Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mythopoeia of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings

Guardian article by Damien Walter lays out something I've long found both fascinating and troubling about Tolkien's mythology:
It’s a double-edged magical sword, being a fan of JRR Tolkien. On one hand we’ve had the joy of watching Lord of the Rings go from cult success to, arguably, the most successful and influential story of the last century. And we get to laugh in the face of critics who claimed LotR would never amount to anything, while watching a sumptuous (if absurdly long) adaption of The Hobbit.
On the other hand, you also have to consider the serious criticisms made of Tolkien’s writing, such as Michael Moorcock’s in his 1978 essay, Epic Pooh. As a storyteller Tolkien is on a par with Homer or the anonymous bard behind Beowulf, the epic poets who so influenced his work. But as works of modern mythology, the art Tolkien called “mythopoeia”, both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are open to serious criticism.
As well as giving some sense of what we've long been laying bare here on this site:
To understand why takes a little consideration of what we really mean by the word “myth”. The world can be a bafflingly complex place. Why is the sky blue? What’s this rocky stuff I’m standing on? Who are all these hairless chimps I’m surrounded by? The only way we don’t just keep babbling endless questions like hyperactive six-year-olds is by reducing the infinite complexities of existence to something more simple. To a story. Stories that we call myths.
Science gives us far more accurate answers to our questions than ever before. But we’re still dependent on myths to actually comprehend the science. The multi-dimensional expansion of energy, space and time we call the Big Bang wasn’t literally a bang any more than God saying “Let there be light” was literally how the universe was created. They’re both mythic ideas that point at an actual truth our mammalian minds aren’t equipped to grasp.
As well put as this article is in some senses, there are a number of issues that need to be pointed out.

First, the idea that the political views of an author are necessarily reflected in a work, and if they are, they we must agree with them to appreciate the work, is clearly flawed.

This article seems to take the stance that the ideology put forth by a work of art must be the authors, or furthermore if it is, that the audience must agree with it – that you are somehow supporting the underlying ideology merely by reading it. Aren't we better off when exposed to ideologies that are not necessarily our own? Isn't this the troubling danger presented by our online "bubbles" feeding us only the content that support our existing ideology?

This is dangerous territory, if we take it a step further from ideology to act. Is the identity of an artist so wrapped up in the art itself that merely watching it conveys some acceptance of their acts unrelated to the piece?

Second, Walter's analysis of Tolkien's politics is also somewhat questionable. Even if we're to label him "conservative," conservatism of his time is different than it is today. Take an example in his own words,
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to 'unconstitutional' Monarchy. ... Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity. And at least it is done only to a small group of men who know who their master is. The mediƦvals were only too right in taking nolo efiscopari as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop. Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you care to call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers. And so on down the line. But, of course, the fatal weakness of all that – after all only the fatal weakness of all good natural things in a bad corrupt unnatural world – is that it works and has worked only when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient human way. The quarrelsome, conceited Greeks managed to pull it off against Xerxes; but the abominable chemists and engineers have put such a power into Xerxes' hands, and all ant-communities, that decent folk don't seem to have a chance. We are all trying to do the Alexander-touch – and, as history teaches, that orientalized Alexander and all his generals. The poor boob fancied (or liked people to fancy) he was the son of Dionysus, and died of drink. The Greece that was worth saving from Persia perished anyway; and became a kind of Vichy-Hellas, or Fighting-Hellas (which did not fight), talking about Hellenic honour and culture and thriving on the sale of the early equivalent of dirty postcards. But the special horror of the present world is that the whole damned thing is in one bag. There is nowhere to fly to. Even the unlucky little Samoyedes, I suspect, have tinned food and the village loudspeaker telling Stalin's bed-time stories about Democracy and the wicked Fascists who eat babies and steal sledge-dogs. There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations; I hope that, encouraged now as 'patriotism', may remain a habit! But it won't do any good, if it is not universal.
Hardly liberal, but also not something that would fly on Fox News.

Finally, the supposed xenophobia exhibited in his work often turns this idea on its head, where throughout suspicion and racism is met with despair, and the collective efforts of different people are rewarded. This collective effort is made toward some concept of universal good, and in that we might see a version of conservatism, that old myth of good versus evil, which stands in opposition to the decentered liberalism which I myself generally believe – of no universals, no centers, no absolutes. All the same, such liberal pluralism generally asks we open our minds to ideas of difference.

[Take a Trip with us... Mythos Media.]

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