Tolkien

Easter in the garden

On Good Friday I received an email informing that my military retirement application had finally been accepted.

I submitted it in October.

Since then it was rejected twice, but third time's the charm, right?  In any event, while I've been savoring my newfound freedom from grooming regulations (and I have the beard and long hair to prove it!), I've not yet been able to fully utilize all the extra time.  This was because there's simply not that much to do during the winter months - particularly when they were so erratic in terms of weather.  I have a pair of cross-country skis, but the snow would dump and then melt, or we'd get ice rather than snow. 

But now spring has sprung, and my yard beckons.  Yesterday I spent several hours toiling away in my latest attempt at a vegetable garden.  I got a lot accomplished, but there is still much to do before I can begin planting.  I have had gardens before with varying success at this house, but this will be my most serious effort to day.  For example, I did actual research on what to grow and developed a plan for the garden, its fencing and other countermeasures to protect my plants. 

This is in stark contrast with my usual approach of reading the seed packet and hoping for the best.

So this year will be similar to other years, but also different.  Some years ago I heard a homily the centered on that idea.  As we get older, we've experienced the holidays (indeed the entire liturgical calendar) many times over.  We've done Christmas.  We've done Easter.  They are arguably the same event, year after year.

But we are not the same, and that's part of the mystery that surrounds them.  Easter as a child is different than Easter as a teenager, or an adult, or a parent, or a grandparent.  Just as every growing year is different, so is each year of our life.  The events of last Easter shape my perception of this Easter, adding a richness and depth to it.  I'm sure next Easter will likewise have a much different about it.

That's why it is so important that we take time to savor these moments and reflect on them.  One of my recurring themes on this site (and in my commentary elsewhere) is that we can only write about what we know.  If we shut ourselves off from God, from life, we stagnate and experience a form of early death.  We become incapable of telling stories because all we know are stories filtered to us through others.  All that remains are tropes and checking off political boxes.  It's basically painting by number.

It is no accident that writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton emphasize the dull uniformity of evil.  Evelyn Waugh also disparaged unthinking uniformity as a sign of moral sickness.

Some might find it fully that a bunch of Catholics would highlight individuality given the confines of the Church's worship practices, but they understood that withing those bounds, there is an intense amount of variety.  Again, the Eucharist is offered at every Mass, but we are not the same.  It's not the outward form, but the inner transformation that matters.

Happy Easter!


St. Patrick, pray for us

A year ago I did a post on how the snakes have come back to Ireland.

By curious coincidence, First Things has an article with almost exactly the same title on the same topic.

The secularization of St. Patrick's feast day is kind of fascinating.  I'm seeing all sorts of promotions for corned beef and cabbage, but of course it is a Friday in Lent, which means that meat is forbidden.  Yes, there are some jurisdictions where dispensations have been made, but it's plain that the concept of the day is now getting drunk and eating bland food.

This is not by any means unique.  Christmas is famously secular these days, mostly pagan myths about a fat old man and flying reindeer.  Still the fall of Ireland is sad to behold.

England has also embraced the same empty, soulless materialism that fascinated the United States.  The allure is powerful.  Who doesn't want to cast aside the restrictive morals of the past to indulge in every form of sin and gratification?  It is a tale as old as Sodom and Gomorrah.

On the positive side, I think we are rapidly reaching the limits of what decadence can even permit.  This was one of the themes of The Vampires of Michigan - at a certain point, you simply can't debauch yourself any more.  There are finite ways of gratifying lust, each carrying progressively greater risk and damage.  Just as with drugs, there is a law of diminishing returns, where each new transgression brings less of a high.

We see this with music and entertainment - stuff that was shocking in my youth is boring today.  Madonna masturbating with a cross in the late 80s is as distant to us as the Elvis Presley swinging his hips was back then.

J.R.R. Tolkien understood this, that the ultimate end of evil must be nihilism.  Evil is all about pulling things down, whether they be moral boundaries or degrading the human spirit.  When at last all depravity has been experienced, there is nothing left but the void.

This is why I am hopeful, because darkness ultimately cannot triumph.  Clearly it is my task to keep the lamp burning through the night until the dawn inevitably comes.  St. Patrick showed us how it was done and we will have to do it again.


The Problem of Evil revisited

Not quite two years ago I addressed what some people call the Problem of Evil and used the example of how children will defy even the most loving and caring parents.

For those not up to speed on Christian apologetics, the Problem of Evil is also phrased as "why does God allow bad things to happen?"

I stand by my earlier answer, but in the time since I gave it, I've come to see things differently.  To me the question is rather "How do good things happen at all?"

I mean, the notion that life should be free of harm, danger or sorrow is completely divorced from reality.  Looking at the world around us and informed by history, the most logical expectation of life is that it should be (to quote Hobbes) "nasty, brutish and short."

And it often is.  Interestingly, in such societies expectations of comfort and leisure are few and fleeting.  I think our current notions of "evil" are largely informed by the unprecedented peace and prosperity Westerners have lived in for the past few generations.

Where I live, there is an assumption in the wider community that these things are the default setting for humanity, that they will happen organically, naturally, like flowers blooming in the spring.  When something disturbs their tranquility, they are indignant and demand that changes be made to ensure it never happens again.  I have a mental image of Karen demanding to speak with God's manager.

One of the keys to happiness (and avoiding disappointment) is aligning expectations with realistic outcomes.  In truth, there is no bottom, no guaranteed level of comfort for any of us.  The only guarantee in life is that it ends in death.  People who have endured great hardship over a space of years get this. 

Every Vietnam POW I've talked to (and I've talked to quite a few as guest speakers during my military career) has an incredible grateful and optimistic demeanor.  They cherish every sunrise and sunset.  No sensation is wasted, from a warm shower to clean sheets on their feet.  After each presentation I have remarked that while I envy their joy, I'm not sure I want to spend years at the Hanoi Hilton to get it.

That's because it's hard to not to take nice things for granted when it is all you have known.  While I am thankful for nice things, I have come to also be thankful for hardships that make me appreciate them more. 

All of which is to say that one of the proofs of God is the presence of goodness and joy in the world.  Logically, it serves no purpose.  Fear and oppression are far more efficient and frankly pleasing to most people.  Absent some sort of moral scruple, most people won't think twice about stealing or hurting someone.  It is only through religion (specifically, Christianity) that we develop a sense that this is wrong.

Much of Western society still has a residual sense of Christian morality, but that is now fading, and we're seeing the results.  Appeals to decency are now pointless, and it has even gone so far that some people respond to expressions of sympathy and offers of prayer with rage and profanity.

These are people who are perilously close to the "I would lie, cheat, steal or kill if only I could get away with it" threshold, but that can't see it.

Indeed, here I must once again mention the Yard Sign Calvinists, who often play a leading role in both disparaging Christianity and wishing harm on those they deem outside of the Elect.

Evil can manifest in many ways, and J.R.R. Tolkien's work illustrates how the more pure of motives can lead one down a dark path.  G.K. Chesterton likewise gives countless illustrations of how the well-meaning and self-righteous become the devil's tools.  Much of Evelyn Waugh's satire focuses on this as well (particularly in Black Mischief).

Thus, I'm not saying anything particularly new or unique, and I freely admit that the Lord of Spirits podcast has contributed to my understanding of evil.

When bad things happen, it is important that we retain this perspective.  God knows our suffering, and we should always strive to learn from it.  It is possible to make something good out of a terrible event - as the Vietnam POWs I mentioned above have done.

Indeed, I think that is something most pleasing to God and perhaps why people who have achieved it seem so content.

 


The Christmas Spirit

In may last post I (jokingly?) referred to malign spirits of technology glitches, but over the last few years I've come to accept that there's more spiritual activity in this world than we acknowledge.

While I have to give the obligatory nod to the Lord of Spirits podcast, this view predated my wife's discovery of them, and it also made me very receptive of their message.

Timing is important in these sorts of things.  What might have seemed stupid then may make perfect sense now.  Given my upbringing, which was very skeptical of miracles and hostile to organized religion, I could only accept these truths gradually.

As the podcast points out, there are singular spirits, but also collective ones - the "spirit of the age" as it were (literally Zeitgeist in German).  There are also crowd spirits, and we see this in things like football games or various rallies.  How many times has "the mood turned sour" and a reasonably calm crowd suddenly become overcome by madness - a change that even the participants found hard to explain?

I'm sure some of you are immediately thinking of psychological conclusions (certainly I am), but what if psychology itself is an attempt to find a material expression for a spiritual event?  The grand experiment in secular psychology is about a century old and the results are pretty awful.  We pump people full of drugs, tell them to play with crayons and they still kill themselves.

Indeed, now our "medical professionals" are urging assisted suicide as a solution to chronic depression!

To me, it is increasingly obvious that the problem is a separation from God and any sense of meaning in life.  If you're just a bony juice bag waiting to get the whole thing over with, fast-forwarding to the ending makes sense.  Obviously, folks like G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis pointed all this out decades ago.  If you aren't reading them, you should be.

In addition to the spirits of crowds, I think there are also spirits of events, and that's where Christmas comes in.  One of the Enemy's greatest victories was turning the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord into a celebration of materialism.  I hate "holiday displays" that center on wrapped gifts - as if that's the reason for the season. 

Growing up as I did, the culmination of Christmas was Christmas Day, but traditionally that is the beginning, not the end.  As the song says, there's 12 days of Christmas, and the decorations should stay up and the music should still play because the event isn't just about tearing away wrapping paper on the morning of the 25th.

I am pleased to say that (at least in the circles I move in), this view is becoming more common. 

Partly because our kids are grown, the gift-giving element has become merely symbolic in our household.  I'm hoping to do what I can to ensure our grandkids also look at the season as a time for some presents, but that it should in now way be a lavish attempt to either show off prosperity, or a belated attempt to buy affection.  I know kids who grew up with that, and it hasn't worked out well for them.

Despite what was in many ways an unhappy childhood, I've always had a warm spot for Christmas because I associate it with joy and happiness.  Christmas Day to me has been marked with family gatherings, old friends dropping in and a sense of overall well-being.  I hope your Christmas is possess by the same benevolent spirit that has touched mine.

 


Savoring Joseph Conrad's Almayer's Folly

I may have to add a "Conrad" tag, because along with J.R.R. Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh, I really enjoy the writings of Joseph Conrad.

It started in high school, blossomed in college and then mostly slept through adulthood.

Recently, I obtained a copy of Almayer's Folly, his first novel.  It is superb.  In fact, I would argue that it has been unjustly overlooked.  As a story, it keeps you guessing, and the description and prose is outstanding.

Yet for some strange reason, his later work has eclipsed it.  Everyone wants to fixate on Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim.  Both books are good, but so is Almayer's Folly.

One of the areas where it stands out is in its representation of female characters.  Conrad typically does not have a lot of women in his stories - which is understandable, because so many of them take place at sea.  This particular work, however, delves into the female psyche, and a friend tells me that the book is seeing a revival in feminist circles because it not only has strong women, but strong non-white women, which is for some reason important right now.

The last time I checked, most women in the world weren't white, but most of the ones that speak English are, which would seem (to me, at least) to explain the discrepancy.

In any event, it's a good read, full of vivid description and exactly the kind of book I needed to take a break from the craziness of the world.

 

 


When the original can't be improved: Tolkien's The Fall of Gondolin

I'm trying to limit my exposure to politics (with mixed success), and one way I'm keeping my spirits up is revisiting the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

I recently re-read his posthumously published The Fall of Gondolin, edited by his son, the later Christopher Tolkien.

All of the professor's work improves on repeat reading, and this was no exception.  I was able to appreciate its form, language and genius behind the earliest of his tales of Middle Earth.

What is perhaps most striking about the tale is that it never got a full revision.  After its initial composition during WW I and final edit in the 1920s, Tolkien never returned to the story, despite major revisions to the peoples and events surrounding it.

Late in life, after Lord of the Rings was completed, he started a new version but halted when the main character, Tuor, reached the fabled city.

The story of the sack is uncharacteristically grim and bloody.  Perhaps this is due to its proximity to the Great War, which was surely fresh in his mind.  Of particular interest was the tank-like steel serpents, whose armored hides protected the troops within and whose many limbs allowed them to slither forward until they reached the walls and bent slowly upwards to disgorge their cargo.

The elves themselves are different, some bent, others blacked by heat, and the tone of the tale is one of foreboding and hopeless valor in a losing cause.

Obviously, I cannot speak for him, but I can say that when I write fiction, I mentally enter into a particular place, and I can very much see him wanting to complete the revision for artistic reasons but being unwilling to place him in the same mental space necessary to do it.

We can look at his strong Catholic faith and assume that for the most part, he escaped the horror of the First World War relatively intact.  Yet English reserve has its limits, and Tolkien himself referenced how impossible it was to be unchanged after having almost all his close friends killed.

It may have only been when he reached the city of Gondolin itself, that the reality of what he had to do caused him to set the project aside one more time.

I may be wrong, and certainly there were other areas of work that demanded his attention, but I think that is at least a plausible reason why that particular part of his writing was left in its original state when so many other areas received constant and thorough revision.


The failed experiment: Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings

Just for kicks, I picked up a DVD copy of the "original" 1978 film version of Lord of the Rings.   I watched it quite a bit as a kid because that's what was out there.  I thought it would be interesting to take another look at it in light of Peter Jackson's far more lavish productions.

On the surface, there's no contest.  Bakshi was operating on a shoestring budget and used three different animation styles to try to tell the story - which was creative but also jarring as they shifted from one perspective to another.

A bigger problem is that it's the fragment of the whole - it cuts out after the battle at Helm's Deep and the original release hinted that there would be a sequel, which of course never materialized.  An animated version of Return of the King was released by Rankin and Bass (the same folks who did The Hobbit) and I've yet to be able to sit through it.  The contrast of style and approach is just too jarring.

Does the earlier Lord of the Rings have any positives?  Absolutely.  For one thing, it is actually closer to the books in many ways.  Because he had more time and money, Peter Jackson decided to add things that undermined the story and wasted screen time that could have been better used.  I'm not a fan of his version.

Bakshi did a better job with less resources.  I think the soundtrack is evocative, and the voice acting is terrific.

Still, it's only half of the story, which is something of a metaphor of Tolkien's vision of Arda Marred.


The twin perils of "woke" and "nice" Christianity

Last month I stumbled upon this article about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which was subsequently been put behind a paywall.  The writer uses some clever turns of phrase to make it quite funny, but the core story is a great tragedy.

"Auntie ELCA has gone a bit mad," as my more orthodox Lutheran friends like to put it.  Yes, she has.

The article documents a clash between a white non-binary bishop and a Hispanic male pastor, and the resulting intervention by a white female archbishop.  The nature of the dispute is irrelevant because - as the story makes clear - identity politics rather than theology are all that count in the modern ELCA.

There's a bit of a digression later on about a sex-positive ELCA female pastor (should I put scare quotes around that?) who divorces her husband and then has hot sex with an ex-boyfriend which she claims brings her closer to God.

At this point we've gone well beyond participation trophy Christianity into straight-up evil.  One would think that the whole point of having ordained ministers is that they can be held to account for not just their theology but their personal behavior.  The Catholic Church sounds dreadfully archaic when they use expressions like "causing scandal" but that exactly describes that woman's behavior: scandalous.

What moral example is being offered?  Obviously for ELCA, sodomy is now something celebrated rather than condemned, but now that dispensation has been extended to adultery as well.

Again, this is buried behind the paywall, but the description of this wicked priestess came via Rod Dreher, who I believe is one of the most useless Christian writers in the world today.  Dreher is Eastern Orthodox, which means he's opted out of the culture wars and prefers to claim moral superiority over the Catholics without actually standing in the trenches beside them.

Anyhow, amidst spreading this lamentable tale, Dreher has this wonderful piece of equivocation:

I read her book Pastrix five years ago, and liked her voice, even though I disagree strongly with her theology. [emphasis added]

What does "liking her voice" even mean?  Why can't the man take a stand?

Seriously, this woman gets off on melting down discarded 'purity rings' to create a fertility idol.

I find the purity ring thing silly - an unnecessary performative act of virtue - but this is the very definition of demonic activity.  This woman (who looks like you think she would) is all about celebrating the collapse of virtue.  It's a trophy whose sole purpose is to do celebrate the failure of virtue and the triumph of sin.

Her "voice" is one of evil, calling people to reject Christ and His Church.  She's infiltrated a fallen Protestant denomination and wears a Roman collar to blaspheme its symbolism.

As I've gotten older, I think I've steadily improved my ability to forgive.  Yet at the same time, I've lost patience with people who make a great show of standing up for virtue only to prevaricate by proclaiming an interest in hearing out what the devil has to say about it.

As Tolkien pointed out, the danger of studying the Enemy too closely is that one risks being seduced.  In this case, it's clear what is going on and no further examination is necessary.

Meanwhile, the circus at ELCA has proven that progressive tolerance is far more oppressive than the traditional Christianity it rails against.  Identity is all that matters, and there can be no forgiveness, only revenge.


Mad Max and Warhammer 40,000: A transition from Orks to Chaos Marines

Over the course of watching the various Mad Max films, I've noticed a peculiar shift.

The aesthetic in the 1980s was one of biker junkyard tribal punks - spiked mohawks, salvaged hotrods and a callous, barfight-level ethos.  The villains in both The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome are brutal, but not particularly sinister.  They laugh when the other side is hurt, but they laugh when their own lads get smashed.  All in good fun, mate.

They consciously copy J.R.R. Tolkien's visions of orcs as callous, bullying Cockney louts.  There is a scene in Lord of the Rings where one orc leader tells his counterpart about a time they thought one of their soldiers had been killed by Shelob, only to find him quite alive, but hanging in a web.  Oh how they laughed, and of course they left him there because they are callous, cruel and also cowardly. 

This vision clearly informed Games Workshop's background for Warhammer 40,000.  The space orks (note the spelling) are entirely based on the biker types from the Mad Max films.  In fact, GW goes even farther, with wildly improbable machines, all described in Cockney terms.

With Mad Max Fury Road, the aesthetic changed sharply.  The vehicles are still modified, but they are built with a far more sinister purpose, and instead of tribal warriors with strong individual identities, one sees homogenous shaven-headed dark-eyed fanatics serving a skull-mask wearing leader. 

Or, as anyone familiar with 40k would say: a Chaos Lord.

Indeed, there is a vehicle in Fury Road that could have been cribbled from one of the Chaos rulebooks - I'm speaking of the vehicle with a helmeted guitar player surrounded by a wall of speakers wielding a flame-throwing instrument.  If this guy isn't a Champion of Slaanesh, I don't know what is.

Is George Miller a 40k fan, or is it mere coincidence?  I have no idea, but I find the similarities to be striking.


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 not optimistic.

To be sure, the family had demanded certain assurances that the work would not be corrupted in the way of 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.