Posts Tagged ‘Tolkien’

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

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

January 4, 2013

Review:  The Hobbit:  an unexpected journey


In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

—–J. R. R. Tolkien


First, I’ll try to do a little of what seems to be customary in reviews:  help the reader decide whether or not to see the movie.  I shall not say much about the acting skills of the stars and so forth, because I have little expertise in such matters; I shall simply offer some observations and advice.  Then, I shall proceed to what I consider much more interesting:  a philosophical discussion of what the story is saying.  Every story reflects the world and changes it at the same time.  If the reflection is accurate, it can help one to see one’s world better; if the reflection is encouraging, it can change it for the better; if it is deceitful or demoralizing it can make the hearer and the world a bit worse.  Attending to the story can help blunt the bad and sharpen the good; simply absorbing thoughtlessly can allow the good to wash over one and away, while the bad sinks in and stains the soul.  But first to the esthetics: and as a final warning, if you didn’t want spoilers of some sort you should just go to the movie and not read reviews like this one.

General review:  Do you want to see this movie?  If you enjoyed Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, you will probably enjoy The Hobbit:  an unexpected journey as well.  On the other hand, if you enjoyed the original book by Tolkien, you may not enjoy the movie so much.  The reason for both of these is the same:  Jackson has added a great deal of material to his version of the Story of the Hobbit, some gleaned from unpublished Tolkien writings and some original to the movie, that strengthened links between the story of Bilbo Baggins and the tale of world war and cataclysm to follow.  As a reader of Tolkien, I found The Hobbit to be a brighter, lighter tale.  There is more humor, and rarely is Bilbo in as much danger as he is in discomfort.  And the book moves faster; it is a shorter story with less detail.  For example (this is from the book and does not enter the current movie at all), there is the adventure when Bilbo must save the dwarves from giant spiders.  He alone is not caught, and he saves them not by force of arms but by taunting the spiders, throwing rocks and insults.  Tolkien writes:



Practically all the spiders in the place came after him:  some dropped to the ground, others raced along the branches, swung from tree to tree, or cast new ropes across the dark spaces.  They made for his noise far quicker than he had expected.  They were frightfully angry.  Quite apart from the stones no spider has ever liked being called Attercop, and Tomnoddy of course is insulting to anybody.[1]



Once the spiders are distracted hunting him, Bilbo sneaks back to the dwarves and frees them from the webs.  These are talking spiders, not merely huge ones, and thus as liable to temper and folly as anyone.  They are not merely animals or monsters chasing a noise, but rather bad-tempered villains whose pride has been wounded.  We can’t really imagine Gandalf distracting the Balrog with choice insults, or Samwise luring Shelob away from her prize with a few rocks and some stamping.  Even in its darkest moments, The Hobbit remains a fairy-tale, while The Lord of the Rings is an apocalyptic epic.  The earlier book is lighter even in its darkest moments, with elements of humor and tales of cleverness defeating brute force and malice.

Elements of this remain in Jackson’s most recent movie, but there have been significant expansions.  The expansions are generally more somber, as they aim to foreshadow the return of Sauron and other fateful events leading to the War of the Rings.  Jackson has also added some violence, with Bilbo actually attacking a goblin and killing him in a scene that originally had Bilbo and his friends hiding trees awaiting a grim fate.  And finally, there is the greater visceral impact of visual over print depictions of violence.  It is one thing to write that Thorin killed a goblin; it is another to show extremely detailed and believable depictions of sword-and-ax fighting, with heads and limbs severed and flying across the screen (I can only imagine what this would look like in 3-D[2]).  True, there is no real blood; but I think that anyone who does not think this is nightmare material for small children has forgotten childhood.  This movie is rated PG-13 with good reason.  It may better suit a young audience than The Lord of the Rings, but not by much.

But as I said, if you enjoyed the earlier trilogy, you will enjoy The Hobbit.  It does have more humor than the Ring films, and thus does have a slightly lighter mood.  It also has a smaller focus; the War of the Ring is an apocalyptic struggle, while this is the story of a rather fussy homebody thrust into the company of thirteen adventurers, now trying to keep up and do what his heart tells him is right.  Gandalf the Grey is a bit less grey, Bilbo is considerably younger than when we last saw him (and played by a different actor), the dwarves generally less gruff than Gimli (Thorin is plenty grim, but as a general statement of all thirteen dwarves I think it is true).  Radagast represents a somewhat darker moment, warning of the coming evil he has seen; but any character who rides a sled pulled by giant rabbits cannot help but cheer you up a little.  And those rabbits, and the goblins, trolls, giants and other creatures and details of the world, all show the marvelous tools modern special effects offer to the imaginative moviemaker.  About the only criticism one could offer in this regard would be to complain that it is too much like the Ring trilogy.  Perhaps, when we see more of Smaug, we will really say, “This is something totally new.”

To be continued…..

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again, revised edition (New York, Ballentine Books, 1978) pp. 157-58.  The original version was written in 1936, three decades before publication of The Fellowship of the Ring.

[2] as I myself have no depth perception, besides which I saw only the 2-D movie.

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

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

January 4, 2013

The Hobbit as Fairy-Story:  Campbell’s interest is to find the similarities between seemingly disconnected myths and fairy-tales, in order to find the unified reality he feels underlies them all.  Tolkien himself, by contrast, rejects the argument that the common elements are the most important.[1]  Instead, he says we should look to the particularities of the story at hand.  After all, behind ever story there was an original storyteller, and each successive storyteller has made some changes.  Of course there will be common elements in traditional stories; what matters is understanding how the storyteller has used those elements to make his or her unique point.  Dwarves and trolls and wizards are common elements of European folklore, of which Tolkien himself was an expert; many details (such as the trollish vulnerability to sunlight) came directly from such sources.  The Ring seems most closely based on the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic, which also was a ring granting invisibility, political power and moral corruption to its owner, but the similarities are stronger in the Lord of the Rings than in The Hobbit.  In this prequel, the evil of the Ring is not fully worked out, and it seems simply to serve the purpose giving Bilbo a sudden magical power, which he uses to thwart enemies and help his friends.  Dwarves, dragons and their common love of gold are likewise fairytale clichés.

What is the point of the story as Tolkien has offered it?  And what is the meaning of the changes Jackson has introduced?  Bilbo is a good, prosperous, bourgeois Everyman.  The most distinguishing thing about a Baggins is said to be his predictability.  Suddenly, a magical figure enters his life.  This figure is not a total stranger; his name and something of his powers are known, even if he has been long absent.  He used to make life “interesting,” which is something that Bilbo apparently secretly yearns for (secret even from himself) but also fears.[2]  Most of us, too, are basically caught up in the world of creature comforts and social respectability; but Tolkien believes that there is a small part that still yearns for something more.  Gandalf is that “more.”  As Tolkien writes, “fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things:  Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.”[3]  “Fantasy” is the element of imagination, of breaking away from the ordinary and the expected and the all-too-human.  Gandalf is that call to imagination.  Bilbo initially seeks to escape the wizard’s call; as Tolkien says, Fantasy has a bad name these days.[4]  But Gandalf does not take “no” for an answer; in fact, he seems to scarcely take an answer at all.  He issues the call, issues the invitation to the dwarves, and plans the adventure.  But in the end, Bilbo must decide whether to cooperate, which is the only thing that turns this from a kidnapping into an adventure.  Jackson’s version gives a bit more freedom to Bilbo, who chases after the dwarves and Gandalf rather than being hustled along by Gandalf after the dwarves.  But in both versions, there is the theme of two forces pulling at Bilbo:  the Baggins side of his nature, all respectability and comfortable, versus his mother’s side of the family, those Tooks, with their family history of adventure and courage and being just a little odd and distrusted because of it.  The Tookish side wins out as Bilbo listens to the dwarves’ song of gold and great deeds of the past, and he answers the call to adventure.

In the book, Bilbo is even less suited to adventure than in the latest movie.  His first attempts at burglary nearly get all the dwarves killed, and they are only rescued by Gandalf’s timely return.  Still, he does his best and endures the hardships of the trail, until the party is captured by goblins.  In the book, Gandalf rescues the party single-handedly, with poor Bilbo getting lost during the escape; in the movie, Gandalf and the dwarves fight their way clear together, with Bilbo getting separated much earlier due mostly to his good luck and small size.  And here is where Bilbo’s fortunes really change:  the meeting and defeat of Gollum.  I have always thought the character of Gollum resembled Tolkien’s understanding of Grendel.  As he wrote in his essay on Beowulf:



If the dragon is the right end for Beowulf, and I agree with the author that it is, then Grendel is an eminently suitable beginning.  They are creatures, feond mancynnes, of a similar order and indeed significance.  Triumph over the lesser and more nearly human is cancelled by defeat before the older and more elemental.  And the conquest of the ogres comes at the right moment:  not in earliest youth, though the nicors are referred to in Beowulf’s geogoöfeore as a presage of the kind of hero we have to deal with; and not during the later period of recognized ability and prowess; but in that first moment, which often comes in great lives, when men look up in surprise and see that a hero has unawares leaped forth.[5]



Like Grendel, Gollum is “more nearly human,” or in this case, more nearly hobbit.  In this story, we know nothing about Gollum’s origins or nature, except that he is nasty and dangerous.  The movie vividly depicts his schizoid personality, without explaining it.  But at the same time, he is no larger than a hobbit.  He is nearly bestial, bent and largely quadrupedal, and more a creature of the darkness and water than of the sunlit world Bilbo calls home; but still, the two are alike in more than just size.  They understand one another’s language, and they both understand the notion of riddles and contests.  Neither is a master of magic like Gandalf, or of arms like Thorin.  They are two like minds, one twisted, dark and malicious while the other is lost and far from home and basically decent, contending with each other for the secret Gollum holds of escape from the world of darkness and return to the light.  The only element of magic here is the Ring, which Gollum does not realize he’s lost and Bilbo does not realize he’s found.  It is his defeat of Gollum that allows him not only to return to his world, but to perform his first real act of burglary:  the successful theft of the magical power, the Ring, which will allow him to overcome his later obstacles.  As Tolkien writes, this is not at the beginning of his adventures, since he has been on the path of adventure for awhile now; but it is at the first moment when he emerges as a hero “unawares.”[6]

Fantasy is the work of sub-creation, the human echo of the divine creativity, creating a Secondary World that the reader or hearer can share in for a time.[7]  This experience of another reality grants us the opportunity to see our own from a new perspective—-or rather, from the old perspective, to see it as if for the first time, without the dulling effects of habit.  It allows us to experience “Recovery,” which is “re-gaining of a clear view.”[8]  In stepping away from our own world for awhile, we recover our sense of our world and the wonder and possibilities therein.  It also allows us to “Escape” from the triteness, the blandness, the conformism and the despair that crushes the hopes and individuality of so many.[9]  The last of Tolkien’s list of functions of the fairy-story, “Consolation,” relates particularly to the end of the tale; and this is obviously where the book and movie diverge the most.

What Tolkien has given us in this part of his tale (roughly the first six chapters, or one-third of the book) is an ordinary person who is called (or dragged) to a more than ordinary destiny, and who begins to be something more than ordinary by conquering a monster that is his own nature twisted by darkness and hate.  He does this without the help of Gandalf, for once.  The movie contains some elements that seem included merely to strengthen the connection with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Of the elements that seem to add meaning, some seem to be speeding up the emergence of Bilbo’s heroic side.  This is necessary, given Jackson’s expansion of the story to three films; in the book, Bilbo does not begin to come into his own until events that aren’t even depicted in the first film, so without some sort of foreshadowing Bilbo would remain a terrified, squeaking dead weight (literally; in the book he has to be carried by the dwarves since he is too slow to keep up while they flee the goblins).  Other elements link the events of The Hobbit to the coming apocalyptic struggle against Sauron, setting the whole story in a more menacing context.  But most interestingly, Gandalf reveals his reason for shanghaiing Bilbo into this adventure in the first place.  In a conversation with Galadriel, queen of the elves, he says that he and his fellow wizard Saruman have a philosophical difference as to how to oppose evil.  Saruman believes that one must fight the power of evil by having greater power.  Gandalf, by contrast, asserts that it is simple, humble acts of kindness, and a generous and unpretentious heart that matter most.  Bilbo was chosen precisely because he was unheroic and knew it.  He has a good heart, a better heart than he himself realizes; his sympathy for the dwarves leads him to abandon his own home for a time, and to risk his life, to help them return to their own home.  He lacks power of magic or of force, but he has the power of conscience.  And in the movie, this power leads him to charge a much larger goblin and defeat him, saving Thorin’s life and finally winning his respect.

For Tolkien, Consolation is the most salvific function of the fairy-story.[10]  It is the Eucatastrophe, the unexpected happy ending.  It is the affirmation that despite all the evil and pain and hardship and darkness of the world, it is still possible that good can win through.  This is the highest function of the fairy-story, says Tolkien, and is what gives us its particular Joy.  Even in the face of dyscatastrophe, in the face of undeniable tragedy and disaster, we can have hope for Joy.  We can see it in the fairy-story, in this work of sub-creation, so we can envision it as a possibility here in the Primary World as well.  After all, we are sub-creators, ourselves made in the image of a Maker, whose creative actions are only an extension and imitation of the Creator’s own work; what we can do in our Secondary Worlds the maker of the Primary World can also do there.

Since Jackson has not really presented us with the end of the story, a viewer who had not known the books would not know whether this will end as eucastastrophe or dyscatastrophe if we had only the tale itself.  Since Jackson has added a prelude, showing Bilbo working on his book in the future, we see that Bilbo does make it home.  At the time, all Bilbo had was Gandalf’s reassurance that if he went on the adventure, when he returned he would be changed, and for the better—if he returned.  Eucastastrophe and dyscatastrophe seemed equally possible to Bilbo at the time; he risked his life to answer the call to adventure.  Considering the end of An Unexpected Journey alone, without the other two films to finish the tale, what we see in that conclusion is the beginning of the fulfillment of Gandalf’s promise.  At the start of the adventure, Bilbo was a rather fearful and petty bourgeoisie, insisting as the adventure began that they would have to return so he could retrieve his pocket-handkerchiefs. But by the end of the tale, his love of his comfortable home has been transmuted by sympathy for the dwarves, who have lost their home.  Where once his greatest fear was that his unexpected houseguests would break his dishes, and he does not even want to touch a sword, by the end he is willing to throw himself into combat to save Thorin’s life.  He does so, he says, because he loves his home, and he understands the pain they must feel, and therefore he vows that he will do whatever is in his power to help them regain what they have lost.  He has truly been changed, as the goodness and generous sympathy that Gandalf saw as latent within him has replaced middle-class Epicureanism as the ruling force in his life.

As a fairy-story, it seems to me, the movie is incomplete by Tolkien’s standards; which is not surprising since the story is not finished.  We know that a happy ending is coming, but we haven’t seen it and can’t really predict it.  And with all the foreshadowing of the great War to come, our eucatastrophe will really have to wait until The Return of the King.  For now, it is an unfinished tale.  Is it a successful movie, in its own right?  By the standards of today, the answer is, “Yes;” it has made a lot of money.  But the market does not choose whether a movie is good or bad, in either the aesthetic or moral senses; it only counts how many people will shell out cash for a ticket.  More interesting would be the question, why has it been so successful financially?  It seems that the reason is that Jackson has done his work as a sub-creator well.  People who have visited his Secondary World want to return again and again.  I would like to believe that this is not just because his world is so convincing and beautiful, with the striking New Zealand landscapes combined with cutting-edge special effects to make everything seem so strange and real simultaneously.  I hope it is also because the underlying theme, that it is little things done by little people with good hearts that redeem the world, is a message that many want to hear and want to believe.  In our Primary World, we see hurricanes, wars, poverty, oppression, and pain.  There are two ways to fight it.  One, as Bill O’Reilly said is to affirm that “You have to make it to give it.”[11]  That is the logic of Saruman.  In the face of so much evil, the only way to accomplish anything is to accumulate as much power and wealth as possible.  Become an entrepreneur yourself, make a few billion dollars by any means necessary, and then you can turn around and do a lot of good—like Rockefeller did when he drove rivals into bankruptcy, worked employees to death and spent millions to buy the presidency for McKinley, and then used all that dubious gain to fund charities in his old age.  The other way is to first try to be good, and then to do whatever small thing you can do now, with the limited power you have, having faith that your good deed will call forth others and somehow things will turn towards the best.  That is the way of Gandalf.  Jackson’s movie ends with the affirmation that the least of the group can have the most conscience, and that this conscience is the most noble and salvific thing there is.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, “Tree and Leaf:  On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York:  Ballentine Books, 1966) pp. 45-48

[2] The Hobbit, pp. 18-19

[3] “On Fairy-Stories,” p. 67

[4] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 68

[5] J. R. R. Tolkien, “Beowulf:  The Monsters and the Critics;” in Beowulf:  A Verse Translation, translated by Seamus Heaney, edited by Daniel Donoghue (New York and London:  W. W. Norton and Company, Inc, 2002) p. 128

[6] Since Jackson’s first movie ends well before the encounter with Smaug, we will save the comparison of Bilbo’s dragon with Beowulf’s for another day.

[7] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 72-75

[8] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 77

[9] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 79-85

[10] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 85-90

[11] “The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium 2012,” ( accessed Jan. 4, 2013

Understanding and Using Fairy-Stories (pt. i)

December 20, 2012

Understanding and Using Fairy-Stories:  J. R. R. Tolkien versus Joseph Campbell on the Origins and Function of Fantasy

“But this story is supreme; and it is true.  Art has been verified.  God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—–and of elves.  Legend and History have met and fused.”

J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”

My generation knew J. R. R. Tolkien as the great writer of that delightful fairy tale, The Hobbit, and that grand epic cycle The Lord of the Rings.  Future generations will probably know him as the writer of the book on which those great movies were made.  Real aficionados will know he also wrote something called The Silmarillion, and an even more fanatical core will have actually read it.  But I think it is a much smaller number that remember that Professor Tolkien was a serious and accomplished scholar, known for his teaching and learning.  He did not merely write fantasy; for him it was both an object of serious study and a holy exercise.  Since the late 1970’s, American film has been largely dominated by producers and writers who are devotees of the theories of Joseph Campbell; and at this point, I think Campbell’s outlook on mythology probably dominates our culture in ways even I do not realize and most cannot begin to suspect.  But with three blockbuster films based on the writings of Tolkien, and three more on the way (one due for release three days from the time of this writing), perhaps it is time to look more closely not just at the mythology Tolkien wrote, but at the reasons he gave for writing it.

As I said, Campbell’s view of mythology is more prevalent today, so I wish to summarize it first as a contrast.  Campbell has been a powerful influence on George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg and the Wachowskis, among others, and thus has had an impact on more than a dozen of the biggest films in the sci-fi/fantasy genre.  Joseph Campbell’s scholarship was primarily in the area of comparative mythology:  looking at the myths of cultures from many times and places, looking at differences and seeking similarities, parallels and points of contact between them.  Campbell commented that when he was a student in the 1950’s, everyone “knew” that mythology was dying and would soon give way to the rational understanding of the world.[1]  However, as time went on it became clear that mythology was not in fact dying.  The only answer, Campbell believed, was that modern humans need myth:  but why?  Turning to the psychological theories of Carl Jung, Campbell theorized that the religious myths of the world are all retellings of the same basic human stories, using the same universal symbols or archetypes.  For example, one prevalent archetype is the “Finding the Father” myth.  The hero (who may, at the start of the story, not be heroic at all) discovers that his father has been wounded, bound or something of that sort, and needs to be rescued and restored.  The hero must undergo many trials and overcome many obstacles, but in the end he finds and heals his father.  The father is thus restored to his former glory; and in the process, the son too becomes a hero, as great or perhaps greater than the father.  Anyone who has seen the original Star Wars trilogy cannot fail to see this myth reflected in that story arc.  In other versions, finding the father can lead to disaster, as for Oedipus and Phaeton; but either way, the search for the father is an archetype.  To search for one’s father is to search for one’s source, which is to search for oneself.  To find the father is to find one’s true self, and to fulfill one’s true nature (Lucas included that element in The Empire Strikes Back, where the hero has a vision of killing his enemy, only to find he has killed himself; later he comes to know that his hated enemy is also his father whom he must redeem, not destroy).  In Jung’s psychology, which Campbell appropriates, mythology represents the “collective unconscious” of the human race.  We all have a shared store of dream images and symbols, whether this is because all humans face many of the same life-events (such as the journey from childhood to adulthood) or whether (as Jung seemed to believe) we actually share consciousness on some level.  Jung called these symbols “archetypes” to convey the fact that they are universal patterns we all follow.  Campbell felt his own surveying of world cultures demonstrated the truth of Jung’s theory, and that all the different religions were simply cultural variations of the same basic archetypes.  The similarities between the stories of the Buddha and the Christ, for example, were not merely coincidence or even direct influence; they were signs that both stories were simply retellings of a more primordial story, the Hero myth, and that the true reality of each religion lay in that ancient myth.

While Campbell was a scholar of comparative religions, Tolkien was a philologist.  His primary scholarly background was the study of words and language, the origins of concepts in the language of the past, and how past words resonate into the present.  His interest was not in finding the similarity between disparate phenomena, but rather in finding one object of study, defining it, and tracing it all the way back to its roots.  When it comes to understanding their contrasting approaches to mythology, this is clearer nowhere more than in Tolkien’s treatment of Beowulf, which is still considered seminal.[2]  Tolkien complains that in his day, most scholarship treats the book as a barely interesting historical record, cluttered up with a lot of silly monsters.[3]  What is interesting is not the story itself, as a poem, but only what can be deduced from it; and generally, this means looking at what it has in common with other sources, rather than considering it in its uniqueness.  It is thus said to be a bad imitation of Virgil, essentially aping the great epics of the Greeks and Romans, recast by ignorant Anglo-Saxon Christians.  By contrast, Tolkien argues that the story of Beowulf is fine on its own merits, that it achieves exactly what it was intended to achieve, and that when it is understood on its own instead of judged for not being what the critics want it to be then it can be seen to be a true classic with truly timeless insights.  However, before one can see what the poem has to show, one must stop tearing it down to examine its building-blocks, and instead look out to see what is revealed from the vantage point at its summit.[4]     The author of the poem has something to say, something particular, which is revealed in the particular way he or she has assembled these elements; to understand the story, one must look at the final product, not simply disassemble it to better see the parts.  Tolkien continues this image in his essay on fairy stories, when he writes:

Such studies are… using the stories not as they were meant to be used, but as a quarry from which to dig evidence, or information, about matters in which they are interested…  They are inclined to say that any two stories that are built round the same folk-lore motive, or are made up of a generally similar combination of such motives, are “the same stories.”  We read that Beowulf “is only a version of Dat Erdmänneden”; that “The Black Bull of Norrway is Beauty and the Beast,” or “is the same story as Eros and Psyche”; that the Norse Mastermaid (or the Gaelic Battle of the Birds and its many congeners and variants) is “the same story as the Greek tale of Jason and Medea.”

Statements of that kind may express (in undue abbreviation) some element of truth; but they are not true in a fairy-story sense, they are not true in art or literature.  It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count.[5]

A Campbellite understanding of Beowulf would look to the story as an example of the great monomyth, the hero story which has been and will be retold incessantly.  It would look at how the hero comes to the place of conflict, how his liberation of Hrothgar’s mead hall compares to Jason’s liberation of King Phineas or his ripping off of Grendel’s arm compares to the myth of Luke Skywalker disarming  the wampa of Hoth.  Tolkien instead urges us to look at the particularities of the story and consider what the impact is of those details.

To be continued….

[1] I do not now recall whether this was in the preface to Hero with a Thousand Faces or Myths to Live By, but I’m fairly certain it is in one of those two places.

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 1936, pp. 245-95; reprinted in Beowulf:  a verse translation, translated by Seamus Heaney, edited by Daniel Donohughue (New York & London:  W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2002) pp.  103-130

[3] “The Monsters and the Critics,” pp. 103-7

[4] “The Monster and the Critics,” pp. 105-06

[5] 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.  45-6

Understanding and Using Fairy-Stories (pt. ii)

December 20, 2012

The differences in their approaches to myth is based largely on different theories about the origins of myth and fantasy.  To Campbell as to Jung, fantasy images emerge from the same place that dreams originate:  the collective unconscious of the human race.  There is a psychological if not a metaphysical monism implicit in Campbell’s thought.  Scholars dispute whether Jung thought that all minds are connected; certainly, some of his discussions of ESP seem to suggest as much.  In any case, for Campbell as for Jung, the origins of fantasy are essentially one, whether it be one shared well of archetypes or many individual minds that still have essentially the same structure.  And for Jung, this one source is what all religions call God; so it is true to say that God is in all of us, and essentially it is the same God in all of us.

Tolkien, by contrast, emphasizes the role of the individual storyteller.    Myths do not merely flow from either the world-soul or the common resources of the deep recesses of individual minds; they are created.  They are intentional.  They are free, conscious acts, not spontaneous or inevitable upwellings of the unconscious.  As he writes:

All three things:  independent invention, inheritance, and diffusion, have evidently played their part in producing the intricate web of Story.  It is now beyond all skill but that of the elves to unravel it.  Of these three invention is the most important and fundamental, and so (not surprisingly) the most mysterious.  To an inventor, that is to a storymaker, the other two must in the end lead back.[1]

Just as Campbell’s interest in the search for a monomyth rests in a tacit monism, Tolkien’s interest in the creative individual is rooted in his metaphysical commitments.  Campbell, like Jung, asserts a certain universality of human nature, whether that “universality” results from some sort of shared consciousness or merely a common structure that causes all humans to generate essentially the same mythic archetypes.  Tolkien asserts a Catholic understanding of human nature; while there is a universally shared “essence” of humanity, all humans are unique and free individuals.  While it is true that all are capable of generating fantasy, not all choose to.  Those that do choose, choose to do so in their own unique ways.  Tolkien refers to this as “sub-creation.”  The sub-creator presents us with an alternative reality, and invites us to rest there for awhile.  This Secondary World can be better or worse than the actual one; but when the sub-creator does his or her task well, we fully immerse ourselves in it, not forgetting that it is not the Primary World but temporarily ceasing to care.  Tolkien refers to this as Secondary Belief.  He distinguishes it from what is usually thought of as “suspension of disbelief,” because that term implies that the one suspending disbelief is working at it; true Secondary Belief is spontaneous and effortless.  It is not always limited to fantasy, either; Tolkien uses the example of a cricket match to illustrate what he means by Secondary Belief.[2]  His friend, a true sports enthusiast, can really lose himself in the game; for a time, the match is his reality; Prof. Tolkien, on the other hand, can only muster something more approaching “suspension of disbelief” as he intentionally focuses on the game rather than thinking about the “real world.”  To carry this thought further, it seems that in fact, any creative activity, even a sporting event can be an act of “sub-creation.”  However, it is also clear that for Tolkien, fantasy and fairy-stories are the most pure and complete Secondary Worlds.

As a Catholic, Tolkien was of course aware of passages such as 1Cor. 3:9 and 2 Cor.  6:1, where the faithful are said to be Christ’s “co-workers.”  More than Protestant theology, Catholicism has traditionally emphasized the need for human free will to cooperate with God (see the debate between Luther and Erasmus in “On the Bondage of the Will” versus “On the Freedom of the Will”).  His metaphysical assumptions, then, are that humans have free will, that they can cooperate or withdraw from God, and that this has a very real impact not only on themselves but also on the world.  That is not to say that Tolkien believes humans act independently of God, but rather that they act, and God empowers them to do so and allows their actions to have consequences.  Tolkien illustrates that in the fairy-story he attaches to his essay, “Leaf by Niggle,” where a would-be painter finds that while his own efforts in life never measure up to the creative impulse he feels, in the afterlife his work is given reality and becomes a place of rest and healing for many weary souls.[3]

Not only are all humans free; all are creative.  They may have different talents and different levels of talent, but all are essentially creative.  As Tolkien writes:

Fantasy 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.[4]

Fantasy is part of the imageo Dei, the image of God which makes humans unique among all God’s creatures.  Furthermore, “fairystories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things:  Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.”[5]  As being created in the image of God, we have need of the creative power of fantasy; and as finite, mortal creatures, we need recovery, escape and consolation from the apparent trials and burdens of this Primary World to enable us to go out to face it again.  For this reason, Tolkien bristles at the idea that fairy-stories are primarily beneficial only for children; it is adults who invented them, adults who need them and only a rationalist, self-important age that thinks it has moved beyond fantasy and should leave it to the weak and immature.  Fantasy reflects both the highest calling and the deepest need of all people.  It presents what Tolkien calls the “eucatastrophe,” the unexpectedly happy ending, the sudden turn that veers from disaster.  In doing so, it calls us to the hope and faith that in the Primary World too, no matter how dark things are, they can be redeemed, the captives can be liberated, the blind healed, the poor hear good news.[6]  He writes:

            The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending:  or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale):  this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist” nor “fugitive.”  In its fairy-tale—-or otherworld—-setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace:  never to be counted on to recur.  It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure:  the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; 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 the world, poignant as grief.[7]

For Tolkien, fairy-stories are a kind of gospel.  They are an expression and affirmation of the hope of all humanity, the hope for Joy despite all the pain and despair around us.  And it is also true, Tolkien says, to see the Gospel as a sort of fairy-story.  The primary difference is the we sub-creators can only create Secondary Worlds; God creates the Primary World, and so what he creates is real.  God fulfills the deepest hopes and needs of humanity, through the Incarnation and the Resurrection, the ultimate Eucatastrophe.  What human storymaking could only aspire to and artistically create, God can make Reality.[8]

Campbell’s explanation for the similarities between the Gospel and other tales is that there is some primordial psychological wellspring from with all these tales flow, more or less on their own.  His philosophical influences are the psychological determinists Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and the greatest psychological influence on him is Jung; for all of these, myth is the inevitable fruition of forces greater than the individual and beyond all choice.  Tolkien’s explanation is that the Gospel resembles fairy-stories because they are hopeful expressions of the human desires fulfilled by Christ, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”  As bearers of the imageo Dei, we naturally strive to imitate God’s primary creation in our own sub-creation.  Sometimes we do it badly, with arrogance and selfishness, and create monsters, false gods (whether wrathful pagan deities or banners or economic systems), and other tales that debilitate and destroy us; but when we work with humility, we become not rebels but co-workers with God, enriching the Primary World through our secondary contributions.

[1] “On Fairy-Stories,” pp. 47-48

[2] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 60-61

[3] J. R. R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” in Tree and Leaf; reprinted in The Tolkien Reader, by J. R. R. Tolkien, (New York:  The Random House Publishing Group, 1966) pp. 100-20.  Interestingly too, Niggle’s friend Parish, who never had any artistic impulse, is revealed to be equally essential for the creative task due to his down-to-earth practicality and organizational zeal, which Niggle lacks.  This suggests again that it is not just the artist who is the sub-creator; anyone can be a sub-creator in his or her own manner.

[4] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 75

[5] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 67

[6] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 85-87

[7] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 85-86

[8] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 87-90

The Rapture or the Ring postscript: Is Tolkien racist?

September 28, 2011

When I presented this paper, the other presenter raised a troubling criticism of the Middle Earth stories:  that there is an implicit racism in the entire structure of the mythos.  After all, the whole Ring trilogy is structured around a clash of good versus evil, and the evil is not even human–talk about “demonizing the enemy”!  The death of a protagonist is a major event; the slaughter of orcs is treated as not just necessary but as positively celebratory.  Does Tolkien dehumanize and delegitimize the Other in a way that makes genocide acceptable?

I’m not a full-blown Tolkien scholar, so doubtless there are people out there who could write far more about this.  But they aren’t here, and I’ve always regretted that I didn’t have a ready response to that critique of Tolkien.  It is a legitimate concern.  As I see it, there are three questions here:  first, is Tolkien advocating genocide of the evildoers in his description of the wars with the orcs?  Second, is Tolkien perhaps not consciously or deliberately genocidal, but unconsciously or unavoidably so?  And third, is there something inherently racist or even genocidal in apocalypticism, of any variety?  The second and third of these are related, and the third will help to address the second; but I will begin with the first question.

There is something very strange about Tolkien’s treatment of the “bad guys” in his stories.  The orcs are impersonal and thoroughly evil, suitable only for extermination.  The nazguls and the men of the South are little better:  the first were men who were tricked and enslaved by Sauron to become inhuman and immortal ringwraiths, while the second are humans who have sided with Sauron voluntarily and fight beside the orcs willingly.  And then there’s Gollum, a murderer, physically degenerate beyond recognition as a hobbit himself, and literally psychologically dissolute to the point of having dissolved into two separate personalities: one completely corrupt, and the other weak, fearful, still pretty disagreeable, at times infantile and tending towards bestial, but still with some good in him.  Tolkien treats Gollum with a fair degree of sympathy.  There is hope he can be redeemed, more hope for him (even after his centuries of exposure to the Ring) than for the Men of the South or the Hill-Men who trouble Rohan.  Frodo spares Gollum and tries to bring him around to goodness, coming to trust him too much; can we imagine anyone trusting an orc?

After the SECSOR conference I did a little more research on Tolkien’s non-Middle Earth writings, and most relevant here, on his revolutionary essay on Beowulf (“The Monster and the Critics).  Many of us who grew up on Tolkien were unaware that he was first a professor of languages, and well versed in the study not only of ancient languages but also of mythology.  He is credited with reviving study of the epic of Beowulf, which was until then treated as something of a Gilgamesh or Illiad for savages.  Tolkien’s interest in mythology predates Joseph Campbell, and if there was any influence of Jung I am unaware of it.  Instead, his theories were based more on his own sensitivity to the ancient Celtic/British soul as expressed in the language and tales they shared and passed down, as well as his comparison of the ancient tales and priorities with those of his own Catholicism.  To Tolkien, the story of Beowulf, and the story of the pagan in general, is the story of death.  Tolkien likened the ancient self-image with a bird that flies in out of the darkness into the light and noise of a bustling mead-hall, flies the length of the longhouse amidst the sounds and sights and smells of life and conviviality, and then disappears again into the darkness.  That, Tolkien said, is life for the pre-Christian European:  come from darkness, live for a time, enjoy what you can, boast and fight and love, and then return to oblivion.  And that, he said, is what the Beowulf cycle reflects.  Beowulf’s monsters are not just beasties to fight, turning an otherwise good war story into a fairy tale fit for children and barbarians.  They are symbolic representations of the threats to humanity that we all face.  Grendel is humanity twisted by evil.  He has the basic form of a human, but the heart of a beast.  He invades the king’s mead hall, where brave men were supposed to be able to come together in fellowship, to slaughter and plunder, to conquer and spoil the place of community that he his incapable of joining himself.  Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel and his mother represent his defeat of those forces in the human soul that would tear our humanity from us.  Beowulf conquers a deadly threat, manifestly deadly in the story and symbolically deadly as an instantiation of all that is cruel, selfish and hateful in human nature.  By contrast, the dragon appears at the end of his life.  There is nothing human about the dragon; if anything, a dragon has traditionally represented the power of inhuman Nature.  This is Death, pure and simple.  There is no way Beowulf can hope to defeat it.  But just as in his youth he overcame fear and cowardice and all that was base in human nature to become the wise, brave and good hero-king, so in his old age he faces his death bravely, setting out to fight the dragon because he must, as a hero and leader of men.

The orcs are evil as the dragon in Beowulf is evil.  In Tolkien’s mythology, elves are equivalent to angels:  the Creator’s first and most perfect creations, immortal, beautiful and good.  The orcs are twisted, mutated elves; if the elves are angels, then orcs are demons.  Evil cannot create on its own, Tolkien believed, (as any Catholic knows, evil is a privation of good, not a positive power), so when Melkor arose to oppose the Creator he had to seduce and distort what was originally created good. Now, however, the beings that he thus seduced are completely enthralled to evil.  They are no longer what they once were.  They are outside of our nature, an external threat of subjection and destruction; to oppose them is to oppose death itself.

Gollum, on the other hand, is more like Grendel.  Gollum represents our nature, fallen and corrupted by the desire for power (symbolized by the Ring).  He was, after all, once a hobbit, and hobbits are essentially human (perhaps humans as they ought to be:  humble, agrarian, enjoying life’s simple joys).  The orcs were never human:  they were superhuman and thus when they fell they had no human nature to lose, so they became subhuman.  To hate Gollum is to hate ourselves, individually and as a species.  We must hope that his redemption is possible, because we need redemption so; and because we need redemption so, we ought to have an essential sympathy with him, and in fact with all those we otherwise think of as evil.  That is not to deny Gollum’s evil, but it is a refusal to deny his humanity.

To accuse Tolkien of racism or genocide for his treatment of the orcs is to misunderstand the symbolic/mythological role of the orcs.  As fallen elves, they are more extensions of evil’s power in the same way that demons are extensions of Satan more than individuals themselves.  The proper way we should think of our fellow humans is the way Frodo thought of Gollum:  he fought when he had to and would have killed him if necessary, but as far as he could he sought to win him over.  Sam’s refusal to trust Gollum or to help the sinner’s repentance may seem to have been validated by Gollum’s final relapse; but at the same time, Sam’s judgmental hostility towards Gollum is his least admirable characteristic and ultimately contributes to Gollum’s failure.  The dehumanizing of the Other can often prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy:  if you say “you can’t trust those types” often enough, you will not be able to trust them and, in fact, you will push them towards the very undying enmity you predicted.

Whether he is unconsciously or inadvertently racist is another question.  First, there is the question of whether as an Englishman born a colonial and raised as a citizen of the British Empire, he might reflect and unconsciously accept the prejudices of his culture. That, however, is not a question that interests me.  Even when we recognize the failures of our culture, we cannot help but be dyed by it.  For example, Tolkien describes orcs as physically resembling the worst example of “Mongol-types;” but that is not intended as a criticism of Mongolians.  It simply reflects that as an Englishman, a fair-skinned person living at the beginning of the 20th Century, his aesthetic preference is for fair-skin, and “swarthy,” dark-skinned, dark-haired, and narrower eyes seems foreign and generally unattractive; so when he sought to describe the orcs he put it in terms of “think of those foreigners and imagine the worst possible physical distortion along that continuum.”  This may be unfortunate, but is not really malicious or dangerous; we can grow out of that sort of thing with experience.

But the question of whether Tolkien was perhaps unavoidably racist or genocidal comes back to the third of our questions:  is apocalypticism in itself dangerous?  And if so, I would ask a further question:  are some forms of apocalypticism more dangerous than others?  The danger that the criticism implies is that anytime we think of the “other” as evil, particularly as cosmically evil, we are in danger of dehumanizing that other, and can easily justify anything we might do to that other.  This is pretty much inevitable in literal apocalypticism.  As I discussed in the first paper, that is the problem with the Left Behind sort of apocalypticism.  The blurb on the back of the film box may ask, “Who will you be?” and invite the viewer to identify with one of the protagonists; but they were all “left behind.”  They were good, too good to fall for the Antichrist’s wiles, but not good enough to be saved. The viewer expects to be raptured away, and to watch these events unfold for others who didn’t believe the right way or the right things.  This lacks earnestness.  It is an aesthetic sort of religiousness, not true faith.  Faith is earnest; faith does not need Nathan to say “Thou art the man,” because the earnest person always assumes that the story is told about the hearer.  The earnest approach to apocalypticism does not have to deny the literal truth of the prediction, but the literal prediction is the least important part of the truth; the earnest truth is only whether it is true of me.  If the Left Behind story gives me valuable role models, shows me how to resist temptation and endure persecution, then wonderful; if they lead me to judge those others who don’t believe and distract me from examining myself first, last and always, then they are worse than useless.

The Tolkien apocalypse lends itself to earnestness better because there is no temptation to use it as a prediction of the future, or to mine it for knowledge to satisfy my curiosity about the past.  I may dismiss it as idle entertainment, but I may also take it as a mirror to examine myself, and see it proposing possibilities that I could dread or aspire to in my own life.  I can imagine myself in that situation and ask what I might do, for good or ill.  I can even imagine that situation as some sort of analogy to my own life.  If I think of the Ring stories earnestly, there seems no danger I am going to attempt to identify “who the orcs are.”  Just as the monsters of Beowulf are paradigmatic of the existential threats of all people (in Tolkien’s theory), so too the orcs are paradigmatic not of some particular person or people, but represent the threats to my life, which I must face with courage and perseverance.  Since the War of the Ring is self-consciously a myth, and intends to be taken as such, it is a lot more natural to take it symbolically and metaphorically.  By contrast, if one believes the Bible must be taken literally, then it is natural to ask, “Who is the Antichrist?’  And that is not an easy question to answer.  For this reason, many millions of believers go beyond the literal word of the Bible, often unconsciously, to accept some one person’s interpretation.  Nothing in the Bible says the Secretary General of the United Nations is the Antichrist; in fact, the words “Secretary-General” never appear at all!  Most likely, original readers would have thought the Antichrist was Nero.  If you reject that theory, then you probably wonder who the Antichrist actually is.  But the earnest perspective would be to say that whomever the Antichrist is, what matters is how I live, how I will face persecution or troubles of any sort, and so on; speculations about whom the Antichrist might be is idle curiosity and a distraction, even an intoxicant.

I believe that Tolkien’s mythology has the elements of apocalyptic writing, most notably in the cosmic good-versus-evil theme; but Tolkien is earnest and his apocalypse is earnest, and thus it avoids the racist and genocidal tendencies of so much other apocalypticism.  However, he cannot avoid the danger of someone taking his writings without earnestness, and thus misinterpreting them as an indictment of “those others” rather than as an invitation to self-reflection.  This is the danger with all apocalyptic, but it is of course worse when it is presented by someone who lacks earnestness or at least lacks clarity about the nature and task of earnestness.  This is the problem with so much apocalypticism today.  To use a particularly notorious recent example, Harold Camping’s predictions seem to be more about the sense of power one feels when one is able to know the future.  It is about control.  I know the exact moment when the world will end, so I know how long I have to enjoy my money and when to give it all away to earn a place in Heaven.  I have special knowledge that makes my wisdom superior to others’, whether I choose to gloat privately or feverishly proclaim the secret wisdom I have to try to convince others.  It is “us” and “them,” insiders and outsiders.  The earnest person knows that whether the world ends October 21st or December 12, 2012, or never, doesn’t really matter.  My world will end, because I will end.  Will my death catch me “like a thief in the night,” unready to face my Maker?  How should I live, knowing that the world may outlast me but that either way I will not outlast me?

In earnestness, there is no time or motive for judging “those others,” those outsiders who are a different race or class or politics or whatever.  My concern is not to identify the Antichrist, because as 1 John 2:18 suggests, there are in fact many antichrists, any of which may attempt to destroy my faith.  My search for one is simply my attempt to escape the anxiety of uncertainty, which is the essential human condition.  When I can rest in faith, and sit in the darkness without striking a light for myself (as Isaiah puts it, Isa 50:10-11) then I can wait for the future to unfold without anxiously inquiring what will happen, or looking around for the evildoers to fight (as if there were no evil in my own heart enough to worry about).  I can even avoid that worst sin of all:  looking for others to blame and punish when things go wrong in my life, as when Falwell sought to blame 9/11 on the ACLU, instead of saying with Job, whatever comes from the Lord, is good.

The Rapture or the Ring: Kierkegaard’s Two Views of Death and Eschatology in Film

September 14, 2011

ABSTRACT: (Originally presented at the 2005 meeting of SECSOR.)  In this paper I intend to contrast Kierkegaard’s category of “the earnest thought of death,” which he treats as the fundamental entrance into the religious life, with his depiction of the “esthetic,” or pre-moral view, which Kierkegaard said was the most common life view.  Kierkegaard worked to clarify religious thought and concepts, and I will in turn use the categories he developed for this purpose to examine the evangelical science fiction of the Left Behind movies (among others), and the equally eschatological Lord of the Ring series directed by Peter Jackson. I will discuss why, from the Kierkegaardian perspective, the Left Behind films are extremely problematic, and why the Tolkien films seem closer to Kierkegaard’s definition of “religious” even though they are products of secular cinema.  Finally, I will consider what existential messages are inherent in these films and speculate as to what cultural and political implications this may hold.

The Rapture or the Ring:  Kierkegaard’s Two Views of Death and Eschatology in Film

In this paper I first intend to present Kierkegaard’s category of “the earnest thought of death,” which he treats as the fundamental entrance into the religious life.  I will contrast this with his depiction of the “esthetic,” or premoral view, which Kierkegaard said was the most common life view.  Kierkegaard worked to clarify religious thought and concepts, and I will in turn use the categories he developed for this purpose to examine two very different genres in “religious” film today:  the evangelical science fiction of the Left Behind movies (among others), and the equally eschatological Lord of the Ring series directed by Peter Jackson. I will discuss why, from the Kierkegaardian perspective, the Left Behind films are extremely problematic, and why the Tolkien films seem closer to Kierkegaard’s definition of “religious” even though they are products of secular cinema.  Finally, I will consider what existential messages are inherent in these films and speculate as to what cultural and political implications this may hold.

Kierkegaard’s Two Views of Death

Kierkegaard’s discussions of death were probably leading causes for his reputation as “the gloomy Dane,” and I hesitate to raise that simplistic image again.  However, he felt that the individual’s attitude towards death was crucial to that individual’s own spiritual maturity, so it is impossible to ignore the discussion.  I will begin by comparing two discussions he presents:  first, his upbuilding discourse “At a Graveside” from Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions; and second, his observations under various pseudonyms in “In Vino Veritas” and the first volume of Either/Or.

The Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, unlike his eighteen previous discourses, are distinguished not by their text or topic but by the fictitious setting of each.  Kierkegaard sets his last discourse in the context of a funeral, not for anyone important but apparently for a rather ordinary citizen.  The one distinguishing characteristic of his fictive deceased is that he “recollected God” all the days of his life, and in particular recollected that one day he would die and stand before God.  There is no discussion of pearly gates or such, but rather a vigorous discussion of the significance of death and mortality.  Kierkegaard claims that it is the earnest thought of death that gives this life meaning, and that moves the individual from the “esthetic” life of egoism and shallowness into the rich depths of the religious.

Kierkegaard says a great deal about what the earnest thought of death is, and what it is not.  It is not being somber, wailing at a funeral, being fearful or gloomy; it is not a mood of any sort.  Primarily it is the thought that I will dieI will die:  not just all flesh or those I love but me.  I will die:  not rest from my labors or find peace or any of the other evasions and euphemisms we commonly rely on.  All that I care for, my every project, hope, dream, desire, and fear will be cut off permanently.  Death is absolutely certain and absolutely uncertain; I know it will happen but cannot know when.  When I truly realize this, much that might have seemed important is shown to be utterly trivial; my career, my fame, my wealth, and more will vanish as if they had never been.  And much that I might have delayed or ignored becomes terribly urgent:  repenting of my sins, apologizing to my neighbor, telling my wife and children that I love them, or finding peace with myself and my life as it is, to name some.  The earnest thought of death relativizes life, but it also renders every moment more precious.  Time is, after all, running out, so one cannot afford to cling to life like a man on a burning roof afraid to leap to safety; and neither can one afford to drift thoughtlessly along as if one had all the time in the world.

Within a day of publishing the slim volume of discourses on imagined occasions, Kierkegaard published the massive Stages on Life’s Way.  Whereas the first is simple, direct, homiletic, and acknowledged, the second is convoluted, poetic and philosophical, and written under a variety of interlocking pseudonyms.  Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms are not mere pen names; they are characters intended to embody the existential views they represent as well as describe them.  The first of the stages, the “esthetic” stage of premoral and prereligious egoism, is presented in “In Vino Veritas,” a collection of speeches given at a banquet.  This chapter, like the discourse at the graveside, is prefaced with a (very different) discussion of the importance of recollection; and like the discourse, the banqueters are summoned by one of them to “the earnest thought of death.” However, for them it leads in an opposite direction.  Where meditation at a graveside led to sobriety, here it is the prelude to drunkenness.  In the discourse, the thought of death leads one to seriously contemplate one’s relationship to eternity; for the banqueters it leads only to greater immersion in frivolity and estrangement from eternity.  And the reason why is fairly obvious:  the earnest thought of death at the graveside is your thought of your death; for the banqueters, it is the thought of the death of everything else.  To them, recollection of death means to be gloomy and cynical, to meditate on how everything dies, and yet somehow to imagine looking on after one’s death as others go through your funeral.  A dead body is amusing, and a dead wife can be the inspiration for her beloved’s poetic genius; the significance of death is that it happens to others to make one’s own life more interesting or creative, to loosen one’s own bonds to the real world of relationships and commitments and moral values so that one may float free in the world of ideas.  The contrast becomes even more striking when one takes the literary hint Kierkegaard builds into the Stages by using pseudonyms from his earlier book, Either/Or.  The first volume of this work is full of meditations on death, despair, and boredom, showing how the esthete fails to take death or life seriously and winds up with a meaningless existence.  To the esthete, life seems interminably boring; to the earnest one (says Kierkegaard) it is not boring precisely because it is terminal.  To the esthete, life is mood and emotion; to the earnest one it is commitment and striving, with joy to be sure but not with the pursuit of pleasure as the ultimate goal.

The esthete considers death third-person, objectively.  While this may evoke a strong mood or emotional reaction, the esthete never really allows death to “get to” him or her.  The religious person, by contrast, considers death personally, subjectively.  Whereas the esthetic and objective way leads to unclarity, lethargy, and beckons one to become lost in mood, the earnest thought of death summons one back to the urgency of life’s task and to the true reality before God which life’s finitudes and illusions otherwise obscure.[i]  The two views of death Kierkegaard offers can together serve the individual as a touchstone for evaluating alleged spiritual insights.  If a poet or orator comes with enthralling words and dazzling insights, and one is taken to see these as signs of true spiritual depth, one can ask:  does this poem, speech or sermon evade the reality of death, or obscure for me my personal mortality?  Does it trivialize what should be paramount, or magnify what death reveals to be meaningless?  Then look elsewhere for spiritual insight, no matter how esthetically beautiful the words may be.  Or, does this sermon, advice, or manner of life take seriously the preciousness of one’s time on Earth, and truly show what really matters and what does not when measured by the decisiveness of death?  Then there is something profound here, even if it is masked in plainness or seeming triviality.

Eschatological Moviemaking and the Earnest Thought of Death

Kierkegaard resorts to eschatological language and scriptures in his discourse on death; but it is significant (and consistent) that he does not interpret these concepts eschatologically.  For Paul, it is the Day of the Lord which comes “as a thief in the night;” for Kierkegaard it is the individual’s death.[ii]  The end of the world is unimportant, or unessential; what matters to you is that you will end, and what matters to me is that I will end.  What happens to third persons, even to billions of third persons, is still not earnestness.  Kierkegaard would probably say that an apostle can use such language, because an apostle is a different sort of existence than an ordinary person, even a “genius.”  But for the rest of us, it is unhealthy and basically esthetic to speculate about the Rapture or the Final Judgment.  Whether Jesus is coming tomorrow, you can’t know; but you do know that God is coming for you, personally, at the day of your death.  That is the fact which should focus your attention.

Eschatology went Hollywood in the 20th century, and the dawn of a new millennium has done nothing to slow this down.  In fact, the general unease that has pervaded American culture since 9/11 seems to have heightened interest in literalist interpretations of the books of Daniel and Revelation.  In the second half of the 20th century there have been documentaries, feature films, and innumerable books purporting to present the script for the Last Days.  The classic in this genre, which I would describe as fundamentalist Christian sci-fi, is A Thief in the Night, released in the 1970’s by Mark IV Films (an evangelical production company).  During the Christmas movie season of 2000, The Omega Code, produced by Trinity Broadcasting and starring Michael York as the Antichrist, debuted among the top 10 moneymakers for the week.[iii]  Shortly after this, the movie version of Left Behind, based on the amazingly popular book of the same name, was released first on video and then in theaters.[iv]  In this movie, Kirk Cameron stars as a hotshot reporter who is caught up in the middle of the Rapture, the rise of the Antichrist, and the fulfillment of the prophecies found in John’s apocalypse.

Each of these films has slightly different interpretations of scriptural predictions, based partly on the particular “literal” interpretation each follows. But when one considers common elements in all three movies and the various books, T.V. sermons, and other popular presentations, general themes emerge.  There is a general distrust of international multilateralism, since the Antichrist will be a world leader who will unite many nations.  There is an emphasis on believing over action; this is not to say that one isn’t expected to live by the evangelical moral code, but it is clear that it is believing the literal truth of Revelation (or rather the interpretation of its obscure symbolism being offered) which saves, not good will towards one’s neighbors or even moral action.  Often (but not always) the United States is depicted as resisting the Antichrist.  But what is most common and, for my purposes, most relevant is that in virtually all of today’s popular versions of the evangelical Christian apocalypse, the believer is not in fact in any danger.  The millions of believers of these predictions, whether they follow the theories of Tim LeHaye or Hal Lindsey, all expect to be raptured out of the physical world.  They will not in fact die, though the world itself will.  Their focus therefore is not, as Kierkegaard would have it, on the “earnest thought” each individual can have when he or she considers his or her own death; instead it is really where Victor Eremita would have it, on the passing away of the world while you, the viewer or reader, look on from a safe distance.  In short, the fundamentalist eschatology reflects an esthetic worldview.

If eschatological films have such potential to lead viewers away from the religious consciousness and towards the esthetic, is it possible to create films which heighten earnestness instead?  Kierkegaard paid a great deal of attention to religious communication, and his observations on print media are relevant to film as well.  The fundamental (no pun intended) mistake of most Christian science fiction, and indeed of most fundamentalist eschatology, is to imply that the good person will avoid trials and tribulations.  Evangelicals generally do know better, but that is the message that is conveyed. In fact, the Apocalypse of John does not claim that Christians will be raptured away to escape the tribulations he describes; rather, his message to readers is to remain faithful to Christ through the tribulations and to trust that God is Lord of history.  Neither do Paul or the Gospels state that after the Rapture there will be a time of persecution for those Christians who weren’t good enough or evangelical enough to escape, but are still too good to go along with the Beast and his minions; rather, it is assumed that Christians will be caught up to Heaven only when Jesus appears to judge the world, at the end of history.  The Biblical witness is, therefore, that speculations on what will happen “after the Rapture” are misleading.  Nothing will happen; the Rapture is the last event in the world’s life, just as death is the last event in the individual’s life. The lesson of apocalyptic is how to live in the last days.  And from a Kierkegaardian perspective, every individual lives in the last days, I in mine and you in yours.

How might we tell such a story?  Kierkegaard offers some hints in his work, Two Ages.  This short piece is a literary review of a romance novel published in Copenhagen in 1845.  By placing the ethical and religious message in an apparently nonreligious medium, the author gains two things.  First, the message is slipped in on the reader, who likely did not expect to find a call to “leap into the arms of God” in a literary review. When the message comes where it wasn’t expected, it can startle, and perhaps seem fresh and new.  Second, when the religious message comes through a novel or a review of one, it comes “without authority,” to use another of Kierkegaard’s favorite terms.  It does not thunder from heaven; it stands next to you and talks face-to-face, as an equal if not a servant.

How could one make an eschatological movie like that?  The film versions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are just such movies.  Instead of writing preachy, avowedly Christian and “prophetic” books, Tolkien wrote “without authority.”  Instead of didactic prose which would require only acquiescence from the reader, he wrote complicated tales of fantasy which demand imagination and reflection, and effort.  It is a gospel that can sneak up on you and suck you in without you knowing what is happening, at the risk that you might wander in and out without detecting the good news offered to you there.  By contrast, the eschatological Christian science fiction is presented as literally true, or about to become true, with fictional elements thrown in to make an interesting story.  Instead of fairy tales, they present avowed prophecy, with the implied threat that if you don’t listen to the warning you will suffer as the characters in the story do.  It would seem as if no two genres could be further apart:  how can one usefully compare them?

Comparing such films as The Omega Code and Left Behind to The Lord of the Rings is further complicated by the fact that the production team for the Tolkien trilogy was not particularly religious. So we have the subtle symbolism and metaphor Tolkien employed in the books being further muted in being conveyed through a secular film project.  The task of comparing these films to the evangelical Protestant sci-fi films would seem to be an “apples and oranges” project which could have no real significance.

The first point of contact between these two bodies of film is that both are literally “eschatological.”  The evangelical films clearly deal with the death throes of a fallen world. The Lord of the Rings is likewise framed in eschatological terms of struggle against cosmic evil and chaos, and the impending death of the world. The more usual claim perhaps is that Middle Earth is “changing,” but this change is a real ending:  the immortal and magical elves are leaving, the days of wizards is passing, and soon the world will be left to Men.  Tolkien’s tales may seem to be more creation than eschatology, as the death of Middle Earth allows for the rise of the world of Men; but this combination is not absent from Scripture or fundamentalist films either, as the overthrow of the reign of the Antichrist clears the way for the New Jerusalem.[v]

The door to comparison has been opened; can we push through further?  Can we find anything meaningful or useful behind that door?  I believe Kierkegaard offers a way we can answer both questions, “Yes!”  First and more generally, there is much for even an evangelical to gain by appropriating Kierkegaard’s individualized use of apocalyptic language.  Kierkegaard himself did not really seek to discredit literal readings of Creation or eschatology or Scripture in general.  However, he did feel that the literal truth mattered less than the personal appropriation. Secondly and more specifically, we can analyze these very different eschatologies the way Kierkegaard compared various claimants to the Christian pedigree in his own day:  by examining their earnestness.  The earnest thought of death is intended, partly, to serve the individual as a touchstone for examining his or her own existential state.  It can also serve as an indicator of the earnestness of a religious understanding offered for one’s approval.  One point that comes through strikingly in the Ring trilogy is the seriousness with which the films take death.  True, in the Return of the King Gandalf tells Pippin of the blessed land that awaits them after death, leading the hobbit to affirm, “Well then, that’s not so bad.”  By contrast though, think of the distress Arwyn shows as Frodo lies dying on the border of Rivendell, or Sam shows as he lies apparently dead in Shelob’s lair.  Think of the profound grief of Theoden at the grave of his son.  Death is always seen as a loss, both for the dead one and those that loved him (or her).  Likewise, the death of Middle Earth is not eagerly or joyfully anticipated as a release from bondage or beginning of a new age; it is a fearful and mournful thing, even if it can lead to a happier future when the returned king will rule in peace and justice.  Tolkien treated (and Jackson treats) death as something which is indeed a loss, even if it is on another level a gain.

Of course, part of the reason for this is that it is by no means certain (at least not to the characters) that the death of Middle Earth will lead to anything good.  The quest of the Fellowship is a desperate gamble, “a fool’s hope” as Gandalf puts it.  Much depends, then, on how Middle Earth dies.  If it chooses shrewdness, caution, selfishness, or arrogance, it will lead to the age of the orc; if it dies fighting for what is good and true, defending the weak and giving to the needy and foolishly hoping and striving, it can lead to the age of Men.  That this Middle Earth will die is certain; the films chronicle only the manner and the results.

Finally, there is the films’ orientation towards their viewer.  Kierkegaard himself devoted considerable attention to the matter of the author’s method and intent if the reader was to be “built up.”   Tolkien came to similar views through his consideration of myth and fairy stories.  Both desired that the reader put himself or herself in the tale, identify with it, learn from considering its values and insights, and personally appropriate what seemed good.  This aspect certainly comes through in the film trilogy as well.  The hobbits in particular are Everyman.[vi]  They are ordinary, and they know it.  Tolkien thought of himself as a hobbit, and there is nothing put-offish about the hobbits to keep the viewer from identifying with them.  But whichever character one might see oneself reflected in, they are examples and exemplars.  They do what is right simply because they refuse to give up.  And it is precisely because of their stubborn goodness that they must undertake the quest, and why they suffer.  As Saruman says to Gandalf and might have said to all of them, “You have chosen the way of pain.”  Because they are good, they suffer, they strive, and some even die.  Evangelical eschatological sci-fi films, by contrast, invite the viewer not to identify with the main characters.  It is only the mediocre Christians who are to be “left behind” to suffer tribulations and persecutions.  For the good ones, the true believers, the death of the world is a spectator sport.


There are a number of films which claim to be earnest Christianity, perhaps even prophecy.  These works claim to be literal Scripture depicting possible, probable or almost as good as certain versions of future events.  Some of thee films are produced for internal consumption by the Church while others are sent into the general marketplace to seek an audience among the unconverted as well.  I have argued that many of these near-future Christian science fiction films fail the test of earnestness, tend to lead their viewers away from the earnest thought of death, and hence are esthetic, no mater how sincerely they are offered as true gospel.  I have also argued that the Tolkien film trilogy, despite the fact that the films are not presented as religious, still contain enough true earnestness within the fairy tale medium to act as evangelium (as Tolkien would say) and to build up the viewer (as Kierkegaard would phrase it). The Tolkien movies use the death of Middle Earth to say something about the life of the individual who must choose whether to struggle to bring something better out of life or simply to surrender to the darkness.  By contrast, evangelical science fiction claims that what you do has no importance to the outcome.  All that matters is if you accept or reject the established will of God.  An oft repeated phrase, in these films and in much evangelical preaching today, is that “you cannot oppose the word of God.”  Whatever has been prophesied will occur, and there’s nothing you can or should do to change it.

The heroes of “Left Behind” are not exactly evil; if they were they would not be persecuted by the forces of the Antichrist.  But if they had been truly good, and particularly if they had believed the theology of the filmmakers, they would be safely in Heaven, watching the Tribulation from a safe distance.  The death of the world has no significance for the truly faithful, except as its onset moves them into the express lane to Paradise.  It is only a problem for other people.  This third-person relationship to the eschaton can lead to a similar detachment from the thought of one’s own death.  And this in turn can have profound consequences for political theology and theological politics.  For example, in The Omega Code 2:  Meggido, we see the President of the United States in hand-to-hand combat with the Antichrist.  By resisting first the blandishments and then the threats of the evil leader of the European Union, the President and most of the U.S. military has remained on God’s side.  The President has tried to personally kill the Antichrist, and of course has failed; but soon Jesus will come to throw him into the lake of fire.  Ultimately, all the actions anyone has taken have no greater significance than to help determine his or her own fate; success and failure are swallowed up in the final Paradise which follows the carnage of Armageddon.  In a report on the television newsmagazine 60 Minutes titled “Zion’s Christian Soldiers,” several prominent evangelical leaders are shown repeating the theology of these movies as Christian doctrine, and suggesting (or outright claiming) that it is God’s will and the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy that Israel should expel the Palestinians from the West Bank, that the Israeli Prime Minister who attempted to negotiate with them was assassinated for opposing the will of God, and that a nuclear world war triggered by Middle East tensions is absolutely unavoidable and is to be welcomed as the prelude to the return of Jesus.  Here we see the final payoff for the esthetic eschatology:  nationalism, reckless confrontation, unconcern for the other, and blind confidence in one’s own righteousness and one’s coming reward.

So the comparison I would draw between these film eschatologies is this:  In the Tolkien films the end of the world is frightful, the good bear an unfair portion of the suffering and may even die, the hand of Providence is often hidden and must be trusted on faith (“a fool’s hope”), and the death of an individual is tragic even if it is not the final end.  On the other hand, in Christian evangelical science fiction the end of the world is frightful only for the bad or mediocre people who do not escape it through the Rapture, the truly good do not suffer at all or bear any burden on behalf of the world, and one’s own actions do not matter in the slightest because the hand of Providence has written the whole story down already for those who believe.  Despite the fact that Tolkien deliberately wrote myth which veiled his Christian message, there can be no doubt that the films based on his writings come closer to the existential condition of the original Biblical writers and readers.  The Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes could hardly have believed that the prophecies of Daniel were intended to suggest that the good people were to be spared suffering.  Christians who witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the legions of Titus would never have thought the apocalyptic writings in Mark’s gospel didn’t apply to true Christians but only to false believers.  Christians who endured the persecutions of the Roman emperors certainly believed that they were living through the last days described by John of Patmos.  The apocalyptic writings on which evangelical Christian sci-fi is based were all written by and for believing communities which were enduring hardships at that very moment, by and for individuals who faced imminent death for the sake of their faith, who were living in the condition not of the blessed raptured ones but of those “left behind” in the movie.  The existential orientation of the apocalyptic Scriptures is that of the uncertain, powerless, innocent ones in a hostile world struggling to keep the faith with God and one another, even when God seemed far away.  The intent of those writings was to give the audience a message of hope and examples of faithful suffering obedience to imitate.

Despite the secular influences on them, the Lord of the Rings film trilogy comes closer to putting its characters and its viewers into a situation and state of being similar to that experienced by actual Bible-age people than do the so-called “literal” presentations of evangelical sci-fi.  In that state of being, the viewer is better enabled to make the sort of choices the original readers were called to make.  Fundamentalist sci-fi invites its viewers only to choose whether to believe the theology and thus escape all the hardships, or to suffer like the people in the movie.  It is really a disengaged stance which they are invited to adopt; which is also to say and esthetic stance, or as Kierkegaard also named it, an idolatrous stance.

The stories of the Ring and the Rapture come to us from earlier centuries; and yet both have resonated with the 21st Century American consciousness.  The story of the Rapture continues to offer what it always did:  the assurance that God reigns and justice will prevail, that history means something and is leading towards a beautiful consummation, and that in the end we will see that everything makes sense within the whole.  The Ring stories reassure us differently, by showing that we can make sense, and bring sense out of the senselessness we feel surrounding us.  The first I might call a cosmological consolation, the second an ethical consolation.  Both give reassurance that evil and chaos are not the end.[vii]  American culture has struggled for years to hide from the hard necessities of mortality.  The result is a multibillion dollar industrial complex of health care and cosmetics designed to remove sickness, age and death from our sight.  9/11 dealt a serious blow to that illusion.  It is harder to believe oneself immortal and omnipotent after such a devastating event brought about with such relative ease.  As the insecurity of mortality produces anxiety, the ground is prepared for true earnestness to take root.  It is natural and desirable that the popular culture should produce stories which seek to place individual lives and apparent chaos into a wider, ultimately rational and benevolent context.  It is also natural and desirable that the popular culture should produce stories showing how individuals can face and conquer their fear and the chaos of an often hostile world, be good and finally help produce goodness despite it all.

If I had to choose, I would choose the Ring stories over the Rapture films.  I have already discussed my theological and psychological reasons for this preference.  Even stronger are my political concerns.  Rapture theology has been used and is used to demonize “them”  and exalt “us,” rendering self-criticism all but impossible and making the other nothing more than a stock villain in one’s own play.  Rapture theology often inspires not only confidence in God’s final victory, but also a disregard for the present reality and people.  In an age that sees such things as the Tulsa bombing, the Sarin gas attacks in Japan, and the destruction of the World Trade Center, this sort of “religion” (which I, following Calvin and Kierkegaard both, would name “idolatry”) is too dangerous for words.  It is not just a casual concern whether a religious phenomenon is “true” or not; all should be concerned when esthetic, shallow passions masquerade as religion and take on divine prerogatives in order to lay a road of destruction for the individuals to follow.  And it should be a concern for everyone to strive for that true earnestness, and to urge others towards earnestness, which can help each one best deal with these anxious times and best preserve oneself and the whole.

[i] Three Discourses, pp. 83-84

[ii] 1 Thess. 5:2; also 2 Peter 3:10, Rev. 3:3, and others

[iii] The Omega Code:  TBN Films, Inc. 1999.

[iv] Left Behind:  the movie  Cloud Ten Pictures, 2000.

[v] Revelations 21-22

[vi] Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light:  Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World;  (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI 1983) pp. 134-35

[vii] These are not necessarily mutually exclusive; one can both see one’s fears and burdens as part of a larger story and strive to play out one’s own part in it as best it can be.  Tolkien’s characters certainly see themselves as parts of the greater story, without this leading them away from earnestness.