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

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