Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Reading Tolkien

I hope everyone had a great Christmas, if you celebrate it, or a good break otherwise. I haven’t posted since Christmas Eve – for the 12 days of Christmas, as it happens -- as our internet was down some of the time, I’ve been sick, and partly I just needed a break.

We kept well busy over the holidays: we worked in the garden, chopped wood, took care of the chickens, read, played board games and card games, and generally relaxed. Most of all, I got time with The Girl, something I get too little of during the regular work week. Most days I work in Dublin, and spend three hours a day on the bus to get there and back. When I get home I have only a couple of hours with The Girl to eat, talk, sing folk songs, answer quiz questions, and go over the lessons I create for her – I can’t home-school, but I “after-school,” teaching her things she won’t learn in mainstream education. Only after we finish those do we read, and that’s not a lot of time.

Mind you, she reads a lot of pre-teen material on her own, but she prefers to have my help in reading Lord of the Rings, with its obscure terms and deliberately archaic style. At half an hour a night, though, we took two months to get through The Fellowship of the Ring – but with a bit of extra time each day, we’ve flown through the first half of The Two Towers over the holidays. The novel picks up the pace, of course, and she’s getting better at reading it, but mostly it’s just more time to devote to it.

We could have gone faster if our goal was to finish quickly, but Tolkien’s works inspired an entire genre of fiction for a reason – his universe is richly drawn and complex, filled with subtle challenges, and about once a night we get side-tracked. Those are the best parts.

“I love the elves,” she said. “I wish there were more of them in their world.” And in ours, I said. There used to be vast empires of elves in that world, but by the time these books are happening, though, their numbers and powers have dwindled – most were killed in wars or passed into the West.

“Was there a die-off?” she said.

Our lessons have been going over this concept a lot lately; anything that grows exponentially, at a certain percentage per year, hits a limit at some point – when it’s a living organism, the result is usually a die-off. So-called R species like bacteria or frogs incorporate such a cycle into their basic survival strategy, whereas larger and (potentially) more intelligent living things like us try to avoid it. The yeast in my beer vat do that until the sugar has become alcohol, and then they all die, having consumed all their resources and poisoned their environment. When a tree falls in the forest near us, weeds spring up to compete for the light, growing rapidly until a few have won the high ground, spread their leaves to capture the prize of sunlight, and starve the many who could not compete.

I’m sure it was different for the elves, I told her, for they didn’t grow exponentially, or much at all. Even if Tolkien doesn’t use the terms I teach you from systems theory, he used those concepts. Anything evil in his universe – orcs or those giant spiders, for example – multiplies rapidly over the world, using up resources and not caring what they leave behind.

Good characters like elves, ents or hobbits, by contrast, seem to have stable populations – he doesn’t give census counts, but he describes their communities remaining the same for ages. They know their land, treat their trees and rivers with respect, and use no more than they need. They are the ultimate conservatives, in the traditional sense. The great tragedies in the book are when someone gives in to the temptation to get more.

Tolkien was roundly criticised by later fantasy writers, I thought, for reducing conflicts to good and evil, each clearly labelled and evil predictably ugly. To his credit, though, he portrays good and evil not merely as sides, but as behaviours. When the good side got the Ring of Power, they could have easily won and controlled the world themselves, but they refrained from using it – that defined them as good. When the wizard Saruman turned evil, by contrast, it wasn’t just that he switched sides – he decided to try to gain power over others. That was what made him a villain, no matter how good his intentions.

Just that quality alone puts the famously Catholic Tolkien leagues above many “Christian” writers today; in the Left Behind series, for example, the good characters are clearly labelled, but labels are all they have: they behave callously and selfishly through the entire series. It doesn’t seem to be any deliberate irony on the part of the authors, either – the authors seem to think that being good means being on the good side, not the other way around.

“That explains the elves,” The Girl said, returning me to her original point, “But there used to be a lot more people in that world too – I mean, humans. It’s covered in ruined towers and such, and someone had to build all those things.”

You made an important point, I said. The Lord of the Rings, and the entire fantasy genre it inspired, is set in a Dark Age, a depopulated age of overgrown towers and wild dangers. Generations of people have grown up reading pseudo-medieval fantasy books, seeing sword-and-sorcery films, playing Dungeons and Dragons or some video-game equivalent, to the point that we know the universe by heart: pseudo-medieval technology, peaceful villages, ruined castles, abandoned dungeons, and items of power from a bygone age.

What no one ever mentions about such a universe, however, is that its present must be a state of deep decline from whatever empires once built those castles and dungeons, and had the technology to create “magical” items. We don’t think of them this way, but they are as much post-collapse stories as The Road Warrior or A Canticle for Liebowitz. In a way, this was not surprising; Tolkien was an expert on ancient myths, from the Norse Eddas to the Nibelungenlied to Arthurian legends, and most of those took place in the centuries after Rome fell. Dark Ages seem to be when many sagas are written.

Also unsurprising is how much of this standard fantasy world looks like Ireland, from the vaguely Celtic soundtrack of many films to the thatched-roof villages where hobbits and boys live before destiny calls. Ireland really does have the medieval ruins everywhere, for a simple reason: This land once had its own miniature empires, the land was once heavily forested, and before the Famine, the island held twice as many people as it does today. Real catastrophes aren't as appealing as their fictional counterparts.

I mention some of this to The Girl, but much of it we've covered before. “After empires like that fall apart, there’s an Age of Heroes, right?”

That's the phrase I use, I said -- that's where a lot of hero stories get started. Lots of people are quietly heroic in every era - there are heroes all around you that you don't see -- but when life is comfortable, the stakes aren't as high. When things fall apart --- and they do for everyone, sooner or later – people face emergencies, and need to be heroic. In the Lord of the Rings world, the elves have seen that happen many times – maybe that’s why they’re so good.

“But they’re really powerful,” she said. “When terrible things happen in their world, why don’t they do more to stop them?”

Occasionally they do, I said, but generally they don’t try to control others; too much of that and they wouldn’t be good anymore. Instead, they set an example for others to follow, and they take care of their part of the world as long as they can. Remember what Galadriel said about her part of the woods? ‘…through all the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.’ They know they’ll fade eventually, but that doesn’t matter; what matters is they maintained their part of the world and kept it wholesome. That was worth living for.

“I want to be like that someday,” she said.

I’ll do what I can to help, I said.


Brian Michael said...

This is so true and beautiful Brian. What an education you are giving "the girl". Blessings, Fr Brian

Brian Kaller said...

Thank you, Father. Happy Epiphany.

Vince Crunk said...

Nice. Very nice!