Tuesday, January 24, 2012

MM9 by Hiroshi Yamamoto

It was just Robert E. Howard's birthday, and I really should have written my long overdue review of the new Conan movie. It's also Chinese new year, and the year of the Dragon to boot. Plus, the newly mastered version of Gojira has been released on DVD and Blu Ray, bringing me to the brink of purchasing the latter along with a player to watch it on. Given that this is also the year of ostensible Mayan apocalypse, I'm opting for some apocalypse, Gojira style. David got us started with Dragons last week, and I think it's a great theme to carry on with, at least for the time being.

I've eagerly awaited the English edition of Hiroshi Yamamoto's MM9 (which stands for Monster Magnitude 9, which is like the giant monster equivalent of a 10 on the Richter scale) since stumbling upon Haikasoru's line of Japanese fiction in the summer of 2010. I was constructing the reading list for a world Science Fiction course, trying hard to get as many countries represented as possible. I contacted Haikasoru directly for a recommedation, and Nick suggested Yamamoto's Tales of Ibis, a gorgeous blend of classic robot SF and cyberpunk AI short stories. It was one of the class favorites. While researching Yamamoto, I came across promo for MM9, purported to be his take on the daikaiju, or giant monster genre. Given how brilliant I considered Ibis, I was very interested to see what a master author would do with content largely considered ridiculous.

Daikaiju literature in English is a rarity, and high quality Daikaiju literature even more so: the best includes James Morrow's Shambling Towards Hiroshima, a clever homage to classic monsters and the original Gojira, as well as commentary on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and nuclear proliferation; Mark Jacobson's Gojiro, which provides the angst ridden perspective of the big G himself as he tries to deal with the difficulty of existence; and the excellent Daikaiju! anthologies edited by Robin Penn and Robert Hood;  we can now add Hiroshi Yamamoto's MM9 to that list.

Like Ibis, MM9 is a series of short fiction pieces; unlike Ibis, MM9's stories seem intentionally cohesive, and while each story stands well on its own, the book will be best read as a novel. It chronicles the adventures of a team of daikaiju specialists, who effectively work as a defense organization for Japan.

I don't know enough about quantum to comment on Yamamoto's science, but it gels strongly with my own ruminations on how a daikaiju could be explained, given how many physical sciences are ignored when positing creatures the size of skyscrapers. The imaginary science of MM9, to use Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.'s explanation as SF's "main artistic means for introducing technoscientific ideas and events among the value-bearing stories and metaphors of social life," making "science of our metaphors," (6) is a blend of cosmology and astrophysics called "the anthropic principle" (17). Yamamoto knows the daikaiju fan well, conceding that most SF involving giant monsters tries to explain the monsters in light of biology or chemistry:
"There were few astrophysicists involved in the field in any nation. Until quite recently, quantum physics and cosmology were not thought to be useful in dealing with kaiju. Biology provided understanding of their ecology; geology, environmental science, oceanography and the like detected kaiju wherever they dwelled: chemistry analyzed flames, poisons, an other chemicals emitted by the giant monsters; biomechanics estimated the effectiveness of bullets and missiles against them. Astrophysics held no similar purpose." (17)
We know, as the reader, that astrophysics and cosmology must hold the "key to solving the mystery of kaiju," since a new facet of the theory is revealed in each story. However, as a long time fan of daikaiju and fresh off a research unit with students on the original Gojira and its relationship to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I knew it was about quantum and mythology for other reasons. While listening to an audiobook of Charles Pellegrino's controversial and much-maligned Last Train from Hiroshima, I was struck by the poetic way Pellegrino explains the beginning of the explosion over Hiroshima:
"On that sixth day of August 1945, no one who conceived, designed, or assembled the Hiroshima bomb knew where uranium nuclei came from, or what science had actually achieved. Not Oppenheimer or Urey, Alvarez, or even Einstein would have believed that they had resurrected something from the remote past, from a time and a place seldom encountered in human thought. Each of the uranium-235 atoms at the bomb's core had been forged more than 4.6 billion years earlier, in the hearts of supernovae. The core was assembled from the ash of stars that had lived and died long before the oldest mountains of the moon were born. Mined and refined to better than 83 percent purity, and brought together in precisely the right geometry, the primordial remnant of Creation was coerced to echo, after ages of quiescence, the last shriek of an imploding star. In all its barest quantum essentials, what happened above Hiroshima that morning--and three days later in Nagasaki, in a separate, plutonium cauldron, filled with the by-products of a uranium reactor--signified the brief reincarnations of distant suns." (2)
Pellegrino's rational cosmology blended with my research on the chaoskampf cycle of stories in the Hebrew Bible, and the ancient Middle-Eastern conflation of the primordial, chaotic sea with a dragon of some kind, like Tiamat and Leviathan. I started thinking that the reason daikaiju could exist is that there's something about them that hearkens back to the beginning of creation, and that the tearing of the fabric of reality at Hiroshima and Nagasaki could result in allowing such a creature to become or emerge.

Thankfully, while Yamamoto's playing in the same toolbox as I was with those thoughts, his explanation is different enough that I can still work on that daikaiju short story that's waiting the end of my dissertation to get out, to become, or emerge. Nevertheless, his ideas felt very familiar, and it was a lot of fun to finally see an author do something more than make daikaiju into metaphors (though there's still room for that sort of play here as well). Yamamoto mixes multiple mythologies with Big Bang theories in his anthropic principle, which essentially argues that since humans did not possess consciousness some three thousand years ago, the universe could not be understood in a rational fashion. Consequently, the "Big Bang and mythic universes could exist without contradicting each other" (151). When humans gained consciousness, most of the creatures in the mythic universe ceased to be, save the daikaiju, since they "fueled the fears of humanity--and caused humanity to acknowledge the existence of monsters" (152).

This is only the tip of Yamamoto's iceberg (arguably one with a daikaiju frozen inside!), but it demonstrates how, as in Ibis, this master of Japanese SF is again engaged in spinning a strong speculative yarn, while playfully engaging in rigorous metacommentary. MM9 is wonderfully self-aware of its place in the tradition of giant monsters, both cosmological and cinematic, mixing references to the Dragon from the Revelation of St. John with a clever homage to the Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, with some Japanese folklore thrown in for good measure. This self-reflexivity goes so far as to make mention of the MM9 team's story being turned into a television show, which is exactly what happened in Japan.
I'll say more about the text proper in an upcoming post, after I've re-read the book in a hard copy. I read mine in PDF form, which was great for getting through, but remains challenging for annotation. So I'll be returning to MM9 later in the year. In the meantime, get to your local bookstore and buy a copy of this book. If you're a Godzilla or Gamera fan, or just love giant mayhem in general, and like me, have been waiting for a novel that feels as serious as those '60s cheese fests felt when you were a kid, then this is the book for you. Don't wait too long - they're already almost sold out on Amazon.ca!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Fantasy Films and The Flight of Dragons

   I love lists. I have been working recently on a Latin poem, written in the early sixteenth-century that is essentially a 60-line list of diseases and medical afflictions which the poet wished on his enemies. It is great to know that time spent memorising Greek and Latin medical terminology is not in vain, of course, but there is also something about the list itself that is innately appealing. Lists of books, whether they boldly assert their status as ‘best of’ or whether they’re tagged merely as ‘recommended’, are a wonderful thing. Whether exploring a new genre the first thing I reach for is a list of bests, written by someone knowledgeable about the genre. I reveal in eccentric lists, and lists of books commended by writers I esteem: Jorge Luis Borges’s list, ‘A Personal Library’ is a personal favourite. Another favourite is Gary Gygax’s infamous ‘Appendix N’.
   On the other hand, I write lists with much trepidation—I rarely even attempt grocery lists. Even in the confines of a single subgenre, making a list of my favourite books is difficult. My tastes are too mutable to suit the assertive nature of the list. I recently tried to select a personal top twelve fantasy books and after many missteps, settled for a list of twelve ‘favourites’, with no qualifications of completeness or ultimate preferment. Yet even then I needed to insert a special category and make an honourable mention, bringing the list up to thirteen books. I had hoped for some originality in selection, but oddly, six of the books I selected are also on David Pringle’s list of the top 100 fantasy novels.

   I also wanted to create a list of my favourite fantasy films. This proved to be an even more taxing operation. In nothing am I further out of key than with film. Watching films, and often watching film-goers, I am apt to be an unsettled observer, studying the strange recreations of alien life forms. I observe pleasure, excitement, and sometimes evidence of learning and reflective thought. Its source is an unfathomable mystery. Glutted on CGI and other technologies, I see the insatiable fans of fantasy films stirred into frenzy, swallowing up the endless instalments of Hollywood’s fantasy franchises. I bring a book, perhaps a notepad, but fail to find any source for all this excitement.  

   There is an old complaint that ‘things were better when I was a kid’. As far as fantasy films go, this sentiment belongs at the bottom of the rubbish bin. As a fan of fantasy and a child in the eighties and early nineties, aside from a handful of cult classics, watching epic fantasy on film meant submitting to a plethora of fantastic cheeses, and cherishing every crumble of satisfaction. Since the pickings were poor, however, we made due. Neither film nor video game had then reached the quality of our imaginations, as was stimulated by reading. As a result, our imaginations did extra work watching these films: we had to explain away inconsistencies in the plots for ourselves; we had to pretend that monsters that looked like rubber puppets looked like monsters; and we had to forget that chainmail bikinis would chaff and pinch the skin raw. Enjoying many of films from these days, required this sort of imaginative work on part of the viewer. CGI now fills in this gap, though I believe that if most viewers tried, they could tell what scenes in, say Jackson’s trilogy, are real and which ones are CGI.
   When I was making my list of favourite fantasy films, however, there was one fantasy film that immediately came to mind: this was Rankin and Bass’s The Flight of Dragons (1982). The film was one of many animated fantasies to appear in the late seventies and early eighties, and I would offer the opinion that it is the best of them—or at least the best outside of Japan, which at this time produced animation of a higher craft. Rankin and Bass, grandmasters of the claymation Christmas, ventured first into animated fantasy with The Hobbit (1977), which they stuffed full of campy songs, elves that look like goblins and goblins who looked like cartoon Slaadi (the correct plural of Slaad, mind you). The second instalment of animated Tolkien was given in preferment to Ralph Bakshi.  Bakshi had proved his worth with his science fantasy, Wizards (1977), which merits something of its cult status and the tag, ‘They've Killed Fritz!’ resonates still in odd circles. Bakshi’s next work, The Lord of the Rings (1978) ruined Tolkien’s masterpiece with rotoscoping, and like the Star Wars Christmas Special, is reserved for fanatical collectors and those who watch it in order that they can then tell more fanatical fans that they have done so, and thus win their respect.  

   Bakshi’s third work Fire and Ice (1983) more or less did to Conan-type fantasy, what he had previously done to Tolkien—though this film has its admirers. Rankin and Bass then returned to Tolkien with The Return of the King (1980) which finishes off what Bakshi had started, with violence terrible and vile. Lest we forget, to this era belong two more enjoyable fantasy book adaptations: The Secret of NIMH (1982) and The Black Cauldron (1985). Also belonging here is the not-so-good science fiction cum-light-sword (reminiscence of another franchise, but which?), The Starchaser: The Legend of Orin (1985). Heavy Metal (1981) must be added here, though like Saladin in Dante’s limbo, this film proudly stands alone, and seems an object apart from these other animations. 

   For their next animated fantasy, however, the Rankin/Bass pair, managed what Bakshi could never do, and improved on their last project. Their next effort, The Last Unicorn (1982), which adapted Peter S. Beagle’s novel of the same title, is full of charm, though better viewed through the lens of childhood. The animation for this film was done by Topcraft. Topcraft went out of business in 1984, but the bulk of animators they employed joined forces with Hayao Miyazaki to form Studio Ghibli, and later worked on the animated masterpiece, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Rumours abound that The Last Unicorn is returning to theatres this year (no doubt digitally enhanced), which says something to the durability of this film.
   Yet Rankin/Bass had another animated fantasy left in them, and their next film The Flight of Dragons (1982), improved still on their earlier efforts. The film Flight of Dragons adapts two books: the plot and the meat of the matter are based on Gordon R. Dickson’s novel The Dragon and the George, while the title and some supplementary material on dragon lore are taken from Peter Dickinson’s book The Flight of Dragons. The hero of the film is not the Dickson’s college lecturer, Jim, but Peter Dickenson himself, presented as a twentieth-century ‘man of science’ and a amateur developer of board games. In the book, the damsel-in-distress is the Jim’s kidnapped fiancée, while in the film she is a princess from the fantasy world, and she is not kidnapped. The film starts with the hero Peter Dickinson transported into a medieval world of magic where he must quest to retrieve the red crown of Ommadan from an evil wizard, whose voice actor is the same fellow who played Darth Vader. To help Peter on his quest, the good wizards provide him with a respectable kit of magical artefacts and a miscellaneous band of adventurers pop in to help him on his way. Due to an accident of magic, Peter unfortunately takes on the body of the dragon Gorbash before the quest even begins. I don’t want to ruin the plot but there is some originality in the band of adventurers (derived from Dickson’s book) and the adventures are curious and unusual enough to enable enjoyment. The nomenclature is decent; humanoids get medieval-sounding names: Princess Melisande, for example, pronounced not as in Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande, but to rhyme with British ‘sand’. Beasts get almost-onomatopoeic names, as in Aragh, who is a wolf. The monsters are well-conceived, well-drawn, and thankfully, not too cartoonish. Sandmerks are a clever original: if you see one, perchance, start singing Sumer Is Icumen In in Middle English or prepare to have your mind boiled. The fantasy is high, not low, but not too Tolkien.
   The backdrop of the film is set around an existential conflict between magic and logic in the minds of man, with magic faltering as science and logic achieve dominion. As a medievalist I could object to the implicit view that the middle ages were a world of magic or superstition; a view with little credence among scholars but which perniciously lingers in popular teleology. Scientists might likewise object the view that magic (representing beauty and wonder) is dispelled by logic and scientific inquiry. But the film gets the ball rolling and it is nice to see some depth, where it does not detract from the fantasy adventure by getting overly (or overtly) preachy. From Dickinson’s book The Flight of Dragons, there is some pseudo-natural history explaining how dragons could have existed (I have always fancied this and entertained thoughts of writing my own natural history of fantastic creatures, explaining their existence though the guise of a pseudo-biological study). This element then plays in to the Peter’s of rationalising the magical world around him.
   The best of its breed, the hand-drawn animation of The Flight of Dragons is a long way from the achievements of the fantasy film of the last ten years. Those glutted on CGI might find its offerings too skimpy to sate their palates. But those interested in the genre, or who want to see what the fantasy films of a older generation have to offer, would not go too far a miss to start with this film. And those who have seen it in a bygone age might be surprised that after thirty years, this film has not lost all of its lustre.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Belated Reminiscence on Tolkien’s Twelvetyth Birthday, or the Literary Value of Imaginative Engagement

 “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”
—C.S. Lewis, On Stories

   This is a personal reminiscence, reflecting back on twenty-something years spent reading The Lord of the Rings and related works, and it is put out in hope of giving expression to what I believe forms an essential part of reading these novels and also what I believe accounts for a good measure of their success and literary merit. It is unapologetically approbative, having been written without spell of indigestion and in a mood of wintery nostalgia. Nostalgia is, I believe, a good word for Tolkien, as it is for another work I will here discuss: both of which open in many readers homesickness for a land that never was. At the root of nostalgia is the Greek for homecoming (νόστος), and the Greek for grief or pain (ἄλγος), both of which strike at the heart of the journey of the ring-bearer.

   Mike has recently commented here on the general appeal of Tolkien’s novels: “they speak to anyone with a positive teleological position. If you think life is going somewhere, then you resonate with the literary road.” This struck me when I read it, and has stuck with me since. I believe it is true about what one might refer to as the ‘universal appeal’ of Tolkien. Yet I hesitate to elaborate on this. When I first read Tolkien I was aware that we shared a common belief in the Holy Roman Catholic Church and I must admit that even as a child, I was partisan to his work because of it, in much the same way I made friends with children of similar views and interests. But the affinity for those who are like us both forges great friendships and manufactures great bigots. So I was pleased that the enjoyment of Tolkien, and indeed for fantasy literature as a whole, was something that resonated with people of other views.

   The Lord of the Rings speaks to a lot of people, albeit not to everyone, yet its resonance is often lost, denigrated or misunderstood by critics. Several lists of best books of the twentieth century have pitted James Joyce and Tolkien against each other, the first championed by the praetorian guard of literary critics, the second championed by the a restless mob of unprofessional (and unprofessorial) bookworms. Jeremiads against popular taste are always fun, and good for a boost of smug superiority, but dismissing Tolkien for his popularity also evades the critical responsibility of accounting for the response his fiction elicits in his readers.

   For me there has always been another work of fantasy adventure that warrants comparison with The Lord of the Rings. As was the case with Tolkien, I picked up in elementary school what I have never been able to put down. It is Homer’s Odyssey. I was ten when I first read Homer, first in Cowper’s translation, and from the first few lines I was hooked:
Muse make the man thy theme, for shrewdness famed
And genius versatile, who far and wide
A Wand’rer, after Ilium overthrown,
Discover’d various cities, and the mind
And manners learn’d of men, in lands remote.
Odysseus is the father of swords and sorcery heroes. Laden with XP from Troy he desires to get back home as gods, monsters, magic-users and plotters all stand in his way. Although he loses quite a few henchmen, eventually he makes it home to Ithaca, only to have to overcome another plot to retain his kingship. The story starts with Odysseus longing for his wife back home, but still sharing a bed with the nymph Calypso. He is a capable warrior, but prefers to be cunning. He is a trickster, out for himself, not for glory. I especially loved the monsters, the strangely named Laestrygones, Sirens, and Cyclopes.

   I still read Homer, almost every day, and still love the elements of adventure though the challenges of an ancient language and the complexities of interpretation have added to the enjoyment. The thrill of fantasy adventure is not displaced, however, it remains: Homer is exciting once or twenty times through. The Odyssey is fantasy and adventure. It is other things, sure, but it does not ever cease to be these two things. Building the whole core of Hellenistic education on Homer never made him less a teller of ripping good yarns. I make the point because I do not think that many would seriously deny the Odyssey is an adventure story, nor that it is a masterpiece of literature, while many deny that The Lord of the Rings could even be literature because it is fantasy adventure. And this is a point I would like to strike down. It is at heart of several points of attack against Tolkien, and as is similar with using the comparative readership of Joyce as a foil, it is rhetoric of condensation that avoids the challenge of answering for Tolkien’s literary appeal in favour of merely dismissing the tastes of anyone to whom Tolkien appeals. I do, however, as a sometimes classicist, reserve the right to lament the popular neglect of Odyssey in favour of Joyce’s derivative Ulysses.

   Lest I here prop up a straw man to scare off critical crows, I want to  quickly cede that there are other grounds for faulting Tolkien: some readers of The Lord of the Rings find the diction overwrought, some take it as merely a faddish 1960s period piece (though the fad has now outlived many of the 60s longhairs), some believe that Tolkien cheats his readers by offering escapism (these readers seem to labour under the delusion that the trilogy concludes with a happy ending), some critics resent Tolkien’s influence on later fantasy, some think that books about magic or books by Papists are inherently dangerous (when I was younger I was, on more than one occasion, informed that my enthusiasm for fantasy would lead inevitably to devil worship and murder, neither of which I have yet committed), some find Hobbits too bourgeois for their own (typically bourgeois) bohemian tastes, some accuse Tolkien of promoting the divine right of kings, and some readers revel in stirring up controversy about racist or anti-Semitic overtones; never mind that Tolkien was neither racist nor anti-Semite. And not all these critics are dismissive or condescending—one can legitimately dislike Tolkien.

   But the popularity of Tolkien is important, as it often spurs otherwise excellent critics into writing some silly things. When confronted with hordes of Tolkien’s adherents obsessed with a series of books they themselves dislike, the naysayers, perhaps inevitably, extend their dislike to the fans. And this is where the rhetoric of condensation comes into play: unable to explain Tolkien’s appeal for themselves, they reject the appeal in others as reactionary, base or juvenile. And the large more obsessed hordes they face the more scorn they pile on. And this I reject, not as a Tolkien fan, but as a literary critic, as it is a form of critical laziness, dismissing as unworthy of comment what one cannot in fact account for. Furthermore, and not particularly surprising if you don’t dismiss it out of hand, it is in this enthusiasm for Tolkien that lurks a key to understanding the literary merit of Tolkien’s works.

   Like the Odyssey, I first encountered Tolkien in elementary school, in grade two I recall, which is not surprising given that is where many people’s tastes are formed. At the age of thirty, I find I have a pretty good idea of what books I enjoy and true surprises are few and far between. The books I like best now, I would have liked at the age of seven if I had read them—or in some cases had been able to understand them. As a child all things are new, and one can truly uncover tastes one never knew one had. ‘Try it, you don’t know you if you will like it until you try it’ is good parental advice for books as well as food. Now it is true that Lord of the Rings offers adventure and excitement; I still remember reading late at night, terror in my stomach as the fellowship passed under the Misty Mountains. But adventures were legion and many more simply thrilling adventure stories have passed from memory. The appeal of the Rings is simply not the appeal of a boy’s own adventure story, there are thrills in the trilogy, certainly, but they are not relinquished cheap. There is the appeal of epic fantasy, but like the Odyssey, it sustained its appeal because it is not the only appeal. In the case of Homer, there was the excitement of learning ancient Greek and an obsession with ancient (and later medieval) literature that has led to a career in the subject.

   But with Tolkien, there was also the interest that led to something else. Soon after I first read The Lord of the Rings, I memorised a few words of Elvish, especially those at the back of The Silmarillion. A first edition of The Silmarillion, soon in fact became the first book I bought as an object in itself, and not for merely what was printed in it, which later stimulated an interest in book-collecting. Soon after, I began to write some of my own stories set in Middle-Earth using Tolkien’s maps, and later began making maps of my own Tolkienesque worlds. Soon, I made friends with other fans of fantasy literature. And these experiences are common to Tolkien fans. Fantasy adventure, and many other forms of speculative fiction, thrives in an environment of shared imaginative interests. If you look at art, music or literature, one finds more inspired by Tolkien than, say, by Joyce. If Tolkien has inspired a lot of amateurish imitators, it is because amateurs do not hesitate to engage with his work in an imaginative way. Tolkien’s ‘overgrown fairy story’, his ‘philological curiosity’ is infectious because it is a stimulus to engage with the work beyond the limits of Frodo’s journey. The output of amateurs is indeed liable to be amateurish, but I do not contend to judge Tolkien’s merits by the merits of the works he has influenced, but the quality of mimetic inspiration his work offers. You do not put down the Lord of the Rings as you do with Middlemarch or David Copperfield, although Dicken’s London certainly stimulates the imagination as well. Nor is the imaginative spur a concession to escapism in its denigrated sense, or if it is, all aesthetic experience is mere escapism.

   This shared imaginative space is not unique to Tolkien; however, his works excel in this capacity. Tolkien delivers high adventure, battles, dragons and treasure, but so do many others. Unique to Tolkien is the sense of linguistic and mythological immensity that one feels in reading the novels, and which act as a stimulus to explore, and one gets lost in this imaginative richness. And perhaps this is why, holding Tolkien up against better prose stylists does not faze his enthusiasts. Tolkien does not offer what is accounted for as clever ‘literary’ prose, and this is a good thing, as his style: a blend of Norse saga and pub story, with weighty descriptions of the natural world, and mixed with a dash of William Morris, and perhaps a lashing of King James, is much better suited to his material. Tolkien’s style, for whatever it lacks, suits the story of the rings. Yet one does find sparks of brilliance in some of Tolkien’s descriptive writing; for example, in Gondor with the “apples: the last of the winter store, wrinkled but sound and sweet”. Each time I read this I am struck by the change of seasons from the early days of the adventure, when ‘trees were laden with apples, honey was dripping in the combs, and the corn was tall and full’ (from Chapter 3 of the Fellowship, I think). One can count the days and watch the moon in Tolkien’s novels. I never have read the trilogy with a calendar at hand but I am glad to know that these details are there.

   When one finishes Tolkien’s novel, one wants more. Not another epic trilogy (though that would be nice), but more details and background for the story we do have. One wants to know: who are wizards other than Gandalf and Saruman, or what was Aragorn up to before he met Frodo, or how exactly does a Balrog end up under a mountain. We might wonder the same with many works of fantasy, but with Tolkien we not only wonder about these things, but we get answers. We have now over a dozen supplementary volumes, rich in veins of history, maps, language and myth. And we have we have our inspired imaginations to fill in the rest. For Tolkien often awakens imaginative depths that, not only did we not know existed in ourselves, but importantly, we did not know we shared with others, which is the next step, as Tolkien readers through art, music, storytelling and so forth, tend to share the imaginative experiences. And it is a testament to Tolkien’s literary genius that he created a body of work that has inspired and sustained this shared imaginative space, perhaps less to be compared with other writers, but with the muses (I warned that I would be approbative) who create and inspire myths themselves. And without acknowledging this function of Tolkien’s books, one is bound to fall short in one’s assessment. Tolkien brought secondary world building to the literary level. And assessments of his work, should at least take this into account.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Stepping onto the Road: Journeying with Tolkien

Today is J.R.R. Tolkien's birthday, and between that getting me thinking, and feeling a nagging pressure to post since I had to effectively abandon this blog for the fall term, I decided it was time to get back on the proverbial horse, or as it were, step into the road once more.

In a hole in the ground there lived a pre-teen. Not a nasty, bullying athletic pre-teen, filled with put-on bluster and bravado, nor yet an emotionally bare, withdrawn pre-teen, with nothing in him to draw upon in finding an identity: he was a creative, nerdy little WASP pre-teen, and that means discomfort.

It meant discomfort for me, because the secondary world created by devout Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien was my favorite place to live between grade five, when I was introduced The Hobbit by my best childhood friend, Danny. My real world wasn't a bad one: I wasn't hiding from an abusive parent or caustic siblings. It's just that I shared Tolkien's desire for dragons, but attended a North American Baptist church in socially and politically conservative Medicine Hat. This was long before Jackson's films won the approval of evangelical Christians writing on the "Gospel According to Tolkien." I smuggled Fellowship into church like it was the Ring going into Mordor. I read it in the back row of the balcony while the sermon was being preached, keeping it secret, keeping it safe, until an usher discovered me and gave me a stern lecture on books concerning magic, the occult, and the fires of hell.

But I needed The Hobbit and its sequels. I think every pre-teen does, but some will never have the chance to enjoy it. They're too busy being shuttled to hockey practice or gymnastics or dance class by overly practical parents who won't permit any of that ridiculous fantasy in their homes. The real world's the thing: I experienced this many times over the years, but most notably at Sunday dinner with my wife's family back when we were dating. I'd introduced her younger brother to Tolkien, and he had found his own way to Guy Gavriel Kay. Those influences had traveled to his drawing hand and sketchpad, much to his grandmother's chagrin. She challenged me to explain how such flights of fancy could be helpful to a young person, a young Christian's upbringing.

I was too flustered to give much of an answer at the time. Fifteen years later, I could tell her. Christian or no, young people travel out of the hobbit hole in Bilbo Baggins' footsteps (I'd have said shoes, but the metaphor gets lost on a hobbit). We leave the comfort of childhood for the adventure of adulthood, which is a perilous enterprise indeed.

We leave the comfort of home, of a certain degree of innocence, for the wider world beyond. Adolescence is a painful time for most of us. At first, the giant spiders still sing in rhyme, and the dragons still enjoy riddle games. However, as time goes by, the problems grow larger, friends learn to betray us better, and we lose companions along the way. I suspect this is why I loved Fellowship more than the other books as a young man. It is The Hobbit told again: but once we cross the Misty Mountains grey, Middle-Earth is a very different place. Boromir betrays Frodo's trust; Merry and Pippin are kidnapped; the fellowship is broken. Who hasn't experienced the breaking of a fellowship between adolescence and graduation?

And it isn't just geeky little nerds like me who needed to get out of the hobbit hole to  leave the comfort of well-stocked pantries and whole rooms devoted to clothes. It wasn't just the introverts who were living in a bubble. Hockey kids live in bubbles too. Sure, they learn a method of confidence, but it's only within a certain context. Check out the nerdy noise at the back of a gaming shop to see what those ostensible introverts are like in their comfort zone. It isn't drastically different from the noise of the locker room: the smells, at the very least, are similar. We all need to journey beyond our hobbit-holes to brave the wide world. We need to learn what happens when we leave the path, what it's like to journey in the dark, lost and alone. We need to know what it is to be brave when we feel small, and that no matter how enticing the gold is, there is no gold greater than that of friendship and fellowship. 

I realize I'm allegorizing, and that Tolkien likely would have disapproved, but given the chance, I'd argue the point with him over beer at the Bird and Baby. It's probably why a number of evangelical Christians wrote books like Sarah Arthur's Walking with Frodo: A Devotional Journey through Lord of the Rings. It's not really that Lord of the Rings makes for a great Christian allegory, because I'm not convinced it does, at least not in the neat and tidy way evangelicalism has attempted to make it. Certainly, the idea of eucatastrophe shares the positive teleology of Christianity, but nick-of-time rescues are not the Church's sole provenance. Instead, I'd argue that the wide appeal of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is that they speak to anyone with a positive teleological position. If you think life is going somewhere, then you resonate with the literary road. And of all the literary roads I've traveled, I prefer Tolkien's: I'm aware that Flannery O'Connor's road in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is often closer to experience, but that has much to do with the Grandmother in that story. Had Frodo or Bilbo been as selfish and small-minded as she, the Ring would never have reached Bree, let alone Mordor. Instead, Middle-Earth would have found a new Shadow growing in the Shire, over the hobbit hole of a petty old woman establishing herself as a queen, beautiful and terrible.

Instead, Tolkien chose courageous members from the least of these, and at a young age those stories spoke volumes to a kid feeling very small, trying to grow up. It spoke over sermons that couldn't hold my attention, and in many cases, the book I was supposed to be taking with me to church. I am as much a follower of Frodo as I am of Christ, and I do not think this a bad thing. Jesus taught me to love my enemies and help the oppressed, but Frodo taught me that I'd have to get up off my ass and leave my home to do so.