Musings on Tolkien: Art, Myth and Religiosity

The books of J. R. R. Tolkien comprise one of my fondest literary experiences during the time I have spent outside India. I have come at the works in a sequence that the venerable professor would probably not approve of, reading first The Lord of the Rings, followed by The Hobbit, and now The Silmarillion. Over the years, I have often wondered why I love the books, and the movies and most of the art that derives from Tolkien’s works so much. I have often put this fascination down to a love of language of a certain musical kind, and an attraction to myth and story. Indeed, it is impossible not to admire JRRT’s dedication and artistic drive in creating multiple languages, landscapes and cultures to hold together a mythology of such intricate detail that it was never complete and was being refined to the very end of his life.

Many of us, especially readers of fiction, also identify with the attraction to story and myth. In the telling, Tolkien’s stories flow in the manner of tales handed down the ages, not so much in written form, but in the form of song and verse. This quality of his prose first became tangible to me when I was reading The Fellowship of the Ring, specifically the part in which the company journeys into Lothlorien after losing Gandalf to the Balrog of Morgoth. In my mind, that attraction of song-lore extends outward from the books and into derivative artwork, including the beautiful and distinctive styles of Alan Lee and John Howe, and the blockbuster movies that – some would hasten to point out – changed the book far too much. I do not mean to say that I like everything in the movies, but even with the ridiculously extended movie adaptation of The Hobbit, my fascination with the original work does not yet brook snobbery at the mercenary imagination of film-makers.

Now, as I read The Silmarillion, I become even more conscious of the incongruence of my fondness for Tolkien’s work. The professor was a devoutly religious man and the influence extends to the fictional world that he created, with  God (Illuvatar), the angelic powers (the Valar), and creation of Arda (Earth) as an expression of the music of Illuvatar. I don’t subscribe to any supernatural creationist view in real life, and am extremely uncomfortable in religious settings, or when asked to perform any religious activity [1]. Yet, I am enthralled by Tolkien’s descriptions of the creation of Arda, the music of the Valar, the discordant notes of Melkor. The only obvious explanation I have for this is that I compartmentalize Tolkien’s world as being distinct from reality, and that within it, these unscientific things not only make sense, but do so beautifully, musically, and bravely.

Embedded in these tales is Tolkien’s love for simplicity and goodness that most of us aspire to. What exactly constitutes simplicity and goodness is admittedly a tough question, but it is fair to say that we find those ideals more difficult to attain in our technologically augmented world. There seems to be in Tolkien’s work, a component of the moral fable, such as that found in Aesop’s stories or The Panchtantra [1]. And like the great religious epics of Europe and Asia, there is a more or less clear demarkation of good and evil, instances in which good turns to evil, and few (if any) cases in which an evil entity redeems itself; In day-to-day existence, I am quick to repudiate such a black-and-white characterization of human personality and human activity. Yet inside the pages of the Silmarillion, compartmentalization happens effortlessly as I read – sometimes aloud as if I am reciting the words to someone else – of the doom of the Elves and the proliferating darkness of Morgoth and his hordes.

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[1] I recall reading that Tolkien did not consider The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit as moralistic fables, so he would not have liked the above characterization, despite the parallels with the other myths of our time. He was creating an alternative world, as consistently and meticulously as he could and that, it appears, may have been more important to him than any allegorical interpretations.

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Pansebjorne!

“You en’t afraid, are you

“Not yet. When I am, I shall master the fear.”

– Lyra and Iorek, The Golden Compass.

Fantasy stories, especially of the long, serialized variety often throw up characters with whom one cannot help being captivated. Not all of these are protagonists. Among the plethora of amazing – but predominantly male – characters in Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, there was Eowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan. In the delicate Earthsea books from Ursula Le Guin, there was the enigmatic dragon Kalessin. Now, in reading The Golden Compass – known in Europe as Northern Lights – I have become awestruck by the barely restrained force of nature that is Iorek Byrnison.

[In singing the praises of Iorek Byrnison, I am apt to reveal minor spoilers. However, you may rest assured, dear reader, that after reading this post, you won’t have the faintest idea about what a golden compass is (Obviously, it is not a compass in the common sense), and what it is supposed to do 🙂 ]

I am mildly surprised that I like Iorek so much, even though he is such a violent character, as I am a wimp in the action hero department. Generally, I cannot stomach the “action” sequences in action films, and tolerate them with difficulty in novels. I dislike simulated violence in computer games such as Halo, where the general idea seems to involve butchering all and sundry with great music to boot. Yet, when Iorek Byrnison slices open a poor seal, skins it and uses the blubber to lubricate his armor, I marveled as if it was an act of tenderness. A warrior-bear’s tenderness, but tenderness nevertheless.

There is nothing soothing about Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear of Svalbard; like the dragons of EarthSea, a human being would probably have two choices when faced with this filthy, smelly mountain of power: To talk to him, or to have one’s skull crushed like an egg between his jaws. From watching the trailer of the Golden Compass, one gets the slightly sanitized impression that Iorek Byrnison is a fearsome hulk with a heart of gold, but such is not the picture I gleaned from the novel. Pullman’s Iorek is a Pansebjorne to the core – an armored ice-bear who is fierce but neither good nor evil, silent but never sulky, solitary but never lonely, so bear-like that it is impossible not to love him for what he is. He takes no quarter and gives none. He will either repay a debt or die in the process. There are no half measures for Iorek Byrnison.

I was disappointed that the great ice-bear does not make an appearance in The Subtle Knife, the sequel to The Golden Compass, and is only referred to in conversation. Without a doubt, he will have a part to play before the trilogy concludes in The Amber Spyglass. I found the first book fascinating, the second only marginally less so. Pullman has weaved an eccentric but thoroughly captivating story that takes place in a fictional multiverse and presents several difficult and tantalizing questions, “What does it mean when someone refers to his or her soul?”, “Is belief in God tenable or is it a self-perpetrating illusion?”, “If we lived in a multiverse, would we be left with no choice other than moral relativism, or would it mean anything to have a morality?” I’m eager to read the last book but I feel exhausted this month and am inclined to wait until my workload eases somewhat before picking up this story again. When I am done, I hope to write a post that deals more with the books’ premise than with an isolated rave such as this.

Concerning Hobbits

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

I finally purchased a copy of The Hobbit to fill the glaring gap in my Lord of the Rings mania. I would not want to call my blog Mirkwood, if the only thing I knew about The Hobbit was a synopsis gleaned from other books and websites and quote collections. It starts off calmly and simply like a children’s book would, and I wonder if Tolkien knew what he was getting himself into when he wrote it. I wonder how much he knew about the coming War of the Ring, when he set Bilbo out to the Lonely Mountain.

I am a fan of Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lord of the Rings, and have the Extended Version DVDs of all three films, thanks to the kind indulgence of a very close friend. The version released in the theaters begins with Galadriel’s prologue and jumps to Frodo sitting in a peaceful garden in Hobbiton reading a book. The extended version inserts a beautiful scene between the prologue and the garden. It shows Bilbo with ink and quill, writing the title of his book There and Back Again, a Hobbit’s Tale. Then he proceeds to write Chapter 1, Concerning Hobbits. The screenplay of the first reel of the first film uses some material from The Hobbit. Every time I discover these little things that went into the making of the great film trilogy, I marvel at the skill, dedication and attention to detail that Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh brought to bear on the script. It must have been an enormous task to pore through the appendices, the unfinished tales and the many prequels, so that the film version of the trilogy could be a consistent and self-contained depiction of Middle Earth.

Mired in ideology, Tehanu captivates but does not satisfy

“… I went free, with you for a moment, and with Ogion. But it was not my freedom. Only it gave me choice, and I chose. I chose to mold myself like clay to the use of a farm and a farmer and our children. I made myself a vessel. I know its shape. But not the clay. Life danced me. I know the dances. But I don’t know who the dancer is.”

Tehanu, unique among Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, does not have the wizard Ged as the driving force of its narrative. That role falls to Tenar, now known as Goha, the middle-aged widow of a farmer on Gont Island. The story is about how Goha rescues and nurtures a severely abused and abandoned child with the help of a powerless Ged, and a host of helpful women. It takes place almost immediately after the events of The Farthest Shore and we see a fundamental change in the order of things in Earthsea: There is no Archmage at Roke, but there is a King at Havnor. And the abused child, Therru, is possessed of a mysterious gift which means that she will play an important role in the future of Earthsea. [As usual, a spoiler warning is in order, for readers who plan on reading Tehanu in the future may not want to read the remainder of this post.]

My grudge is not against the book’s feminist politics, but against the vehemence with which it is expressed, and the obviousness of the symbolisms used for that purpose. The rape and burning of Therru in the beginning of the book, and the subsequent ruminations of Tenar would probably have been sufficient to make the reader think about the place occupied and roles played by women in society, and the injustices to which they have historically been subjected. But Le Guin does not stop at that point. She lands Tenar in too many situations in which her gender is accentuated; she invests a great deal in discussing the worth and the warmth of female friendships. All the villains are men, and there is not a single overtly evil woman in the book. Le Guin’s stories are said to be about people with real problems living in imaginary worlds: In Tehanu, the problems become all too real, and the world, almost entirely shorn of magic, is not imaginary enough.

I have expressed before, my appreciation about the fact that magic is at a premium in Earthsea. It shows that the writer wants not just to entertain but to say something about the exercise of power and the balance of Nature. But, when the stark reality of our world is forcibly thrust into Earthsea, it robs the fantasy world of its most charming characteristic: the delicate balance between the magical and the mundane. Tehanu is blunt and gritty and cannot allow the precarious fulcrum to remain horizontal. It is still interesting, but it is somehow not the Earthsea of old.

I think it was a bold but inevitable choice for Le Guin, that Ged should be shorn of his powers, having exhausted them in the climactic battle with the wizard Cob in the The Farthest Shore. Many readers have criticised Le Guin for taking away Ged’s powers, for bringing him down from the pedestal of Archmage to a lowly goatherd. I consider this criticism to be shallow and underserved. I agree with Le Guin, that Earthsea had to move on. Ged and Tenar had to move on, to deal now with the problems of age as they had dealt with the problems of youth. Besides, it would be wrong for Ged to continue as before, as if nothing had changed after he had fought the greatest battle of his life and installed a king in Havnor. The cup of his powers, Ged says, has run dry.

Kalessin turned aside to give that immense furnace blast of laughter or contempt or delight or anger – “Hah!”. Then, looking at the child, “It is well. Thou hast work to do here.”

When it is not overwhelmed by its feminist politics, Tehanu still captivates like its three beautiful predecessors. Nowhere is the signature calm and magnificence of Earthsea portrayed better than in the passages about the great dragon Kalessin. The passages in which the dragon is remembered, rank among the most wonderful fantasy fiction I have read. Even when it is not present, the dragon lurks ominously, mischievously, in the background. Earthsea has a lot of Taoism embedded into it, and the idea of dragons in Earthsea has repeatedly provided Le Guin with some wonderful opportunites to convey some of the notions of the Tao. Dragons are wise, but they are also wildly unpredictable. They speak the language of the Making, and generally mind their own business far away in the West. It is difficult to explain them; A dragon just is.

Foes on multiple levels

This needs a word of introduction and a word of warning. J. M. Coetzee’s novel Foe is a reimagining of Daniel Defoe’s famous novel, Robinson Cruso, told from the perspective of a woman named Susan Barton, who finds herself a castaway on the island of Robinson Cruso. After spending a year with Cruso and his cannibal slave Friday, Susan is saved and comes back to England where, in order get her story published, she enlists the help of Mr. Foe. I am convinced that the title of the novel refers to the intellectual sparring between Defoe (Mr. Foe) and his muse, though I am amused by the thought that it could also have referred to a reader’s unsuccessful efforts at trying to “place” the characters of the novel. This post is about that latter interpretation of the word “foe” as someone whose essential nature is difficult to understand.

At this point, a spoiler warning is appropriate for those who haven’t read the book yet and wish to preserve the surprises for later.

Continue reading “Foes on multiple levels”