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There and back again

November 27, 2010

(I wrote this last July as the first and ultimately only post of a blog that I quickly abandoned. Now that I’m consolidating my bloggulation, I’m posting it here and killing the other blog. My comment exchange with Mike Taylor is now posted at the end of the original text.)

So I’m reading The Silmarillion again (i.e., for the first time all the way through–long story), and I’m about a third of the way through. Men have just awoken, and the Noldor have arrived back in Middle-Earth.

I was thinking about blogging it as I went, but (a) I don’t have time, and (2) in rereading Mike’s TRP posts, I found that he already said most of what I wanted to say. But I started writing a long message about it to Mike, and decided that it would make a decent blog post instead. So here I am, blogging about it after all. Truly, the mind boggles.

The Silmarillion really is a beautiful book, but the beauty comes at you in quick little flashes, and it always tainted by sorrow. I agree with Mike that Tolkien’s motivation was more than philology; the languages probably gave him a convenient mechanism for starting to build the world (and a metaphor, in the Ainulindale), but they don’t account for his motivation. I may be daring too greatly, but I think his motivation was probably in part to do what Lewis did with Narnia: to try to work out his ideas about God and man, life and death, suffering and redemption. At times during the opening sections I found myself wondering if our Creation was not something like the creation of Ea. It seems to be worthy speculation (Tolkien’s, not mine) into an aspect of existence that we can only read from frustratingly abstract and incomplete narratives–and by that I mean both Genesis and other creation myths, and the records of astronomy, geology, and paleontology. And obviously (to me, at least, although I am always puzzled that more religious folk don’t get this) we are fighting the long defeat in our mortal lives, and indeed the whole history of the world since the Fall is a long defeat, until the eventual remaking of the world. Tolkien wasn’t telling the factual story of our long defeat, but I think he hoped that by telling the fictional history of another long defeat, he might illuminate our condition and give us hope. After all, we have been disclosed more about our ultimate fate than the Eldar or even the Valar.

So my original plan was to:
1. Read The Silmarillion, without referring to LOTR;
2. Read LOTR in light of The Silmarillion, without watching the movies (I hadn’t seen them in years);
3. Watch the movies.

That plan is a bit wrecked now, because on the afternoon of the 4th of July I broke down and watched Fellowship (hey, it has fireworks). But I’m not too sad, because most of the music lodged in my head and now as I am reading The Silmarillion I have Howard Shore’s themes playing along, and I think they’re smashing. Whatever criticisms one might level against Jackson’s movies, I think the music is pretty much beyond reproach.

Also, I am thinking now that my Epic Rediscovery Of Tolkien’s Immense Canon of Art (henceforth EROTICA) should be expanded to include The Children of Hurin, which I read on its first release three years ago and loved, and The Hobbit, which I haven’t read since high school. So the new plan is to:
1. Finish The Silmarillion, still without referring to LOTR or any of the later books;
2. Read The Children of Hurin;
3. Read The Hobbit;
4. Read LOTR;
5. Watch the movies.

Incidentally, last weekend was my first LOTR movie watch in probably 5 years at least. I remembered the broad strokes of Fellowship (I can’t abide the acronym FOTR; it seems very coarse for such a beautiful work [OTOH, you may feel the same about EROTICA]), but I had pretty well forgotten the total effect of watching the movie. And I’m pleased to say that two impressions were extremely powerful, moreso than on any previous viewing.

The first was the depth of history behind the events of LOTR, and I think this is absolutely key to understanding not just LOTR (that’s obvious), but the success of LOTR. I think a lot of fantasy is sort of medieval escapism, and there’s probably nothing wrong with that (although I don’t particularly want to live in a place or time without antibiotics and cheap flouride toothpaste). But when you approach LOTR, you’re not just going back (and sideways) in time, you’re going back in time to somewhen that itself has loads of “back in time” behind it. Middle-Earth feels not just old, but positively ancient. I think now that much of the pleasure of the series derives from that. The heroes are not just legendary in our terms, they’re echoing the legends of their own world, and they’re not just fighting the Bad Guy of the Week (a Noldorian suicide bomber, perhaps), but saving the world from an ancient evil. All of this comes through very clearly in the movies, or at least in the first movie (I haven’t watched TTT or ROTK since the early oughts, so you’ll have to wait for my impressions on rewatching them).

The second impression was the palpable sense of evil and corruption emanating from the One Ring. I hadn’t really gotten that before. I mean, it’s stated plain as day in both the books and the movies, but I hadn’t grokked it. I suppose I had always thought of the Ring as something both beautiful and cool, which unfortunately happened to have this not-quite-dead dark lord’s spirit attached to it. Probably about what Boromir thought of it. But on this rewatch I finally really grokked how vile it is, not incidentally, but down to its core. From its conception it was an instrument of division, corruption, and enslavement, and I finally really got that.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

Discussion with Mike, from the original comment thread

Mike:

“Truly, the mind boggles.”

In this case, it bloggles.

Mike:

I meant to comment properly on this article, but got seduced by the cheap pun in my previous comment, so now I’m going to follow up my own comment with what I meant to say.

I may be daring too greatly, but I think his motivation was probably in part to do what Lewis did with Narnia: to try to work out his ideas about God and man, life and death, suffering and redemption.

I think that’s close to right; except that Lewis had been a Christian for longer when he started to write the Narnia books that Tolkien was when he started on what eventually became the Silmarillion, and so you might say the Lewis had already worked out his ideas and was merely laying them out in as comprehensible form as possible, whereas Tolkien was in the process of working out his idea, and laid them out in a largely incomprehensible form.

I like this idea because it neatly accounts for the fact that Middle-earth is much better art than Narnia, but Narnia is much better theology. And that in turn accounts for the fact that sophisticated adults almost always like Middle-earth more than Narnia, whereas children and others who have not yet raised barriers get a lot out of Narnia.

And obviously (to me, at least, although I am always puzzled that more religious folk don’t get this) we are fighting the long defeat in our mortal lives.

That’s not obvious to me. I’m not necessarily saying it isn’t true, but that it’s not obviously true. I certainly don’t get the impressions from the book of Acts that the early disciples felt themselves to be fighting a long defeat, nor from the letters of Paul. I think that may be something that Tolkien read into his religion from his personality rather than something that was already there — what Rilstone described in his Two Towers movie review as “Tolkien’s pessimistic, Catholic, view of morality”. If it seems obvious to you, too, then … could it be a shared derived character of Catholics?

I’m glad that the Fellowship movie worked so well for you this time around. For my part, I seem to get more out of them pretty much every time I watch. That’s not to say I don’t cringe in a lot of places (“No parent should have to bury their child”, indeed) but the essence of the films, their emotional core, is startlingly true to Tolkien — much more so than we had any right to expect or even to realistically hope.

Matt:

Lewis had been a Christian for longer when he started to write the Narnia books that Tolkien was when he started on what eventually became the Silmarillion

Is that true? I thought Tolkien was a cradle Catholic, but 30 seconds of web search doesn’t turn up any support. Do you know that Tolkien converted as an adult, or is that an assumption?

That’s not obvious to me. I’m not necessarily saying it isn’t true, but that it’s not obviously true. I certainly don’t get the impressions from the book of Acts that the early disciples felt themselves to be fighting a long defeat, nor from the letters of Paul.

According to my understanding, to the Elves “the long defeat” means that they do not possess the power to save the world, that all that is wrought in Middle-Earth is impermanent and at least slightly tainted, but that it is better to struggle to achieve what happiness and beauty they can than to surrender to evil, or even apathy. At least, I meant it in that sense, and not the Nirnaeth Arenoediad/Doom of Mandos sense; the former seems to me to accord pretty well to our lot as mortals on Earth. Our ultimate victory and ultimate reward is elsewhere. That does not mean that there is not great beauty and much worthwhile work to be done in this life, it just means that our temporal efforts are, as the term implies, transient.

I think that may be something that Tolkien read into his religion from his personality rather than something that was already there — what Rilstone described in his Two Towers movie review as “Tolkien’s pessimistic, Catholic, view of morality”. If it seems obvious to you, too, then … could it be a shared derived character of Catholics?

Interesting. That is incorrect in the particulars, but might be true underneath. Any latent existential pessimism I harbor is a holdover from my nearly Puritanical (American) evangelical upbringing. Whatever its global and institutional failings–and those are many and vexing–the RCC has been in practice a font of peace and hope for me. But the broader point–that Tolkien and I are both projecting–is something I’ll have to think about.

Mike:

Well, Tolkien wrote the very earliest parts of what ended up in the Silmarillion world at a very early age — in his late teens, IIRC. So even if he’d been raised Catholic, he would hardly have been thinking deeply about the implications for many years. By contrast, Lewis had been obsessively thinking through religion in general and Christianity in particular for many years before “gave in, and admitted that God was God” in 1929. And of course he hardly stopped thinking about it thereafter. It was fully 20 years later that he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of the Narnia books. So, yes, I do think it’s fair to say he would have written those books from a position of having worked out a much clearer theology than Tolkien had when he started out on his work. Then again, Tolkien was still tweaking that work when he died in his eighties, so I certainly don’t mean to imply that there was anything immature about his thinking. Just that his work probably reveals process much more the Lewis’s.

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