The American Tolkien?

In 2005, Time Magazine’s Lev Grossman—a fantasy author in his own right—called George R. R. Martin “The American Tolkien” and the label stuck. But the comparison only holds true on the surface. The world Martin conceived in his epic series A Song of Ice and Fire unapologetically takes the path of darkness and unremitting violence that Tolkien believed Fantasy must avoid. The characters are motivated by honor and greed, lust and revenge. In some cases they are just trying to survive, just like fallen humanity in the world we know. But in Martin’s Westeros there is no joy to pursue, no beauty to protect. From the outside we can see that it is a world in desperate need of Recovery, but from the inside it is unclear if Recovery is even possible, because if there was no Fall, Recovery would not be necessary. But rather than positing an unfallen world, Martin has proposed a world in which the fallen state we see and know is the natural one. Martin’s world has always been a hostile and unforgiving place. Sorrow and failure have always been either on the horizon or a present reality, but where some of these things sound true of the world as we know it, Martin’s world doesn’t seem to have the room for the eucatastrophic turn that our world does. Universal, final defeat seems inevitable for Westeros. Martin meant it as a mirror-world in the sense that all fantasy mirrors reality to some degree, but the world Martin mirrors is the fallen and broken one we know and long to escape.

As a self-attested lapsed Catholic fascinated by religion, but unconvinced about the existence of a gracious and loving God sovereignly caring for all that he has made, it’s easy to see how Martin’s foundation differs from Tolkien’s. Their worlds bear a passing similarity, but where Tolkien’s is broken and fallen, Martin’s is simply dark. It is not broken, because that implies a state preceding the current darkness. In this case, the different roots cause their trees to produce very different fruit. This is not to say that there is no good in Martin’s series. By setting out to write nuanced, grey characters who reflect humanity’s dual potential to do good and do harm, Martin offers characters who feel real. They are no different from people walking or driving through cities and towns all around us. By making the central conflict one between people who are equally capable of cruelty and benevolence rather than between good and evil on the macro level, Martin’s world resembles ours today. It takes into account the reality that two sides may be at war, but that doesn’t necessarily make either side wholly good or wholly bad. Tolkien has been unfairly criticized in recent years for writing a struggle that is too black and white, but this criticism mistakes Tolkien’s roots for Martin’s. It is expecting Tolkien’s world to mirror ours in the way Martin’s does, but that is missing the heart of Middle Earth. Middle Earth is a sub-creation both as a secondary world conceived by Tolkien and as a primary world within the story itself where it was sung into existence by the Ainur as they play their part in the great symphony propounded by Eru, the One. But in the context of the story itself, it is also primary creation. Eru proposed the music. He conceived it. The Ainur participated in the making, but the concept belonged to Eru alone. Martin’s Westeros is not primary creation. In the context of the story, it is not creation at all.

This is of the utmost importance. Middle Earth’s mirroring of our world as a primary creation means that it too contains the possibility of Escape, Consolation, and Recovery—of eucatastrophe—that our world does. But Martin’s does not. Martin’s offers superficial escape—to a land of dragons and magic, but not a world that hints at the redemption of the primary world. It offers no consolation because there is no hope that things will ever truly change. If people are people in the way Martin imagines, darkness and violence will never end, which means there can be no recovery because there is nothing to be regained. No goodness has been lost; no beauty can be reclaimed; and truth is dark and grim. This is clearly illustrated in Martin’s belief that Tolkien took a wrong step when Gandalf came back to life. According to Martin, Gandalf should have stayed dead. Where Gandalf came back, no longer as Gandalf the Grey but as Gandalf the White, Lady Catelyn Stark comes back as the cold and ruthless Stoneheart, living in her physical body but dead in her soul. Both experience a resurrection of sorts, but the kind Martin imagines is unlike the kind Tolkien provides in The Lord of the Rings and the kind Jesus offers in the primary world. Gandalf comes back as he does because Tolkien’s world mirrors one in which “the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe” has actually occurred: our world. Martin’s world mirrors one that is lost and hopeless: it is what ours would be if Christ not only had never come, but did not even exist. And that is a truly grim world to consider.

A few more thoughts on grimdark

So I was rereading Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories[1]–because, you know, that’s my job right now–and found he had some very clear thoughts on the subject of grimdark, even though it wasn’t “a thing” during his lifetime.

In paragraph 82 he notes that the richness of our artistic heritage offers a unique danger: that of boredom or an anxiety to be original. This is a danger because it can lead us to despise what has become trite and familiar in favour of the startling and titillating. He writes:

“But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the wilfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium. Before we reach such states we need recovery.”

And that is where grimdark has strayed from the foundation Tolkien laid for fantasy. It has pursued the dark and unremittingly violent in an attempt at authenticity; it has abandoned hope rather than seeking to recover what we’ve lost along the way. And the end result of grimdark is clear: darkness, pain, and despair await. But for Tolkien, the end is Joy, “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (99).

You see, Tolkien does not ignore the pain and loss and grief that run rampant in this world or in the secondary world he imagined, he just denies the universal, final defeat that nihilism foresees. Why? Because he knew that defeat doesn’t have to be the end of the story. As a Christian, he knew what kind of story he was living in. He knew that, despite the horrors of two world wars that supplied much evidence for the inevitable defeat of hope and peace, the Christian story begins and ends with Joy. New life brackets the story. Birth and resurrection provide the frame. There might be horrible pain filling the story’s middle, but the Joy at story’s end is everlasting. As St. Paul wrote: “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.” And that man knew affliction in his bones.

So hold fast to your hope, even when the darkness seems impenetrable. Day will dawn, and Joy will follow in its wake.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London: HarperCollins, 2008).

The 12th Annual German Tolkien Society Seminar

Tolkien-Seminar-2015-249x350From May 1st through 3rd I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the 12th Annual German Tolkien Society (DTG) Seminar held this year in Aachen. I had high hopes for the conference since the focus was on Tolkien’s seminal work, On Fairy Stories. The conference did not disappoint.

The first day featured lectures exclusively in English (which was good for me since my German skills allow me to understand maybe one out of every hundred words), though the presenters were German, Swiss, Irish, and American. Gerard Hynes of Trinity College Dublin delivered the highlight lecture of the day for me on “Theorists of Sub-Creation before Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories'”. He emphasized the uniqueness of Tolkien’s presentation while discussing historical ideas that didn’t necessarily contribute to Tolkien’s thoughts or form a narrative tradition for him to work from, but still created a milieu that made his theory possible. Loved it!

Day two was a real standout though. I slid in a bit late to Marguerite Mouton’s lecture just in time to be blown away by a text I hadn’t really paid much attention to before: Tolkien’s little book The Smith of Wooton Major and the included essay by Tolkien on Faerie. Add that one to my list of books to buy. Anca Muntean added more books to my to-read list and gave me lots to think about. But as good as those lectures were, the highlight of the day was meeting Fr. Guglielmo Spirito (Fr. William), Franciscan friar and Tolkien expert. We were chatting before Anca’s lecture and when he found out what I’m working on at Durham he said, “I’d like to read that,” and gave me his card. Recognizing his name from the literature review I conducted last Fall, I decided to hang out with him as much as he would allow, which was, graciously enough, quite a bit.

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After a delightful lunch with many of the presenters and a grand tour of the Aachen Dom, Thomas Fornet-Ponse left me in the dust with his discussion of Utopias vs. Heterotopias as possible ways of understanding Faerie. I understood some of it, but a lot of it was just over my head. But Claudio Testi brought things back down to a level I could understand with his discussion of Tolkien’s use of Thomistic analogy. He also confirmed something I had been wondering for a few months: Tolkien was familiar with the works of French philosopher Jacques Maritain. Good to know!

And finally, day three was a delight. Fr. William kicked us off with a brilliant (and totally applicable lecture) “Children are meant to grow up, and not to become Peter Pan” in which he stressed that Fairy Stories should return us to the Primary World, but further they should lead us to live changed lives when we get back. Absolutely! Fr. William’s discussion of what it means to live a changed life was right on point for the work I’m undertaking. Next, Lukasz Neubauer discussed Tolkien’s Christianization of the Old Germanic literary trope of the beasts of battle through the utterly awesome and eucatastrophic eagles. Absolutely fascinating! And the brilliant Thomas Honegger ended things with a look at Tolkien’s Sellic Spell and Beowulf.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the conference and hope that this is not the last of the DTG seminars I have the opportunity to attend!

Nailed it!

So last week I briefly shared one of the things Peter Jackson got wrong, and to be fair it’s not as big an issue for me as his treatment of Faramir was in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that’s another issue. So what did Jackson get right in the third Hobbit film? What had me watching in wrapt attention yelling “Yes! Yes!” in my head so loudly that I didn’t even pay attention to the subtitles on the bottom of the screen?

Galadriel. Jackson portrayed her perfectly. But the small detail that have me raving was what Galadriel held in her hand as she called forth their true enemy, forcing him to reveal himself. You see, Galadriel is something special among the elves of Middle Earth. She is the last elf remaining in Middle Earth of those who saw the light of the trees in Valinor. She has actually seen the closest thing Ea (the world) had ever held to the uncreated light of Iluvatar. She saw that light and yet chose to leave it and return to Middle Earth. She abandoned the purest light the world could offer in exchange for the twilight. But yet, she bore it with her. She carried some of that light within her and this made her truly a force to be reckoned with.

But with that said, she was not of Sauron’s order. He, like Gandalf (Mithrandir), was one of the Maiar–a lesser order of angelic being–and she is a child of Iluvatar–bound to the world He created. But in her hand she carries a vial of water from her pool and this water contains the reflection of Earendil’s star–the last of the Silmarils created in ages long past by Feanor to preserve the light of the trees of Valinor. It is this light that forces Sauron and his wraiths to reveal themselves, because in Tolkien’s mythology the light has tremendous significance. This is why the elves (and later Frodo and Sam) cry out “Elbereth! Gilthoniel!” in times of greatest darkness. Elbereth and Gilthoniel are elvish names for one of the Valar (the greater order of angelic beings), Varda, who is most closely associated with the uncreated light of Iluvatar. They are, in essence, calling out “Light! Light!” in the darkness and watching the darkness flee. Brilliant stuff!

The simple fact that Jackson placed that vial in her hand for that crucial scene, speaks volumes about his familiarity with Tolkien’s mythology, which begs the question why he was so willing to play fast and loose with other pieces of Tolkien’s epic? Only Jackson can answer that, but for this little piece that Jackson totally nailed, I salute him!

For a fascinating read on the role of light in Tolkien’s mythology, see the amazing book Splintered Light, by Verlyn Flieger.

Just One of the Things Peter Jackson Got Wrong

Let me just first say that I love me some Tolkien movies. My first reaction on hearing Peter Jackson was turning The Hobbit into three movies was disappointment, but that lasted only until I realised it meant I would have more movies to watch and (hopefully) enjoy. And I did enjoy them, but not as a presentation of Tolkien’s books–rather as an adaptation of them. Because, let’s be honest, there’s a lot in those movies that was never Tolkien’s intention, and most of it could be cut without any real harm to the plot. Take the whole love triangle bit. That simply does not fit in Tolkien’s mythology, at least not as I understand it.

If you read The Silmarillion, which I think you should most certainly do, you will quickly see that there is a fundamental difference between elves and men (and even orcs) on one side, and dwarves on the other. Elves and men were created by the sole working of Iluvatar (God) whereas the rest of creation was propounded by Iluvatar as a musical theme to be sung by the valar (angels) and through their singing to bring into being the idea of Ea (the world). Iluvatar is the only one who can actually make the world exist, but the valar participate in that making as sub-creators. Orcs are the result of Melkor, or Morgoth’s, twisting of some of the first elves in the darkness of his stronghold. So even though they are bent and evil, they are still made by Iluvatar himself. Dwarves, on the other hand, are more like the world in how they were made. Aule, the master-craftsman of the valar, wanted to make creatures as Iluvatar had, not to dominate them, but to image his creator through the use of his gifts, and so he made the dwarves. But just as the world as sung by the valar had no life in it (it lacked the Flame Imperishable), so too did the dwarves. It was only after Aule explained himself and his motivations to Iluvatar that Iluvatar consented to breathe into them the Flame, and that only after the elves had awoken in Middle Earth as the firstborn children Iluvatar intended them to be.

So, that’s really just a long-winded way of saying that in my understanding though friendship, fellowship, and camaraderie between elves and dwarves is both possible and encouraged, a romantic relationship is most definitely not. The whole love triangle is given a great deal of screen time, when it probably wouldn’t even have been feasible in Tolkien’s conception of his world.

But really this post is just a necessary prelude to next week’s post about one thing Peter Jackson got right (and I mean he got it really right). So stay tuned!