Tolkien

Will Amazon's Lord of the Rings show stink?

When Amazon announced the purchase of the television rights to J.R.R. Tolkien's literary estate, I was no optimistic.

To be sure, the family had demanded certain assurances that the work would not be corrupted in the way the film versions of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but that only goes so far.

As I've noted before modern writers seem to have very high opinions of themselves and this leads them to "fix" classic literary works to make them more in accordance with the views of the moment.

The result is inevitably hot garbage, and instead of turning a known property into a "sure thing" financially, it ends up damaging the property itself.

Examples of this are legion, and I've written about them so many times that instead of giving a pile of links, I will direct the curious to simply look up the posts tagged for Star Wars.

What sets Amazon's gambit apart is the sheer scope of the project, which was undertaken when Game of Thrones-mania was at its height.  The failure of that enterprise should have provided an object lesson in the dangers of poor storytelling and the recent disastrous live-action reboot of Cowboy Bebop provides further warnings.

Suffice to say, I'm not optimistic.


Paganism in the 21st Century

Since for Catholics like me, the Christmas liturgical season is just getting started, I have no need to modify my Christmas wishes to all of you by adding "belated."  I can simply wish you a "Merry Christmas" like normal, since there are almost two weeks of Christmas left to go.

This may seem like a strange time to bring up paganism, but I can't think of a more appropriate circumstance given the state of the world today.

Christmas itself has been warped into a retail holiday, something even irreligious people observe by taking time away from work, gathering with friends and family, and of course exchanging gifts.

There was a time within my memory that people who were not Christian (or were part of one of the more obscure heretical sects) pointedly did not celebrate Christmas, and that was why "Christmas Concerts" became "Winter Concerts" or "Holiday Concerts."  But I digress.

Driving home from the early Mass yesterday, a new thought occurred to me.  For many years I believed that pagans were just superstitious and that when they offered sacrifices, cut upon animals to gaze upon the entrails and approached oracles, it was one giant con by the elites against the rubes.  Thanks to The Lord of Spirits Podcast, I now understand that those 'gods' were real insofar as they could influence events and offer advice.

This is why ancient Israel was constantly tempted to break their covenant with God and participate in pagan rituals - they actually worked!

Of course another reason was that the pagan code of ethics was generally more permissive of sin - in fact it regarded some sins as virtues.  Some of the pagan philosophers advocated humility, but in practice the bigger the ego, the bigger your following.  Yes, they saw a relationship between hubris and nemesis, but so long as you kept sacrificing to the gods, nemesis could be kept at bay.

At least that was the thinking.

In any event, my revelation was this: growing up, I wondered why people would truly become Wiccan in light of the fact that it was mostly made-up and the practitioners I knew didn't seen happy or well off - the two traditional signs of divine favor across almost all cultures.

And then it hit me: their prayers were in fact being answered, and in exactly the way they wanted.

The Wiccans I knew seemed to want three things from their faith.  First, they wanted to get back at their traditional (often Dutch Reformed) parents.  Wicca was about as bad as they could be.

Second, they wanted absolute sexual license, and this they got.  The Goddess (or whoever) absolutely blessed them with frequent and (in theory) very intense erotic encounters. 

Finally, they wanted a moral framework that absolved them of guilt while placing their will and desires at the center of what is great and good.  This may seem like a repetition of the second point, but every Wiccan I've known (even the "incel losers" for you modern cool kids) was into the 'pansexual' component of their faith.

What these people did not get were stable, wholesome relationships, or inner peace, or a sense of true salvation or prosperity, or any of the markers that I would seek.  They got drama, and lots of it and they seemed to feed off of it.  I'm not sure how they turned out, though I know a few who 'grew out of it' and returned to Christ.

My point is that while they didn't explicitly articulate those goals, those were their goals and their prayers for those goals were in fact answered.  Whether you choose to believe it was through behavioral choices or the offices of a Fallen Angel masquerading as "The Goddess" (or a combination of both, which is my belief), that's fine, but the outcome is unmistakable.

This was yesterday morning.  Yesterday evening I got word that one of my relatives had renounced Christianity and become pagan.  Right over the holidays!  How splendid.

The reason was she placed a premium on approving sexual license.  The homosexual and transsexual agendas are very important to her (she is neither, btw), and she felt that Christianity was wrong to condemn these behaviors.  Instead, she came up with a theory of reincarnation where people are reborn into the wrong bodies and struggle to reconcile the difference.

I give her points for not doing the Anglican thing and just ignoring the Biblical texts that contradict her views.  She's at least being honest in that respect.

But I think one can see what else is going on - that when faced with a conflict between current societal views (which are less than 25 years old) and ancient laws of faith, she throws the faith away.

This is how the Israelites consistently strayed - they wanted to fit in.  There was no logic to their actions, just as there is no logic in play here.  It's a religion made up on the fly and molded to justify whatever social pressures arise.

This malleability of faith features prominently in the writings of G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh and (in a more veiled form) those of J.R.R. Tolkien.  (It's interesting that the great villains of Middle Earth are Fallen Angels - Sauron, Saruman, and the Balrogs.)

Needless to say, we will pray for her and hope to bring her back to Christ.  I think many people have to stray and take a hard look at the alternatives to the Church before they appreciate what she has to offer.  Certainly I did.


What if the pagan gods are real?

I've had to do a bunch of driving over the last couple of weeks and I returned to my faithful companion on the road, the Lord of Spirits podcast.  I like to download these to an MP3 player and listen to them all at once.  I had several episodes to work through, which was great.

Even if one isn't Eastern Orthodox, it makes a lot of great points and (for the most part) aligns with Catholic theology, so I find it very educational.

One item the presenters stress is that there is actually zero conflict between the Christian conception of God and its pagan rivals.  They are in complete agreement on the fundamental structure, they merely differ in the details.

Thank about it.  All of the other pantheons - Babylonian, Assyrian, Canaanite, Greek, Egyptian, Roman, etc. - may conceive of a singular Creator, but actual day-to-day operations are pretty rigidly divided between various deities.

In fact, they often work at cross-purposes to one another, using humans as pawns for their endless intrigues. 

This dovetails perfectly with the Old Testament's statements regarding God dividing the world into various "dominions" under the protection of angels.  As the name suggests, these "dominions" had set limits, either physical boundaries or a specific element (storms, crafts, love) that they could call their own.

These angels rebelled against God when they accepted worship, something that they knew was wrong.  The degree of their fall varied, and that's why some of the pagan gods seems reasonably decent while others are downright depraved.  They warred on each other because - having set themselves against God, they also destroyed any bonds of trust between themselves.

Also of note is the fact that none of the 'reigning' (that is current) pagan gods made the world or people.  That came from some older, far more powerful Creator who was subsequently deposed.

At least that's their story.  The guys on Lord of Spirits seem to take a particular joy in smashing Baal's pretensions to ruling the skies.

To put it another way, the myths of their followers assert their greatness and dominance, but the fact remains that all of them - even the mighty Zeus - have serious constraints on their power.  They are (as they themselves acknowledged) sometimes thwarted by trickery or a coalition of their rivals.

And of course they are fickle.  You screw up a tiny bit of the sacrificial procedure and they might just strike you dead.  Not nice people, not at all.

Now I'm sure some Christians (particularly Protestants) will claim that either none of these "gods" exist or that they are creatures of the Devil.   All I can say is that the former argument can also be used against their faith and the latter one isn't much different from the one I'm making.

J.R.R. Tolkien essentially took this concept and ran with it.  Morgoth and Sauron were angelic creatures who abandoned the Divine Council and set themselves up as gods.   The Balrogs were likewise spirits of fire who turned against Eru, The One.

Saruman was sent to stop them, and he too, fell.  Fans of Unfinished Tales know that Gandalf was actually one of five "wizards" sent as messengers and ended up being the only one to remain true to his mission.  Radagast the Brown was distracted by animals and the two "Blue Wizards" were rumored to have set up cults of their own.

It's interesting to note that in some of the few direct references to worship in Lord of the Rings, it is in fact Eru, not Manwe, who is so honored.  The Elves' songs about Elbereth are please for her intercession, a prefigurement of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Tolkien wasn't a theologian but he certainly knew his theology.  What he is describing is exactly the same arrangement - the angels entrusted to watch over the world instead covet it.

I'm still wrapping my head around the concept, but its a fascinating thing to think about.


Dated history books

One of my little pleasures is going to estate sales.  I used to go to garage sales, but I generally find them disappointing.  Estate sales, on the other hand, are fascinating.  You get the run of someone's house and even if you don't buy anything, you learn a lot about how other people live.

Of course, you can get phenomenal deals on housewares - things people typically buy new at premium prices.  As my kids start looking at setting up on their own, estate sales are where I will go to get their cookware and minor appliances.

Books are also a great value, and last week I picked up a pair of history books with great illustrations and laughably dated information.  It's not just that the terminology changed, its that archeology has advanced by leaps and bounds over the last 40 years.  The ability to scan empty areas from space to identify otherwise impossible-to-find ruins is a game-changer.

Still they're enjoyable reads with pretty pictures.  I also enjoy the use of A.D. and B.C. in dating.  The stupid CE/BCE terminology is deeply dishonest.  It's an attempt to secularize the Christian reckoning, but all it does is declare all other systems "unscientific."  Just admit that you're using the Christian dating system.

Another advantage is the writing is better, less cluttered with jargon and important-sounding phrases.  The glut of credentialed-but-ignorant scholars was only just beginning, and the humanities still had rigorous standards.  It's worth noting that despite his incredible knowledge, J.R.R. Tolkien never actually completed a doctoral degree.  He didn't need to; his work spoke for itself.

Now any midwit can get one and fancy that they're his intellectual superior. 

Yet another sign of our culture's ongoing collapse, I suppose.


The Eerie Prescience of Tolkien's Palantir

Did Tolkien foresee the internet?

Before you object, consider that a key plot point in Lord of the Rings was the use (and misuse) of the legendary seeing-stones of Numenor, the Palantirs.

Their chief power was to allow communication at the speed of thought, allowing people leagues upon league apart to share visions and thoughts.  It also allowed long-range vision, a sort of pre-modern satellite photography.

Denethor, Ruling Steward of Gondor, possessed one.  Sauron, Dark Lord of Mordor possessed another.  Desperate to learn about his enemy, Denethor used the magic stone to spy on the Great Enemy and so was caught.

Looking at how the internet (and particularly social media) is driving people literally insane, I suddenly recalled how Denethor himself was driven to suicidal madness by what he saw in the Palantir.

His fortress city of Minas Tirith was defended by not just one or two, but seven concentric rings of walls, and built into a mountainside.  While his troops were outnumbered, they also had superior skill and higher quality weapons. 

Yet before the gate was even broken, Denethor's mind was overthrown.  Without the Ride of the Rohirrim and Aragon's decision to take the Paths of the Dead, the city would have been overrun in the first assault - because the Enemy was already inside the walls.

I'm increasingly wary of technology, and I don't go online much these days.  I used to avoid social media out of privacy concerns, but I now do so out of a desire for self-preservation.


The surprise ending

Arguably the greatest challenge to contemporary writers is coming up with a way to make an ending both surprising and plausible.

Game of Thrones failed spectacularly in this respect, and Star Wars did the same.  I think the first big whiff was The Matrix, but plenty of shows start with a bang and end with a whimper.

Of course, sometimes life imitates art, and while this blog generally avoids the pointless churn of political commentary, certainly the last chapter of American involvement in Afghanistan was entirely unexpected.

On the other hand, historians tend to look at wars as wholly contained narratives.  War was declared on this date and ended on the other date, and anything beyond those bookends is beyond the scope of most conventional books.

Sometimes one has to look outside those confines, because in real life, the end of one story necessarily leads to another.  The characters change, the plot lines switch around, but the tale never ends.

J.R.R. Tolkien brought this up in Lord of the Rings, at one point having Sam Gamgee reflect that the stories told of the Elder Days in the Last Homely House had continued down to the present day and that he and Frodo were part of the same plot line that ran back to Beren and Luthien.

And so it is.  As Tolkien also noted in his timeless work, victories and defeats are at best transitory.   Time passes and new challenges emerge.

What is surprising to people at the time will likely seem a foregone conclusion to future generations.

All one can do in such circumstances is do what any solid character would do: muddle through and carry on as best as possible.  It may not be satisfying drama, but then again the story isn't finished and in real life, the actors rarely get to see the final result of their effort.

 

 


There and back again, again

Yes, this post title is an obvious homage to The Hobbit, but that's because the J.R.R. Tolkien's little book is so applicable.

Lord of the Rings gets most of the press (for good reason), but The Hobbit has a lot of useful things to say, which is why Peter Jackson's film atrocities attributed to it represent an artistic crime of the first order.

In any event, having just returned from a week-long business trip, I am once again driven to reflect on the truths contained in that little tale.  First and foremost, the subtitle reminds us that for most of us, that's all we ask of our journeys: to go there and come back again.

This doesn't always happen, which is why my departure prayer always carries the request that I be brought safely "there and back again."

Even when it does, we often find ourselves changed by the journey and that home has also changed, sometimes in profound ways.

Such was the case on this trip, and like Bilbo Baggins, I find myself coming back to a different place than I left (though in my case, the change is a joyful one).

I will here throw yet another shout out to the Lord of Spirits podcast, which was my traveling companion for much of the journey.  While some may dislike the giggling pop-culture references, I find them refreshing.  When making a long drive, laughing now and then does wonders for maintaining alertness.

 


My first 15 years as a Catholic

Traditionally, converts to Catholicism are received into the Church on Easter.  Because I'm special, my family did so on Pentecost, so today marks the 15th anniversary of my conversion.

I went into it knowing it was a process rather than an event and a decade ago I tried to drive this point home as an RCIA sponsor (that's Catholic-speak for mentoring a convert).

Things have changed a lot in the last 15 years and so have I.  Two of my daughters are grown up and the youngest (who was but an infant) is now almost 16.

My understanding of God has changed a lot, too, and while some people hint that conversion will make for less troubles as the result of divine favor, that's not strictly true.  There were a number of crisis in the last decade and a half - simply joining Team Christian didn't give me immunity from adversity.

However, it did give me the means to deal with it in a positive way.

Am I a better person?  I think so.  I also think I'm more moral - not superior to everyone else, just doing a better job of living in accord with Christian values.

While I seem to sinning less, I'm more aware of my past sins, which makes me very humble.  In recent years, one of the aspects of the Church I've come to appreciate greatly is Reconciliation.  It used to be something I dreaded, but now I look forward to it.

Being Catholic also opened my eyes to a world I never even knew existed.  In Brideshead Revisited, Sebastian at one point remarks to Charles that Catholics simply see the world differently.  It's true - and once seen, it can't be unseen.

That new vision has given me a new perspective on favorite authors like Tolkien, and introduced me to new favorites like Evelyn Waugh. 

As I said, conversion is a process not an event, and I'm interested to see what the next 15 years will bring.


I'm not a fan of the Amon Sul podcast on Lord of the Rings

Based on my enjoyment of the Lord of Spirits, I thought for sure I'd love Father Andrew Stephen Damick's Tolkien-centric Amon Sul podcast.

Not so much.

I think I'm fairly near the upper end of the Tolkien fandom spectrum.  No, I don't speak Elvish, but I used to read Lord of the Rings every year, have most everything J.R.R. wrote and can accurately recite some of the songs and poems.

Maybe that's my problem: I seem to know more about the books than the host, which is really irritating.

Father Andrew also makes some pretty significant mistakes, conflating battles, names, events and this combined with his (freely admitted) "fangirl" behavior to really turn me against the show. 

I think the final straw was his refusal to completely and unconditionally condemn the Peter Jackson movies.  These are terrible, both as adaptations and as standalone movies.  I wish to emphasize that second point, because people will sometimes argue that Jackson can't be blamed for having to make a few concessions to the necessities of putting the story on film.

If you take the movies as they are, they are completely incoherent.  The plot is completely incoherent.

I've already linked to my trashing of the film, and so I won't repeat (or add to) my previous invective.  Suffice to say that Father Andrew's unwillingness to put those atrocities in their place - either because he's too nice or simply doesn't see the problems - is a deal-breaker.

I tried, but I can't take it anymore.  I'll stick with Lord of Spirits and leave it at that.


Merry COVID Christmas!

I intend the title of this post to be taken unironically.  Despite the ongoing nonsense by the various Grinches in trying to snuff out the Christmas spirit with lockdowns and fear, Mass was at (diminished) capacity last night and our spirits are high.

What is more, a light blanket of snow arrived just in time to give us a White Christmas, just like the ones we used to know.

Last night I finished a re-reading of The Silmarillion, and Tolkien's extended mythology appropriately concludes with the rising of a new star, a symbol of hope and a promise of mercy and pardon.

2020 has been a crazy year, but through it all, faith has always been a solace.  May you and yours have a blessed holiday.  Merry Christmas!