances - Sherman Alexie
Alexie, again, describes the lives of half a dozen, mostly half-indian, men I would not want to be. With lives that are dumb and pathetic and semi-autobiographical. Like with Vonnegut, one has to be constantly wondering if what one is reading is fiction. David Shields would have a cow.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz
The story of a nerdy, morbidly obese, second-generation Dominican whom no one ever loves, except for a middle aged, married, part-time prostitute, sort-of. His life is brief, sort-of. and wondrous only if one considers the stories of his mother, sister and grandparents, which Diaz does at length. Oscar de Leon (Wao is a nickname) is born an american, lives to adulthood as an american, yet somehow dies a Dominican after realizing that he is doomed.
Moral of the story: the two best things for a man are to kiss a woman and be beaten to within an inch of his life.
The Tolkien references are the highlight of the story, especially his more obtuse ones from the Silmarillion. “Speak, friend, and enter” is definitely going on my dorm room door.
On a personal note: up until part III I felt a considerable kinship between myself and Oscar (I have the extra 200 pounds in my tongue instead of my waistline and the thousands of role-playing hours in Legos instead of D&D shit), but when he lost weight he ceased to make any sense as a character. Unlike his previous infatuations, I don’t have a ton of sympathy for his last love and I can’t tell if he was resigned to his doom or just being stupid. Also: he is a immigrant, I am not, this matters; I’m not sure why or how but it does.

The Lacuna - Barbara Kingsolver
Kingsolver does the Kingsolver thing to great effect. Her imagery is blatant but not ugly. Her use of multiple voices is without equal, thought not to the same effect as in The Poisonwood Bible.
It has been a very long time since I cried at the death of a character (I was dry-eyed at the end of The Road, For Whom The Bell Tolls, and Oscar Wao) and, despite my knowledge of its historical inevitability, I cried when Lev Trotsky died.
The story loses momentum after the aforementioned assassination but somehow manages to end in a manner fitting of its first pages.
I have never hated the 50s as much as I did when reading the last fourth of this novel, whatever their flaws, the hippies did the world a great service.

Ender’s Game - Orson Scott Card (re-read)
Good idea, bad writing. Card’s prose does not match his vision. The slang especially is annoying and unauthentic. His racial profiling is also aggravating, he assigns attributes to a race, comments on them, and then makes them central to his two dimensional minor characters. The protagonist, a white male, has three side-kicks, one ethnic, one female, one very short, his enemies are arrogant europeans that are bigger than him but not smarter. Could this be more cliche?

Night - Elie Wiesel
The best holocaust account I have read. Wiesel does not try make something good out of his experience, he is not trying to find redemption in it, he is simply bearing witness. Recording the reduction of a people, both physical and psychological.
I have read more horrific accounts but none that chronicle the process as well as this one, the practiced, expert annihilation. Night emphasized more than others that the goal was not enslavement, it was liquidation. The cruelty to the living is almost extraneous. That anyone escaped at all is astounding.