Wrath and Laughter in The Silmarillion’s Beginning of Days

The first chapter of Middle-Earth’s history begins with the war between the gods for the fate of the world, and ends with a meditation on the unique calling of Men to be Free and to Die. Like the Trees that will light the World until the making of the Sun and the Moon, the foundation of Arda is watered with tears. How are Men to meet such a world, how are they to use the power, the “virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world” (41)? Iluvatar knew from the start that they “being set amid the turmoils of the powers of the world,  would stray often, and would not use their gifts in harmony” (42). The calling of Men is to one day shape the harmony of the world from outside of it, but in the meantime unlike Elves seem most vulnerable to evil, and indeed even resemble it more than any other part of creation, “for it seems to the Elves that Men resemble Melkor most of all the Ainur” (42). We don’t fit into the way of things the way we should.

It is often commented how surprising life is, and how surprising it is even that life should be surprising: for how could the only thing we ever experience be a surprise at all? There is plenty of record from past lives to know what to expect, and yet we all discover emotions as if we were the first to encounter them – just listen to any teenager angry at his or her parents for confirmation of this. Anger is a product of surprise, unknown encountered with fear, as both Elves and Melkor fear Men: “…the Elves believe that Men are often a grief to Manwe…. [Melkor] has ever feared and hated them, even those that serve him” (42). But according to the Elves, the evil of Melkor and the waywardness of Men are a mirror of each other.

This is, of course, because Melkor does not follow the natural relation between himself and weaker beings: “For Elves and Men are the Children of Iluvatar; and since they understood not fully that theme by which the Children entered into the Music, none of the Ainur dared to add anything to their fashion. For which reason the Valar are to these kindreds rather their elders and their chieftans than their masters” (410). Melkor fears “even those that serve him,” and one might extrapolate that perhaps it is those that serve him whom Melkor fears most, for he is usurping Iluvatar’s authority over beings that he does not understand. Even the Ainur sometimes overstep their bounds “in their dealings with Elves and Men” when “the Ainur have endeavored to force them when they would not be guided,” and “seldom has this turned to good, however good the intent” (41). More kindred in nature to the Elves, the Ainur interact the most frequently with them rather than Men, but Melkor cannot be satisfied with partial tyranny.

It is a striking theme of mythology that the source of evil is so singular in spite of its apparent multiplicity, in spite of the fact that we seem to live “in a world where to think is to be full of sorrow” as Keats wrote in “Ode to a Nightingale.” Through one man sin entered into the world; through one fallen angel lies were fathered, and through one Ainu the best laid plans of Gods, Men, and Elves are “filled with shadows and deceit” (41). And there are of course the unnamed allies of Melkor, the lesser Ainur and the people of Middle Earth who succumb to his ill conceived counsel. But even in their commitment to goodness and justice, the Valar and their peoples are not always up to the task of facing Melkor’s evil. They build a walled off paradise away from Middle-Earth, away from their responsibilities as stewards of the world, and succeed in making Valinor beautiful at the expense of the other lands of Arda. In their own ways, the Valar each contribute something to the peace of the wider world. Manwe continues to watch from his high seat; Ulmo brings life through the secret waterways of the earth; Orome hunts monsters and chases away shadows with the sound of his horn; Yavanna secretly ministers to the flora and fauna and even advocates war against Melkor on their behalf.

But the most effective figure against Melkor is not Manwe, the closest to him in majesty; it is Tulkas, who came from outside of the circle of Arda when he saw the havoc Melkor wrought in the primeval war of the gods. Melkor could not face him in battle; before destroying the Lamps that were the original mode of lighting the world attempted by the Valar, Melkor awaited the opportune time when Tulkas was tired from battling, from rebuilding the world alongside his fellow gods, and from the following celebration of their labors and his marriage to Nessa. “Then Tulkas slept, being weary and content, and Melkor deemed that his hour had come” (36), and this divine nap leads to the destruction of Almaren, the first home of the gods on Arda and the destroyed hope that angels and men could dwell together when the Children of Iluvatar awoke. The disaster of the overturned Lamps distracted the Ainur as Melkor fled as “the earth trembled beneath the feet of Tulkas” (37).

What makes Tulkas special is not his strength alone, but the energy and presence of will that he brings which Melkor dares not try to match directly. We are told that “in the midst of the war” (the first war with Melkor), “a spirit of great strength and hardihood came to the aid of the Valar, hearing in the far heaven that there was battle in the Little Kingdom; and Arda was filled with the sound of his laughter” (35). Battle cries are common enough, but battle laughter has greater power still, and it is the combination which defines the presence of Tulkas: “So came Tulkas the Strong, whose anger passes like a mighty wind, scattering clouds and darkness before it; and Melkor fled before his wrath and his laughter”…. “and his hate was given to Tulkas for ever after” (35). He fears and hates Tulkas, who came from outside the circle of Arda; he fears and hates the race of Men, whose destiny lies outside that circle as well. Elijah too used laughter as a weapon against the spiritual darkness of Baal: “And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27), but it was Tulkas, not Melkor, who was sleeping. And indeed after the second battle in which the first attempt at Arda’s paradise is destroyed, Tulkas is never reported as laughing again.

Yet it is that laughter mixed with wrath, as it is the mixing of the two lights of the Lamps or the two lights of the trees, and the mixing of the sorrow with beauty in the first song of the Ainur, that marks Tulkas as the foe whom Melkor is afraid to meet in battle, and whom resembles in the account most the Men whom Melkor wishes to subdue. This is not a likeness acknowledged by the Elves; it is something we as readers must discover. Melkor understands wrath, but wrath is its goal; the laughter of Tulkas gives his wrath limits and purpose. He brings his joy in the natural order and in the harmony of his people into battle with a demonic belief that laughter should be silent before power. As he does not understand Men, we can say that Melkor “has not discovered” why Tulkas laughs, and so his only strategy is to flee from joy and strike at it when asleep and silent. A disantly warlike quality of vigilence in our joy is needed to resist despair, for when our Almaren is cast down and like Keats we “cannot see what flowers are at our feet,” we do not ask, “Do I wake or sleep?” Carried instead on “the viewless wings of Poesy,” where the Queen Moon is clustered with her starry fays, we can hold on to the light that becomes laughter when faced with darkness.

Behold your Music: Harmonic Sorrow in Tolkien’s Ainulindale

In The Fundamentals of Music, the late Roman author Boethius imparted to the Middle Ages a Neoplatonic theory of music that held there to be three kinds of harmony: the harmony of the spheres, the harmony of instruments, and the harmony of human living. In Boethius’s philosophy, which has its roots ultimately in Pythagorean theory, music resulted from the movements of the Planets and all the workings of the cosmos and nature. Music as we ordinarily think of it, the music of voice and of devised instruments, is sort of like a radio that does not simply produce music, but actually allows us to hear the music of the universe. Human life, when lived individually and socially in accordance with virtue, also produces thereby a kind of music. After all, insofar as we exist, we are a part of the cosmic music, and by learning to live well, we learn to harmonize with that music. This is why learning to play and appreciate instrumental music was so valuable to the ancient and medieval perspective: learning music craft combines human discipline with cosmic principles of harmony. The musician, in playing and understanding music, harmonizes with the symphony of an instrumental, virtuous, and cosmic melody.

As an Anglo-saxonist and medievalist, Tolkien surely knew of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, at least the version translated into Old English and probably Chaucer’s Middle English translation as well, not to mention the Latin itself. Whether he knew of Boethius’s textbook on music I do not know, but his musical theory is alluded to in the Consolation itself, where Lady Philosophy says, “My pleasure is to sing with pliant strings/How mighty Nature holds the reigns of things” (3.m2.50). In any case, Tolkien’s creation myth resonates with Boethius’s understanding of the Pythagorean belief in a musical universe, where Iluvatar, as choirmaster, leads his first creations, the Ainur, in a magnificent, orchestral creation of the world in which Middle-Earth will have its being: “Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Iluvatar to a great music…. and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void” (15). More particularly, we see in the Ainulindale a three-part structure: first, there is the song of the Ainur’s strife (between Manwe and the faithful Ainur and Melkor and the rebellious Ainur), then, they have a vision of the history of the world which their music has created, and finally, they enter into the World their music has created and labor to bring the Vision into reality. So they engage first in an instrumental (if heavenly) type of music, using the power of voice to create song; then they perceive the Cosmos and the cosmic history created by their music; and finally, they become committed to fulfilling their attempt to live virtuously according to the Music for their own sake and the sake of the Children of Iluvatar to come. The Ainulindale is a three-fold melody between the music of the Ainur, the Cosmic Vision their music produces, and their mighty labors to bring the created world into physical harmony.

Melkor, as an agent of disharmony, becomes a disruptive voice in the Music of the Ainur because his imagination is reduced to a narcissistic obsession with his own virtue: “it came into the heart of Meklor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Iluvatar: for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself…. for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own” (16). The nature of Melkor’s disobedience is not simply pride; it is a disjointed concern for the locus of pride. Or, to state it otherwise: Tolkien’s myth defines pride in musical terms, where to become a Melkor is to become one who makes his own talents the source of harmony, and to reduce social and universal order to a mere outlet of one’s own will. Instead of using the pattern of Music as a way to order himself, Melkor strives to pattern the Music after him. In Boethius, the musical instrument was a conduit for the individual to imagine his own virtue as in harmony with the cosmos; Melkor uses his music instead for conquest, as a weapon to strike his enemy down. As a result, Melkor is always depicted as alone – he has no comrade, only cohorts, for social camaraderie is a harmony, and Melkor has made himself an enemy of harmony.

This is contrasted by the discussion that Ulmo and Iluvatar have about Ulmo’s kinship with Manwe in the midst of their vision: “Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the Earth! And in these clouds thou art drawn nearer to Manwe, thy friend, whom thou lovest” (19). Ulmo’s music had put water into the Vision of the World, but Manwe’s love of the airways mixed with that water in unsurprising ways; ways moreover caused by Melkor: “Sees thou not how here in this little realm in the Deeps of Time Melkor hath made war upon thy province? He hath bethought him of bitter cold immoderate” (19). Ulmo’s thought is neither to make war on Melkor, his enemy, nor to be jealous of his brother Manwe. Interestingly of Ulmo we are told that “of all most deeply was he instructed by Iluvatar in music” (19). Given his remarkable gifts, Ulmo is a corollary to Melkor, but in his brotherly  attitude towards Manwe offers a three-fold note of harmony against Melkor’s disharmony: “Truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret though conceived the snowflake…I will seek Manwe, that he and I may make melodies for ever to thy delight!” (19). Ulmo remains in accord with Iluvatar his maker; he resists the discord introduced by Melkor and even sees how Melkor’s ill-intentioned disruption has made his own design more beautiful; and, above all, he seeks out Manwe to work new labors to please his Maker.

Ulmo strives for the good life and seeks to make beautiful music, all to contribute to the symphony of Arda’s formation. Ulmo’s attention is not on the sound of his own voice and the tenor of his own virtue, but on the things he can make and the people with whom he can make them. The same is true of Manwe and Aule: “But of the airs and winds Manwe most had pondered, who is the noblest of Ainur. Of the fabric of Earth had Aule thought, to whom Iluvatar had given skill and knowledge scarce less than to Melkor; but the delight and pride of Aule is in the deed of making, and in the thing made, and neither in possession nor in his own mastery” (19). In their devotion to the shared Music, Ulmo, Aule, and Manwe are blessed with brotherhood, unchained by the torments of wrath Melkor suffers by limiting his imagination to the circle of his own will.

Of course, the Ainulindale is a myth about the concept of subcreation Tolkien discusses in On Fairy Stories. Tolkien believed that the imagination, through craft, could produce the Art of a World into which the minds of readers could enter, a Secondary World that depended upon love of the Primary. One could easily read the various beings of Middle-Earth’s creation myth as a psychomachia of Tolkien as artist: Iluvatar, the side of him which loves and longs for the beautiful for its own sake, Melkor, the prideful side that wished for fame, recognition, and followers, and Manwe, Ulmo, and Aule, worldbuilders who get their hands dirty in the painful details of storytelling for the sake of pleasing Iluvatar, the purest desire for beauty in the Author and his Readers alike. Of course, as I wrote in my last blog post, we must be wary of excessively allegorizing Tolkien’s work, especially this one where it is most tempting.

The mythic power of these Beings must not be undone by an excessive rationalism, but must be imagined the same way they were surprised to discover the Children of Iluvatar in the Vision of the World: “Therefore when they beheld them, the more did they love them, being things other than themselves, strange and free, wherein they saw the mind of Iluvatar reflected anew, and learned yet a little more of his wisdom, which otherwise had been hidden even from the Ainur” (18). Even so, Tolkien surely sympathized with the frustrated Valar in their attempts to shape the world: “the Valar endeavoured ever in despite of Melkor, to rule the Earth and to prepare it for the coming of the Firstborn; and they built lands and Melkor destroyed them; valleys they delved and Melkor raised them up; mountains they carved and Melkor threw them down…. and naught might have peace or come to lasting growth, for as surely as the Valar began a labour so would Melkor undo it or corrupt it” (22). So Tolkien himself felt of his own attempts to build a mythology, a world of myths peopled by the imagined authors of those very myths, a tug-of-war between creation and time long agonized over by gods and authors alike.

The brief story of Arda’s creation introduces that atmospheric quality that gives Tolkien’s writings, especially The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, so much power, epitomized in the description of the second Music: “For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity. And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Iluvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came” (16-17). Melkor’s belligerent music strives to overtake this apparently sweet and gentle sound, “but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern” (17). The sorrow of the Shire losing its innocence, the grief of Elves fading into the West, the fall of Numenoreans trying to overmaster death: their stories find a beautiful harmony in the cosmic music in the clash of Melkor’s brass, “loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated” noise, against which the Children of Iluvatar and the Ainur find their melodies resolved.

Elves and Men live in a mixed world of cosmic harmony and disharmony, the collision of music with noise, and sorrow is the note of beauty by which evil is reconciled to good. “And thus was the habitation of the Children of Iluvatar established at the last in the Deeps of Time and amidst the innumerable stars” (22).

Like the Days of the Tree: The Other Voice of Allegory in Tolkien’s Artistic Reflections

So for all of you paying attention to my blog (in other words, for an open letter to myself), you will have noticed that, after finishing The Return of the King, I sort of totally failed to keep up my reading schedule. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is how long it took me to read through the Appendix. (I was also distracted by Terry Brooks’s newest novel and actual, real-life obligations). My plan, laid out here, was to work through the first five History of Middle Earth volumes again and the Unfinished Tales, and then tackle the Silmarillion (my favorite text in the Middle-Earthen corpus). But then, I got a Barnes and Noble Gift Certificate, and I purchased the second edition of The Silmarillion (I have an old, tattered, well-worn copy of the first edition, the only version I know). So the need is upon me for the legend as I know it, and rather than sticking to an artificial plan (useful as it was initially), I’m going to continue in a way that energizes me the most. Specifically, I will provide separate blog posts for each major section of The Silmarillion (the Ainulindale, the Valaquenta, the Quenta Silmarillion, the Akallabeth, and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age). In this post, though, I would like to mull over the letter to Milton Waldman included in the second edition (also in the volume of Tolkien’s letters) where Tolkien gives a conception of his world and literary perspective. Because of my Hawthornian “inveterate love of allegory,” I am fascinated by Tolkien’s attitude towards the concept as laid out in this letter and other places, so I would like to make a few comments here as a prelude to my upcoming posts.

Tolkien’s disparagement of allegory as a literary method is well known to readers of his letters. In his truncated literary biography to Waldman, he writes, “But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio was for myth (not allegory!), and for fairy-story” (xi). He is even more explicit as he begins to set out the particular aesthetic behind the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings mythology:

“I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory – yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language. (And, of course, the more ‘life’ a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations: while the better a deliberate allegory is made the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.)”

There is much to be said here, but I will contain myself to two observations. First, in the same paragraph and the one that follows, Tolkien labors (as he often does) to distinguish the Power of the Elves from that of the Enemy. The Enemy’s “desire for Power” leads “to the Machine (or Magic)…. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized” (xiii). The Magic and Machine of the Enemy is a Power “concerned with sheer Domination” (xiv). By contrast, of the Elves Tolkien writes, “Their ‘magic’ is Art…. And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation” (xiii). Of course, as I have discussed, these different ways of imagining Power form the crux of the drama of The Return of the King. But it also seems quite clear that the juxtaposition of Tolkien’s preference for the fairy-tale over allegory with his preference for Elvish Art over the Enemy’s Machine is no accident – for Tolkien is nothing if not marked by the scruples of implication. What I think we can draw from this is essentially that Tolkien abhors interpretive tyranny of Story as much as he abhors dominating tyranny over the “wills and minds of others,” for in fact precisely the same reason: Allegory, as it overmasters the Story, seeks to overmaster both the author and the reader, to dominate the mind with an inescapable conclusion about the Story that leaves no freedom to experience its actual power. Elvish reading and Elvish writing is contrasted from the Enemy’s reading and writing by the desire to witness the awe of narrative Power, rather than the desire to wield it.

Second, I must offer some slight criticism of Tolkien here, which I do so in full submission to how impetuous that feels and probably is. It is moreover a philological point, and in that I blush to instruct Minerva, to borrow a phrase from Bernardus Silvestris, one of those allegorical authors Tolkien viewed so askance. As Tolkien well knew, the meaning of allegory is simply “other-speaking,” or “other-voiced.” I think it useful not merely to intellectually note a word’s meaning, but to inhabit it – on this point I know Tolkien would surely agree, for he says as much in several places. So I ask that we apply a Tolkienian principle of the word to this word of which Tolkien appeared to disapprove. Another voice, another speaking – for a text to be allegorical is for it to sound with a voice elsewhere, perhaps unseen, perhaps far off, calling through the voice of one text to let the reader hear another. Such other-speaking we encounter in none other than Frodo himself: “At that moment Frodo threw himself forward on the ground, and he heard himself crying aloud: O Elbereth! Gilthoniel! At the same time he struck at the feet of his enemy.” He finds another voice speaking through him – far from being allegorical in the usual sense, this other-speaking is mysterious, enchanting, empowering in a palpably Elvish way, quite literally contrasted with the Machinery of the Enemy (the Nazgul). Now, Tolkien admits the inescapable value of it in articulating the sense of literary meaning he does intend. But this is much like his use of magic, which he both applies to and denies as proper to the articulation of Elvish Art.

Indeed, in a footnote (and I have always been amused by the inexorable nature of scholasticism in Tolkien’s personality that his personal correspondences are rife with adorably pedantic footnotes), Tolkien admits that his “‘elves’ are only a representation or an apprehension of a part of human nature, but that is not the legendary mode of talking” (xvi). No, quite right – it is precisely the allegorical mode of talking Tolkien had so gruffly professed to dislike (and yet confess its utility in the same grumbling breath). (I do so love the grouchy professorish side of our beloved grouchy professor.) Thus we must say that just as Magic, as a kind of Power, has two manifestations (Art and Machinery), so does Allegory as a kind of reading. So let us say that there is allegory which dominates, and there is allegory which, if I may coin a term, enlegends. Legendary allegory speaks an idea to be more filled with the otherness of Elvish Art, while tyrannical allegory consumes the voice of the text with another speaking Power. It is the difference of the impact of the Nine Rings upon the Wraiths and the names of Elbereth and Gilthoniel upon Frodo and Sam.

So if the Machine is the model of allegory for the Enemy, what is enlegended, Elvish allegory? This question is, I think, actually answered by Tolkien quite directly (as directly as Tolkien gets on the subject, at any rate). It is to be found in “the Light of Valinor made visible in the Two Trees of Silver and Gold” (xv). No spoilers here for any readers of the Silmarillion (though for those who aren’t, of course): “These were slain by the Enemy out of malice, and Valinor was darkened, though from them, ere they died utterly, were derived the lights of Sun and Moon” (xv-xvi). Of course, the Sun and Moon are merely the more familiar seeds of those ancient trees; the Silmarils, too, are the fruits of the Trees of Valinor, but they are tainted by the malice of Machinery, implicated as Feanor’s craft is in the works of Melkor. Even “the Sun is not a divine symbol, but a second-best thing, and the ‘light of the Sun’ (the world under the sun) become terms for a fallen world” (xvi). This is a fascinating departure from the standard sublunary picture given by Neoplatonists and Aristotelians: the changing Moon is often the symbol of worldly fickleness, and the Sun the portrait of divine illumination. But Tolkien intentionally departs from this moon-disparaging lunacy, and dims the sun and the false confidence it creates in mortals, for it is too easily enlisted in the works of the Machinists (if is itself also derived from the Artful trees). It is the Trees of Valinor whose light flows like water that are the picture of legendary allegory in Tolkien. Abstract meaning is not necessarily a means of domination over the imagination, but the soil and the water from which the subcreation of Fantasy can grow in the Tolkienesque fairytale.

Isaiah prophesied God’s promise that “Like the days of the tree shall the days of my people be” (Isaiah 65:22). The psalmist wrote of the blessed man, “And he shall be like the tree planted by rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither, and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (Psalm 1:3). Hyper-allegorical reading drowns seeds in water, like the Silmaril lost at sea, but the river-rich soil of the land is where the Elvish eye sees a place where trees can grow with room to unfurl their light-thirsty leaves. Like a vast forest interlaced with the rivers of water, The Silmarillion‘s legends are watered by that other voice of allegory, and, if we listen to it very patiently, we can hear a music on the water and glimpse through the fallen daylight the treelike glow of a magic sun.

Meditations on a Christian “Republic”

I originally composed this text in 2014, with the notion of making it a companion piece to a discussion on King Aragorn and Denethor the Steward. As it happens, quite without realizing it, I wrote that companion piece in Hands of a Healer: The Nobility of Imagination in The Return of the King when I finished rereading The Lord of the Rings. In that sense, the two articles go together, although they can be read in either order.

I should make clear straight away what sort of discussion this is. It is not intended to be an academic or rigorous work, but simply a meditation on an important work of Plato’s. At the risk of narcissism, I must say that I am talking here very much from my own biographical experience of the text, including my biography as a reader. Indeed, given that many of my most beloved writers—especially Boethius, but also Augustine, Anselm, and C.S. Lewis—have Neoplatonic aspects to their thought, it is perhaps no surprise that I am drawn to Plato’s most famous discussion of the order of the soul in The Republic, through the use of the allegory of a city with three classes of people. Taken as straightforward political philosophy the perspective would disturb me, but I have never taken seriously this reading of the text. On the other hand, as a way of contemplating the human individual it compels me a great deal. I have been lead, however, to consider what alterations I might suggest (albeit recognizing the impetuous nature of offering such alterations to Plato) to the jurisdiction of the Platonic city from my perspective as a Christian. To the degree that I am correcting a reading of the Republic, rather than responding to it as a more informed scholar might, I leave for my better readers to judge.

To summarize (with all the necessary caveats of the insufficiency of summarization), Plato imagines a place where philosopher-kings rule over guardians and ordinary workers, and relates this to three components in the human person: Reason, spiritedness (or what might be called gumption or conviction), and the appetites. Reason, as the king, tells the guardians what to fight for, how to protect the city internally and externally, and tells the appetites what to desire. Because Reason is rational, this is not tyranny but a rulership of justice, for Reason as King can see what is truly best for the guardians. It is easy to fall here into seeing Plato as merely articulating Gnosticism or Manichaeism, as Soul versus Body, Mind versus Matter. But Plato sees conviction and the appetites as part of the soul; they have immaterial as well as material value. No, Plato is not dismissing these drives, but only asserting that they have a fitting and proper role. As beings with the ability to contemplate our actions, we must think carefully; we must have the vigor to carry out our conclusions; we must learn crafts to employ that rationally directed energy. This, so far as it goes, seems reasonable to me, and the overreactions to him, whether viewing him as rejecting the value of poets or rhetoric or balking at the mere existence of a hierarchy within his conceptualization, all seem to me to be precisely that – overreactions.

But while I accept the framework, as a Christian I cannot let certain details pass. First, I cannot abide by human kings. How Plato thought of kingship is not my concern; in any case, the term creates obfuscations with our modern, fantasy-literature distorted depiction of sovereignty. I prefer stewardship; perhaps Plato meant something akin to this, perhaps not. No matter. Rather than King Reason, our passion and our desires must be led, shepherded, by a humble Steward Reason, always aware of his own finitude. (This, incidentally, is why Aragorn is more kingly than Denethor – because he is more of a steward – see the blog entry mentioned above  for more on this subject). As a leader, Reason cannot be effective without his compatriots, and he must do more than legislate from down on high to his subjects. For Reason may fail, and in his imperfections ought to hear the reasonable requests of those he stewards, the Energies and the Appetites. Reason cannot conceive of either peaceful diplomacy or just war by means of some pure logic—it is only by knowing the force of a moral argument that a course of action can be taken. Where the mind may freeze in endless debates about the value of life, the Appetites of sexual desire and hunger give Reason direction. Of course, in pacifism or war-mongery, Epicurean lust or Puritanical repression, gluttony or anorexia, convictions and appetites can go astray. So Reason must not become these things, though among them—they are “natural,” so to speak, but Reason must seek to be supernatural in its stewardship. Convictions and appetites are not pests to control, but are like favored pets, or children, or lifelong dependents of some kind who must be acted on for in their best interest. One who trains a dog for his own convenience will never find delight in his dog. One who parents his child only to be sent away and not to make the child an adult will never have parented. One who treats an invalid dependent on him as a nuisance does not appreciate, not only that other person’s humanity, but his own as well.

None of these analogies stands perfectly, but a reason that stands too high, too free and clear from passion and appetite, will never really know what it is shepherding and stewarding. Reason must think on logic itself, as well as the logic suggested by flight or fight responses, and the logic disposed into the need to sleep, a perception of another human being as attractive, or the rumblings of the belly. Reason must not become these things, but rather hear them, serve them, tend to them, train them, direct and guide as dear friends, close relatives, intimate confidants. Reason must honor them both by not allowing the impulses of conviction or pulls of the appetites to take on duties which will harm them—sexual desire or the need for food must not be taken as logic—nor by casting them out or believing that because they are not Reason that they are not, in some sense, rational. Made by God, the full person participates in the Good, and Reason, as Steward, must search both for the good it can see on its own merits and share these with the heart and the soul; it must also see the good which conviction and appetite bring which Reason on its own cannot perceive. A good boat may save a deficient sailor; a good sailor knows how to capitalize upon the properties of a boat of any caliber.

But finitude is not all there is Reason must be aware of. Sin is not only of the heart and the body—sin is also of the mind. When the appetites lead the Steward astray, the Steward has failed.

Reason has a moral duty to the Appetites, and this is why Gnosticism and naïve dualism really fail. It is all too easy to sit back and blame carnal nature for lust—if we repent of the appetite gone wrong but not also of the bad stewardship, we fail. Reason must come kneeling, weeping along with the rest of the soul—it cannot hang back self-righteously as the spiritedness beats its chest and the appetites mourn. Reason, Human Reason, in Christian epistemology, is a Steward and thus not a law unto itself, but stands under the light of divine reason, which knew better than to leave human ratiocination to conclude that we have sinned and that we have been wicked on its own. C.S. Lewis argued that we must not be “men without chests” in The Abolition of Man, for that is, I believe, a large reason why many of us succumb to, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “having a form of godly devotion but proving false to its power.” The motivating force of conviction and the motivating force of the appetites are trained by Reason, but Reason learns from conviction to yearn after purity and from appetites to hunger after the blood and the flesh of the Son of the Ancient of Days. Reason must burn wicked logic as the eye must be plucked out—not, I must be clear, avoiding thinking critically or assaulting another’s thoughts, but aching and regretting and weeping over how it has nurtured false convictions or allowed appetites to fester and glut themselves. The whole soul must be laid bare, must know its depravity, thorough depravity. I say not total depravity with Calvin, but thorough, for we must not be led to believe that any part of ourselves is too good for repentance, not even Steward Reason. When our higher nature has gone amiss, it must have the humility to see how our lower nature has been ordered by grace, and that without this foundation from the least of ourselves, our loftiest inward places could never soar, could neither triumph nor fail.

The New Testament rarely uses the image of the city to talk of the individual’s role as a Christian—though we are called to be like a city on a hill. More frequently we are compared to the body of Christ, and this visceral understanding of the soul is to me healthier. For if the mind looks to the body as part of knowing itself, it knows it must rid itself of refuse, take in proper nourishment, and know that it has limits and cannot do everything but that strenuous labor to do things which test those limits increases its health. The mind must not reduce itself to the body any more than the body ought to lie down and reduce itself to the dirt, at least not while it is able to strive for something more. For to lie down and reduce the soul to the body is a longer fall than for the body to the surface of the earth. The body, among humans, needs other bodies to live, grow, create, and so does the mind. If we fail to be stewards to one another, we fail to be stewards of ourselves. If we treat others as answers to our appetites or ciphers to play out our convictions, we fail to see them as fellow souls. Each of us, limited and finite, pulses of rational thought governing our passion to protect as guardians and our appetites to move our bodies, interact together like a weave of Christmas lights, where light depends upon light both within the soul itself and the greater community of souls. And these together must order to the greatest Light, steering ourselves and helping others to steer themselves by the revelations of that Light.

The body requires the proper environment to thrive, and the soul does as well. Externally, internally, imminently and transcendentally, thoroughly we must practice stewardship within, around, and above. We must never be kings, nor can we be slaves, over our convictions and our appetites, for we are not our own masters. While the Master appears to be away, the Stewards must serve, and we must, to be reasonable, be full-souled. Reason must ask, chests must heave, bodies must move. Minds as well as hearts must receive sacraments, and the whole person must repent in reason, spirit, and desire. To embrace the neighboring lights we must look to the First of lights, but to pretend as though we can call to God alone when our souls have been disordered in regard to one another is to make believe in an unjust God. Just as we cannot worship God only with our appetites, or only with our passion, or only with reason, so we cannot worship only with our own souls, for we are a Body. And if we have been irrational, too impassioned or excessively appetitive, if we have spoiled our communion with fellow souls, how can Communion with the Father of Souls go untouched?

Alone and together we must tend to our souls as we call upon the One who Heals. Then our city shall be upon a hill, and the darkness will be made into light.

The Defenders of Shannara Trilogy: Spoiler-Free Review

Every year, usually around May or June, I make a trip to Barnes and Noble. I frequent library book sales, used book stores, and garage sales for most of my books; I’m something of a book hoarder. So I resist the temptation to go to the big name brick and mortar giant. But when Terry Brooks’s annual novel hits the bookstores, so do I.

My Sick Shannara Addiction Problem

An integral part of this tradition is that I tell myself I will savor this book, since there won’t be a new Terry Brooks book for a whole year (there was an exception to this rule with the phenomenal Dark Legacy of Shannara trilogy, which saw two books go to print in one year). Instead of rushing through it as if the lives of the characters depend on my rapt attention, I will inhabit this book – I’ll take a whole week to read it. Ha. Yeah right. Most of the time, I end up pulling an all nighter and escape the spellmaster’s wishsong by the breaking of dawn. Book readers talk about the book hangover – that feeling of, What will I do, where will I go, to where will I turn, when this story has happened to me, and everyone around me is just acting the same?

A Brooks novel is like that for me, but in reverse: within the first few pages I am inebriated with the memory of the Four Lands, the world of Shannara that I have lived in since my pre-teenage years. A Brooks novel is sort of like Christmas: it slows down time and puts on pause my other responsibilities (writing my dissertation, sleeping enough so I can make it to class – the one I’m teaching, not the one I am taking, talking to other human beings like a civilized person, et cetera et cetera) while I make sure that the people of Shannara, Landover, or the Word and the Void are going to be okay.

I bought the conclusion of the Defenders trilogy with this farcical promise of reading temperance ringing in my ears on March 24th, the day the book was released through Barnes and Noble. I had the strength of will to finish the book by the 26th, and oh my goodness. It’s a good thing my eyes only water because of allergies, or someone might have thought I was having emotions about a Brooks novel. Nothing to see here (*blows his nose in the corner*). If you’re a veteran reader of Brooks, or if you’re a first-time reader of his corpus, Defenders is an excellent starting place for you.

It puts on full display the world Terry has built without leaving you feeling lost or out of place, while also illustrating Terry’s particular gifts as a storyteller: taking you through the emotions and thoughts of characters as they make challenging decisions about situations that deeply embroil personal matters with high stakes geo-political concerns. I recommend starting with The High Druid’s Blade, the first in the series, but The Sorcerer’s Daughter is the true capstone novel of the trilogy. And it will prepare you for the challenging decision of how to tackle the Shannara novels if you’ve become interested in engaging one of the foundational worlds of modern fantasy literature.

Navigating the Shannara Novels

Recommending Terry Brooks is always a challenge for me, though, because of the problem of entry points. Where to begin? With Landover it’s easy – start with Magic Kingdom for Sale-Sold! because, well, it’s the beginning, and it will get you to pick up the next one. I mean, if you have anything like a taste for fantasy, a sense of humor, and aren’t a boring person, it will. The Word and the Void trilogy has to be taken as a whole – there’s no other way to encounter it. Reading the second book would be like starting with Dante’s Purgatorio. Okay, maybe Terry wouldn’t be comfortable with that comparison (maybe I’m not either), but the point is, Word and Void is a perfect story. Just read the whole thing, and I’ll let you know if you have a soul depending on how you react to it.

Shannara is another ball of wax, even though WaV is technically the prequel to the post-apocalyptical fantasy setting of the Four Lands that is our Northwest USA, but with more Elves, Druids, and enchanted lakes than we usually admit exist in the world. First King of Shannara is a great starting point, but its real pleasure is as an enlargement upon The Sword of Shannara. Sword is unmitigatedly delightful fantasy, but the drawback with Sword is it doesn’t reflect the growth of Terry Brooks as a writer or worldbuilder. I’m not really sympathetic to the complaints about Terry’s use of Tolkien as a source of inspiration – that is a blog post I intend to write in the future in greater detail.

For now, suffice it to say, stories work through tradition. If you read my post about the adaptation of Elfstones of Shannara into The Chronicles of Shannara, you’ll see a glimpse of what my attitude is about artistic tradition. But I do agree with the wisdom of starting with Elfstones and moving into Wishsong. But the problem is, for most of these books we’re talking two, three, or four decades ago. Of course I want to recommend the most recent Terry Brooks book, and I always do, but I also have to assign the homework of at least two or three backgound books. Dark Legacy lives and breathes, for example, in the legacy of the Elfstones novel; Voyage of the Jerle Shannara really requires at least knowledge of The Wishsong of Shannara and The Heritage of Shannara. And of course Heritage (my personal favorite of the series) hits home the best when you’ve read the original trilogy. In my opinion, for that matter, the Genesis of Shannara gap novels hit the spot when you’ve encountered The Word and the Void and the original Shannara trilogy at least.

But I think if you get a taste for it, you won’t stop.

The Defenders of Shannara: A Perfect Place to Start Your Journey

So it’s been a while since a Shannara series has come out that does not require pre-reading of a couple of books – again, in my opinion. What Terry has done with the Defenders trilogy is excellent because for new readers, they will be able to follow along in any direction: read this recent trilogy, and you’ll be ready to go forward to the upcoming, timeline-ending quartet (*sobs*), or go and catch up on reading Elfstones and Wishsong. Even if you’re just looking to sample what a Brooks experience is like, you’ll find here a representative set of gripping stories that give you a clear insight into what Brooks has achieved in his craft.

And while the Defenders trilogy provides a great entry point into the world of the Four Lands from the other side of Terry’s fantastic career, it also will enchant his longtime fans. He’s getting us ready for something big in this four part finale; you can feel it palpably brewing in The Sorcerer’s Daughter. Incidentally, picking favorites is always hard when it comes to a world of imagination that has been my mental furniture since childhood, but it’s my duty as a reviewer to give such commentary. As such, I should say that I think The Sorcerer’s Daughter is the best Shannara novel since The Druid of Shannara, which is my favorite in the series as a whole.

May you greet the dawn with a Terry Brooks book in hand!

Hands of a Healer: The Nobility of Imagination in The Return of the King

“Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart.”

So wrote C.S. Lewis, and I found it to be true as I revisited at long last this concluding volume of Tolkien’s epic imagination. Why does it ache to near the ending of a story I have already read, and which I know I might reread yet again? Anchored in my imagination and prized in my library, why do I feel as if something slips away, or slipped away long before I knew it could be had? Many times I come to a line that I must stop over, set the book down, pick it up again, and read the words, as if they long to be spoken. “It has to be said” is a phrase more mysterious than “I have to say it,” and yet more clearly communicates the weight upon the soul as it longs to hear beautiful truths, however cold or sharp or piercing they may be. When Sam hears Gandalf laugh, he must himself weep before he can laugh:

“and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed” (283).

And when he hears as he had hoped the song of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom, “he laughed aloud for sheer delight, and he stood up and cried: ‘O great glory and splendour! And all my wishes have come true!’ And then he wept” (286).

There is a place, somewhere in the highest of divine imaginations, where all weeping becomes laughter, “regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness” (286). Meantime we must deal with the petty evils of Sarumans who wish to set up their aristocracies and their little tyrannies, but we know now that if Sauron’s was a Shadow that could pass, these mimicking Powers cannot touch the wellsprings of our ennobled imaginations. And how different Aragorn’s vision of the world from Sauron’s: where Sauron’s mind worked poison into the very air and water, where even in his dying moment he becomes but a ghost of his desire for domination, Aragorn passes rod and crown back to Faramir, one for Faramir’s keeping and one for Aragorn’s crowning to include Frodo and Gandalf. He calls Eomer his brother; he puts first those who had been least, the Hobbits of his company who had proven foolish the counsels of the wise. He sets free the prisoners of war from Sauron’s fallen empire and gives land and sovereignty to those deserving; he frees Beregond from the wicked law of Denethor’s stewardship and into service of his beloved, recently elevated Faramir, who brings a wizardly quality to his new authority. He dignifies Eowyn’s betrothal to Faramir with grace, and in so doing shows in one point why he is the true King: “I have wished thee joy ever since I first saw thee. It heals my heart to see thee now in bliss.” It is the sympathetic imagination of the King that gives his healing hands and the fragrance of the athelas their sympathetic magic.

If Faramir is the Steward of Aragorn, Sam is of course the Steward of Frodo. I am struck by the moment where Sam loses hope that he will survive the quest; it is this very moment when he becomes the hero he has been the whole story: “But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.” What false hopes to we cling to in our timid imaginations, the small condolences of little steps that collect to burden us from our larger purpose?

I remember now, in this beautiful ache, why I was so slow to go back to Middle-earth – I feel again the sluggishness of directing my sight to other things when this world, so full of meaning, is just one page away. But I am mindful of the moment when Sam “thought of water even his hopeful spirit quailed,” where finding some drinkable water and a little natural light is enough to make him exclaim, “If I ever see the Lady again, I will tell her!” Frodo tells Sam that in his imprisonment and despair he tried to remember “the Brandywine, and Woody End, and the Water running through the mill at Hobbiton. But I can’t see them now” (239). The atmosphere of Sauron’s imagination had stolen away Frodo’s memory of those abundant waters at home, and here I am, with bottled water and running taps, and am I still greedy and audacious enough to order an Iced Capp from Tim Horton’s?

As I long for Middle-earth, I learn again the value of reality – the surprising joy of the presence of basic gifts of our own Earth that many in our world lack. Where Sam had once met Elves and longed for he knew not what of their world, he now remembers his own, and it is his perseverance for the simple, wholesome good things that remembers on Frodo’s behalf the basic need to carry on in the Shadow’s illusion that goodness can fail. But even in the land of the Shadow fresh waters run, and in the war-torn Gondor the trees of Elves grow in secret. I remember again  the sanctity of the every day ache, the mud of life from which we gaze on those stars, and that the beauty which pierces Middle-earth flows in the same waters and the same Earth over which Treebeard says, “and all that I hear is good, very good.” Can the grief and the sad, still music of humanity, to say nothing of the apparently pointless every day grind, steps in Saruman’s Shire if not Sauron’s Morder, be conquered by so slender a thing as imagination? Gandalf thinks so:

“Many folk like to know beforehand what is to be set on the table; but those who have laboured to prepare the feast like to keep their secret; for wonder makes the words of praise louder. And Aragorn himself waits for a sign.”

King as he is, Aragorn knows that he is in truth yet another Steward. (For a discussion of how I use this term in more explicitly theological terms, see my companion piece discussion of Plato’s Republic from a Christian point of view). Faramir and Sam, in their stewardships of Gondor and the Ring, are heroic in their ability to glimpse beyond the Shadow and see those glimmering lights, and Aragorn in his reflective kingly splendor does not forget that he is not the source of that light. We are the keepers of our own imaginations, and we have a choice between Palantirs and Rings or Hobbits and Kingdoms. Stewards can turn to blessing or to abuse all things; in the wrong hands, even The Lord of the Rings can become a curse. We are beset with dangers, as Gandalf says, for even we ourselves are dangerous, for when the time comes, which of us will cast away our Ring of Power?

As you announce that you have returned from your journey into the imagination, Treebeard asks, “You have proved mightiest, and all you labours have gone well. Where now would you be going? And why do you come here?” (317)

 

The Abolition of a Hobbit: Rereading The Two Towers

[Alternative Titles: Sympathy for the Slinker; Sticking it to Samwise (with utmost respect of course)]

More so than The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers reads like what one expects from a fantasy novel. It’s exciting, it’s action packed – Hobbits are being kidnapped by Orcs, evil wizards are being sieged by walking trees, Elves are shooting winged beasts from the sky, noble warriors are engaging in fierce struggles for the survival of their people against dark Hordes of the Enemy. Two of our major protagonists, Frodo and Sam, have on their hands the dangerous dilemma of trusting a most untrustworthy and most indispensable guide, the split-personality of Slinker and Stinker, Smeagol and Gollum. The dangerous yet somewhat comical spiders of Mirkwood from The Hobbit are dwarfed (pun entirely intended) by the cunning Shelob. In an essay on stories by C.S. Lewis, creatively titled On Stories, Jack makes a distinction between the excitement of plot and the immersion of atmosphere created by a world. It is the difference between the flight-or-fight fear created by being chased by a giant, man-eating spider, and meditating on the quality of a world where giant, man-eating spiders exist. It’s the difference between Wordsworth feeling the rush of the river Wye and its countryside flow over him, and the discerning meditation upon what that rush means. The Fellowship of the Ring is, to be sure, an exciting story, and one that layers itself intentionally over The Hobbit to fill readers with anticipation of a similar story.

But even in The Fellowship, we begin to understand that we’re in a larger and darker adventure than the one that swept Bilbo from his door. We learn the deeper lore of the Ring, the terror of the Nazgul who serve its master, and the forces of light marshalled against the Enemy. The Fellowship is, in some ways, The Hobbit inside out: the pressure of larger forces at work is felt throughout The Hobbit but never seen clearly (though, we with Tolkien will discover, encountered quite directly in the finding of the Ring), while the legacy of Bilbo’s adventures are the pressures by which Frodo and his comrades find themselves issuing out of the safety of the Shire and into the larger affairs of the Great and the Wise. The excitement of The Fellowship is a texturing excitement; it educates us, carrying us over the thresholds of the Bruinen, Nimrodel, and Kheled-zaram and into the darkening shadow of Mordor, the dark touch of which we feel in the agonizing loss of Gandalf and Boromir.

The sub-creative work of building atmosphere for our imaginations to inhabit is of course not finished, but has reached a certain fulfillment once The Two Towers has begun. As readers, we have been oriented to this world clearly enough that we feel more acutely the disorientation of Merry’s and Pippin’s plight and the weight of the task before Frodo and Sam. The two books of The Two Towers presents two separate journeys of a pair of Hobbits, the intertwining of their plots felt only when we realize that the Nazgul winging menacingly over Frodo and Sam was headed to Saruman thinking that the Hobbit with the Ring might be in his clutches, thanks to the errors of Pippin with the Palantir. This is why Lord of the Rings achieves a deeper effect than much of its literary progeny: the weight of history, the lives of its characters, and the intersection of broad realities with narrow experience makes the momentary excitement of plot resonate with the significance of enduring atmosphere. “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?” asks Sam.

“I wonder,” said Frodo. “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.” (407-408)

Something about this exchange between Frodo and Sam has always struck me as powerfully moving, from my first reading of it, to its representation in the film, and my second reading of it earlier today. On the back of my copy, Lewis recommends, “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart….good beyond hope.” The Lord of the Rings in general has the peculiar quality of breaking my heart with its portrayal of goodness as well as its portrayal of evil.

Not long after Sam’s own insightful vision into the storied nature of life itself, he snaps at Gollum in a moment when the poor creature might have tipped into goodness once and for all, having seen in the napping Hobbits a lost self he could, in the presence of his Master Frodo, recall, however faintly. “Why, even Gollum might be good in a tale, better than he is to have by you, anyway,” Sam had said, and fancifully calls, “Would you like to be the hero—now where’s he got to again?” At that moment, we’ll find, Gollum had been away laying his trap with Shelob, but who knows how Sam would have replied if he’d seen “an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time” (411). Instead of remembering his own musings, Sam falls into the insulting habit of interaction he had with the creature he called Slinker and Stinker – accusing him of sneaking and being an old villain. Not without justification, Gollum is wounded, and coupled with the guilt of his treachery, Slinker retreats and Stinker grows.

In the opening pages of The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis rebukes our culture for losing an important part of our “human heritage,” namely, the belief “that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt” (15). Frodo’s reaction to Sam’s musing that his master might be in “songs or tales” some day is to laugh, and Sam’s reaction at being included in those imagined songs and tales is to respond as if his thought were injured, mocked: “Now Frodo,” said Sam, “you shouldn’t make fun, I was serious.” “So was I,” said Frodo.” Sam abolishes his own insight to a fancy when it comes to himself, and if he cannot imagine himself as a hero in a story (with his most heroic actions about to unfold in not too many pages), how could he imagine his fancy about Gollum’s value as anything more than just that, a fancy?

For all of the blame laid in the Ring, the failure of imagination in Sam about a creature of his own kind contributed to Gollum’s doom as surely as the hand of Sauron. This is not to judge Samwise Gamgee too harshly, for there was undeniable sense in his reaction to Gollum, which stemmed as well from his admirable loyalty to Frodo. But if Sam had taken more comfort in Frodo’s pity towards Gollum, as Legolas and Gimli took comfort in each other’s love of forests and caves, perhaps the burden of the One Ring would not have been so heavy to bear. Who can tell, in this time of crisis, how much evil we kindle by laughing at our own ideals? We might be silly hobbits, but let not our laughter be altogether be without dignity, for the sake of the Frodos, Sams, and Gollums among us all.

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” (The Abolition of Man, 26)

Rivers and Ruins: Rereading The Fellowship of the Ring

In “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth’s return to the banks of the River Wye call to memory a boundlessly energetic past self whose passions have been estranged to him by the passage of time:

“I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.–I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion.”

He finds his passions cooled; he cannot feel that level of immersion in the landscape, but he can reflect on those passions, meditate on them more profoundly where once they had possessed him. I am saddened to say that the return to Lord of the Rings is similar in that sense: I no longer have the boundless energy to block out all the world, to regard no concern of my daily life, and plunge with every strength of my soul into the subcreation before me. I wish to be all consumed with the fear of the Nazgul and the wonder of the Elves and the haunting ruins of the ancient Numenoreans as I once was. It is not that the pages of the text have lost any beauty for me; I do not love Middle-earth any less. I am just now too much of the world of experience, as Blake would put it – my days of innocence (I know, it sounds disgustingly nostalgic, but I mean it in a quite specific sense) are gone, and they are properly gone. I lean back from the page rather than into it, and with that comes a longing for the days when I plunged in, but there is something new:

“These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye.”

Just as Wordsworth turned in his heart to the “Sylvan Wye,” that “wanderer thro’ the words” who mirrored his migrant soul, so have I remembered the harried flight across the Bruinen, dogged by the Nazgul, and the crossing of Nimrodel into Lothlorien. Although I cannot feel the total abandonment to the plot of The Lord of the Rings, I can more deeply appreciate the Nimrodellian powers Tolkien holds over my heart, who makes me feel that, if for only a fleeting moment, “we see into the life of things.”

Despite it being over a decade and a half since my last reading, few words felt unremembered or strange – rarely did Gandalf’s words “I have no memory of this place” spring to mind. Rather, it was as if a layer of dust had collected, and disturbed by a return, rereading was akin to meeting up with a dear, dear Friend whose exact aspect has perhaps grown soft in your memory, but the flow of conversation and comfort in her society returns with such immediacy as if you had only talked yesterday, though it had been years.

My regard for the crossing of the Bruinen when I first read The Fellowship versus my present relish for the crossing of the Nimrodel perhaps best captures the newfound awe which the story holds for me. The strange reaction of Frodo as he confronts the Nazgul on the riverside, to call upon Elbereth and Luthien, as if the tales of the Elves he knew from Bilbo and Rivendell were talismans of power, the shapes of elemental knights on horses in the waves that rise to confront the wraiths and batter them away – the heat of Tolkien’s spell was upon me, and the magic that it portended drew my attention. But I know now that Elrond was a ring-bearer, that Glorfindel a tragic memory of the annals of the Silmarils, and that this meeting of force with force, beautiful as it remains, is a symbol of the desperation that comes with power wielded only to hold power at bay.

The waters of Nimrodel are not so exciting as the waters of Bruinen, though perhaps they might be if threatened by a breach of Ring-wraiths:

“It was cold but its touch was clean, and as he went on and it mounted to his knees, he felt that the stain of travel and all weariness was washed from his limbs… At length a silence fell, and they heard the music of the waterfall running sweetly in the shadows. Almost Frodo fancied that he could hear a voice singing, mingled with the sound of the water.

‘Do you hear the voice of Nimrodel?’ asked Legolas. ‘I will sing you a song of the maiden Nimrodel’…” (440)

One should always suspect a sad story in rivers named for maidens; even the sometimes repugnant optimism of Wordsworth admits the “sad, still music of humanity” that echoes over the streams. But Nimrodel is not a mournful river after the manner of Kheled-zaram, the mirror-like pool where Gimli and Frodo stand in stricken grief over the fallen Gandalf. Grief, in its emptying stranglehold, requires we look away from ourselves and see our reflection on the world diminished: “Of their own stooping forms no shadow could be seen” (434). Kheled-zaram was something I did not appreciate so well, when I first felt the jarring absence of the irascible old wizard, as I do now.

But like crossing the Nimrodel, rereading The Lord of the Rings has reminded me of a cleaner self, a less cynical eye, so that while it may be true that we are in a world where “but to think is to be full of sorrow,” as Keats would have it, the Elf is not deceiving, and the music’s sadness does not take away its stillness. In the real world, you might say that we only hear Elf-songs from Hobbits, but Hobbits are sometimes Fallohides, and there’s more to them than meets the eye (on this point Bilbo and Gandalf are agreed, a formidable alliance to be sure). And Hobbits though we are, we can bear a burden heavier, and for longer, than we might think.

“And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!”

I was not magnificent: The Craft of Imagination in The Hobbit

A song frequently heard from my playlist is Bon Iver’s “Holocene.” It’s one of those rare songs where the music video contributes meaningfully to the song’s poignant call to imagine the holocene – the period of time since the last ice age, 11,700 years, the brief moment in which human history can be found in the vast timeline of the earth.

I recommend listening and watching before reading more.

The chorus runs, “And at once I knew I was not magnificent/Strayed above the highway aisle/(Jagged vacance, thick with ice)/I could see for miles, miles, miles.” In the video we watch a young boy awakening in his small, comfortable, Hobbit-like home, as he prepares to go outside. As he looks out the window, we can see a bird flying past. The boy leaves his modest abode, walking with stick in hand, and the grassy home fades as he encounters the surrounding landscape, the hawk circling overhead.

Imagining for Miles and Miles

Bilbo was no child when the boisterous dwarves came calling at the Unexpected Party, and he was also not, like the child, looking for adventure in wild places. The call to adventure had fallen asleep in him; memories of Gandalf from his childhood stirred those thoughts for a moment as the wizard visits uninvited him on a good morning:

“Gandalf, Gandalf! Good gracious me! Not the wandering wizard that fastened themselves and never came undone til ordered? Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons? Not the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks! I remember those!” (19)

Bilbo quickly remembers his Hobbitish disinterest in such “mad adventures,” though he is too polite to refuse the wizard for tea, and still too polite to question a troop of dwarves inviting themselves as the old man’s plus thirteen. It is really not Gandalf or any argument from the dwarves, I think, which woos Bilbo into the approaching adventure. It’s not the smith-craft of the dwarves, but their song-craft, which resonates with the Hobbit’s Tookish heartstrings:

“And suddenly first one and then another began to sing as they played, deep-throated singing of the dwarves in the deep places of their ancient homes; and this is like a fragment of their song, if it can be like their song without their music” (26).

They sing of mountains, dwarven kings and treasure, elflords and dragons, a lost home and the harps that filled their halls with music. Like the crowns they made that “meshed the light of moon and sun,” the song alloys sadness with beauty, casting a somber light like that from the fireplace to create half-seen wonders in the imaginations of those who will listen:

“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”

Their song opens his mind to see more, to see further, to stray high above the homely comforts of his hobbit-hole and encounter the magnificence that the world has to offer, and to bear the symbol of encounter with that magnificence, to exchange a sword for a walking-stick.

The Craft of Imagination

This is my third time reading through The Hobbit, and I am struck yet again by Tolkien’s craft of imagination. We may often think of imagination as something that is a given; simply imagine a dragon, a wizard, an elf, a dwarf – it seems easy. But just as our capacity for rational thought or sensory experience gives us the potential for philosophy and science, greater effort is needed to obtain the discipline of the imagination – deep, stirring encounters with transformative beauty. Of what are our imaginations really capable? Tolkien, as he dims the light of our comfortable assumptions at the fireside of his magic song, does not merely present his own craft of imagination, but shares it with us, mentors us, like Gandalf mentors Bilbo and the Dwarves, to let our minds soar.

I think this has something to do with the reason why Eagles and other birds play such an important role in his stories, especially The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which are more pedagogical in their desire to teach readers how to read the story than the more austere Silmarillion legends. It would be easy enough to imagine Eagles meeting Bilbo at his door and sweeping him off to the Lonely Mountain, but to do so would be to miss the texture of Middle-earth and the presence of the Eagles themselves. There is an author mapping the story, but he withdraws from Bilbo at times and lets him think he is alone in the dark, comforted not even by his best companion, his pipe:

“After some time he felt for his pipe. It was not broken, and that was something. Then he felt for his pouch, and there was some tobacco in it, and that was something more. Then he felt for matches and he could not find any at all, and that shattered his hopes completely” (77).

I am more sympathetic to this passage now, as a casual pipe smoker, than I was as a younger, more puritanical sort (no offense meant of course). At other times we see Gandalf, Bilbo, and the Dwarves smoking their pipes; it is a simple form of camaraderie and is a muted way in which Gandalf’s magical abilities can be hinted at without becoming excessively utilitarian. Mere utility quite ruins the fun of magic, and for that matter ruins pipe-smoking: that would be what we call addiction (we’ll speak of the Ring some other time, which is more like an always replenishing pack of Newports – yum). Striking a match just then, as the narrator assures us Bilbo comes to realize, would have been a bad idea in any case. The goblin tunnels are a poor place to show off your ring-blowing skills, even poorer than showing off to Gandalf, and it is a mistake (though one with small consequence in this case) rooted in a failure of imagination.

To Everything There is a Season

Pipe tobacco and Eagles have their place, and it is a poor, uncrafted imagination that seeks to have the pleasure and the majesty of both at all times. “Holocene,” like The Hobbit, uses the passing of seasons to express the texture of our encounter with the small concession Nature, in its sheer presence, makes to our little lives. From Halloween to Christmas human celebrations attempt to pierce the seasons with meaning, and Bilbo’s journey takes a year, though it only takes nine months, from April to December, for his duties as Burglar to become resolved. This seasonal quality to the texture of imagination as it unfolds through story is something lost on the dwarves in the midst of their most grotesque behavior (especially Thorin’s) – their occupation of the hoard under the Lonely Mountain.

When the dwarves first sang their song, it was partly to bring Bilbo into harmony with their intentions, and also to reignite the fellowship that would unite all of them. It’s Springtime (April to be exact), proverbial rather than cliche as a fitting time to recollect their identity and begin the mission. With summer grown old, they sing their song again in Beorn’s hall – somewhat unseasonably, since Beorn seems to find no interest in songs about treasure (127). Whereas the song in Bilbo’s home served as a call to adventure in a place that had little enough of it, Beorn’s home, surrounded by goblin-infested mountains and spider-crawling Mirkwood, needs no such call.

The song related by the narrator is not quite the same, a varied reiteration that reaffirms the journey’s purpose for the dwarves and Bilbo, and which focuses more on the restless wind rather than the dwarven “dungeons deep and caverns old”:

“The wind was on the withered heath…
…It passed the lonely Mountain bare
and swept above the dragon’s lair…
It left the world and took its flight
over the wide seas of the night.
The moon set sail upon the gale
and stars were fanned to leaping light.”

Weary travelers in brief respite meet the wind as fellow traveler as well as a sometimes tiresome obstacle; the wind becomes here a means to imagine a cosmic journey, providing a consoling solidarity moving through Nature itself.

Maturity of Imagination

In the first two songs, the dwarves were more experienced than Bilbo in the world, and their wisdom contained the means to push Bilbo’s imagination past a comfortable place where the best rooms are conveniently always on the left. But by the end, their last song is a deadening of imagination, a conflation of imagination with mere possession of ill-gotten gain:

“Now call we over mountains cold,
‘Come back unto the caverns old’!
Here at the Gates the king awaits,
His hands are rich with gems and gold.” (249)

When the gems and gold were across the Misty Mountains cold, past Mirkwood damp and dangerous, and encrusted under the dragon’s belly, their summons was a summons to poetry and adventure, but as Bilbo recognized, gripped in hand such dragon-tainted treasure meant the narrowing of dwarven imaginations to violence: “But Bilbo’s heart fell, both at the song and the talk: they sounded much too warlike” (249).

Bilbo’s reiterated desire to go home, as each new challenge and even each place of respite, transforms from whine to wisdom in the trying fire that lay out of the frying pan. He had peered from mountain-tops for miles and miles, his imagination had soared, and like the wind could alight but could never rest on mere gold. The gold-gleam was for Bilbo a fuel, not an object, of imagination, and there was its true value. Thorin’s imagination was tied to his own importance from the beginning (as we hear from the narrator even during the Unexpected Party), and so able to ignore a small detail such as he did not slay or even arouse from slumber the dragon who had occupied his hoard. Thorin could not see past his own magnificence, and he could not understand the language of the thrush, only that of the more warlike ravens (though even the old raven proved wiser than a gold-sick Thorin).

Bilbo grew into his imaginative appreciation for things magnificent with the insight that he was himself not. The last song of The Hobbit is the hobbit’s own, about the return to that home he had so longed for and the roads that go between his and all homes, those visited and those not:

“Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at least to home afar.” (284)

Returning from the flights of imagination where we have learned to be passengers to Eagles and conversant with Thrushes, as readers we are left somewhat in Bilbo’s shoes, unable to return to our world without something of elven songs and dwarven chants echoing in our dreams. The easy story of a journey that relied upon Eagle-flight alone would reaffirm the fantasy of our own grandeur, but such vain self-centered fancies blind us to more fulfilling and self-realizing experiences of which our wandering minds can obtain, in higher reaches where songs are carried on the wind.

Instead, through a more profound craft of imagination we are invited to feel that we, our lives, are not magnificent – and what a relief, for the encounter with true magnificence lies out there, if our imaginations are awake enough to thirst for it. Like hobbits, Tolkien reminds his readers of their magnificent smallness to affirm the big wonders that lay in wait down future roads.

As Gandalf said to Bilbo, “You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

“‘Thank goodness!’ said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco jar.” (286-87)

Arborlon, City of Elves: A (Sort of) Review of the Shannara Chronicles: Season 1 Premiere

The narrator of The Hobbit, in his thoroughly British way, relates how Bilbo’s ancestor, Bullroarer Took, lopped off the head of Golfimbul the Goblin Chieftain. The severed head “sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down the rabbit-hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of golf invented in the same moment.” In the film, it is not the narrator, but Gandalf, who relates this story to Bilbo, who scoffs, “I do believe you made that up.” Gandalf responds, “All good stories deserve to be embellished.” It is a beautiful moment because it performs, defends, and illustrates the adaptive and innovative intentions of the trilogy as a whole: the scene makes an authorial intrusion a wisecrack from a wise character, and attempts to ameliorate the ire of fans of the novel Hobbit as they discover that the film is, in fact, not a mere replication but an interpretation of the story they love.

As it happens, I think the Hobbit trilogy is a congested mess with some worthwhile gems, a lot of fluff and a lot of cinematic disaster. But I think the self-awareness of the first film, captured in Gandalf’s quip, provides something very wise that readers might keep in mind when they approach adaptations of works they love. This is not to say that readers cannot be disappointed by changes, but the criteria for disappointment for changes should not simply be that there are changes. A novel is not a play or a proto-screenplay; a novel does not put a period on the artistic expression and contribution that media can bring to a previously written story. The Shannara Chronicles is not, as Terry Brooks explicitly stated he did not desire, a paint-by-numbers version of The Elfstones of Shannara. But it is also not another story with similarly named characters and a vaguely similar plot. In atmosphere, essential characters, and the texture of the driving mythos, the premiere lives and breathes within the Elfstones narrative in an organic way, and its changes are grown, like the Ellcrys in Arborlon, from the rich soil of the original.

What follows actually contains only a very little discussion of the premiere itself, because I wish to avoid spoilers. What I attempt to present, instead, is a rationale by which I, as a long time reader and dedicated fan of Terry Brooks, regard the Shannara Chronicles premiere as highly satisfying in its methods.

From Scroll to Screen: Representative vs. Adaptive Translation

As an academic, I have translated texts, in whole or in part, from Latin, Old English, Middle English, and Middle High German. When I am initially translating for myself, I follow what is called a “word for word” translation, where, as close as possible, I match the number of words in my translation with the number of words in the original. Because most ancient languages have a case system, this means that the initial translation makes no sense because it lacks many of the words we use in English to create syntax. The next step in translating is to correct this problem; what makes my syntax not only correct but also familiar and common English usage? By the time these changes have been made, to make the translation readable, I will have probably made several changes that a different translator could have handled differently. These are permutations that would be correct for both of us. This allows for greater flexibility than one might expect in the process of a rather literal and even strict translation process, and this change is only concerned with preserving correctness of expression from one set of words to another set of words. This is what translators call “sense for sense” translation. Translation of media, from pure language on the page to visuals on the screen, will necessarily, in a similar but in some ways very complex way, require choices on the part of any film maker that could produce a staggering array of differences, even among great retellings that attempt close reiteration of the prose telling.

But the first type of translation has two purposes: to help students learn how the original language works by seeing how it correlates with their primary language, and to help those who do not know the original language at all. In other words, the first type of translation helps students to better understand the original text, and that type of translation will eventually be set aside by the student as she reflects more carefully on the original. The second type of reader, the one with no interest in learning dead languages, is using the translation as a stand-in, a replacement. I will probably never learn Old French, at least not fluently, so translations of The Song of Roland largely do this work for me. But I have translated Beowulf myself, and I still refer to other English translations because those people are more expert in Old English and can give me guidance as I become a better reader of the original.

But there is a third type of translation: the adaptive translation. The adaptive translation does not simply seek “word for word” or “sense for sense,” but also is willing to depart from the original because the content of the original inspires the translator to associate it with their own creative perceptions. The adaptive translation does not simply try to stay “true” to the original, because access to the original is already assumed. When everyone is translating the same text (like Beowulf, as students of English all once did), it becomes less necessary, when retelling it, to stick to the details, because the ideal audience already knows the details. The pleasure of permutations occurs here: the sequence of words, sentences, events, character interactions and so forth has a meaning understood by the audience, and they are able to see how changes to the story, or selections from or additions to it, play with the meaning of the original. This is how many tales were shaped in the Middle Ages, including those of Robin Hood, King Arthur, and many others. Reverence for a story requires both replication and innovation; embellishment is here not bad representative translation, but playful or beloved adaptive translation.

Film is Essentially Adaptive, not Representative, Translation

Although film (whether for the big screen or television) requires technologies that are newer than books, that historical fact does not make the choice to write a novel simply a stand-in until it can become a movie (though some may write after this fashion, which is fine). Now, great films can and do take a “word for word” and “sense for sense” approach to novels in many cases, and that is a legitimate choice on the director. But it is not a necessary one, and I daresay it is not the best approach. It is likewise not the best approach to adaptation to simply eviscerate the original novel and create some other thing with nothing but copyright-level similarities between the two. Adaptive translation is not abandonment, such as I feel happened with World War Z (the novel pushed the limits of the traditional zombie story in fascinating ways, and the film was just boring and uninspired, standard zombie flick fare). Often readers feel abandoned at the least permutation, at the addition of characters or rearrangement of plot. But abandonment film translations are repugnant because they are dishonest: they claim intimacy with a written story and betray a total lack of that intimacy.

The purpose of a film adaptation should not be to make the book obsolete; murderous usurpation is not intimate. The film adaptation should not pilfer bits of the book to create some other story than the one advertised; lying and stealing are neither of them intimate. A film should not subserviently seek to represent the book as if differences of media do not exist; self-esteem matters as much for good artistic relationships as it does for interpersonal ones. When you meet the intimate of someone you love, you do not lose sight of that person. They do not disappear. Better yet, when you see a dear friend in a new role, you do not stop seeing them, but you see them in that new role as the one you knew. So we might say that The Shannara Chronicles is in adaptive friendship with the Elfstones of Shannara, or we might say that the Elfstones story is a friend who participates in two roles: as a novel or as a TV show.

Charity: The Responsibility of the Reading Viewership

I don’t like every detail of The Shannara Chronicles’s adaptive choices, but no choice in it breaks with the charitable appreciation for the original story. Each change observed an authentic concern within Elfstones and sought to breathe a unique life into those concerns in a new medium. I reread Elfstones last year in preparation for the premiere, and as a lifelong reader of Terry Brooks who has read all of his published work, I felt respected as an audience member. But respect is not condescension or pandering, and immediately the Shannara Chronicles, much like our fierce female leads Amberle and Eretria, asserts its right to be its own artistic expression with its own narrative integrity, even as it strives to keep profound friendship with its parent novel. And I think that newcomers to the story will find the TV show delightful and fantastic even if they have never read Brooks; and should they pick up the novel, they will not be picking up an earlier version of technology like picking up a Nintendo 64 instead of picking up a Nintendo Wii U. They will be picking up the independent source of an embellished adaptation, a younger friend of an older friend, or maybe an old friend’s new hobby.

The sets of The Shannara Chronicles are beautiful, sometimes stunning. The actors tap into the spirit of their characters in ways that persuade me thoroughly. The mythos of Elfstones is preserved in all of its urgent splendor. Watching the premiere excites me for what future episodes hold, but it also refreshes my ability to appreciate the original presentation, providing a pleasing contrast that makes both tellings distinct in their integrity but confluent as reflections of the same story.

The Shannara Chronicles is a respectful embellishment of Elfstones, so far at any rate, and as such adapts the mythology to the small screen in a strikingly pleasant way. It is a charitable adaptation, and deserves a charitable approach from those in the viewership who are readers of Brooks. That doesn’t mean readers can’t dislike the televised version or levy legitimate critiques, of course.

Sub-creation and Renewal of Perspective

But instead of seeing the novel and the TV show as in a battle, Druid the Novel against Demon the Show, in a bitter showdown, why not see them as Bremen and Allanon, or Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi, or Aragorn and Gandalf? They’re both rather daring attempts at storytelling, daring for different reasons, but they are on the same side in a simple belief, held by Terry Brooks himself, in his essay, “Why I write About Elves”:

“Good fantasy mirrors reality, but it doesn’t reflect an exact image. That is what makes it so valuable. It shows us reality in disguise, then allows us to unmask it. It frees us up to reconsider our attitudes and beliefs.”

That is what fantasy does for us in what Tolkien calls the Primary World, in an essay entitled On Fairy Stories where he enlarges on similar themes. Tolkien calls world-building subcreation, and like Brooks defends the fantasy impulse to reinvent the world as a way on meditating upon the human condition. That sense of wonderment that allows us to recreate this world we encounter in the guise of fantasy is, I think, the same impulse that inspires truly charitable adaptations from novel to film. What better compliment can be paid to a fantasy world than that it inspires fantasy-world building? Translation and adaption, too, is a compliment to the primary text, just as stories about fairies in gardens are not insults to gardens but a way to illustrate the beauty they provide.

A good adaptation, using Terry Brooks’s words as a method, mirrors its source text, but it doesn’t reflect exactly the same image, and it shouldn’t. As with fantasy itself, film adaptation frees us to consider how the stories we encounter shape us, brings into finer reliefs assumptions we have made as readers, and gives us a chance to reflect on what motivates our participation in the stories we love. Returning to the words of Brooks himself, we read:

“The problem with much of what we read is that we have our minds made up about any issues the story might presume to address before we turn the first page. We know how we feel about things. We expect to have our beliefs confirmed, not changed. But that sort of baggage gets left behind when we read fantasy.”

The Shannara Chronicles does not reiterate Elfstones, but refreshes it through adaptive embellishment. If we remember the lighter feeling we first discovered reading fantasy, we might be able to relinquish some of the baggage of our assumptions about film adaptation.

Let’s not forget about magic in the midst of a city of elves.