Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Campbell’

Tolkien lecture 1: Intro and bio

September 18, 2014

I use this forum to publish a variety of ongoing projects.  Here, I am working on a mini-course on Tolkien which I am to lead for my church in October.  These are the notes for my first lecture. 

 

 

Tolkien lecture 1: Intro and bio

 

First, when I start a new class I usually tell the students who I am and what relevant background I have for the course. In this case, I admit I am an amateur when it comes to Tolkien. My specialty is philosophical theology, and most people think of Tolkien as a writer of fantasy literature. Perhaps, if they are bit more informed, they think of him as a religious fantasy writer. Religion and Lit. is not necessarily my professional expertise, but it is a longtime interest.

My first qualification, I would say, is that I wanted this course. I’ve heard for a long time that if you want something done around the church, you should volunteer to do it. With the last of the Hobbit movies coming out this December, there seems no better time to look at Tolkien.

My second qualification is my decades-long interest in fantasy literature, movies, games and so on. Tolkien really established fantasy and influenced generations of writers afterwards. Another writer of fantasy literature, great in his own way though not as grand perhaps, was C. S. Lewis. I was pleasantly surprised when I first learned that these two great religious writers were friends and collaborators. I read both Tolkien and Lewis first in the mid 1970s, during the Tolkien craze in the U.S. and like millions I loved the books. In my church youth group we did discussions of some of Lewis’ books, but never discussed Tolkien. It was much later that I first realized that Tolkien was just as much a religious writer as Lewis, although they had very different styles and strategies.

As I began my scholarly work in Religious Studies, I encountered various psychological methods of analysis, including those of Carl Jung. I learned that Jung influenced Joseph Campbell, whose work on comparative religions in turn influenced George Lucas. Tolkien’s more theoretical discussions of religion and mythology began to interest me as alternatives to the Jungian approach. More on that next week.

And getting back to my professional focus, I became interested in Tolkien as a theologian about ten years ago, when SECSOR issued a call for Tolkien papers in conjunction with the release of Peter Jackson’s Ring movies. That seems only fair, since Tolkien was not really schooled in theology yet he wrote theologically significant essays, and I’m a theologian who’s not really schooled in Tolkien yet I write about him. One thing I hope to do here is discuss some of the theological concepts developed by Tolkien, and consider whether they offer better alternatives than some of the most popular theology today. Again, more on that later.

Still, I would not dare to stand in front of a group like this, which I know to be pretty sharp, if it weren’t for my confidence that sheer enthusiasm can make up for a lot in a teacher; and I am enthusiastic about Tolkien, both as a writer and a theologian. As a first step towards a greater appreciation of Tolkien as a theologian, I’d like to start with a short summary of Tolkien’s life, and consider in particular how some of the events of his life shaped his writing and his religious thought.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3rd, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. His father, Arthur, was a branch manager of Lloyds Bank of Africa, having come originally from England with his wife Mabel two years earlier. The climate in South Africa was not good for mother or children and John was often sick. His father died in South Africa in 1896 of rheumatic fever, while the family was away visiting England. They then moved there permanently, first living in the small town of Sarehole Mill for four years before returning to Mabel’s hometown of Birmingham in 1900. Birmingham at that time was at the epicenter of English industrialization, and young John desperately missed the rural life he had left to move to this mechanized and dirty city. It was also about this time that he began studying languages and grammar. His mother converted to Catholicism, which estranged her from many in her family. Four years later she was dead from diabetes, leaving the parish rector, Father Morgan, as their legal guardian so that they would be raised as Catholics (1904). John was 13.

For the next four years the brothers lived with an aunt who was not emotionally close, but spent as much time as they could at school or the church with Fr. Morgan. In 1908 the boys moved out to a boarding house near the church, and John met another lodger there, a 19-year-old girl named Edith. Although she was three years older than he was, they declared their love for each other in 1909. Fr. Morgan did not approve when he found out about their relationship, and moved John Ronald to another house and forbade him from seeing her until he turned 21, at which point he would be legally an adult.

Over the next four years the two exchanged letters but never saw each other. JRR finished his schooling and won a scholarship to Oxford. On the day of this 21st birthday he wrote a letter to Edith and proposed. When she replied that she was already engaged to another man, he traveled to see her five days later and persuaded her to marry him. She converted to Catholicism a year later, and they were married Nov. 22, 1916.

JRR finished his studies at Exeter College of Oxford University, focusing on philology. After he finished his studies he joined the British army and fought in France during WWI. Originally sent to Flanders, he soon became ill and spent most of his military service in and out of hospital until he was discharged. By 1918, when the war ended, he wrote “All my close friends but one are dead.”

During this time his career was beginning to take off. Privately, he had begun writing poems years earlier, and began work on the Simarillion in 1917. Professionally he worked as a tutor and on the New English Dictionary, particularly the letter “W”. Years later, when an editor attempted to tell him that spelling “dwarves” with a “v” was not proper according to the Oxford dictionary, he replied, “I WROTE the Oxford English Dictionary!” This was also a time when he learned a great deal about language, as he researched the etymology of words back to Old English and other roots.

In 1920 he became a Reader at Leeds University, and in 1925 he was elected Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, beating out his former tutor. The position required at least 21 lectures a year; his second year he gave 136, and eventually settled down to 72 a year through the end of the 1930s. So he wasn’t lazy.

May 11, 1926 Tolkien met C.S. Lewis. Lewis is said to have been warned never to trust a Catholic or a philologist, and Tolkien was concerned that Lewis might oppose his efforts to improve the linguistics portion of the college syllabus; but the two became friends because of their shared interests in good beer and good stories. At the time they met, Lewis was not religious; his conversations with Tolkien and mutual friend Hugo Dyson led to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity in 1931. Lewis’ ongoing suspicion of Catholicism did somewhat strain their lifelong friendship at times.

In 1932 Tolkien, Lewis and several others formed a literary club, calling themselves The Inklings. This group met weekly to share meals, give public readings of ongoing projects (and offer criticism), and generally socialize.

One biographer remarked that after this point in Tolkien’s life, nothing much happened. That’s “nothing,” of course, aside from writing some of the most widely read and beloved books in the English language, with combined sales of over 250 million copies and still going. But at this point, the story becomes less about what made J.R.R. Tolkien, and more about what J.R.R. Tolkien made. In addition to his scholarly work, he had been writing fantasy first for himself, and then for his children; but he never intended to publish most of it. He was a respected scholar and a popular and busy lecturer, working far harder than his job demanded; he was a husband and father; and he met weekly with the Inklings. And that is where it probably would have remained, except for an event that Tolkien recounted years later in a letter to a friend. He said that around 1930 he was grading exams for secondary school students to earn some extra money, when finding a blank page in the exam book and feeling bored he scribbled, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” And there he left it, he said, for a very long time; but eventually he began to wonder himself what a hobbit was and what they were up to, so he began writing a story to find out where it would lead. While he was working on that he wrote, in 1936, probably his most important non-fiction work, his essay on Beowulf titled, “The Monsters and the Critics.” This lecture is credited with revitalizing and revolutionizing Beowulf studies, and today we can see it as a statement of Tolkien’s own intentions as a writer. He shared early work on “The Hobbit” with Lewis, who urged him to publish. The tipping point came when a former student who worked for Allen and Unwin Publishers showed it to a coworker, who urged him to finish it. It was then reviewed by the resident reader of children’s literature, Stanley Unwin’s ten-year-old son Raynor, who gave it a very favorable review and said it did not need any changes. And at that point, Tolkien began the transition from obscure but respected scholar to world-renowned author.

The Hobbit received favorable reviews, including one written by C. S. Lewis that predicted that the work could become a classic. And as Rayor Unwin had predicted, children enjoyed the book and found it very exciting. As a result it sold very well, and soon Allen and Unwin were pressing him to write “more hobbit stories.” Tolkien, on the other hand, wanted to publish The Simarillion, which is a collection of tales describing the creation of Middle Earth. The work does not have the easy style of The Hobbit, or the narrative unity; and worst of all, it has NO HOBBITS. Instead, Tolkien began work on a sequel to The Hobbit which also picked up on some of the themes of The Simarillion, the struggle against Melkor the evil rebel against the creator God, and so on. This work turned into the massive Lord of the Rings. This is published as a three-part story, though the parts themselves are actually separate volumes so it could appropriately be said to be a six volume series. The story of Bilbo’s obtaining the magic ring, which had been a fairly short affair in the original telling, was expanded and the character of Gollum added to The Hobbit to tie it closer to the story Tolkien wanted to tell. While The Hobbit is a fairly straightforward fairy story about a rather stuffy, middle-class, nebbish who gets dragged off by a wizard and his dwarf friends on an adventure (and in the process becomes something more), The Lord of the Rings is a tale of four simple hobbits who are swept up into not only a world war, but a cosmic struggle of the agents of good against an evil that has existed since the creation of the world.   As it was written during the time of World War II and the Cold War, many readers sought to see it as an analogy or political allegory; but Tolkien vigorously denied this. He wanted it to be received as whatever the reader’s imagination said, so each person could apply it to his or her life. At the same time, while it was not explicitly or obviously Christian the way Lewis’ Narnia tales were, religious themes are integral to the book. The religious undertones and the epic scope of the work make Tolkien the figure he is. In the USSR, there were people called Tolkienisti who read smuggled books in secret. While it is likely the Soviets would have disapproved of fairy tales like The Hobbit, I have a hard time believing people would have risked persecution to read Tolkien were it not for the substance and sustenance they found in The Lord of the Rings.

In 1965, the American firm Ace Publishing released an unauthorized edition of The Lord of the Rings. Although publishers generally were expected to respect international copyrights, Ace had decided that since The Lord of the Rings wasn’t registered in the U.S. it would treat the work as public domain. Tolkien reacted by quickly reaching a deal with another American publisher, Ballentine, to publish the authorized version, and then made efforts to promote the authorized edition and to encourage his readers not to buy from Ace. Tolkien readers are a loyal and basically moral group, and proved willing to pay a bit more for an authorized version that paid the author royalties. Eventually Ace was forced to capitulate and pay royalties. The upshot of the lawsuits and publicity was that Tolkien became an internationally known author, and sales soared. It was the beginning of the Tolkien boom.

After this, even works that had been passed over by publishers began to attract attention. Hobbits or no, anything by Tolkien was likely to attract a readership. There was even consideration to finally publishing Tolkien’s own personal favorite, as far as I can tell, The Simarillion, although it remained unpublished and he continued to work on it until the end of his life. He passed away in 1973, while his son Christopher continued to edit and publish his father’s previously unpublished works for years after.

If I made it this far and didn’t run out of time or have to skip oodles of material, I am surprised. However, let me close by trying to sum up what I think a survey of Tolkien’s biography reveals about him as a man:

PICTURE OF TOLKIEN

 

As we look at Tolkien’s life, we can see how events made him the man he was.

  1. As a child,
  2. He showed an early interest in language, making up his own as a game. He also showed an interest in fantasy and fairy stories.
  3. Also, he was born in South Africa, but the dry climate did not suit him. His happiest memories were his young childhood in rural England. Shehole became the model for The Shire. By contrast, he hated the large, industrial city of Birmingham.
  4. He had a strong appreciation for nature and an aversion to technology that harmed the environment, such as cars and later trains.
  5. He lost both his parents at a young age. He knew suffering and loss.
  6. His mother converted to Catholicism, and was estranged from much of her family as a result. He learned that you may have to give up something for faith, because faith is important.
  7. As a teenager (to age 21),
  8. He was raised by Fr. Morgan. His aunt, in whose home he and his brother lived in the years after their mother’s death, was cold and distant; Fr. Morgan was engaged and supportive. Tolkien’s faith and his studies were a shelter and escape from an unpleasant home situation.
  9. His long separation from Edith and their eventual marriage shows his devotion and commitment.
  10. As an adult,
  11. He was a patriot, and he knew the horrors and loss of war.
  12. He was a perfectionist; he worked harder than he had to as a scholar and a teacher, and as a writer he generally had to be prodded to publish because he was unsure if his work was really ready.
  13. He was a devout Catholic.
  14. He was devoted to his family, writing regular stories for his children. His marriage to Edith lasted more than fifty years, until she passed away in 1971.

 

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. xvi)

June 25, 2013

CONCLUSIONS

            For Campbell, mythology, psychology and metaphysics are all of one piece.[1]  Religion reveals the structure of the unconscious as this is collectively expressed, and this in turn expresses our understanding of the nature of reality; or to read it backwards, the structure of reality gives rise to psychological themes and symbols that are expressed, codified and institutionalized in religion.  Since virtually every role-playing game will express the monomyth, every such game will be an individual’s using those symbols drawn from the collective unconscious to understand himself or herself, to understand the cosmos, and to understand how the one fits into the other.  Perhaps that is one reason why these games can be so powerfully attractive.  Knowingly or not, players are manipulating the deepest symbols of the human condition, and of their own unconscious.

For Tolkien, any act of creativity is an expression of the imageo Dei.  That does not mean that every such expression is good or healthy; he says that much of human history has shown the perversions of this creative nature, whether in ancient human sacrifice or modern fascism and leader-worship.[2]  But when done properly, fairy-stories present a kind of gospel, a eucatastrophe, that reflects the deep human thirst for the true gospel; and perhaps they can whet the appetite for that true Consolation.  Most sorts of role-playing have the potential to express Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation to some degree.  One major difference is that a reader or hearer of fairy-stories must imaginatively enter into another’s Secondary World; in role-playing, everyone plays a part in creating the shared Secondary World together, so the experience is more immersive and active.

Many years ago, I read an article on the psychology of gaming, examining the question of whether or not role-playing games were dangerous (again, this was before the MMORPG, so the study was concerned primarily with Dungeons and Dragons).  In most cases, the conclusion was “no;” but the author did note that in a group home for boys with behavioral/psychological problems, gaming made them more resistant to therapy and particularly to group therapy.  I think that Tolkien and Campbell show us why this might be so.  In a sense, all fantasy is therapy, an expression of one’s deepest creative impulses, shared together and validated by the participation of others.  If one’s deepest nature is self-destructive, one will create a Secondary World that is hostile and destructive; or to put it another way, one will choose symbols and stories that thwart the hero and embrace chaos and destruction without rebirth.  Role-playing is a therapeutic technique, although therapeutic role-playing generally has little of what makes genuine role-playing games so popular and satisfying; and role-playing games can be a sort of self-medication or self-therapy.  Compared to the other sorts of self-medication that are common, RPGs would seem to be safer and more effective than most.  But having played various games for over thirty years, I can say that they can have some negative effects as well.  Their psychological and religious power can also lead players to compulsively play, to avoid reality rather than using the games as a tool to grow to face reality.

To be continued….


[1] Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 256-59

[2] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 75

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. xiv)

June 9, 2013

It seems that in Campbell’s view, myths and fantasy work best when one doesn’t analyze them or have conscious awareness of what they are doing, since their power lies in the symbols of the collective unconscious.  For Tolkien it seems that while the storyteller may be intentional in crafting an evangelium it is just as possible that the storyteller and the audience are unaware, without changing the fact that it is a kind of gospel and an expression of the imageo Dei.  But it seems that for Kierkegaard, the individual needs to be aware of the workings of reflection, envy, and leveling in order to resist, and aware of the religious to choose it.  This would seem to be a major difference between them.  However, the story (or the game) can still offer “illusion” that the person may then choose to see as possibility.  It can offer a place of rest before one returns to the journey of life.  It can offer imagination’s way out.  But without choice, it cannot offer the religious.  At most, it can simulate another life, where one tries on the ethical or the religious persona for a time and perhaps gets a glimpse of life beyond the merely esthetic and egoistic standpoint, and beyond the conformity of the herd and a world which has banished heroes.

What if one is intentionally religious?  Can one choose to make one’s game playing a religious exercise, on Kierkegaardian terms?  The game as genre is inherently “poetic” in Kierkegaard’s terms:  imaginative, creative, dealing with possibility rather than actuality.  Deciding to play with overtly Christian characters  (say, in a St. George vs. the Dragon setting, where Catholic priests and pious knights slay agents of Satan) would make no difference; it might even make things worse, since it would reduce a gospel intended to be an existence-communication from a call to existence in actuality to a mere imaginative possibility.  Christian first-person shooters and Left Behind games might have horrified Kierkegaard, although he does write (through Johannes Climacus) that children should be allowed to play with holy things.[1]  What he definitely would have said, though, is that such things are not eo ipso “Christianity” merely because you fight demons or your avatar is dressed as a cleric.  Such things make Christianity ludicrous.[2]  It is only a little better when the work is done well, as in the Christian allegories of C. S. Lewis; having Aslan die to save a boy who ate the witch’s enchanted Turkish Delight both presents the mystery of salvation and trivializes it (the movie studio that optioned the Narnia stories didn’t care whether viewers became Christians or not, so long as they bought tickets).  From the perspective of Two Ages, Tolkien’s more subtle religious metaphor is far preferable to Lewis’ straightforward allegory, as Tolkien is better able to avoid the power of envy.  Kierkegaard argues that in the age of reflection, it will no longer do to have a prophet step forward and thunder, “Thus says the LORD!”  The obvious problem with this is that all attention will immediately be riveted not on the message, but on the speaker.  Instead of being the Word of God, he or she would become interesting, perhaps a celebrity even, to be gossiped about and speculated about, to be attacked and defended, and ultimately to be shown to be no better than the rest of us really (perhaps a tabloid would run pictures of the prophet at the beach in an unflattering swimsuit just to make that point).  In all this flurry of excitement, the one thing no one would think to do is actually heed the prophet’s words. ………

To be continued…..


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, v. 1; translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1992) p. 601

[2] Fragments, p. 594

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. xiii)

May 30, 2013

            What “way out” do role-playing games know?  In a sense, they know “actuality’s way out” even when they are most fantastic.  They may be unrealistic, but they must be internally consistent; and within that consistency the characters expect the assistance of actuality fully as much as do the heroines in A Story of Everyday Life.  Even in Call of Cthulhu, you need to give the players some chance to survive against the eldritch horrors they alone know lurk in the darkness, and chances for victory (however temporary and limited) against the evil plots of insane wizards and fanatical cultists.[1]  On the other hand, the theories of Jung and Campbell suggest that whether or not the myth is understood as actual history or poetic metaphor, it still functions by lifting the individual out of the concrete particularities and trafficking symbolically with great existential and metaphysical realities.  This would seem to be “imagination’s way out” by Kierkegaard’s standards.  Perhaps part of the power of role-playing games is that they uniquely combine elements of actuality and transcendence, by allowing players to act as particular concrete (albeit fictional) characters who still symbolically express and embody universal powers and eternal values.

 

            Kierkegaard says, however, that the escape of imagination or actuality will not suffice; only the religious can save from the power of leveling.[2]  The individual who wishes to escape leveling cannot hope to stand alone against the combined envy of everyone else, not to mention the power of his or her own reflection and the self-doubts it raises.  The individual must choose to stand as an individual against the power of leveling to force everyone back into the herd; but that choice alone is only the first step.  The next step is to stand before God as an individual, and to allow one’s relationship with God to affirm one as an individual.  The fact is that leveling is right, in a way.  Envy says, “Who do you think you are; do you think you are better than us?”  Religious humility says, “I am no better than any of them; we are all equal before God.”  But just as people in the age of revolution were individually oriented towards an idea, and united in being oriented towards the same idea, so in the age of reflection an individual can be oriented towards God and sustained as an individual; and all those who likewise orient themselves as individuals towards God are united with one another as individuals in equality.  Without some greater idea, selfhood collapses, and all becomes crudeness and the herd mentality.  Only those who have something more to live towards than their own selves can preserve their own selves in the crowd, by living as individuals with a great task; but reflection tears down every partial idea and incomplete goal, calls them into question, undermines them and the self-confidence of the individual who looks to them for sustenance, and ultimately reflection wins the day, leaving the essential equality of all individuals to collapse into the mutual envy of the members of the herd.  God is not a partial idea; God is the absolute telos, as Kierkegaard says in another book, the goal that can relativize and also complete all other goals.  For this reason, Kierkegaard thinks, the individual can turn to the religious to find the power to sustain the sense of individuality even in the age of reflection.  Only the religious provides the task that unites all tasks, the “idea for which I am willing to live and die.”[3] 

 

To be continued….


[1] From a Campbell/Jungian point of view, such games seem to symbolize the journey of Life and the struggle against Death, a struggle we know in the end we will all lose.  Horror role-playing seems to accept that dark reality, but seeks to find meaning in the struggle itself for as long as it lasts.  From Tolkien’s perspective, this seems similar to his understanding of the pagan world-view in general, and the Norse view in particular; see “The Monsters and the Critics,” p. 117.  The players, like the Norse warriors, are called to fight on the side of right, knowing all the time that Chaos and Unreason ultimately will triumph; for it is better to be right and defeated than dishonorable and victorious.

[2] Two Ages, pp. 85-90, 106-109

[3] as Kierkegaard put it in his journal on August 1, 1835

 

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. vii)

April 17, 2013

            In all of this, I have been assuming relatively well-functioning players, those who know the difference between the Primary and Secondary Worlds and know that the Secondary can only be a vacation destination, not a permanent address.  I have also tacitly assumed that the players tended towards “good.”  Increasingly, that is not always the case.  It is impossible to directly compare the moral alignments of player characters of the earliest days of gaming to today’s heroes; however, it is possible to draw a rough but useful equivalent.  In the earliest versions of Dungeons and Dragons, some magic items had moral alignments.  These alignments were randomly determined according to percentages assigned in the rulebooks.  In effect, this established the moral balance of the world in any campaign using the Dungeons and Dragons books (barring Dungeonmaster interference with the dice).  Intelligent magic swords were 55% likely to be some sort of Good, and only 15% likely to be Evil.  Robes of the Arch Mage were 45% likely to be Good, and 25% likely to be evil.[1]  Any player would quickly get the message that the world (or at least the treasure tables) favored Good players.  In the case of the most popular MMORPG, World of Warcraft, we don’t have to speculate as much or rely simply on moral biases in the rules to suggest the likelihood of evil characters; we have a census.[2]  According to the 2010 World of Warcraft census of player-characters level 10 or above, 51% are Alliance and 49% are Horde out of 6,014,846  total.[3]  To be fair, though, the official descriptions of the various Horde races seem to transform them from the ruthless killers of the original Warcraft games to a collection of races at least as much victims of brutality as they are its authors. 

            In Dungeons and Dragons the Evil party was usually a variation on the norm.  Truly evil characters cannot trust each other, and in a face-to-face roleplaying group you can rarely have players who cannot trust each other.  Even if they were pirates (a viable option in the early days of Traveler, for instance), they had to at least have honor among thieves.  Insofar as the characters are evil, there seems to be some unique dynamics in play.  First, sometimes the characters are evil in the eyes of some but not to the players.  My limited experience with Vampire:  The Masquerade suggested that the players were more Goth superheroes, trying to control their monstrous sides to enable them to fight the truly evil beasties of the universe who really did want to destroy the world.  The current WoW web site describes the Horde races in similar terms; the true evil, the Burning Legion, is enemy to Human and Orc alike.  In fact, the history of the Horde races is a collection of stories of good peoples corrupted by evils and temptations of various sorts, now trying to redeem themselves.

            More generally, it seems that playing evil characters has a cathartic function, much as Aristotle describes in his Poetics.  Players find an outlet for their desire to rebel against society, their lot in life and so on, in a Secondary World where the social consequences are not so great; once they have blown off steam they are able to go back out into the Primary World.  From the perspective of these theories, however, the choice to play truly evil, destructive characters would seem far more problematic.  Philosophy may have difficulty defining “evil” or “good,” but generally Fantasy has little trouble:  “evil” wishes to destroy the world or at least to enslave and torture other sentient beings, while “good” seeks to help and support life in general, and sentient life in particular.  To be truly evil is to side with what is harmful to the world in general, and other persons in particular; it is to be sadistic, nihilistic, treacherous and anti-life.  From the perspective of Campbell’s theory, this seems impossible; the monomyth is an expression of hope and oneness with the universe, with overcoming the destruction.  In the mythologies of the world, there are gods and goddesses that seem “evil,” but generally they have some sort of benevolent purpose.  The perfect example of this is Kali.  To the British, Kali was the goddess of the Thuggee, a ruthless cult of brigands and stranglers.  This is how Kali has been depicted by Hollywood as well.  There seems no sane reason for anyone to worship a fanged demon wielding a sword and wearing human skulls.  However, in Hindu mythology, Kali is a more complicated figure:  the mother who destroys her young, but also protects and saves.[4]  She may appear terrifying and evil, but the deeper understanding is that the cosmos itself gives and takes, gives birth and takes back in death again.  To embrace the truth and the paradox of Kali, as Hindu mystics such as Ramakrishna have, is to embrace the whole of reality, light and dark alike, knowing that both are necessary parts of existence. 

To be continued….


[1] Stuart Marshall, final author and editor in chief, OSRIC:  Old School Reference and Index Compliation; 2008 (http://www.knights-n-knaves.com/osric).  As a former 16th Level Mage, I’ll pass on speculating why the writers thought Fighters were 10% more likely to be Good than were us spell-casters. 

[2] WoW Census, 10 June 2010 (http://www.wowwiki.com/WoW_Census) accessed February 18, 2013

[3]

[4] Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 114-16

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. v)

April 4, 2013

Recovery is another element that is well illustrated by The Time Machine.[1]  It is the moment when you see the overly-familiar Primary World in a new light, as if it were new and alien.  Tolkien uses the image of seeing familiar England as if it were some distant future seen only with a time machine.  In that future, the class divisions that were so common in Victorian England that one scarcely noticed them became a strange story of two separate races of humanoid:  one condemned to a joyless life cut off from both Nature and Culture, both enslaved to the technology it serves and enslaving through it; and the other living a life of beauty and joy, supported by the subterranean race but itself helpless and useless except as food.[2]  Dwelling on that image, one can begin to reflect on the nature of class relations, what rich and poor owe to one another, and what constitutes a “Producer” versus a “Moocher.”

Recovery opens the door to Escape.[3]  Fantasy, whether it be RPG or soap opera, is often condemned as “escapist;” but Tolkien asks,

 

 

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?  Of if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?…  Why should we not escape from or condemn… the Morlockian horror of factories?”[4]

 

 

Escape is envisioning a world that is better than the Primary World one finds oneself in.  Having Recovered the ability to see the world afresh, one can decline to, as we so presciently say, blindly accept it.  One can reject, one can condemn, one can imagine a Secondary World where things are better, one can Escape for a time.  But Escape is not merely a modern need; humans have always longed to escape from the limits of physicality, from everything from illness to gravity to the separation between the Human and Natural worlds.  The Fairy-Story allows this, at least for awhile, by inviting us into a Secondary World where we are free.  One denied Escape is truly a Morlock, condemned for all eternity to live in the moral and physical darkness.

There is little specifically religious about either Recovery or Escape.  Escape, however, leads to consideration of “the Great Escape:  the Escape from Death,” and with it, Consolation.[5]  This was ultimately where Campbell sees the monomyth aiming as well.  However, for Tolkien, the highest Consolation is not merely another aspect of Escape.  He writes:

 

 

Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending.  Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it.  At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story.  Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—-I will call it Eucatastrophe.  The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.[6]

 

 

 

The eucatastrophe is the sudden, joyous turn, the unexpected rescue, the happy ending when no happy ending seemed possible.[7]  It is an escape from the tragedy and pain that is all too common in life.  It admits that these are the usual way of the world; the sudden happy ending is always presented as unexpected, unique, and not to be counted on.  But “it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of this world, poignant as grief.”[8]  The fairy-story is, in effect, a kind of Gospel, “good news.”  It is a Subcreation; it is true, but only in the Secondary World of the storymaker, and capable of commanding only Secondary Belief.  By contrast, what God does is Creation, true in the Primary World.  Tolkien writes:

 

 

But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.  The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history.  The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.  This story begins and ends in joy.[9]

 

 

The fairy-story expresses the hope and wish of human nature; the Gospel fulfills it.  The fairy-story is the desire for the Gospel, sometimes even older than the knowledge of the Gospel itself.  As Augustine said, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”  The fairy-tale expresses that restlessness.


[1] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 75-78

[2] I wonder how many of the Occupy Wall Street protesters with their signs saying ”Eat the Rich” knew they were echoing 19th century science fiction.

[3] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 79-85

[4] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 79, 82

[5] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 85

[6] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 85

[7] “Fairy-Stories,” pp.  85-90

[8] “Fairy-Stories,” p.  86

[9] “Fairy-Stories,” pp.  88-89

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. iv)

March 28, 2013

In many ways, Tolkien’s theories of myth and fantasy move in the opposite direction from Campbell’s.  Tolkien specifically rejects theories that see the significance of the tale in what it borrows from or shares with similar stories.[1]  Rather, Tolkien says we should focus our attention on what is unique to the particular story as presented by the particular storymaker.  While the author or poet or storyteller may use themes and symbols that are common property, Tolkien urges us to look at how the storymaker changes them.  Is the Orphic myth of Dionysus the same as the story of the Crucifixion of Christ, because both tell the story of a god who dies and is resurrected?  Should we focus more attention on the common elements, or on the differences, such as the fact that Christ is said to deliberately offer himself in place of humanity, or that the events take place in history rather than prehistory?  Tolkien would say that in any story, we should look at the intent of the storymaker and the message that is invented through his or her creative activity.  Both may be stories of divine heroes who conquer death, but while one explains human sin as a natural result of human origins (part Titan and part god) the other sees it as unnatural, the result of human rebellion, which is now to be undone by God.

Campbell and Tolkien disagree on the origin of “fairy stories” or “myths,” and likewise disagree on the essential elements.  Campbell’s list was more structural, Tolkien’s reads more like a list of ingredients:

 

 

First of all:  if written with art, the prime value of fairy-stories will simply be that value which, as literature, they share with other literary forms.  But fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things:  Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.[2]

 

 

These are the distinguishing characteristics of the fairy-story, according to Tolkien.  For the most part, they are not necessarily present in any particular order, except that Consolation refers to the “happy ending.”  There are two general reasons for this.  First, it reflects Tolkien’s emphasis on the uniqueness of each story; while Campbell is arguing that all myths are basically the same story with different fonts, Tolkien wants to emphasize the variations introduced by the author and thus is more inclined to an examination that enlarges the space for authorial originality.  Second, Tolkien is attempting to distinguish the fairy-story as a specific genre, different from similar tales such as the dream story or beast fable.[3]  For this reason, he wants to present the distinctive characteristics of the fairy-story.  But while his emphasis is often on the unique and distinguishing, he also has much to say about what all such stories have in common; and like Campbell, he traces this to human nature itself, and particularly to the spiritual in human nature.

Of Tolkien’s four qualities of the true fairy-story, Fantasy is the most fundamental and the one he discusses most extensively.[4] Tolkien affirms that “Fantasy is a natural human activity,” an expression of human creativity and imagination.[5]  As such, it is fully consistent and even dependent on human reason and logic.[6]  It may be distorted into destructive and self-destructive idolatries and Morbid Delusion, but it cannot and must not be suppressed.  But Tolkien does not see the capacity for Fantasy merely as an expression of a human psychological or intellectual need; he sees it as expressing a theological truth:  “Fantasy,” he writes, “remains a human right:  we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made:  and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”  Human creative activity is the expression of the Imageo Dei.  Humans are given the capacity for “sub-creation.”   The finest Fantasist can create a whole Secondary World, where fantastic images such as a green sun have “the inner consistency of reality” and command Secondary Belief.  Only God can create the Primary World, of course, and only the Primary World can deserve Primary Belief; but a Secondary World can invite or even “command” (in Tolkien’s words) a temporary belief, a feeling that such things are possible and perhaps a wish that they were true.  It can even suggest possibilities that could be true.  One of Tolkien’s repeated images is H.G. Wells’ story of the Morlocks, those descendents of 19th Century factory workers who evolved into technologically superior troglodytes, farming the surface-dwelling, beautiful but idiot descendents of the aristocracy.  This is hardly a happy “fairy-story;”  The Time Machine is a cautionary tale rather than a true fairy-story in Tolkien’s sense.  But it is an admirable expression of Fantasy, despite an appalling lack of elves or magic.  It takes the elements of this world, reworks them as a potter takes and reworks the clay, and creates an internally consistent Secondary World.

To be continued…..


[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Tree and Leaf; reprinted in The Tolkien Reader, by J. R. R. Tolkien, (New York:  The Random House Publishing Group, 1966) pp.  45-8

[2] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 67

[3] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 34-44

[4] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 68-75

[5] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 74

[6] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 75

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. iii)

March 20, 2013

Perhaps so many RPG scenarios resemble Campbell’s monomyth because of his ubiquitous influence on the fantasy industry; or perhaps it is because it really is as universal as he says.  Either way, this general pattern is embedded in most of the RPG sessions I’ve played in and in the games themselves, to some degree.  To some extent, of course, any adventure has to begin with “a hero ventures forth…”  The hero must encounter hostile forces and win a decisive victory.  Many games do not include the “fabulous” in the narrow sense.  Sword-and-sorcery games are fabulous, of course, and space opera really is even if the fabulous elements are described as super-science rather than magic.  But what about Western campaigns, or spies, or noir/pulp detective games?  What about The Sims, where players simply pretended to be different 21st  Century people?  The answer would be that not all role-playing is a monomyth because not all is necessarily a quest.   But where there is a task to be performed, a goal to be attained, and there is a sense of character development and progressive empowerment through the striving towards and achievement of the goal, the monomyth pattern appears.  In the original RPG, Dungeons and Dragons, the monomyth was embedded in the game itself.  Characters joined together to seek treasure and kill monsters.  As they did so, they improved in their abilities by quantifiable steps or “levels.”  They might have a purpose, a great evil to thwart or village to save, but they just as often simply went into “the dungeon” to fight monsters and gain levels.  However, as they got stronger, the monsters got tougher too; even if it was not their intention, they wound up bestowing boons on their fellow men (or dwarves or elves or whatever) simply by removing so much evil from the world.

However, it turned out that simply killing beasties and getting rich makes a boring game.[1]  Therefore, a narrative structure was introduced, and with that the monomyth emerges full-blown.  It was consummated with the final “level.”  Eventually, the character was such a high level that there was little sense in playing; but by then you had a fighter who could kill Asmodeus in single combat or a wizard who could level a mountain with a word.  In short, the character was godlike, and there was no more fitting retirement than to settle down as either a god-king ruling over other mortals (and maybe immortals) in the material world, or to transcend the material completely and retire to Valhalla or Olympus to hobnob with one’s fellow deities.

From the Campbellian or Jungian point of view, it matters little whether or not anyone in the game realizes that what they are doing has spiritual significance.  What matters is that they are focusing intently and creatively on potent symbols from humanity’s collective unconscious.  Together the players are taking on tasks and quests, entering into a shared dream where they symbolically confront and (hopefully) overcome a variety of existential and psychological threats, to eventually overcome the limits of morality itself, becoming one with whatever divine power exists in that dream world.  It does not matter whether or not they realize they are reenacting the monomyth, any more than it matters in the monomyth whether or not the hero intentionally sets out on a quest or blunders into the Other World.

To be continued…..


[1] As a Kierkegaardian aside, this is basically the message of Either/Or.  In the first part, Kierkegaard presents the life of the self-centered hedonist or esthete, the person who lives for no higher purpose; this life is shown to disintegrate into disconnected, meaningless episodes and to finally be empty.  This emptiness is experienced as boredom, “the root of all evil,” which the esthete fears the most and can never escape.  Only when the individual comes to see his or her life as a task and chooses to seek and express higher values does life become meaningful.  To put it in gaming terms, you need a story, a quest, so that all this striving feels like it means something.

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. ii)

March 14, 2013

Joseph Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949, but his theories have roots in the earlier writings of Carl Jung.  As an avid gamer, Jung’s Psychology & Religion fascinated me from the moment I read it, because of how it resonated with my own experiences.  Before I began playing Dungeons and Dragons, I suffered from frequent nightmares; within a year of beginning role-playing I found the nightmares were under control.  I say “under control” because I literally learned how to take charge of my dreams, at least sometimes, because instead of being my own powerless and anxious self I would switch to being my D&D character.  I found too that my friends frequently recounted dreaming they were characters or were in their D&D world or something of that sort.  Jung offers an explanation for why this would be, by linking dreams and mythology to the unconscious.  In dreams, one’s unconscious speaks through symbols and images.  The man who is seeking a pattern for his own life dreams of a “world clock,” a geometrically harmonious construction keeping time by strict ratios of rates of rotation for its hands.  Jung links this image both to the patient’s earlier dreams, which incorporated many of these symbols, and to such religious symbols as the Tibetan mandelas, to pagan mythology and to Christian dogma.[1]  The patient himself was unaware of these connections, Jung reports; but still, even in his private psychological storm he is part of a worldwide atmosphere, which Jung terms the “collective unconscious.”  Campbell largely works by adding his considerable knowledge of the mythologies of the world to Jung’s original discussions of religious symbolism and the collective unconscious.  Campbell says that certain symbols are “collective” because they reflect universal aspects of every human existence:  birth, growth, maturity, moving from the family collective into a larger social world, the struggle for individuality and for social integration, and eventually death.  Because there are biological and social patterns that are common to all human beings, there are stories and symbols that represent these in every culture.  If these were not known, the individual would have to invent them, as Jung’s patient seemed to; but in fact they are common in every culture and every individual can borrow and adapt those symbols to tell himself the story of himself (or herself).  All religions, Campbell argues, are variations on the “monomyth,”  as he writes:

            The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage:  separation—-initiation—-return:  which might me named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder:  fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won:  the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.[2]

Campbell argues with Jung, however, claiming that psychologists err when they see religion as merely expressions of the unconscious, collective or otherwise.[3]  The symbols may spring from the unconscious, but the myths are public and intentional attempts to understand life and the universe.  The unconscious is the metaphysical realm; the “collective unconscious” is the universal awareness that all things come from one source (God, mana, Being or whatever) and return to it again.  The monomyth is the product of monism.

Campbell’s theory says that mythology is inescapable and essential, even to the “modern” person, because it is the deeper attempt to reconcile oneself with one’s own self, with one’s social identity, and with the universe as a whole.  But as Jung himself said in his treatise on UFOs, the modern person often creates new “scientific” symbols to replace the fantastic and mythological symbols of the past.  Once we told stories of visitors from the divine realm who came with gifts of healing and gifts of love, who worked miracles and were persecuted and died but rose again to return to their former glory; now we have E.T:  The Extraterrestrial.  Campbell’s theories have influenced George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, the Wachowskis and others; if any filmmaker for the last thirty years has made a fantastic film that owed nothing to Star Wars or Indiana Jones or The Matrix, I am unaware of it.  Campbell’s theories are ubiquitous in film, and the influence of film is ubiquitous in gaming.

To be continued…..


[1] Carl Gustav Jung, Psychology and Religion, (New Haven and London:  Yale University Press, 1938) pp. 79-114

[2] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1973) p. 30

[3] Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 255-60

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. i)

March 6, 2013

The “Religion and Popular Culture” group for The American Academy of Religion has issued a paper call for “Games and theories of gaming of all types” for the 2013 meeting in Baltimore.  This got me thinking again about the connections and convergences between religion and role-playing games, two subjects I have been intimately interested in since the 1970’s.  I started writing my thoughts down, and I’m still at it.  I’ve submitted a proposal, but this draft is way over the reading time limit, so at this point I’m just writing for my own amusement.  I’ll be posting it here in installments; I hope you enjoy it, and I thank you in advance for any comments that prove useful, stimulating, and/or encouraging.

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise?  Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. i)

 

 

            The topic for this session is, “games and theories of gaming.”  My first thought when I hear “gaming” is RPGs.  When I began gaming, Dungeons and Dragons was just a few years old, and the first hardcover edition of the rules had yet to be issued.  There were two aspects of the relationship between “religion” and “gaming” in those days:  the fact that “cleric” was a character class, and the fact that many religious leaders and others were “Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons.”  In the first case, back in the day, there was one role-playing game and, effectively, only two religions.  If you were a “good” cleric, you learned spells to heal, bless, and gained the power to repel the undead; if you were an “evil” cleric you learned to harm, curse and command the undead.  Aside from those differences in the spell lists and powers, all clerics were basically the same:  all used blunt weapons ostensibly because “shedding blood” was forbidden (unless your cleric was “evil” and was offering a sacrifice), all were allowed chainmail armor, and so on.  Supposedly these had religious reasons; but really, the only point was to differentiate clerics from fighters by reserving the best armor and weapons for the spell-less, and from wizards by reserving the best spells for the unarmored mages.  That is, it had a game-balance function that was justified in-game with a religiously-based reason.  The assumption, however, was that all religion was basically feudal European Catholicism, more or less, at least if it was “good,” so all class restrictions, all spells and powers and so on could be justified in terms borrowed from an unsophisticated Christianity; and if evil, then the religion was some sort of mirror image and thus still borrowing its terms from a superficial view of religion based on stereotypes of the medieval Church.

That is to say, when the gaming hobby began, religion was caricatured more than it was depicted.  A real religion was flattened, made to fit gaming conventions, and applied.  And the “real religion” likewise caricatured gaming.  Once cards and dice were the Devil’s playthings; in the 1970’s fundamentalist Christians who had long since made their peace with Pinochle and Monopoly saw Satanic plots in the pages of a rulebook and the spinning of a twenty-sider.  Much has already been written about the evils of Dungeons and Dragons, and about the paranoia and fallacious reasoning of those hunting that alleged evil.

What interests me more is the irony of the whole situation.  It seems quite obvious that a group of miniatures wargamers would not have begun adapting the rules of Chainmail by scaling down the rules for mass combat to individuals and introducing fantastic elements like magic and monsters were it not for the success of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories.  And Tolkien was a devout Catholic, who wrote out of a religious sensibility.  It is reasonable to say then that role-playing games grew out of Christianity; they are “Christian games” in much the same way that the U. S. A. is a “Christian nation.”  Three years after the publication of Dungeons and Dragons, 1977, a new role-playing game appeared on the market:  Traveller.  This time, the game was based not on fantasy but on science fiction, a genre more often associated with agnosticism and atheism.   However, 1977 also saw the release of Star Wars, a film based largely on the work of noted mythologist Joseph Campbell.  Through the 1980’s the gaming industry spawned dozens of role-playing games, with movies influencing games and vice-versa, and always with the original genetic inheritance of Tolkien and the continuing inspiration of Campbell.  And on one point in particular these two writers agree:  that fantasy writing of all sorts is inherently a religious exercise.  They disagree, however, as to just what that exercise is.

To be continued…..