Archive for the ‘Tolkien’ Category

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Sauron was framed!

January 8, 2011

I suppose what I should be doing is putting up the by now more than a week late New Year post, in which I take an astronomical look back at 2010 and forward to 2011, and report on how I did with last year’s resolutions and propose some new ones.

But instead, you get more Tolkien. Following Mike’s lead–and at his suggestion–I’m recycling one of our old e-mail discussions for this post. Enjoy!

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Mike: Sauron wants to enslave the people of Middle Earth and usher in a new era of darkness … but, but …  Well, had I been a ringwraith, I’d have been  longing to ask, “But why, O dark lord?”

Me: Allow me to float some possible answers for further discussion and/or debate.

1.  Sauron is afraid of getting his butt kicked.  And the only way he can see to avoid that is to enslave or destroy all the enemies that could possibly defeat him.  Sauron had been captured by the Numenoreans way back in the day, although he eventually turned that to their undoing; he had been defeated and cast into outer darkness by Isildur and the Last Alliance; and most recently he had been forced out of Dol Guldur by the White Council.  At this point, making war on men and elves may be a matter of mere survival.

2.  Sauron has a basic biological revulsion to the things that most good beings consider good.  He can no more tolerate elves and trees than elves can tolerate orcs and boils.  Nice things are yucky, and yucky things must be destroyed.  If you find this farfetched, try getting an adult female human to hold a snake or a spider.

3.  Sauron is not actually evil; he is a bit paranoid and has a self-actualization problem, but he is also the victim of repeated acts of aggression by Gandalf, Galadriel, and their toadies.  He should not, therefore, be villianized for his courageous acts of self-defense against Gondorian aggression.  It is very difficult to perceive this because all of the histories of Middle Earth were written by a militant pro-elfer who also happened to be an Ivory Tower old white guy.  (It would have been impossible for me to think that thought before I moved to California.)

4.  Sauron actually is an old white guy.  The Burning Eye is just a special effect to keep the troops in line.  Sauron is actually the Wizard of Oz.  He pulls some ropes and speaks through this megaphone and these other old white guys (who happen to be dead) saddle up and go do bad stuff on his behalf, or a bunch of orcs march from Point A to Point B and disregard campground regulations.  Seriously, does the big S. ever do anything?  Hell no.  He makes his lieutenants do everything for him.  That’s a sign of great leadership–or the sign of a big fat faker.

Next question:  okay, Smarty, then how has Sauron managed to stick around for thousands of years?  Answer the first:  Sauron has always been a big fake perpetrated by the Wizard of Oz, but the Wizard of Oz has been a migratory title, much like the Dread Pirate Roberts. Every time some orc captain starts stringing more than two thoughts together and gets suspicous, the current “Sauron” rattles the Mordorian saber and said orc captain gets to die gloriously on the outskirts of Lorien.

Answer the second:  The real Sauron died at the hands of Isildur, and no one heard a peep for, oh, about three thousand years. Then this “Necromancer” pops up in Mirkwood, gets driven out, and sets up shop in Mordor, claiming to be Sauron returned.  Gandalf and the elves have always been suckers for a nice big enemy they could use as an excuse to increase military spending and whip the populace into a frenzy, so they bought into it hook, line, and sinker. It’s obvious that the “Necromancer” was a small-time hood who saw an opportunity and took it.

Answer the third:  Sauron is Radagast.  Pretty odd how ole Rads was always lurking around when Gandalf needed a chat, but once the war started he was nowhere to be seen.  I mean, if he is really one of the caretakers of Middle Earth you’d think he could at least show up for the last battle.

5.  Sauron wants to bring the benefits of nationalized production to Middle Earth.  The capitalist pigs in Gondor want to stop him. Therefore they must be destroyed.

Here’s my “But why, O Mithrandir?”

Why does everyone go around talking as if the world will immediately and eternally fall into darkness if Sauron recaptures the ring?  He had it before and still managed to catch an a decisive beating.  Sure, maybe there are fewer elves around these days, and maybe the orcs really have been multiplying,  but that seems to me to be more of a tactical problem, so that maybe the question should be, “Do we have enough combatants and materiel to defeat Sauron if he gets the ring back?” and not, “Why don’t we all go die now in a possibly pointless diversion so that we’ll be spared the inconvenience of dying later if he gets the ring back and things immediately and eternally go to pot?”

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Discuss! At some point I actually will return for the promised end-of-year astronomy post, but right now I am observing myself with horrified fascination to see how long I might put that off. It’s the Jane Goodall approach to procrastination.

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Feanor & Sons

November 28, 2010

Feanor & Sons Silmaril Retrieval

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  • Lands usurped (Beleriand only)
  • Dooms fulfilled

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Genuine Noldorian service–don’t settle for Edain or Half-Elven, get screwed by those who have seen the light of the trees!

Actual descents into Angband by unpaid third party labor, so we can pass the savings on to you!

Feanor & Sons–get your curse’s worth, or we’ll stab you in the back!

Here’s what people are saying:

“They killed my dad!” –Elwing

“Honestly, Feanor & Sons did a lot of the work for me.” –Morgoth

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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.