Posts Tagged ‘Monomyth’

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. 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

Review: The Hobbit: an unexpected journey (pt. ii)

January 4, 2013

The Hobbit and the Monomyth:  Joseph Campbell taught that all myths are basically the same story with different details.  They originate, as dreams do, in the unconscious; but myths are communal, so they represent the collective rather than the personal unconscious.  They are tales made from symbols and plots that represent universal life events, such as the transition from childhood to adulthood; and these universal psychological events themselves reflect the great metaphysical unity of all existence.  The Story of the Hobbit is in some ways a myth, and in some ways more like a dream.  Like a dream, it is the creation of a particular individual, not the historical product of a culture; but it was an attempt to write a myth in new form, and given its widespread resonance it would seem to have succeeded.  Now it has become as widely known as many “real” myths today, and has even reached the stage that it is being retold and reinvented by new generations of storytellers.

Campbell 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.[1]

 

 

How does The Story of the Hobbit fit into the form of the monomyth?  First, let us consider our hero.  Tolkien begins:

 

 

            In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.  Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat:  it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle.  The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel:  a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—-the hobbit was fond of visitors.[2]

 

 

With the first sentence, Tolkien sets up a distance between the reader and the hero.  He is not a human, he is a “hobbit,” whatever that is, and he lives in a hole as might a badger or mole.  But immediately after that, Tolkien sets a scene to show that the hobbit is in fact very much like you or me; he enjoys comforts and visitors, bright colors and polished furniture, and he lives in a hole very much like one we would want to live in, if we lived in holes.  Despite being called “hobbit,” he is Everyman, so much so that he is even more a blank slate than that, and we can come to him with no preconceptions beyond what the writer himself tells us.  And Tolkien tells us that he is a well-to-do person, from a very respectable and unremarkable family, famous for their conformity and predictability, with no magic about him.  He is so far from being “heroic” that he is smaller, shier (his country is even called “The Shire”) and more soft and self-indulgent than most of us.  And having established that, Tolkien pointedly says, “Now you know enough to go on with.”[3]  He leaves his canvas blank for the moment and lets the story reveal the rest; we know what we are meant to know:  that this is a very unremarkable person, an unportentous and reluctant hero.

As Campbell points out, the hero is often unexpectant and even reluctant.[4]  Some seek a quest, and others have the quest thrust upon them.  Bilbo’s unexpected quest is not so different than that of the princess who loses her prized golden ball and encounters a talking frog, the Arapaho girl who chased a porcupine, the knight who chased the white deer or a thousand other examples.  And insofar as the hero’s story is meant to be our own, it is fitting; we are not expecting any momentous transformation, but life will generally send us one.  The only question will be whether one embraces destiny and opportunity, or attempts to flee it; one can refuse the god and end up birthing a monster (as Minos did the Minotaur when he tried to cheat Poseidon), or one can answer the call to adventure and become the hero who slays his monsters.

The hero is called out of his former life into a higher existence, often by an old wise man or woman.[5]  And often, the hero has companions as well:  Heracles and Iolas, Jason and the Argonauts, Jesus and the Twelve.  Bilbo goes Jesus one better (or worse) and has the Thirteen:  dwarves, that is.  Their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, is a hero in his own right already, and thus considers Bilbo a mere hanger-on in The Tale of the Returning Dwarves; but as Gandalf points out in the book, Bilbo is essential since otherwise the group will consist of thirteen members only and that is an unlucky number. Thus, in the original version of the story, the wizard is not really a member of the group, but rather a protective and advisory figure (as Campbell says, more a symbol of a protective destiny than a colleague).[6]  The dwarves will strike any reader as “different” and special, and Thorin in particular shows that the dwarves represent those who have already crossed the line between Ordinary and Hero worlds and now have come to accompany the soon-to-be hero as he takes up the call to adventure.  There are always thresholds to cross, symbolizing the departure from the ordinary world into the supernatural or transcendent realm, and usually several thresholds showing still deeper penetration into the great mysteries.  However, the first threshold is the most important, as it symbolizes the real beginning of the hero’s journey.  It is the point where before the hero was just one in the crowd, the undifferentiated social/cultural womb, and now is both born and laboring to give birth to himself or herself as an individual.  It is hard to say where the first threshold is in The Story of the Hobbit.  His first brush with the really fantastic seems to be the encounter with the trolls; the dwarves are mysterious and Other, but still depicted as people more or less like the hobbit himself—-a tiny bit taller and more experienced in the ways of adventure, but not truly alien.  Meeting them is only a call to adventure.  Trolls are so fantastic and alien to the normal world that even the merest touch of it—the least glimmer of sunlight—-turns them to stone.  But if this is the first threshold, then Bilbo fails to cross it; he is caught with the dwarves and must be rescued.  In the original story, Gandalf must intervene to magically rescue the party so the adventure can continue (“benign, protective power of destiny,” as Campbell would say); in Jackson’s version, it is Bilbo who keeps the trolls quarreling and thus stalls for time, which gives him a part in their eventual rescue.  However, they still are only saved by the deus ex machina of a timely arrival of the wizard.  The real threshold, then, seems to be the Descent into the Underworld, again a common mythological theme—-here, a capture by goblins.  The dwarves are rescued by the wizard, but Bilbo must save himself, by his own wits and luck.  As Oedipus had to answer the riddle of the Sphinx (to give one mythological example of the riddling monster motif), Bilbo can only escape from the dark underworld by defeating its guardian, Gollum, in a riddling contest.  In the course of his escape, Bilbo finds a magic ring that gives him the ability to become invisible; as Campbell wrote in describing the monomyth, “the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”  The movie ends before Bilbo has actually used the Ring to bestow any boons; but clearly he now has a magic power that even Gandalf does not display.  He was recruited by the group as a “burglar” (the book also allows the euphemism, “expert treasure finder,”) but he vigorously denied any qualification for that task.  Now, he is a burglar par excellence; an invisible person can go anywhere, take anything, and never have to worry about capture or even blame.

The book continues on through many more adventures, but Jackson has saved those for future films.  There is also the visit to Rivendell, which Jackson has greatly expanded from the original book, but which serves the same main purpose:  to give the adventurers secret knowledge that will enable them to fulfill the quest.  At each step, Bilbo is venturing further into the realm of the Other World:  from dwarves (only a little taller, scarcely more magical, but experienced in the wider world) to trolls (stupid but definitely magical, if only magically vulnerable) to elves (wise, ageless, and naturally magical, even beyond the wisdom and power of Gandalf).  But still, the most important threshold is the one he has crossed alone, symbolically escaping from the power of Death and capturing magical power for himself.

To be continued…..


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

[2] The Hobbit, p. 15

[3] The Hobbit, p. 16

[4] Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 49-58

[5] Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 69

[6] Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 71-72