sábado, janeiro 27, 1990

Christological Sacrifices: "The Lord of the Rings Trilogy" by Tolkien

(My own copy)

It is not really possible to re-read a book, just as it is not really possible to step into the same river twice. The next time, one's thinking is going to be entirely different. I have read "LoTR" half a dozen times. Each has been different. I think Heraclitus even said you couldn't step into the same river even once. I know what he's talking about. Every single time is a new time.

I remember when I was seven being bored stiff reading and rereading the reading scheme books for my 'assessed reading age' at school. The problem was that I was being assessed by my ability at reading aloud and not allowed to progress until I had read each one to the teacher. I was already a silent reader of proper books from the Praça de Chile Library and could read the scheme books a dozen times before I was called.

No one knows for sure why humans began telling stories. Certainly, one possible purpose might have been to calm the fears and worries of the clan or tribe. For many children, re-reading books performs the same function. They return to an old and trusted friend for comfort and reassurance when times and events become unsettling. Had I not been given that intellectual kick up the arse I realise with hindsight I needed I'd have willingly shut myself off from some excellent authors I now greatly love because they seemed "difficult", "boring", and not for me. I'd never have been tempted to try Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, JG Ballard, William Faulkner or John Steinbeck - and nowadays I couldn't imagine not having read them (even I don't like some of them, namely Atwood whose books I re-read recently).

I think I reread less as I've got older; I know when I was young I read everything Roald Dahl wrote dozens of times each, I read Lord of the Rings time and again, and as a teenager I think I read "Memoirs of a Geisha" about five times in one year because I was completely obsessed with all things Japanese. Nowadays I am more likely to seek out everything an author I like wrote and try and read it all than read one book more than once, though.

I was already an adult when my Grandmother died; she used to find myself re-reading the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in a cheap Portuguese translation when I was a kid. Sometimes we went shopping and there was this marvellous edition in English at Bertrand (the oldest bookshop in the world; founded in 1732). And every Saturday we would stop at the Bertrand Bookshop, where I would once again take down a red, bound copy of LoTR and flip through it. It was 2860 escudos (I can't be bothered with the conversion to euros or dollars), which in the 80s was a lot of money. On my last Friday of school before summer holidays started my granny told me she thought I had done well in school that year and had earned my first "holiday money". The amount was 100 escudos. People re-read for many reasons.

(Bought in 1990)

Defending Tolkien in terms of political realism is about as silly as criticising him in those terms, but...Denethor makes considerably more than a squeak about it, making clear that he has no intention of going anywhere, and although Boromir plays nice as far as it goes, Faramir explicitly suggests that if he had survived things would have turned nasty when they got to Gondor. So it's not as though the prospect of the House of the Stewards refusing to hand over power is absent from the story. People being what they are, an argument that amounts to "no person who would behave like this could possibly exist" is usually standing on very shaky ground. If you think such principled behaviour is outside the range of human nature, you don't know nearly enough about people. Actually, even a far less principled character would have good reason to go quietly, given that he has the offer of wealth and high office under the new regime, while the only alternative would be starting a civil war in which, granted, he occupies a capital almost impregnable to assault, but in which his putative opponent controls the field army, is backed by the one foreign ally in play and has apparently gained the loyalty of a substantial portion of the armed forces within the city, and enjoys not only formal legitimacy but also overwhelming political momentum, having won spectacular and conclusive victories that have delivered the kingdom forever from the threat that has bled it dry and threatened its existence for centuries, all accomplished while Faramir has been flat on his back, having only just inherited his position from a father who went mad and killed himself...

Or consider how he portrays Gondor through the character of Denethor. What is Denethor's downfall and what is explicitly Gondor's downfall? Tolkien answers that they became too proud of their noble blood, too careful in their genealogies, and too sure of their own superiority. He portrays a society that cared more for their ancestors in their tombs than their living neighbors, staunchly blue-blooded, and weighed down by pomp. Tolkien has zero love for aristocracy in and of itself. What Tolkien admires is the ideal so seldom actually adhered to, but he places this ideal as much or if not more in the common man than in the aristocracy. The correct way to look at Tolkien's view of the world is to look at the world as if it was a WWI battlefield. Tolkien loves the officers that live up to the chivalric idea, but he loves and admires the courage and traits of the common soldiers even more.

Tolkien believed that rulership was a two-way street, so a king inheriting the throne by blood wasn't an inherently bad thing (Book Aragorn doesn't have any issues with it, although he does in the film), but the king also has to earn that trust through good rulership. If he is a bad king or a tyrant, his downfall or overthrow is acceptable (hence what happened to Numenor).

I wouldn't regard hobbits as equivalent to the landed gentry. For one thing, hierarchy doesn't play a big role in their society - there are elders and vaunted persons, but no great level of stratification. I'd say that they are more idealised peasants, well-to-do subsistence farmers who reap a continual surplus from their soils based on their having a greater affinity with the earth than humans (industrialisation and modernity inevitably lead therefore to their decline, as their fortunes are locked in with the fortunes of the ideal rusticum that is the Shire). If anything, I'd say Tolkien was more inspired by Christian communalism than the gentry, the difference with hobbits being that because they lack or have underdeveloped the human vices of ambition and greed, they naturally form egalitarian communities without allowing the provision of surpluses to lead to the development of hierarchy.

This is not to say that Tolkien wasn't a political conservative or that he wasn't inspired by a rather misty-eyed view of the past. Many of today's fantasy authors actually have a lot of fun in showing what a dreadful kind of world that of the fantasised 'ye olde days' actually would be if logically constructed and inhabited by real humans, e.g. Martin, Abercrombie, Bakker (Bakker also does a lovely job of showing how heinous it would be to live in a world in which medieval style theology was actually correct about the objective nature of the world, e.g. the existence of damnation, the spiritual inferiority of women, the absolute strictures of objective meaning on human freedom). Certainly that hierarchy/class distinction is reinforced by their respective accents, both in the books and the films. I've always wondered how the members of a small community like that would not all speak with the same accent. I think Tolkien modeled Sam and Frodo after an Officer (upper class) and his Man (not quite so upper class). Also he wanted the humblest member of the troop to succeed in destroying the ring. It was Sam, not his social better and employer Frodo who saved the world. It certainly illuminates Tolkien's take on Christianity. Frodo is an exception as he is a beneficiary of Bilbo's wealth acquired from Erebor and can therefore afford to pay a gardener. It makes you think that maybe the reason most hobbits disapprove of adventuring is not so much concern at the danger anyone who does it puts themselves into as it is the social upheaval they cause if they come back loaded with loot. Criticising Tolkien for being right wing is like castigating Orwell for being a leftie. He was an upper middle class Oxbridge Roman Catholic, and stayed true to his class and his beliefs. LOTR transcends Tolkien's 'reactionary' Edwardian politics precisely by being mythic, and tapping into the age old battle between good and evil, the hero and the quest. created for the sake of devastation. Is it really open to dispute that that would be evil? Yes, Tolkien was a conservative - it's not a crime - but he was also a proto-environmentalist and a severe critic of market-driven capitalism. One of his influences was the socialist William Morris, whose abhorrence of what capitalism had done to the working class was shared by Tolkien. His description of warfare is strongly influenced by his experience of the Somme and is implicitly critical of industrialised warfare. He also expressed his dislike of the Nazis and their anti-semitism and was willing to lose book sales as a result. His attitudes to women and black people can be troubling, but are not unusual in writers of his period and background. As for his romanticising of monarchy, once he had chosen a quasi-medieval setting monarchy is simply the normal political system in place. Would you criticise Wolf Hall for not featuring a democratic anti-monarchist as the hero? The portrayal of Sauron as a giant disembodied eye derives from Peter Jackson's ham-handedly revisionist take on LOTR, not from the book itself. Jackson, among his legion of other failings, apparently has no understanding of metaphor (or, more likely-- and there is endless evidence of this-- he simply doesn't give a tinker's damn for what Tolkien actually wrote). It's quite clearly implied, and occasionally explicitly stated, a number of times in the book and in its appendices that Sauron possessed an identifiably humanoid form, though this was deceptive; like Gandalf, Saruman, and their fellow wizards, Sauron was originally one of a quasi- angelic order known as the Maiar, created to serve the gods who dwelt in the West. Sauron was a servant of Morgoth, the Great Enemy, the Lucifer (if you will) of the Valar, the gods who dwelt across the Sea. When the Maiar arrived in Middle-Earth as emissaries they took on human guise in order to mingle with elves, dwarves and Men. Sauron's original humanoid body, which was of an unearthly beauty (at least during his time in Numenor), perished in the downfall of Numenor in the Second Age. Fleeing back to Middle-Earth in disembodied form, he was never again able to assume a shape that was "fair", becoming dark and hideous instead; in the siege of Barad-Dur at the end of the Second Age, he was able to "destroy" the elf-lord Gil-Galad merely with his touch, which "was black and yet burned like fire"-- just before the Numenorian heir Isildur cut the finger bearing the Ruling Ring from Sauron's hand. As Gollum, who had been brought face to face with Sauron, noted with a shudder: "He has only four [fingers] on the Black Hand, but they are enough". Disembodied eyeballs, as a rule, have neither hands nor fingers. That has not stopped the "giant eyeball" meme from entering common visual parlance among the countless ignoroids who know nothing of Tolkien beyond what they've seen in the movies. Another victory for "dumb it down" Jacksonian revisionism.

But why should it be a surprise? A man born in 1892 and whose years to manhood were torched by the trenches of the first world war is a political conservative, who yearns for a safe, familiar social structure rather than a socialist utopia in which the orcs are free. Instead of looking for a political framework in Lord of the Rings and Hobbit, consider a more psychological framework in which heroes (think Dwarf warrior aiming to retake the wealth of his fathers with swords and all other sword-bearers) are no where near as effective as the "burglar" Bilbo who used his wits and not weapons to bumble his way into a solution. Bilbo was a reluctant warrior who was conscripted into a quest by angry swordsmen. If not a pacifist (who would be in the face of ultimate evil), Bilbo was not a reactionary political player but, like the poor blokes in the trenches, was swept into playing his role. And in the final action in the Hobbit, Bilbo (the not-a-warrior) is his pity for Gollum, who had been a captive to human vices of longing for wealth and treasure. And, of course, the final action in Lord of the Ring is the christological sacrifice of the one for the sake of the many. Conservative, yes. Drawing on Christian mythologies and archetypes, certainly. A political framework? Only superficially. It is the story of a couple of little people, reluctant heroes of the anti-hero kind, caught up in a wide sweep of history beyond their control and how they used their wit, not weapons, to plod through the murk of it all.

Of course myth is important. The media does not rely on facts to survive. It's a billion dollar industry, and it works hard to captivate us, maybe even divert us. There are truths. There are also myths, memes, tropes and lies. Middle Earth is not just about the old conservative sceptred isle. It is a pre-war ideal, a fantasy of going home. We find this again and again throughout the Hobbit and LoTR, from Thorin's quest to the Lonely Mountain, and Aragorn's return to Gondor, to Bilbo and Frodo's love for the shire only to find that they can never really belong there again. No wonder that the lands of Mordor are ashen and dry, fired and barren. No wonder that the marshes are filled with the faces of the angry dead who fell in the wars, long long ago. The great enemy is one who delights in power at all costs; his tool is the industrialist. Both are characterised by immense cruelty, obsession, and delight in ugliness. They are about ruin for gain. A very potent story for our time. But we must also consider that Tolkien himself claimed to detest allegory, and never intended his work to be read as such. He was a man of his time, with understanding touched by the tragedy of war and its destruction. His world reflects some of that, by necessity.

The power of his works, I suspect, stems from Tolkien's ability to mine the great themes of human myth, leaving [many of] us with a sense of something more wonderful (in some respects) than our own daily reality.

sábado, janeiro 20, 1990

The People of the Sea: "Dolphin Island" by Arthur C. Clarke

(My own copy bought in 1990 at Bertrand Bookshop)

“Johnny Clinton was sleeping when the hovership raced down the valley, floating along the old turnpike on its cushion of air. [..] To any boy of the twenty.first century, it was a sound of magic, telling of far-off countries and strange cargoes carried in the first ships that could travel with equal ease across land and sea.”

In “Dolphin Island” by Arthur C. Clarke

Dolphin Island was one of the very first proper book I read, or tried to read, in English, when I was 10 or 11, in the fifth year of school, and I loved it. My dad had given it to me, because he thought it would make a good first read for a boy who was trying to teach himself English at the time. Until then, I'd only read some of the simplified English books. At the time, our regular school teacher was away on paternity leave, for the arrival of his adopted son, so we had a substitute. There were reading hours in the schedule, when we were expected to bring books from home, and that substitute teacher noticed I was reading an English book. She thought I wasn't actually reading - after all, how could a 10-year old Portuguese-speaking child who's never had an English lesson possibly read a novel in English? -, flatly refused to believe my explanation that I was busy learning English on my own, and nearly confiscated the book. It was an extremely upsetting experience for me, which is why I remember it so well. When my regular teacher arrived back to work shortly afterwards, the substitute told him about the incident, and basically accused me of being a liar in front of him. Luckily, he put her in her place and told her that no, I wasn't lying, and that I was indeed teaching myself English.

But generally, I've found it's a bad idea to re-read books one loved as a child or a young teenager as an adult. On the occasions I've tried it, it mostly was a sore disappointment. With rare exceptions, you get that sinking feeling you must have had really, really bad taste in your youth. It’s not the case with this one. It holds up pretty well.