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Posts Tagged ‘J.R.R. Tolkien’

In my previous post, I took Matthew Walther to task for his incredibly poor attempt to show why Game of Thrones is bad for our souls. To be clear, I do not take issue with his not liking the show or with his thinking it is spiritually dangerous. I know good Catholics, well-educated in the faith who watch the show, and I know good Catholics, well-educated in the faith who think the show immoral. The goodness or evilness of any show or book with widespread mass appeal is certainly a question worth pursuing. Additionally, the point of my response was not to defend Game of Thrones; it was to show that Mr. Walther had utterly failed in his attempt to identify the show as obscene and, therefore, as bad for us. If someone wants to argue for the show’s obscenity, please do, but do so intelligently.

Normally, I ignore such poorly reasoned diatribes. This one, however, kept gnawing at me. Yes, it disturbs me that someone who writes something so thoughtless and devoid of Catholic life apparently has some degree of influence on the thought and attitudes of many Catholics. (I saw the article because a former peer with a master in theology thought it was fit to share on social media. I have since learned that Mr. Walther also writes for the Catholic Herald and the National Catholic Register). However, this disturbance doesn’t explain the reason for my reaction being so visceral. It was personal. His words cut to my heart. His words were an implicit attack on something fundamental to my faith: the mystery of the human and Divine, and the encounter of the two. Literature was a key factor in my truly opening up to this mystery, but literature only became so in the light of Catholic faith. And it was Catholic authors such as G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor who revealed this to me. When Mr. Walther attacked Faerie and the grotesque in literature, he attacked a key factor in my life of faith. My previous response was superficial. It was a sufficient response because Mr. Walther’s own piece was superficial, no depth was required to answer him. However, the problems his piece implicitly raised concerning a proper understanding of faith and literature merit their own attention. In this post, I aim to provide a starting point for consideration.

Mr. Walther takes issue with the fantasy genre and the grotesque (which he immediately labels as obscene). He bemoans the lack of realism in much literature and film today, and considers dramas that deal with “morals, manners, marriage, and money” to be the stuff of emotionally mature adults, over and against the “nerd” created dramas of dragons, monsters, and magic. Such an attitude takes life out of art and strangles faith.

In her essay, “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction”, Flannery O’Connor speaks of the drive within our society that stories be realistic. The literary critics of her time meant the stories should accurately depict what is typical, the ordinary day-to-day life. Readers should be able to identify with the protagonist from their own ordinary experiences. The literati also said that stories should have social impulses, speaking to our times with its own particular social and psychological questions. There is a place for this. To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman are examples of wonderful literature that meet the critics’ criteria. Flannery O’Connor, however, is not that type of writer. She states that she is often accused of not giving an accurate depiction of life in Georgia. The reason, of course, is that she is not trying to, at least not on the surface of the matter. She depicts a deeper realism in her writing – a realism that is perennial, which goes beyond the mere psychological and particular social conditions of the time. Her realism is the divine penetration of humanity. It is exactly at this point that the grotesque enters into Flannery’s writing. (See my previous post for examples of this). We are fallen and we live in a fallen world. There is a darkness that has entered our hearts and the world. How else is the penetration of the Divine into this darkened world and our darkened hearts to be depicted other than as the quiet whisper that in its omnipotence works through our sin, not despite it? Flannery O’Connor’s stories are the literary illustration of John 1:5, a testament of hope.

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor: Story-teller of Divine Hope

(Click HERE for a reading of the complete essay by Ms. O’Connor, herself).

This use of the grotesque in literature is not limited to a specific genre. For instance, it can be used in fantasy, that genre to which Game of Thrones belongs and on which Mr. Walther appears to look down. While the grotesque is capable of fostering an encounter with the Divine, the fantasy genre is capable of unfurling the magic of creation before us. A wonder of the mystery of creation is as important as a proper understanding of the encounter of the human and Divine for a right faith. And this must be an actuality of the heart for right faith to be rightly lived. J.R.R. Tolkien had a breathtaking awareness of the unfathomable depths and richness of creation, and he says much concerning the connection of fairy-stories (of which fantasy is a type) to the mystery of creation in his essay, “On Fairy-stories”. This rather long essay has a plenitude of rich fertile material. There is much in it that relates to a few things Mr. Walther tossed in the air. However, as I stated in my previous post, it is not for us to juggle that for which he is not willing to take responsibility. As tempting as it is to dive into the sea of wonder found in Tolkien’s essay, we must abbreviate our examination of the connection between fantasy and creation.

Often times people think of elves and other such folk as supernatural. This is wrong. In contrast to fairies, it is man who is supernatural; fairies are “far more natural than he. Such is their doom.” And in a fallen world doom it is. The dwindling of Faerie, the diminishing of elves and other such creatures belonging to the fairy realm, is not unusual in fantasy. This is the way in The Lord of the Rings and Hell Boy for example. Their dwindling always corresponds with the increasing of man. In this we see the evidence that Faerie is far more natural than man and man is far more supernatural because in this we see the truth revealed by God in the early chapters of Genesis. After the Fall, man continued to increase and multiply, and progressively became more corrupt and ruined God’s creation in the building and spreading of cities. As we move further from God so to do we move further from creation; as we rebel against our Creator, also do we rebel against the stuff from which we were formed. But this is not natural to us. Despite all we do the inclination of our hearts our primal desire is for communion with God and with all living things in Him. Fantasy assists in achieving the satisfaction of this primal desire by drawing us back to nature, to a world more real than the “real world”. How?

Fantasy is that form of art that expresses the “notions of ‘unreality’” (those imagined things not of our world) with “the inner consistency of reality.” When this is done successfully it has an “arresting strangeness.” The arresting strangeness is fantasy’s advantage and disadvantage. It is disadvantageous because people do not like being arrested. They do not like to be jolted from their stupor and monotony, whether it is the monotony of the same thing every day or the monotony of finding a new thing every day. But it is precisely the arresting strangeness of fantasy that brings us out of our world and brings us into the real world. Indeed, this jolt allows us to escape. Escape is not desertion. It is not a coward’s run from Walther’s tried and true “morals, manners, marriage, and money.” No! It is a recovery of that which was lost, an amazement at that which has been familiar, and this results in conversion, of which, Evelyn Waugh said “is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-glass World, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world God made; and then begins the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly.” This recovery of a true sense of the natural wonder of God’s creation, this stepping out of a Looking-glass World enables us to see the beauty of the world. It also enables us to truly see the ugliness that we have done to it. Fantasy may very well be an escape, but only to open one’s eyes. Articulating this is difficult, so I will simply share my own experience:

There is a factory just south of my alma mater. I do not know what kind of factory, but being in steel country I always assumed it was that. It is quite large and quite ugly. The darkness of night does not hide it for it has many lights throughout, and there is a tall narrow tower at the top of which burns a flame. There was a clear view of it from my dormitory and the residents called the factory “Mordor” and the flame, of course, was the “Eye of Sauron”. The names, however, fall short for the place is in actuality a good deal uglier than Mordor and the flame less interesting and potent than the Eye of Sauron.

I would not have recognized the degree of ugliness if not for the fantasy that came from Tolkien’s mind and his act of “subcreation.” Without him and his work, I would have merely accepted the factory with mild disinterest. That the names fall short, draws our attention to another truth of fantasy: It cannot be more beautiful or more ugly than the world in which we live, but the otherness of it gives us the eyes to see our world. It does this because it is a story that images the Story.

This last point brings us back to the grotesque. The Story, which is the history of the world and its salvation, is quite gruesome, filled with much that is obscene, and quite disheartening. Then there is the unexpected joyous turn. Yet how difficult it is to see that joyous turn today when we are tossed and thrown in the storm of human degradation. It is no accident that the wanderer of the Fairy realm and the grotesque story-teller of Divine Hope were also able to say:

Tolkien on Eurcharist

O'Connor on Eucharist

Amen.

 

 

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tolkien-beowulf

I have never read Beowulf. Happily, my first reading of it will be Tolkien’s prose translation. It has been magnificent, another fine example of how beautiful and rhythmic prose can be in the hands of a true master. In addition to his translation, this edition (pictured above) also has commentary by Tolkien.

In the poem, Grendel is called “a fiend of hell” (lines 82-3; unless preceded by an asterisk all line numbers refer to Tolkien’s translation), in Old English, féond on helle. This phrase raises serious questions for Tolkien. He comments:

The Old English féond on helle is a very curious expression. It implies, of course, that Grendel is a ‘hell-fiend’, a creature dammed irretrievably. It remains, nonetheless, remarkable, for Grendel is not ‘in hell’, but very physically in Denmark, and he is not even yet a damned spirit, for he is mortal and has to be slain before he goes to Hell. There is evidently a confusion or twilight in the thought of the poet (and his age) about these monsters, hostile to mankind. They remain physical monsters, with blood, able to be slain (with the right sword). Yet already they are described in terms applicable to evil spirits, so here (*102) gæst. (pp. 158-159)

This being a problem for Tolkien has raised many questions for myself. I was at first rather taken aback by the literalness with which Tolkien here approaches the text. Beowulf is, what we generally would call today, fantasy. Is it really such a concern that in this type of work a physical creature, a being not of the spirit world would be called “a fiend of hell” and, therefore, be identified as irretrievably damned before actually having died? Tolkien’s concern is curious in itself. However, it is not so curious as it might first seem. There are two important details, easily overlooked by us of the secular modern age, that Tolkien has given right significance. First, the author of Beowulf was a Christian who told his story within a Christian framework. Second, the setting of the story makes this question more urgent.

Beowulf is not set in a fantastical world. It is set in our world (which goes to show just how fantastic ours’ really is). Beowulf involves real peoples: Danes and Geats. The action of the story begins in a real place: Heorot. It refers to real political divisions and to actual customs and practices of the people. While the poet set the story in the past, it was not too distantly past. There would have been an air of familiarity for that first audience. Finally, the culture of the people in the poem as well as in actuality was not pagan, but Christian. The author was a Christian, his audience was Christian, and the world in which he set the events of Beowulf was Christian. Taking all of this into account, Tolkien’s literalness on this issue is quite appropriate. He is giving the poet and his work the critical thoughtfulness which is its due. In this context, the question of identifying a physical monster of the world as irretrievably damned is, indeed, quite serious.

In lines 86-92, Grendel is placed among the wicked and extraordinary beings descended from the line of Cain. After introducing him, “that grim creature” (gæst) and “the ill-famed haunter of the marches of the land,” the poet says of him,

for the Maker had proscribed him with the race of Cain. That bloodshed, for that Cain slew Abel, the Eternal Lord avenged: no joy had he of that violent deed, but God drove him for that crime far from mankind. Of him all evil broods were born, ogres and goblins and haunting shapes of hell, and the giants too, that long time warred with God – for that he gave them their reward.

There is here a Scriptural bookending of northern myth. One may be tempted to think that Scripture has been subjected to myth; using Cain to replace whatever is the origins of evil creatures in northern mythology. But this is not the case. It is the myth which has been subjected to Scripture. This is evidenced by the reference to giants, the Nephilim of Gen 6:4. Through the inclusion of lines 86-92, the poet has given the myths of old a new framework and with that framework a different understanding.

What does this mean for the phrase, “a fiend of hell”, though? Tolkien speaks of two possibilities (p. 159). The first is that the poet uses this phrase to identify Grendel “due to a kind of half-theological notion” and a mistaken one concerning “accursed things”. The second is “due to taking over a ‘Christian’ phrase carelessly.” For the second possibility, Tolkien refers to Wycliff as an example, who called a still living friar a fend in helle. I think that it is impossible to know which of these possibilities is true, to know what the poet actually meant by féond on helle. I propose, however, that whether the poet meant the phrase merely as a descriptive or as an actuality, he was not using it carelessly, and it can be used in this context soundly.

In addition to féond on helle, Grendel is also called gæst. This is significant and Christopher Tolkien provides an important detail concerning this word which is also essential for answering our question. (p. 159, n. 1) Christopher notes that “in all the texts of the translation [gæst] is rendered ‘creature’.” He goes on to say that his father had said that gæst could not be translated as “ghost” or “spirit”. In modern English, the closest we can get to the meaning of gæst is “creature”.

The translation of gæst is significant because it gives us an opening into the mind of the poet. Grendel is not simply a twisted, deformed creature descending from Cain’s corrupted line. Grendel does not randomly come on the scene; there is a purpose in his coming. Prior to his introduction, the poet tells of the establishment and glory of Heorot (53-65). Twelve lines before Grendel is introduced, we are told of “the fierce spirit that abode in darkness.” (70) Seeing as Tolkien would not translate gæst as “spirit”, it can be safely assumed that a different word was here used in the original Old English. Also, judging by Tolkien’s comments above concerning Grendel not being a spirit, it is fairly safe to assume that gæst and whichever word is used for “spirit” in the original are not synonymous.* This “fierce spirit that abode in darkness” is obviously a devil in the truest sense of the word, a true hell-fiend who is irretrievably damned. The poet says that this spirit “endured a time of torment” (71) and then goes on to say what was tormenting it. The poet mentions the revelry of men, the sound of their music, and later their not knowing sorrow. This alone, however, is not what causes the torment nor the greatest part. We’re not talking about the Grinch; we’re speaking of a damned spirit dwelling in darkness. The greatest torment was the telling of God Almighty, His creating the world, giving life, and creating man. The action of Beowulf is not a mere opposition of man against corrupt and murderous creatures; it is a part of the great battle that the evil one, the murderer from the beginning, wages against man. Whether Grendel was directly ordered by this spirit to attack Heorot or was unconsciously influenced to do so, he is representative of the darkness and the damnation that accompanies that darkness. And the poet strengthens this identification as the poem progresses. He calls Grendel a “demon cursed” (106) and “accursed” (97); he does not grieve over “his deeds of enmity and wrong.” (109-110) The reason he does not grieve is due to his being wholly enveloped in darkness. The word “enmity” (possibly a reference to Gen 3:15) also may be a marker of his being so thoroughly bound to the hatred of hell. The poet goes on to show this enmity between Grendel and men:

So it was made known to men and revealed to the children of mankind sadly in songs that Grendel strove a while with Hrothgar, wrought hate and malice, evil deeds and enmity, for many a year, a strife unceasing; truce would he not have with any man of the Danish host, nor would withhold his deadly cruelty, nor accept terms of payment; and there no cause had any of the counsellors to look for golden recompense from the slayer’s hands; nay, the fierce killer pursued them still, both  knights and young, a dark shadow of death, lurking, lying in wait, in long night keeping the misty moors. (119-129)

If the action of Beowulf is part of the great battle, could it not be said that this enmity between Grendel and the Danes is part of the enmity between Satan and the woman? Yes, Grendel is a physical creature and, yes, Beowulf is set in a Christian world and imbued with a Christian ethos, but it is still mythic. It gives expression through myth of a reality often forgotten and not seen: the great battle that Lucifer wages upon us, and our need to fight valiantly, ceaselessly, and with a humble ferocity.

Perhaps there is a Chestertonian solution here. Chesterton said that fairy tales are meant to remind us of the wonder of our own world, of that which actually is. A river flowing with wine in a fairy tale should make us take note and wonder at the fact that rivers actually run with water. I may feel a pleasant little happiness while listening to “The Big Rock Candy Mountains”, but much more importantly it reminds me of all the wonderful things of the earth God has given us for our delight. Does not Grendel being a physical creature who is a fiend of hell remind us that there really are spiritual creatures who are true fiends of hell? We read the horror that Grendel brings upon the Danes and his utter relentlessness in doing so. Yet, Grendel sleeps; the real devils do not. We cannot fathom the completeness of malevolence and hatred demons hold for us, nor do they ever grieve one iota because in a truer sense than for Grendel too deep are they therein. (cf. 110) Demons and the way they work are rather foreign and abstract to us today. We are, however, quite familiar with their work such as the spread of vices, the plethora of addictions, the divisions among peoples, the senseless acts of violence heard in the news every day, and the animosity, rage, and desolation that has infected so many people’s hearts. While we identify demons as actual fiends of hell, I think we can properly speak of some things such as vices as fiends of hell in a descriptive way. Grendel, in the dark of night, silently snatched 30 sleeping knights on his first attack upon Heorot. Not until morning did King Hrothgar and the rest of that house become aware of what had happened, and they wailed grievously. What of ourselves? How many times in our lives did we do something or arrive at a certain state of mind and wonder where so many good things in our life had gone? Virtues, friends, family, hobbies and interests, memories, and all the other varied blessings of God, how many times were they silently snatched away only for us to become conscious of the fact later and have to figure out in retrospect by what means it had happened? How great were our sorrow and the pain of loss when we realized what had happened?

Taking all of the above, I think, yes, Grendel can be properly called a fiend of hell even though he is not so in the truest sense. More important than attempting to resolve the issue of Grendel’s identity, though, we are reminded by the blessed Chesterton to ask ourselves the question: What is the Grendel in my life? And as I now go to ponder that question, I will be doing so with the help of my own Big Rock Candy Mountain: i.e. the cabinet in the kitchen where the cognac is kept.

And just for a little fun…

*If the two words are synonymous, and, therefore, Grendel is the fierce spirit, the argument made here still generally holds due to the overall context and most especially the motivation that draws him out.

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