Saturday, June 4, 2011

Reflected Light

"It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people, but to anthropologists," C. S. Lewis writes in "Meditation in a Toolshed." "The people who look at things have had it all their own way; the people who look along things have simply been brow-beaten" (Lewis 213). He decries the credibility that biologists, sociologists, studiers--those who look at the beam--have in society relative to the subjects studied--those who look along the beam--and argues for an approach that integrates these two approaches: "One must look both along and at everything" (215). Yet I think the real reason why we go to those who look at the beam is that looking along is fundamentally incommunicable. It's easy to wander into the toolshed, notice the beam of light, notice the lab coated researcher next to you scribbling on a pad, and poke them to ask what's up with the light. The researcher's in the same place you are. But the ones inside the beam see only the light, and it seems inconceivable that anything exists outside of it.

To take a trivial example: this course has so thoroughly bathed my mind in the Legendarium that I have to consciously remind myself that not everyone has visions of Arda flitting through their head at all times. At a party halfway through the quarter, I was very intently telling a girl who'd just introduced herself as "Eleanor" that she reminded me of elanor, light of the sun, the flower that grows upon the slopes of Lothlorien. It was meant as a compliment, but she just looked confused and mildly horrified. I stuttered out an apology, then withdrew to a corner to think about What I Had Done (or, alternatively, Why I Am No Fun At Parties). How could I explain Aragorn at the foot of Cerin Amroth, "standing still and silent as a tree; but in his hand was a small golden bloom of elanor, and a light was in his eyes" (LotR II.6)? that elanor is, to me, one of the most evocative symbols of beauty and its inevitable passing from the earth? my love for Tolkien? I would have to step out of the beam, try to talk objectively about style or subcreation, to make Eleanor understand--or hand her a copy of The Lord of the Rings and hope that she, well, sees the light. (I really am no fun at parties.) Those looking along the beam find it nearly impossible to make themselves coherent to those looking at. The faithful will say that the substance of their faith is indescribable, ineffable; lovers may gibber all they want (and gibber they do), but the thousand poems they may create could never substitute for the touch of their lover's hand.

Yet we write and read love poems because through them we can, in a way, look at the love from which they sprang. Though even the best poetry cannot communicate the experience, reading it allows us to think about our own experiences in a different way. Indeed, I think the reason why we find art so touching and so important is because it functions as a mirror in which we can see the light reflected. The greatest art* is such because it is infused with the brighter beams: e. e. cummings's poetry and love, The Iliad and mortality, Tolkien's Arda and faith. By themselves, these works cannot bring us into the light, but once we step into the beam ourselves through experience, we read and reread these personal scriptures to gain a better understanding and appreciation of what we stand in.

[*] Incidentally, I do include great scientific works in this category. For me, the theory of evolution, the dual nature of light and matter, the ways tiny neural interactions can lead to emotions as complex and transcendent as love, and many other similar discoveries are windows to the wonder of our universe. Some of the most spiritual experiences I've had come from contemplation of these theories, and it frustrates me to see some artists dismiss science out of hand as being cold and unfeeling.

Furthermore, as this class as demonstrated, contemplation of this light is not a solitary experience. This is the purpose of Cult: to bring together people with the same points of departure in order to gain understanding (or simply fun) through social communion. Religion, in its regular (usually weekly, it seems) gathering of believers at a place of worship, is the most obvious example of this. Storytelling may be an interesting example of Cult. Many of us came to Tolkien because our parents read it aloud to us as children, a regular bedtime ritual; it's notable that Agatha reads aloud to the children every Sunday. Through this ritual of storytelling that the art to appreciate experience are passed down, generation to generation. And we then can make our own art, our own mirrors, to become subcreators in our right. In showing these creations to others, the promise of the mirror is fulfilled, and together we can look along the beam with greater understanding.

Thanks for a great course, everyone, and I'll see you all at the Happening!

M. Liu

Friday, June 3, 2011

A 'Happy' Ending

Almost everybody remembers some story that they thought was really good until it ended. Perhaps the hero didn't get everything he deserved, or one of the villains got off too easy. Maybe, after a really good story, the ending was just dull. Or it might have simply been the fact that the story was fun, and it ended too soon. Some readers feel slighted by this; after all, they put time into reading or listening to the story, and it might seem like poor compensation for their time if the end is unsatisfactory. They might think that the story had a ‘bad ending’. And this leads to a question that I really hadn’t thought much about until this last class: who really owns the story in the first place? While it might seem natural that the author would know his story best, his readers are also giving something up for the story. Given that some authors are better than others, it stands to reason that some people reading the story have a better sense of how it should have ended than the author actually did.

But when it comes to a story that is as heavily steeped in symbolism and meaning as any of Tolkien’s works, it can become confusing who owes whom. While it probably takes most readers a while to get through The Lord of the Rings, it arguably took Tolkien’s whole life to create Middle Earth. What he did was far more than make a story; he constructed an alternate universe of a depth that could not be expressed in a single story (and given Christopher’s extensive work, a single lifetime). So it comes off as arrogant for a reader to judge a story that he read in a couple weeks, when it took its creator years to get the characters and setting just right. Criticizing Tom Bombadil as uninteresting and unimportant to the plot ignores the stories that were written before that featured him, or the creation story he tells the hobbits that first-time readers probably miss. While a reader might have better writing skills than Tolkien did, he almost certainly does not have the same grasp of Middle-Earth and its inhabitants that Tolkien did. So who really gets to judge the moves Tolkien decided to make, or what meaning his stories have?

I think the answer is that judgement belongs to the reader, but there is a good chance that a reader simply doesn’t try hard enough to appreciate a story. Superficially, a story is meant to entertain whoever is reading it. And many stories are meant to do just that. Troubling enough, this mentality seems to be held especially strongly in relation to fairy tales, which we usually hear at a young age when we don’t look for anything more. In Whistling Woman, a group of children object to a story on precisely these grounds. The ending of the story they hear isn’t a ‘good’ ending, to them. This message is further amplified by the beginning when the storyteller tries to decided whether or not her listeners are old enough for the story in the first place.

But some stories (especially fairy tales, Tolkien might argue) do not exist solely for entertainment. When it comes the judging Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings, the standard should not be how interesting or entertaining he was, but how the role he played fit with the rest of the story. Tolkien had definite messages and themes that he wanted to convey, and some of those were at the expense of entertainment. There is nothing that exhibits this more clearly than The Silmarillion. I believe most readers would agree that, when comparing The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, the former is much more gripping and exciting. One might even consider parts of The Silmarillion to be *shudder* dull. So it is clear that Tolkien knew how to write an exciting story. That simply wasn’t what he set out to accomplish. Before judging his works, one must understand what the work is supposed to be in the first place. While this will make the story no more exciting, it will help to provide a metric by which to judge.

Which brings me back to the matter of endings. After re-reading the end of The Lord of the Rings, it struck me how early the fairy-tale ‘end’ occurs. The final battle with enemy forces doesn’t even start in the last book (and I mean book, not volume), and the Ring is destroyed three chapters into the final one. The remaining two-thirds of the last book are occupied with what, in most other stories, would be unimportant resolution where the good guys are rewarded and the bad guys get their just desserts. But Tolkien wasn’t writing just one story, and it shows in his endings. While the main events of the story are over, Tolkien’s characters never get a break from their lives. Aragorn grows into the king he was meant to be, and wrestles with the daunting task of rebuilding Gondor. The hobbits realize that The Shire is not always safe, and even they must deal with corruption, from the inside and out. And Frodo, who has been expressing a desire to go home since the beginning of his journey, realizes that he is not meant for it any longer, and says goodbye to his hobbit friends. These events keep the characters and the setting alive and moving. While the story has ended, Middle-Earth has not. When we think of The Lord of the Rings, or any story, we must think of these other things that the story seeks to accomplish. And I think that if a story has succeeded, these will be evident most clearly in the end. That is, after all, an author’s final words to his reader.


P2C2E, Narrative Causality, and "The End"

After our discussion in class on narrative causality I began to consider how this truly comes into play in the LOTR as well as many other favorite works of fiction. I've always been fascinated by the process of writing. There is an intriguing, though sometimes frustrating aspect to a work of fiction because how probable is it that so much would happen to these characters? How is it possible that everything always falls into place just so, that million to one chances happen more often than not, and that eventually the protagonist wins out in some way or other? Terry Pratchett has been quoted to say, "...the proliferation of luminous fungi or iridescent crystals in deep caves where the torchlessly improvident hero needs to see is one of the most obvious intrusions of narrative causality into the physical universe." This goes to show how strange the narrative creation process can be. Doesn't anyone ever question it? Is this all too easy?

I've seen these kinds of "easy way outs" in many of my favorite works. In Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy you often have to suspend your own concept of how everything should work in reality and accept that anything absurd and insanely coincidental or otherwise lucky will occur. Adams needs to explain how its possible that the characters will easily be able to understand all the various languages they encounter throughout the whole universe so he creates the "Babel Fish," which naturally you just pop in your ear and as it eats incoming brainwaves it excretes them in a coherent manner. Or how about the "Infinite Improbability Drive" on the starship The Heart of Gold. Naturally by just pressing a button an obscenely improbable act can occur and it is justified based on this fictional device. The same has been true of Salman Rushdie in Haroun and the Sea of Stories where anything that occurs relating to Earth's fictional 2nd moon, (Kahani) such as its ability to orbit so fast it is never seen, is simply attributed to "Processes Too Complicated Too Explain" or "P2C2E" for short.

Do we too often forget and never question the strange ways in which narrative causality permeates the LOTR? Such as Gandalf always showing up at just the right moment? Lembas bread existing to keep them strong when they otherwise would have no food or energy normally? That mithril keeps Frodo alive more than once when he should be dead? The list could go on and on describing the truly incredible circumstances of Tolkien's work. The quest itself, so improbable, so often challenged by anything that could possibly happen, is in and of itself following a line of narrative causality that is both incredible and sometimes wholly unrealistic. I know that sounds like a redundant thing to say, its fantasy so of course its unrealistic, but I mean on that deeper level in which the characters follow their path as dictated by Tolkien, circumstances play out exactly as they need to in order to make a good story.

Of course the abnormality of the circumstances which surround a character are what end up making a story worth reading though so how can we question them? I'll note that even stories meant to highlight the mundane are good stories because of they offer a window of perspective that makes them interesting in a creative way.(Something like James Joyce's Ulysses is what I'm thinking of here.) The LOTR would not be epic or memorable were it not for the grand and fantastic scale of its story. One thing I can attribute to Tolkien is although he must fall prey to narrative causality as all stories must, he does not seem to cut corners, and he never really takes an easy way out to explain how everything happened as it did thanks to wonderful layers of back story.

After reading C.S. Lewis' "Meditation in a Toolshed" I began to also think about the way characters are developed around their extreme circumstances in stories and how we are to approach them as a result. The difference between looking "at" and looking "along" a circumstance seemed to make a lot of sense. Of course the actual experience in the beam would be focused and different from that of those looking at it from the outside. What I couldn't get over however was whether or not an author is ever capable of looking along that beam really. They can describe the feelings and emotions of a character but especially when it comes to the fantasy genre, they don't really know what it feels like, they couldn't possibly. Perhaps good writing is simply getting as close as possible to presenting that concept of looking along the beam when all you can really do is look at it.

To look across the whole spectrum of a story as broad and wide as the LOTR is truly a fantastic feat though and the development of characters with the possibility of bending the laws of nature as we know them are what make fantasy novels so interesting--everything in LOTR would not be nearly as worth reading if there wasn't magic and fantastical settings and creatures. One has to allow ones self to accept them as they are and as they come. Fighting with the realities of a story seems rather futile. And perhaps in that act of acceptance we allow the story to take us where it will. This is why so often there are analogies of stories connected with water. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories Rushdie describes the Sea of Stories as consisting of infinite stories taking the form of different currents of colors which ebb and flow together to create new ones and defy the spectrum of color and the concept of a story as we know it. A.S.Byatt also spoke of a narrative as a stream which follows certain paths but the grooves left grow deeper with the infinite run of its streams. Stories will always mean different things to different people and this is why we can make a whole major out of interpreting the creative processes of authors.

Thus, when stories seem to always perpetuate a cult of interpretation without end, how important is "The End"? Its amazing how we can always count on traditional stories to be wrapped up neatly and tied up perfectly at the end of the story. Again, narrative causality at work. Frodo at the moment his journey is over cannot complete it so of course, luckily, Gollum attacks him and ends up hurling himself with the ring headlong into Mount Doom. Text book narrative causality. In A.S. Byatt's the Whistling Woman, the story is ended without conclusion and the characters have a hard time processing this because of its abnormality. I had a friend once who always used to make up stories about us meeting various celebrities or having interesting adventures but as soon as she got bored of writing them she would stop and write in huge letters, "ABRUPT ENDING." It could be very frustrating not knowing where to go from there. I've always been a fan of purposeful cliffhanger endings however, and perhaps this is the one way in which narrative causality can be challenged if not totally circumvented since it persists throughout the story still.

Perhaps at this point though I've really lost myself and come to no conclusion either. Perhaps all one can do is muse away on what it means to end and how you can get where you got. However I've truly taken away a lot of from the LOTR, as we all have, and though I continue to pick apart what I think helps to create it as it is, I think there can be no denying its cult and the importance of the journey through its interpretation...



“This isn't one, This isn't an end... ”

As our course reaches its end, I have discovered to my own fortune that there is no other post more appropriate to blog on than on the Cult created by Tolkien’s works which has so masterfully captivated and enchanted its readers. In order to begin addressing the power of his work, it seems fit first to address A.S Byatt’s novel A Whistling Woman. In particular, we turn to the scene where Agatha finishes reading her story to the children, Leo and her daughter Saskia. The tale of the Prince Artegall, which had so absorbed and immersed the children in their imaginations, thwarts the children’s expectations of an emotionally rewarding ending upon it’s most exhilarating moment - when Artegall finally finds his kinsman and the Kingdom of the North of which he has been looking for throughout his journey. Leo complains to Agatha that “there was no satisfaction in the end of the story.” (Byatt, 12), to which she responds “that is where I always meant it to end” (Byatt, 12). The children, who were looking for an all-encompassing, closed and neat ending were therefore left wanting more out of the story and still questioning themselves over the open-ends left by Agatha. Frederica, Leo’s mother, upon further pondering what constitutes a good ending seems to reach the conclusion that a ‘real ending’ would be one capable of making it’s audience “cry with happiness.” (Byatt, 13). This emotional pay-back expected by Frederica is nothing more, nothing less than what Tolkien himself coined by the “word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce).” (Letters, 100) It seems therefore that, had Tolkien been the author of this tale and not Agatha, Leo would have been much more pleased with its ending.

However, we are still left in a position whereby we have not yet understood what it is about this eucathartic ending which is so rewarding to its reader. According to Tolkien, this ending is capable of rendering the reader under this satisfying effect since it provides him with a “sudden glimpse of Truth” (Letters, 100) slipping through this secondary reality which corresponds directly to our experience in our primary reality. The eucatharsis thus involves the reader at an extremely personal level in his experience of the story and we find ourselves looking along the beam of light in C.S Lewis’ Toolshed analogy. We are fully invested in the tale; we experience the narrative, feel along with its characters and genuinely live their story. It is because the story is real and shares in this ‘Truth’ that we are able to discover meaning and value within it once we step back from the story as it finds its ending on the page before us. Tolkien’s initially puzzling affirmation that “Middle-earth is not an imaginary world” (Letters, 239) begins to make much more sense. In fact, provided we are looking along the Toolshed’s beam of light, we are able to fully comprehend what Tolkien meant when he asserted that “the theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live [i.e. our primary reality], but the historical period is imaginary.” (Letters, 239)

However, this is not to discredit the second and more objective perspective described by C.S Lewis as of looking at the beam of light. This latter perspective is what allows the reader to effectively see from a certain distance the bigger picture and evaluate the actions described in the context of the narrative. Furthermore, the reader is to be content with what the author has provided him - be it satisfactory or not - and is not in a position to insert his own sub-creations within the gaps left by the author. Therefore, the extent to which the author has revealed the narrative is all that the reader has access to, and thus, he remains dependent on the author to either change those parts which were unsatisfactory, or keep feeding this thirsty reader with more material. This seems to be the case between Agatha and Leo, who continuously demands her to progress further with her story, even when she has not yet written the next section. Agatha then tells him that she cannot continue the story since she doesn’t know the rest - “Anything could happen.” (Byatt, 327) The storyline is therefore out of her control, instead it seems to create itself, unfolding itself as she writes. The narrative contains a power of its own to which the author is merely a vessel translating it into the written word. A solely objective take on such a work is therefore rendered unfeasibly since the narrative is begging its reader for his input - that is, to fill the gaps left with his or her own sub-creations. However, as we have previously seen, this insertion is only possible if we combine the objective lens with that of the personal lens. That is to say, as pointed out by C.S Lewis, the reader must be able to look at as well as along the beam of light coming through the Toolshed.

Finally, one may point out that while the reader’s task (as stated above) is well understood, a certain level of skill is necessary for one to be able to produce and insert such sub-creations. This skill, of which the 8-year-old Leo still lacks comes with education. It is not surprising therefore that upon Byatt’s description of his going to school, Leo’s mother observes that the walls are lined with school projects on the works of none other than J.R.R Tolkien himself. In school, the children will learn the skill of sub-creation, they would have “to consider how trees grow and spider-webs are women, to think about perspective and be inventive with materials.” (Byatt, 371) Thus the children will learn the art of the Ainur when, together with the One, Illúvatar, they composed the themes of the world. The reader no longer finds himself frustrated upon finding at the end of a story a “Frameless Picture: a searchlight, as it were, on a brief episode in History, surrounded by the glimmer of limitless extensions in time and space.” (Letters, 412)

- J.Machado

Tolkien's Gift

By far, the most powerful moment for me in the entire Lord of the Rings is when Gandalf delivers the following line: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” I find this line so spectacular because it speaks simultaneously to the glory and the limitations of humanity. I feel that this is a central thread that runs throughout Tolkien’s work and philosophy.

The readings for class picked up on this thread, as well, particularly the belief that human beings, as part of the larger creation of God’s work, have a specific place in that creation and specific duties to perform. The way God organizes the universe does, in a way, “put us in our place” and knocks us of our perch because it enforces our dependence on God. In the Ancrene Wisse, which, for my money, spent an inordinately large amount of time discussing prayer schedules—pretty glad I am not an anchorite—we see the level of devotion that is required as a servant of God. Of course, we don’t all have to do what those anchoresses did-at least, I hope not—but what we do need to do, according to Tolkien, is to work for God. As he puts himself, the purpose of life is “to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks” (138, Sanctifying Myth).

This thought answers the first question of the two that Christian humanists, as Birzer points out, are concerned with: what is the role of man in God’s creation? The second question, however, is “how does man order himself within God’s creation”? (133). In this second question, there’s a hint that there’s more to serving God than just honoring him through prayer. We need to also, on our own, personally create something. Tolkien puts is much better when he writes that “we, as human persons, are to sanctify our own gifts by putting them to the service of the betterment of ourselves, our community, our society, the Church, and, ultimately, the world” (136). We are to be active servants, then. We have to do more than pay homage; we have to go out into the world and produce something that honors God.

In the passage we read from Shippey, these beliefs are echoed. Shippey mentions Gandalf’s advice to Theoden about what they should do. Gandalf replies “Do the deed at hand…If we fail, we fall. If we succeed—then we will face the next task” (183). Furthermore, Shippey later on reiterates how much of Tolkien’s philosophy urges “that you must do your duty regardless of what you think is going to happen” (183). Shippey, however, adds an addendum to the two questions of the Christian humanist by showing that our task is an everyday affair. Talking about the style of the poetry in Beowulf—although it can be and should be applied to Tolkien—Shippey feels that “the plain, even rustic language appeals to everyday experience” (192). Even though the Lord of the Rings and a lot of other writings by Tolkien deal with an epic story of saving the world from destruction, Tolkien’s main prerogative was to show readers that we do our duty in the arena of everyday life. This explains why Tolkien can appeal to so many people. He does not focus on things that are foreign to us but that come as a result from “a slow probing of the familiar” (193).

Viewing this cynically perhaps would lead us to the conclusion that this worldview condemns humanity to the role of a pawn. Tolkien, however, wouldn’t see it like that at all. True, we are here for God but the relationship between us and the Creator, as Tolkien sees it, is based on love which means that God does not treats us as if we were pawns. More than that, each individual has the divine spark in him or her. According to Tolkien, “Incarnation proves the intrinsic worth of each human person” (136, Sanctifying Myth). This shows that each person is an important piece in the puzzle that is the universe. We are for God and we are here to do a job. But we have the tools to do it and do it well.

Looking back on Tolkien’s works and this class as a whole, I come face-to-face with the impact that Tolkien has had. Becoming acquainted with his work and the secondary literature made me realize that The Lord of the Rings is more than a great story; it’s a gift. Ultimately, I think this was Tolkien’s intention all along, to give a gift to a readership that would cherish it. It’s remarkable when we consider how much time and effort he put into his legendarium and how much he theorized about what he was doing and why he was doing it. He dedicated his life to Faery. It’s even more remarkable when we consider the reaction to his effort. Not to get corny at a moment like this but in the movie Shadowlands, which features Tolkien’s friend, C.S. Lewis, a student tells Lewis that “we read to know we’re not alone.” I think Tolkien would have agreed with this assessment and would be pleased with the connections that readers have made to him and his work. Being a human in God’s creation is not always easy and, as this post, we have a lot of work to do. But books like The Lord of the Rings and people like Tolkien who are willing to reach out to you and to others make it a little more fun for us all.

Musings: Meaning, endings, and eternity

I started writing some musings to a friend, and towards the end it started to tie into The Lord of the Rings and the subjects we discussed on the last day of class. I decided I'd share it here as well.

The eloquence of Swami Vivekananda and his introduction of eternal values of India taught to the United States are particularly remembered. The speech has been identified by many to mark the beginning of western interest on Indian values not as merely an exotic eastern oddity, but as a vital religious and philosophical tradition that might actually have something important to teach the West.[4][5] The opening line, "Sisters and Brothers of America...", was greeted by a three minute standing ovation from the audience of 7,000.[6]

Welcome Address-
Sisters and Brothers of America,

It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions, and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.

My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honor of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: "As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee."

The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: "Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me." Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.

Beautiful and yet quite sad; even the most cursory inspection of the past 118 years shows that sectarianism, bigotry, and fanaticism have been alive and well. They've even added to the family; nationalism, fascism, ideological totalitarianism. (-isms are really the worst.) And yet maybe the cursory inspection is part of the problem. It's history's horrors and tragedies that really stand out; progress and acceptance are a lot quieter. I seem to be on course to live a better and happier life than my parents, who have better lives than their parents'. (Although my grandparents really got shat on, WW2 was a shitty time to be Jewish or Korean.)

When measuring huge portions of human history against a presently unattainable ideal of perfect coexistence, I suppose it's inevitable that things will look bleak.

Still, it's not clear to me whether we've made real progress in the time since Swami's speech.

One aspect of Tolkien's work that I find personally reassuring is the underlying axiom that everything will end. Nothing is forever. Admittedly Tolkien wouldn't see it this way, since he thinks God is eternal and everlasting, but everything else in his mythology passes in time. Even the immortal elves fade away.

'That is a fair lord and a great captain of men,' said Legolas. 'If Gondor
has such men still in these days of fading, great must have been its glory in the days of its rising.'
'And doubtless the good stone-work is the older and was wrought in the first building,' said Gimli. 'It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.'
'Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,' said Legolas. 'And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.'
'And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,' said the Dwarf.
'To that the Elves know not the answer,' said Legolas.

Later in the same chapter, Gandalf is counseling Aragorn, Eomer, and the other leaders of men as they plan the final battle against Sauron (the title of the chapter is The Last Debate):

'Concerning this thing [the One Ring], my lords, you now all know enough for the understanding of our plight, and of Sauron's. If he regains it, your valor is vain, and his victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts. If it is destroyed, then he will fall; and his fall will be so low that none can foresee his arising ever again. For he will lose the best part of the strength that was native to him in his beginning, and all that was made or begun with that power will crumble, and he will be maimed for ever, becoming a mere spirit of malice that gnaws itself in the shadows, but cannot again grow or take shape. And so a great evil of this world will be removed.
'Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.'

Maybe my problem is looking at things in terms of progress; focusing on the future instead of the present. I am sure there were reformers in ancient Greece or China who improved the lives of many, but whose names and deeds have been washed out by the tide of time. There's a time when I would conclude that they failed; they left no indelible mark on humanity; all of their ideals and wisdom and work and struggle came to nothing in the end. I think a fear of this inevitability is what drives kings to found dynasties, plutocrats to found universities, men to create and recreate religions. A fear of death and a fear of insignificance, a fear that the totality of one's life comes out to less than nothing in the cosmic scale of things.

I used to be a pretty strict (some might say unimaginative) materialist, and it seemed evident that Tolkien's everything-will-end philosophy is true. Modern physics predicts that entropy will wind down the universe and all matter will decay into light and nothing. Even without thermodynamics, it seems all but certain that the days of humanity's existence are numbered. Some last child is born, and he dies; some last repository of human knowledge decays; some last memory of a place called Earth is forgotten, and even if a planet still physically exists, would the concept of physical existence still have any substance? If meaning, an ephemeral construct of human imagination, is gone?

I guess you could say was (and am) fighting a ghost of Plato: struggling to find an eternal form: something transcendent and secure to cleave to. Failing that, I turned rather predictably to nihilism. Persuaded that morality was a sham and meaning an illusion, I might as well enjoy as much (meaningless) pleasure as I could, and consequently decided to be a rich investment banker. {I now think that being an investment banker would be a patently awful way to pursue pleasure, but everyone else wanted to be one so it seemed like the logical thing to do at the time.}

But maybe I should stop looking for meaning in the future and the eternal. Maybe those Greek and Chinese reformers did make meaningful achievements, even though all the benefits and beneficiaries of their work are now forgotten. Maybe meaning is something that exists only in conscious experience and, consequently, in the present.

And the strangely reassuring aspect of the fact that everything fades in time: the same is true of humanities' demons. Totalitarianism, your days are numbered. And this is something of a balm on every setback, every tragedy, every horror, every pain: in time, it too will bow out of existence. No lost opportunity merits eternal lamentation because no action has eternal consequence.

I've decided how I will conclude my alternate ending of The Lord of the Rings. Evil will prevail. Sauron will reclaim the Ring. The situation will be hopeless, and Sauron's inevitable victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while the world lasts. And yet as the forlorn protagonists plan to hide away in the remotest hole they can find, the story will end on a quiet but resolute note of hope. The darkness, however complete, is only temporary. Eventually and inevitably it will be blown away like another cloud over the sea.

-D Mane

The Nature of the End

I was inspired by the discussion in class to do a more in depth analysis of the endings of stories. Several times in the readings, a concept was raised of the “good” ending, and I was curious to understand exactly what this could mean. When Frodo and Bilbo are in Rivendell, they start talking about Bilbo's story, and how Frodo ought to write the next one. Bilbo then inquires, “Have you thought of an ending?” (Tolkien 307). When Frodo says that he can only think of unhappy endings, Bilbo responds, “Books ought to have good endings. How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?” (Tolkien 307). This same issue gets raised in the Byatt readings, when Agatha ends the story without tying together all of the loose ends in the plot, and the children are all outraged. Leo says, “There are good ends and this isn't one, this isn't an end” (Byatt 13). The reason given for this response seems to be that “there was no satisfaction in the end of the story” (Byatt 12). This would seem to be suggesting, then, that a “good” ending is dependent not on the intentions of the author but on the reaction of the reader. Agatha tries to defend herself by explaining, “That is where I always meant it to end” (Byatt 12), but this fact makes not difference to the opinions of her listeners. Thus, by this definition, the reader would have to be allowed to determine the end of the story for it to ever be a truly “good” ending.

This could actually be the case, that a reader should determine the ending, as a reader seems to me to have the undeniable power to control the ending of a story. When Frodo and Sam are discussing how their story might be told by future generations, Frodo points out that “it is all too likely that some will say at this point: 'Shut the book now, dad; we don't want to read any more'” (Tolkien 364). Along this same line, in the Byatt reading, when Frederica is reading to Leo and she wants to stop because she thinks he is falling asleep, he is able to convince her to keep going. In both cases, the reader is able to stop reading wherever he or she wishes, thus creating a sort of alternate ending, though possibly only a temporary one. And when Frodo and Sam are on the slopes of Mount Doom, just after they have given up hope of survival, “in a dream, not knowing what fate had befallen them, the wanderers were lifted up and borne far away out of the darkness and the fire” (Tolkien 246). When I read this passage, it occurred to me that if a reader did not particularly like the ending to a given story, that reader might, “in a dream,” write their own ending that is more satisfactory to them.

But just because the reader is able to control the ending to a story, it does not necessarily mean that the reader should try to do so. In Byatt, Frederica is ruminating on the nature of Love, and she mentions offhand that “it is a made-up story, Love” (Byatt 14). This statement struck me, and I decided to take Frederica in relationship to Love as an analogy for the reader in relation to the story, for this seemed to me to be what that line was suggesting. When she is contemplating herself in relation to Nigel, she considers that she is no longer “fused to someone else,” that she is “a separate being” (Byatt 314). I imagined from this that the reader becomes one with the story, “fused” to it, as it were, while they are reading it, but afterward, when the story is over, the reader becomes a separate being again. The reader needs to enter into the story, but Frederica also realizes that “there was only an unreal moment's grace between the beginning of a love affair and this steady self-questioning about how and why and when it would end” (Byatt 14). This seems to suggest that while the reader is submerged in a story, if the reader then questions that story, tries to work it out for himself instead of accepting the story as the story, tries to manipulate it, then the reader loses that “Love” for the story just as Frederica starts to lose her love for her lover. This becomes even more clearly exemplified when she considers that she wants a strong man who can take care of her, but how her lover needs the same thing from her, and how this “saps from what [she] think[s] of as Love” (Byatt 14). The story is supposed to carry her away into another reality, and if she brings her own reality into the story, it corrupts the story and it can no longer have any efficacy as a story.

Bringing this back around to the concept of the “good” ending, Frederica has to consider why people try to connect to one another and why she does not feel this “desire and pursuit of the Whole” (Byatt 315). When these characters talk about the “good” ending, they seem to see it in this light of trying to create a Whole, of trying to connect all these different pieces in a satisfactory manner, and if they aren't connected, then it is not a proper ending. Frederica, though, seems to be of the opposite opinion when she comes to the conclusion that “there is an art form in [fragments], too. Things juxtaposed but divided, not yearning for fusion” (Byatt 315). She thinks that such an ending as the one to Agatha's story can be equally as effective as those that fall under the category of “good” endings. With this in mind, what does it do to the story if a reader decides to take a controversial ending and tries to transform it into a “good” ending? Does it lend the story new and further meaning, making it more resonant than before? Or does it corrupt the story, and so corrupt the reader as well? I couldn't really say one way or the other for certain.

C. Carmody

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Religion, "Cultus," and First Love

After giving the example of being inside the beam of light in the toolshed, versus viewing it objectively, standing in the darkness, Lewis provides a second, analogous situation – that of being in love. “A young man meets a girl,” he postulates, and “the whole world looks difference when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life” (God in the Dock, 212). Of course, the scientist – that viewer from the objective darkness – comes along and ruins it all, going on about hormones and biological stimuli and what-have-you. The joyful and irrational illusion is revealed, though perhaps the young lover isn’t ready to listen yet; there may, of course, come a time when he, ironically, perhaps devastatingly, realizes it of his own accord.

This passage was particularly resonant for me because it describes an experience that I feel is very analogous to falling in love: reading Tolkien. There was a time when The Silmarillion alone occupied me on every car trip and every rainy afternoon, when I took several pounds of the HoME with me to summer camp several years running, when I spent hours devoted to drawing sub-par, manga-esque renditions of obscure characters. In seventh grade, in lieu of a simple “do not disturb,” I was very proud of the homemade sign on my door the proclaimed, to any unwitting passerby, Get thee gone from my gate, thou jail-crow of Mandos! I could go on and on (though I won’t, for my dignity), but I know that a lot of you out there in the crowd probably have similar histories with Tolkien, if not also with other authors and their respective thought-worlds (OK, I won’t kid myself, that’s kind of just a fancy word for fandom. I believe someone in class today already ‘fessed up to the fanfiction thing. I say, virtual high-fives all around! Seventh through ninth grade was a great time…as is the present!). To put it is Lewis’s language, in immersing ourselves in such naturally immersive texts, when we look from inside the beam of light and stare outwards in awe at the “green leaves moving on the branches outside and beyond,” we give ourselves entirely to a world alien to our own, ever devoting and stretching ourselves towards the perfection, depth, and mystery that we perceive to be.

Before this class, I had honestly preferred to not consider the religious dimension in my recreational (though wholly devotional) enjoyment of Tolkien’s writings. Though fully cognizant of Tolkien’s Catholicism, I preferred to know Middle-earth in a vacuum, putting any possible religious symbolism in the category of allegory, which I had discerned was something Tolkien did not want construed on his pure story. In fact, I had always been under the impression that the LotR books stood opposed to the self-conscious Christian allegory of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia – the departure through the door of light, Susan’s not being allowed to return, now that she wears hose and lipstick and has fallen from innocence. Here, in an academic context, it’s obviously difficult to disregard Tolkien’s religiosity, and I certainly confess that it has been pretty critical to understanding the context of his moral universe. Based on the language I just found myself using – devotion, striving, mystery – it seems that reading The Lord of the Rings et al was, in fact, a kind of religious experience, and one that left me with an imprint of the devotion of its creator. In this strange way, a kind of transmission of faith was engendered.

In part, this must have been the kind of thing Tolkien intended for his readers, or at least hoped might happen, though he knew that, for better and worse, he relinquished control of the story to these new minds that were exposed to it. In other ways, I am certain that it was what he would not have wanted to happen, for I know that I, in my time of greatest mania, was a card-carrying member of “the deplorable cultus” that semi-deified him in the ‘60s, and continues to do so this day. I didn’t end up finding God through Lord of the Rings, because that wasn’t who I was looking for, at age thirteen. I was hungry for a world, and I swallowed it; that world became a compass, and internal mythology, that was of indescribable importance to me for a not insignificant portion of my life. It’s still there, and it still compels me.

But it’s not the same as it once was. Returning to the stories over the past weeks has been familiar and comfortable, like stepping into well-worn shoes, and don’t get me wrong, it’s been wonderful. Yet the joy of total immersion, of one’s brain chemistry, at age thirteen, reacting to the Doom of Mandos, is irretrievable. Is this because I put the wrong kind of faith into Tolkien, because I was looking for things that weren’t there, making meanings that weren’t there? A few years past the zenith of my obsession, I was fortunate enough to visit Wolvercote Cemertary in Oxford, and by the time I finally read Beren and Lúthien on the grave, I was completely, unexpectedly inconsolable. Like the children in A.S. Byatt’s novel, I was distraught, for here the story ended, when I hadn’t wanted it to, when I wanted, and needed, for there to be much, much more. In Tolkien’s mind, as we discussed today, the story never does end; it is living, and we are part of it, even when we don’t intend to be. My problem might just be that I’m still half in Middle-earth, without realizing that the world around me is still Arda, evolving from age to age.

- J. Wetherell

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I wasn't actually crazy...whew

I don't doubt that Byatt got "Artegall" from the Notion Club Papers, but he is also in The Faerie Queene.

--Luke Bretscher