Tolkien

Sequel, Prequel, In-quel: where does it end?

Hollywood is apparently not done with strip-mining J.R.R. Tolkien's literary legacy.  A new film is supposedly in the works based on the life of...Gollum.

Which we already know.  I mean, it's in Lord of the Rings, book the book and both the movies.

This is the state of modern filmmaking: tell the same story again and again.  

Presumably audiences will keep coming back to watch something vaguely familiar, thus assuring a reasonable return on investment.

This is largely enabled by the consolidation that has taken place among studios, which are probably more in lockstep than they ever were in the days of the moguls.  Indeed, the signature feature of the Studio System was its innovation - all of the moguls were self-made men who were creating an industry from scratch.  The current executives are third- or fourth-generation legacy hires.

The good news is that this creates an unprecedented opportunity for independent artists to make some huge scores, and we saw this with Godzilla Minus One.

The bad news is that all media has been consolidated, and there is a concerted (and blatant) effort to restrict access to new content precisely because of the danger it poses.

I'm not sure how this will play out, but as with so many other institutions, my sense is that Hollywood will ultimately fall.  Like a vast ship incapable of course correction, it will inevitably crash.  Nothing is too big to fail.


Natural Law and Priest-Kings: The Faith of Lord of the Rings

Yesterday I finally concluded my spiritual re-reading of Lord of the Rings.  I started this project in early October and initially was keeping notes.  However, as I got deeper into the story, I found myself once more captivated by it, reading late into the night even though I know it so well.

I think that's the true proof of Tolkien's excellent writing - one can read through it again and again, and still be entranced.

While I've read this book dozens of times, it was only recently that I came to truly understand Catholic theology and the spirit world.  As an irreligious teenager, this almost totally escaped me.  As an adult, I began to recognize Christian themes, but not their deeper meanings.  Even after my conversion, I was essentially skimming the surface.  I'm sure scholarly dissertations have already been written on the topic, but two things stood out to me: the use of natural law and priest-kings.

Natural Law

There are several expressions of this concept, but the one I am using is that even people with no exposure to God's revealed word have an understanding of basic morality.  Just like gravity, it doesn't have to be explained for people to understand that it exists.

The natural law in Lord of the Rings begins in The Shire, which is something of an English garden of Eden.  While far from perfect, hobbits live their lines relatively free of sin.  They gossip, engage in petty theft (mushrooms and spoons come to mind), and love to eat, but crimes of lust and wrath (like rape and murder) are unknown to them. 

Why this is the case the books never come out and say, and at several points "the wise" openly ponder how they an be so untainted by sin.  The answer seems to be a special kind of grace that leaves them with little ambition beyond a comfortable life and the joy of family and friends.

This grace is of course absent in Smeagol/Gollum, who is irredeemably evil.  He is guilty of treachery, greed, murder and perhaps cannibalism (which he certainly was willing to attempt in The Hobbit).

Gollum's fall is not without resistance, and (as with so many other lives) he might have been redeemed if circumstances permitted it.  I think of addicts who clean up but go back to their old haunts and lifestyle and thereby get hooked yet again.

When the hobbits move into the larger world, they see a more formalized system of religion, more open displays of it, and this is a reference to the formalization of God's covenant with Israel. 

Being close to living in an Edenic state, the hobbits have essentially the faith of the antediluvian patriarchs, honoring their creator, honoring their parents, and refraining from mortal sins.

The realms of elves, men and dwarves, however, are fallen, and thus must practice a faith as a means of redemption.  This results in the creation not of a church, but the ancient concept of the priest-king.

The Priest-Kings of Numenor (and Rohan)

It is noteworthy that on almost every occasion when the hobbits meet and leave the various royalty they encounter, that a blessing is bestowed upon them.  This frequently involves the laying on of hands, but other times they simple told to go with the blessing, as at the conclusion of Mass.

This hearkens back to the customs of the Near East in ancient times, when kings also served as high priest, often due to (claimed) divine descent.  The king blessed the crops, blessed the first fruits and in all ways served as the representative of the patron deity on earth.

The same was true in Numenor, where the kings had certain religious duties.  On the Holy Mountain, only the king could speak aloud.

The "downfall" of Numenor was spiritual before it became physical.  Sauron famously allowed himself to be captured and turned the ruling class towards the worship of Melkor.  This in turn led to a declaration of war against the Valar and the destruction of the realm, with only a handful of survivors escaping the disaster.

The line of priest-kings was spared, however, through Elendil and his sons.  The destruction of Arnor and the extinction of the royal line in Gondor left the men of Westernesse spritually crippled, and facilitated a crisis of faith that almost wiped out the line of the Ruling Stewards.

It is worth noting the many powers Aragorn exercises in his capacity as king.  First and foremost, he is a healer - very much a priestly function and a way to demonstrate the justness of his claim.  It is telling that miraculous healing rather than military conquest are what make a Numenorean king.

These Numenorean concepts are reflected in Rohan as well, and the funeral customs may be consciously borrowed from the Anglo-Saxons, but they nevertheless reflect Christian elements, especially the sharing of wine among the celebrants.

I'm sure a few readers might be thinking "Yes, but lots of pagan societies also shared food and drink with guests, it's not just a Judeo-Christian thing!"  This is true, but from the Catholic/Orthodox spirit realm perspective, that is because these societies were led by fallen angels, who preserved the same customs, albeit often in debased ways.

This also goes back to natural law and the notion that sharing food and drink with someone draws you closer - which it absolutely does.  There's a reason why even in our debauched, post-religious secular materialist world, "dinner and a movie" is still regarded as a way to gain intimacy.  I would argue that the eclipse of dinner parties by social media is one of the driving factors in our ongoing societal strife.

The pandemic crushed much of this social activity and "public health experts" continue to undermine it by exaggerating the dangers of disease while ignoring the greater threat of social isolation and despair, especially among young, otherwise healthy people who now struggle to form in-person relationships.

Tolkien understood the importance of this activity in holding societies together, and that is no doubt why he emphasized taverns and inns as the primary social gathering space and in lieu of priest-kings, the hobbits had a mayor (who presided at banquets) and a Thain (of the Took line) and the Master of Buckland.  It is no accident to the narrative that the heirs to these 'royal' seats (Pippin and Merry) are part of the quest and that they return with a deeper understanding of spirituality to lead their people.

All of this is to say that Lord of the Rings is truly a masterpiece, a multi-layered work of true genius. 

I've remarked on this before, but it's been fascinating to see how Tolkien's work has gone from being regarded as a fringe-fantasy epic for teenagers to a deep and meaningful book about Christian faith.  It is not uncommon for priests to reference it during homilies and even bishops now cite its examples.

Clearly, Tolkien builded better than he knew.

 

 


A spiritual re-reading of Lord of the Rings

I have lost track of how many times I have read Lord of the Rings.  For a while, it was an annual event, but as I began to wander farther afield into literature, the practice faded.  I think part of the re-reading was simply for comfort in my troubled adolescence.  It was a place of mental refuge.

Now I'm reading it in a different way.  To be sure, I enjoy its familiar paths, but as I've become more aware of the richness of Catholic theology (and J.R.R. Tolkien's encyclopedic knowledge thereof), I'm intrigued to see it revealed to me more clearly.

I have done similar focused readings before, paying attention to characters, choice of language, prose style, and even religion, but now I want to see how Tolkien's descriptions of the various spirits and references to then align with what I've learned over the last few years.  The Lord of Spirits podcast was a big part of this education, and there are times when I miss being able to listen to it on lengthy road trips. 

Alas, as I noted months ago, the hosts began to run low on content and turned the show into Why Catholic Do Everything Wrong.  Not only is there a glut on the market for that kind of thing, the show lost its sense of humor, which was one of its strengths.  But I digress.

There is a movement to canonize Tolkien, and I think it is appropriate.  His personal life was nothing short of exemplary, and he was clearly a faithful and conscientious father and husband.  His work is infused with his faith and it is increasingly clear that his approach to sharing it is uniquely suited for our troubled times. 

The open embrace of what were once derided as "fantasy" books filled with pagan symbols is nothing short of remarkable, but also entirely appropriate.  His work is more subtle than that of his friend C.S. Lewis, but I think that gives it a qualitative edge.

After slogging through the sinful ways of Ford Madox Ford, I'm very much welcoming the change.


After 1,300 pages, I've finished the Max Saunders biography of Ford Madox Ford

That was a long book.  There are big books that feel big, and books that don't.  This felt big, and the problem was that Saunders not only went into excruciating detail about his subject's movements, incidental friendships and even meals, he also broke up his narrative with extensive discussions of Ford's literary works.

I tallied 83 pages on on the Parade's End series, which is fine in terms of criticism, but if you want to find out more about the author, it's a heck of a digression.

I'm also going to call Saunders out for being a truly impressive fanboy.  I like Ford's work, admire his turn of phrase, but I'm sorry, Last Post was a clunker of a book, and there's a reason why Graham Greene did not want it included in his reprint.  As he points out, the book was not part of the original scheme of the work and was added on later to explore what happened to Tietjens and Miss Wannop.

Having read the biography, it's pretty clear that Ford is creating an idealized version of his postwar life, one starkly at odds with what eventually happened.  Ford should have updated it ten years later, including Wannop's bastard child and the fact that Tietjens has abandoned her for another young woman and regularly keeps his eye open for new talent.

Saunders desperately tries to excuse Ford, emphasizing his art over his morally abhorrent behavior (well, this was written in the 1990s), but there is no inherent contradiction between moral uprightness and literary worth.  G.K. Chesterton was a brilliant writer as was J.R.R. Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh.  Waugh had a wild youth, and was by no means the model father, but he didn't abandon his wife and children and let himself constantly be led astray.  There was quite literally no woman he had a relationship with on whom he did not seriously consider cheating.  The only reason he remained true to his final mistress, Janice Biala, was that he was too ill to consummate any more adulteries.

To his credit, he never truly abandoned his Catholic faith and tried to raise his children in the Church. 

Though the work is quite long enough, I would have liked to see less literary analysis and more about his extended family, including his illegitimate daughter and his brother Oliver, who pops into and out of the narrative without much explanation.  An epilogue on his descendants would also have interested me.

Instead, Saunders - like his subject - regarded Ford's death as the end of the line, and wrote no more.

 


Halloween: the other most wonderful time of the year

As it customary, Chateau Lloyd put up its Halloween decorations at the turn of the seasons.  Halloween may be spooky, is certainly commercialized, but it is in the main a celebration of autumn, and it is rich with its symbolism.

While religious in origin, for most Americans it's merely about candy, costumes and varying degrees of schlock horror tropes. 

It is the second biggest "retail holiday," with Christmas still reigning supreme.  Unlike Christmas, it is less emotionally fraught because there are fewer associations with family gatherings and/or religious associations.  For the vast majority of Americans, it's about pumpkin spice everything, dress-up and trick-or-treat.

Autumn is my favorite season, no doubt a function of living in a state where the change of weather is welcome but fleeting.  The humid heat of August is yielding to the warm days and cold nights associated with early fall.  Later, the air will take on something of a bite, but stay above freezing.  Halloween itself has seen everything from balmy temperatures to snow flurries.  That's part of the excitement of this time of year.

There is also the brilliant display of color before the trees go bare.  Every year the cycle is a little different, which is why it is so special.  The older I get, the more I appreciate it.

I suppose it is no accident that J.R.R. Tolkien chose to set his epic tale against the arrival of fall.  I'm sure I won't be alone and re-reading his classic as autumn takes hold.

 


Too clever by half-elf: Dungeons & Dragons No Honor Among Thieves

Over the weekend I was cajoled into watching Dungeons & Dragons: No Honor Among Thieves

I did not enjoy it.

The problem was that I wasn't sure if I was watching a satire or a serious adventure film.  There were plenty of obvious laugh lines aimed at D&D players, and yet the pacing and general structure of the film indicated that I was also supposed to take it seriously.

This was impossible, because as the film itself demonstrated magic and do almost anything, and no sooner would this assertion be declared false than magic would in fact solve whatever problem was at hand.

This goes back to my repeated critiques of super-hero films and now Disney Star Wars, which is that if there is all this non-stop action, when am I supposed to find time to care about the characters?

The more wild and improbable (and unrelatable) the setting gets, the less invested I become in the outcome, because everything appears arbitrary and random.

At that point, if the good guys win, it won't feel like they earned it, they just happened to turn over the right card (or the game was fixed from the start).

This problem becomes doubly acute when the plot is built around a bank heist.  In the real world, I know that locks, walls of steel and massive doors covered by cameras present formidable obstacles.

But in the D&D world, there's probably a spell to circumvent all that - and then a spell to stop that spell, and a spell to the stop that spell, etc. 

As I said, arbitrary and random.

There's also the setting, which has no meaning to me.  Oh, I recognized some of the references from the game, but there's no overarching story of D&D World like there are of Narnia or Middle-Earth.

It's just a tale from the Land of the Knee-Walking Turkeys or something.  The Princess Bride felt far more grounded in that respect.  It make jokes about the genre, but not at the expense of destroying one's immersion in the story.  The fact that it was a story within a story actually amplified this effect - as Fred Savage became more invested, so did we.

Fans of the film have suggested that the digressions, asides and so on represent the course of the game, and in that case, I'd have loved to see a bunch of nerds sitting around the table arguing about what will come next.  Then we'd have to real tension because the story would finally be anchored in some sort of consistent reality.

Instead of being arbitrary and random.


The allure of paganism

Over the past week, commenter CN has deftly woven together two of the themes of this site - the corruption of Christianity and the complex personality of Ford Madox Ford.

The discussion of Jewish women indulging in neo-paganism reminded me of a consideration of paganism from a few years ago.

As I said then, paganism offers much that appeals to our contemporary culture.  It's bold, transgressive, and  it eliminates bothersome boundaries. 

The primary weakness is that once one casts aside restraint, why bother with religious ritual at all?  I think for the Boomer generation, there was something of a thrill in going to church in a bathrobe and slippers and the Gen X crowd went even farther by getting all tatt'd up and "blessing" same-sex relationships.

But why bother with all that?  Why not sleep in on Sunday?  The truth is that classical paganism actually had lots of rules and required frequent acts of devotion.  All those marble temples were used; they weren't just empty monuments to be admired.

This is why I think it is no accident that much of paganism is concentrated within the global church rather than rising outside of it.  This would of course fit in with the Enemy's designs of outright blocking the path to salvation by corrupting Christ's message and misleading His servants.

But even that thrill seems to be fading.  In places where Woke Christianity reigns triumphant, church attendance is almost undetectable.  It's interesting that the Anglican population of Wales (which needs six bishops (most of them female, of course), could fit into a mid-sized sporting area. 

Whether "observant" or not, a frequent recourse is to the display of virtue.  The old amulets and shrines have now given way to a bumper sticker or yard sign, hence closing the ring between neo-paganism and Yard Sign Calvinism.

For students of history, there is a dreary familiarity to all of this.  Just as the same worn-out heresies keep cropping up in new wrappings by people who think they've just invented the wheel, so the same old sins get repackaged as virtues.  Waugh, Chesterton and of course Tolkien all saw it, and it's still going on today.

Something to keep in mind as the latest "new neo-pagan" thing emerges.


One of the hardest Gospel readings: Matthew 10:37-42

Some years ago, I heard a homily that has stuck with me ever since.  It was in Easter, and the priest noted that while we try to approach Easter each year with a sense of newness and wonder, for most of us, it's quite familiar.  We've celebrated Easter before, so what else is new?

He answered his own question by pointing out that every year is different.  We are older, we may have kids now, or our kids may be moving out, etc.  Life brings constant changes, even if they are incremental.

He was right, of course.  The Easter I celebrated this spring was vastly different from the one I celebrated in 2019, when lockdowns were unheard of, or in 2020, when we were unable to attend Mass in person.

So it was with this week's Gospel readings, which is the famous passage where Jesus creates a string of paradoxes surrounding faith, but also says that those who cannot leave their parents and children for him, are not worthy of him.  That passage always rankled with me, because how could a loving God demand that I put aside those people?  We are commanded to honor our parents, and what parent would cast aside a child?

This year I see it differently.  I realize that this life is not all that there is.  If God calls, we must answer, and He will see to it that my parents and children are taken care of. 

That is probably the biggest difference between believers and those without faith in God.  If this life is all there is, then death is a nightmare, the worst thing ever.  Pleasure must be taken as often as possible, because its joys will fade.

It is clear to me that the top rungs of the social ladder have lost faith in God, and believe that nothing else matters besides their time on earth.  Cheating is something they admire, and cleverness is superior to courage.  A person willing to die for faith or conviction is a sap and fool.

All of that is predicated on there being nothing else; on the Unseen being non-existent.  At this late date, I don't that that view is logically sustainable.  I have experienced too much of the spirit realm to believe otherwise.

I'm also starting to wonder if the "evangelical atheists" aren't trying to convince others to abandon faith so much as reassure themselves. 

This is also why one gets Yard Sign Calvinists, who - unable to reach God - seek social salvation through virtue-signalling. 

J.R.R. Tolkien had an interesting take on the "end game" of a society that turns to darkness.  His description of the fall of Numenor is very much reminiscent of where we are - people becoming status-obsessed, proud, willful, and above all hardening their hearts against God, doubling down on their rebellion.

There's a lot of that going on, too.


Sci-fi that's too heavy on the allegory: C.S. Lewis' "space" trilogy

Given my interests, one would think that I am a huge fan of C.S. Lewis.  While I do admire some of his religious writings and particularly enjoyed The Screwtape Letters, I find his work a little too heavy on the allegory.  Like his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, I didn't approve of him mixing mythologies in the Narnia books.  Moreover, I came upon them late in life, and while the kids enjoyed them, I did not get much out of them.

However, I had heard good things about this "space" trilogy, which is a someone curious body of work.  It was written during the Second World War and could credibly be counted as "hard" science fiction in terms of how it explains space travel (which is confined to our solar system).  It is quite inventive and combines spiritual concepts in an interesting way.

That being said, it is not a conventional trilogy insofar as the plot only somewhat builds during the series.  Most trilogies (this includes my Man of Destiny series, which started out as a trilogy) are basically a story arc spread out over multiple episodes or periods.  The "space" books differ greatly in tone and character, and in the author's forwards (and sometimes in the epilogues) this is explained.

All of which is to say, there are good points to the books, but to me there is a fatal flaw that finally brought my reading to a halt, and that is the excessive use of allegory.

Tolkien himself was a sharp critic of using this method of storytelling, and made a point of separating stories that were applicable to other areas from ones that were simply extended metaphors for making a point.  The latter is what the "space" books are.

The first book is the worst in this respect.  Out of the Silent Planet features three remarkably thin characters who are really nothing more than placeholders for points of view.  There is vivid description, lengthy discussions, and not much else of interest.  Lewis loves language, and major part of the book discusses how other life forms would utilize it.  At the end is a note promising the next book will be less heavy-handed.

It isn't.  Like the first book, Perelandra had a remarkably inventive setting (the first book was on Mars while this one is set on Venus) but apart from an attempt at better narrative framing, it is mostly description and long-winded philosophical discussions.

That Hideous Strength concludes the series but can also be read by itself.  Maybe that's what I should have done, because by now my tolerance for symbolism was non-existent.  I'm about 100 pages into it and have completely lost interest.  None of the characters feel in any way real - they are all archetypes placed in the story to make a political, philosophical or religious point.

Of course it is possible to do this while retaining vibrant and fascinating characters.  Tolkien certainly did it, as did Evelyn Waugh.  Indeed, the strength of Waugh's writing is that it feels like a real story and the sense of meaning and purpose only gradually makes its presence known.

That Hideous Strength is basically a Nineteen Eighty-Four style tale written in a much more elaborate way.  Indeed, George Orwell was one of the few writers who did allegory well, and his secret was he kept it brief.   Animal Farm is a very quick read, and while Nineteen Eighty-Four is more detailed, the doomed romance keeps it interesting.

Yesterday I reached the breaking point.  It was the perfect time for a good book, and yet after reading only a few words of That Hideous Strength I had to set it down.  Instead I reached for a Joseph Conrad anthology and started reading The Shadow Line, which actually held my attention.

I suppose I could soldier on and at least skip and skim my way through the remainder of That Hideous Strength, but I feel that's dishonest.  Since I'm not required to do a paper on it, I'm going to simply stop reading and perhaps at some later date I will decide to pick it up again.


Those who cannot see

My column on Ben Hur at Bleedingfool.com kicked off a modest debate in the comments.  What started as a discussion of the film has now turned into a debate about faith itself.

I'm not interested in litigating my side over here, but the course of the conversation is worth a closer look.

I'm sure most people of faith at some point will encounter an "evangelical atheist."  These people don't believe in God and they don't want anyone else to, either.  Marx had a big hand in creating these creatures, and while they deserve compassion, history has shown they can also be very destructive.

While it is unlikely that we will encounter the next Pol Pot at the bookstore or in an online comment thread, I think it is important that we understand where they are coming from.

In my area, a great many were raised by strictly religious parents and their unbelief is a form of rebellion.  "I refused to be brainwashed into your cult!" is their battle cry.  Others had faith, but for some reason lost it.  Again, the stories tend to have many points in common, but each one is unique. 

Just as converts often tend to be the most fervent believers, apostates are often the Church's worst enemies.  On the psychological level, we can explain this by noting that the same strength of will that can sustain a voluntary life-change can also give it enormous power and zeal.

But if we look spiritually, we a different dynamic.  Converts to the faith are trying to share something wonderful and new to them, something that they had overlooked before. 

The evangelical atheist, by contrast, has nothing new to share, no gift other than envy and despair.

In the last couple of weeks I came across one who explained that there was no God, and that people should just enjoy life knowing that they were going to die and that would be that.  The person insisted that he was perfectly fulfilled, thank you, but that did not explain why he went on a religious forum to spread this message.

I have been seeing this all my adult life.  Again, the reasons vary, but the actions have the same dull similarity.  The most virulent form of this are the ones who want to outlaw all religious practice in the US military.  And that is what gives the game away.

The old secular materialist explanation was that misery loves company, and having had their faith shattered or never being able to find it, these folks seethe with envy and anger when they see smiling religious people find meaning and purpose in their lives.  It's especially obvious when they go out of their way to hinder them - like going to an online religious discussion to spread their message.

But if we use the Spiritual Warfare lens, what we see is something different.  These people have declared themselves against God and therefore any hint of His presence is a threat to them.  That is why they want churches closed, and seek to undermine the faith of others.  They are allied with demons, but too blind to see it.

Such creatures regularly appear in the writings of Evelyn Waugh, C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, which shows how far back this particular strain of Spiritual Warfare goes.  Indeed, one of the Enemy's most successful tactics has been creating an artificial tension between faith and science.  Yet there is none.  Faith without reason is merely foolish while science without faith is diabolical.

Perhaps the most poignant part of the Ben Hur exchange with the commenter's refusal to even accept the possibility of miracles.  Given that the oldest writings we have confirm their existence - indeed there is an evidentiary chain leading to the present day - this is perhaps the most irrational aspect of atheism.

There are no magic words to break through to such people, but my hope is that by giving counter-examples to their misery, people who of their own choice embraced faith and found contentment and joy, they may look about themselves with new eyes.