Sunday, August 19, 2007

George MacDonald, Tolkien and Silliness

This afternoon I happened across the movie A Bird on a Wire as I was channel surfing. I was not riveted to the movie, but I did watch much of it. Here is your typical Romantic Comedy/Action Adventure film made to appeal to the usual tastes of both men and women--the perfect date movie. I am afraid I was mostly amused by how absurd the chase scenes were. It seems that the "bad guys" are incapable of hitting a target with their automatic weapons, and when they do, the "good guy" keeps fighting as if he were never hit. In terms that Tolkien would use, the movie ends with a eucatastrophe but lacks the verisimilitude.

I never got the same feeling of absurdity while watching what some would call the ridiculous action scenes in the original Star Wars trilogy or the Indiana Jones movies. The difference is the underlying premise that something or Someone is working behind the scenes ordering things for good. Yes, in movies like A Bird on a Wire we feel the "good guys" should win, but there is no implication of a "higher power" causing things to work out. Tolkien has been criticised1 for his Romanticism or Sentimentality and lack of "seriousness" in passages such as the "Tom Bombadil" appearances in The Fellowship of the Ring. But perhaps an aversion to Romanticism and Silliness is due to the fact that the these critics of Tolkien have a different view of the world than he did.

Actually, Tom Bombadil and his silliness pre-date the writing of The Lord of the Rings (The poetry was written originally to amuse his children.), and Tolkien apparently thought he was the perfect character to demonstrate a certain attitude important to the story.

The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against
ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent
against compulsion that has long lost any object save more power, and so on; but
both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of
control. But if you have, as it were taken 'a vow of poverty', renounced
control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to
yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the questions of
the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to
you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view,
which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell
seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there
are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence
nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil
to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of

Bombadil lives in a "bubble" unaffected by the outside world because he has withdrawn from the world. He is like a separatist religious group not interested in power or influence (or responsibility) outside its own sphere. The description above from one of Tolkien's letters could well apply to the Shire, too. The Shire's bubble would burst before the end of the book, and the Hobbits returning at the end of the book must help in the "Scouring of the Shire"--ridding it of the outlaws and restoring the land to its beauty. It seems to me there is more a ring of truth than sentimentality in it all.

Bombaldil's silliness reminds me of the boy Diamond in George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind. Much like Bombadil, Diamond is not frightened of anything. He always has a positive outlook on things, and has a view of life that things will always work out. Diamond is partly responsible for saving two other children, Nanny and Jim, from the streets. Nanny and Jim constantly call him a "dear silly." Many think his attitude toward life is because he is not quite right in the head. But the fact is, Diamond only appears silly because he has insights into the world that others do not.

When the narrator of the story "meets" Diamond, he learns that his companions call him silly, and "could not help thinking of the old meaning of the word silly."3 The word in Old English was "sælig" meaning "fortunate" or "prosperous"--soon taking on the idea of "blessed." In Middle English the word took on the meaning of "innocent," and then "deserving of pity" or "helpless." The meaning further developed in modern times until it today indicates someone who is foolish or lacking intelligence.4 Where Nanny and Jim only saw silliness, the narrator, and others, were able to find an intelligence that was blessed to understand the world far beyond the capacity of the average person.

The difference between Diamond and Tom Bombadil is that Diamond did not retreat into a bubble. He lived in the "real world," but was not affected by its evil. But he also knew that sometimes he had to destroy snakes. For him this meant being involved in other people's lives and helping however he could.5 The snake of selfishness keeps us from being a positive influence in other people's lives far too often.

1 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Timothy 1:7

1 (for example, Colin Wilson's essay "Tree by Tolkien" first published in 1974, reprinted in A Tolkien Scrapbook 1978 and A Tolkien Treasury 1989)
2Letters of JRR Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin First Edition, pp.178-179
3George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind, in chapter 35 "I Make Diamond's Acquaintance"
4Margaret Scott,
5North Wind, see chapters 20-22

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Children of Húrin: Where's the Eucatastrophe?

"In Middle-Earth, curses work."1

So begins one review of the newest posthumous release of JRR Tolkien's work, edited by his son Christopher with the help of Adam Tolkien, Christopher's son.

The Children of Húrin is indeed about a curse. Christopher Tolkien tells us in the Introduction (p.18) that JRR Tolkien's proposed alternative title was Narn e-'Rach Morgoth, The Tale of the Curse of Morgoth. However, in making such a generalized statement ("In Middle-Earth, curses work."), the reviewer misses the point. The curse "works," not because of some quality within Middle-Earth. but because of who Morgoth is. "Morgoth is not 'invoking' evil or calamity on Húrin and his children, he is not 'calling on' a higher power to be the agent: for he,'Master of the fates of Arda' as he named himself to Húrin, intends to bring about the ruin of his enemy by force of his own gigantic will." (Ibid.)

The whole thing reminds me of Job. Much as Morgoth, the "Master of Arda," set his hatred on Húrin and his children, so Satan, the "god of this world,"2 set his hatred upon Job and destroyed his children.3 In the book of Job, we get a glimpse into Heaven and and see that God was at work withholding Satan's worst, although certainly we can not comprehend fully God's purpose--which is one of the lessons of the Old Testament book. God is in charge, even when we can only see the hand of the enemy.

So it is with Morgoth in Tolkien's mythology. It looks as if Morgoth is "in charge" and can bend Arda, and everything in it, to do his will. But we know--from another part of Tolkien's mythology--that his will only helps accomplish the Will of Ilúvatar, the creator of the "gods" of Arda. In the "Ainulindalë"--The Music of the Ainur--Morgoth's discord in the Song only ends up adding to its beauty. When the song is finished, Ilúvatar rises and speaks:

Mighty are the Ainur,and mightiest among them is Melkor [Morgoth]; but now
that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye
have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see that no theme may be played
that hath not it uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my
despite. for he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the
devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.4

God is Sovereign, even though He gives Free Will to His creatures. Even the evil they do can only work out to the fulfillment of His plans. Tolkien often uses this seeming contradiction. The evil intentions of Gollum culminate in the destruction of the Ring. The covetousness of the Orcs causes the distractions that allow the Hobbits to escape on at least two occasions. Túrin's tragic life allows him to be in a position to slay Glaurung. It is not that God is the Author of Evil, but He is able to turn the results of Evil to His own purposes. But my intention is not to explain the relationship of Sovereignty and Free Will. I leave that to the Theologians.

The lives of the Children of Húrin do end tragically, which may cause some Tolkien fans to ask "Where is the eucatastrophe? Where is the Recovery and Consolation Tolkien speaks of in "On Fair Stories"? The quick answer is that The Children of Húrin was not intended to be a Fairy Story. In his letter to his editor quoted in the Second Edition of The Silmarillion, Tolkien describes what was in his mythology. The story of Beren and Lúthien is, he says, a "heroic-fairy-romance," while The Children of Húrin is a "tragic tale," admitting that it is "derived from the elements in Sigurd the Volsung, Oedipus, and the Finnish Kullervo."5

When Tolkien spoke so positively about the Fairy Story, and the Consolation one feels by the "sudden miraculous grace" (eucatastrophe), he was not saying that all stories should be written that way. Life does not always give us joy; sometimes it is just the pits, as Jeremiah the Prophet quite literally discovered.6 Sometimes life ends, like it did for Adam and Eve, "outside the Garden" with the promise of the Deliverer unfulfilled.7 Sometimes people die in Exile, never to experience the promised return to the Land of Palestine.

But Tolkien would remind us that all stories are just a snapshot or painting -- a "fragment of the Seamless Web of Story."8 They do not show us the ending. Perhaps what is lacking in The Children of Húrin is not the eucatastrophe, but the promise of Grace and Consolation to come.

1Tish Wells, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, sited in and others.
22 Corinthians 4:4
3Job 1:18-19
4The Silmarillion, Houghton Mifflin Second Edition, p.17
5The Silmarillion, p.xvii
6Jeremiah 38:6
7Genesis 3:15
8Tree and Leaf, Harper Collins 1988, p. 80

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