Among Others

I’ve had this particular book of Jo Walton’s (along with several others) on my to-read shelf for a long time, and I mean a loooooooong time. I grew interested in Walton’s books after following along with her obsessively detailed rereading of Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles (the first book of which, The Name of the Wind, is perhaps my favorite book of all time, though I don’t know if it can really unseat The Lord of the Rings from that position). It was brilliant. I found her writing to be insightful, thought-provoking, humorous, and thoroughly enjoyable. I figured that anyone who loved Rothfuss’s books as much—or more—than I did was well worth reading in her own right, and yet I still didn’t make it a priority to start reading any of her books. But after finding a used copy of Among Others at Barter Books a couple months ago it finally moved up my list, and boy am I happy it did.

 

This book is a joy. As Pat Rothfuss said of it, “This book is gently magical.” I like that. Gently magical. It really is a perfect description. The magic doesn’t overwhelm the narrative and it is something that always remains just beyond the understanding of those humans who attempt it. It works, but its repercussions and real-life effects are not always fully understood.

 

It is saturated with books, most of them SFF from the late 1970s and earlier, and the most influential book within the text is . . . you guessed it, The Lord of the Rings. And considering the role LotR plays within the text it should come as no surprise that the book itself manages to accomplish all the primary aims Tolkien elucidated for the genre of Fairy Story, in which this delightful book squarely resides. You see, while it’s a story of a girl in her early teens living in late 1970s Wales and England and the SFF books she loves and wrestles with, it’s also about a girl who sees and speaks with fairies and is willing to sacrifice everything to perform the magic they ask her to do—and through this magic to save the world. And yet, the whole story is told through journal entries. So the tragic event that shapes the whole narrative, and precedes the first journal entry by several months, isn’t actually explained until very near the end. While this format might turn some off, I found it captivating. Experiencing the wonder of books and the slow unfolding of magic in this girl’s life (in conjunction with all the other things you would expect in the journal of a 15 year-old girl) was like a stroll through unfamiliar country that bears striking similarities to familiar paths and places. It was a joy, which is as it should be. For the genre of Fairy Story should contain within it hints of joy that break in from beyond the walls of the world. It should bring about recovery, escape, and consolation. And it does! It most certainly does!

 

So, do yourself a favor and go read this one. It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for good reason.

Tolkien and Boethius

Have you ever had one of those moments when you read something that perfectly encapsulated something you’ve been thinking (and possibly writing about) for months? Well I had one of those moments last week and it was reading Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. In this particular bit, Boethius is writing about the effects of sin on human lives, and his phrasing (aside from the fact that the translation I’m reading from is about 400 years old) sounds like something straight out of my partially-written chapter on Saruman. In this chapter I’m thinking through what exactly happens to Saruman over the course of his personal story arc. I’m thinking through his starting and ending points, and Boethius nails it! As I’ve already mentioned in a previous post, Saruman in effect become no-one and no-thing as a direct result of his actions within Middle-earth (though as a created spirit with free will he can never really become no-thing in the truest sense since created spirits cannot be annihilated, but within the context of Arda, and possibly Ea, he ceases to exist in any meaningful fashion), or as Boethius’ anonymous 17th century translator puts it, “Whatsoever is, must also bee good. And in this manner, whatsoever falleth from goodnesse, ceaseth to be…”
This is straight up Tolkien. All created things are good since they are created by Eru, Iluvatar, the One. So even that which is broken and fallen with Arda was not always so; not Morgoth, not Sauron, not orcs, not Saruman. All things were originally good and by virtue of being maintain some semblance of goodness. But, by pursuing vice and falling from goodness created things cease to be what they once were. They lose their goodness and in doing so lose their very being; so too for Morgoth, Sauron, orcs, and Saruman. By embracing evil, wickedness, and sin and pursuing them they sacrifice their goodness and their very being, leaving themselves to become, in the end, no-one and no-thing. They are an absence rather than a presence. But still they have power. Still they can negatively affect the world. And yet while “evil labours with vast power and perpetual success” it always does so “in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in” (Letters, 76). 
This is the truth of the world all around us. It may seem that evil is winning, but it’s not. It may seem that the darkness will forever prevail, but it won’t. It may be that hope has died, but it will always be reborn. Evil cannot conquer forever. One day, it will cease. It will become what it truly is: no-one and no-thing. 

Ennoblement

It’s nice when you start working on a PhD thesis with an idea in mind, a hunch about the way things are, and after working on it for close to two years you come across confirmation that you’re on the right track–that what you’ve suspected all along is actually true…

“I regard the tale of Arwen and Aragorn as the most important of the Appendices; it is part of the essential story, and is only placed so, because it could not be worked into the main narrative without destroying its structure: which is planned to be ‘hobbito-centric’, that is, primarily a study of the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble.”*

  • The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin (2000), p. 237.

The Name of the Light

I just recently started the first of many re-reads I’ll be doing of The Lord of the Rings and I just need to go on record to say that the first 70 pages or so are NOT boring. Not in the slightest. Many have criticized Tolkien’s epic for its slow start, but I haven’t seen it. The action may be minimal, but the stage is simply being appropriately set. We need this base from which to leap off to the wider story and world. We need to have the good in life firmly established so we can see why it needs saving, so we can be reminded of hearth and home and how central they are to the health and well-being of our souls. Tolkien prepares us well in this regard for the conflict ahead.

But all that is just an observation and not the real point of this brief post, which is a simple little detail that harkens back to one of my early posts: the power of light. As Frodo is working his way out of the Shire with Sam and Pippin they have already needed to hide from a black rider twice and on the second occasion just as the rider is crouching down on all fours to sniff out the Ring like the bestial inhuman creature it is, singing drove it away. We might be tempted to think that it is simply the presence of other people approaching that drives the rider away, especially since we discover it is elves who are singing as they walk down the road, when in reality it is the song that drives it off, though of course Tolkien doesn’t explicitly tell us this. No, we must know the mythology and the deep lore contained in The Silmarillion if we are to see what is really going on here.

“O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!”

It’s almost like a breath prayer. Short enough to speak in one breath, but powerful enough to drive away even the most powerful servants of evil. Simply speaking the name of the light is enough to drive away the darkness. Which shouldn’t surprise us because our world works the same way. Spiritual darkness and evil cannot stand the Name of the Light. It is filled with too much glory and goodness. Too much truth. Too much beauty. It’s a name we should call on more frequently.

“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on us.”

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.