Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Is It Allegory?

In his preface to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien says, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations.” This statement has puzzled me ever since I first read the fantasy classic in the 1970s. Series of events occur in the book that most definitely remind me of series of events in the Bible.

Some of the clearest cases depict Christ figures. Gandalf fights an enemy made of fire and shadow, falls to his death in the depths of the earth, and then comes back to life more powerful and resplendent than before. Tolkien knew the Bible, so of course it’s no accident that these events follow the story of the death of Christ, his descent to Hell, and his resurrection in a glorified body. Aragorn begins his arc as Strider, a scruffy ranger, but is later revealed to be the heir to the human throne. Can anything good come from Bree? Frodo takes on the burden that tempts and corrupts mortals and carries it to the fires of the evil one in order to destroy it. This parallel to Jesus’ acceptance of our sin even follows the geography of Psalm 103: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” Galadriel looks into the hearts of each member of the Fellowship; they hang their heads in shame, but she says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” No one can think that Tolkien didn’t shape these examples on the preexisting Biblical pattern that he knew so well.

As much as LoTR’s main plot of sin, sacrifice, and redemption follows the contours of the Biblical account of Jesus’ work, a detail jumped out at me the other day that evokes comparisons with a different character from Scripture. In telling the story of Sméagol’s fall, Tolkien’s narration says, “They kicked him, and he bit their feet.” It’s impossible for me to think that this line didn’t come somehow from God’s words to the serpent of Eden: “He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel.” How is this not allegory?

Merriam-Webster defines allegory as “a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation.” If so many details of The Lord of the Rings seem intentionally patterned after details of the Bible, how can Tolkien say the book isn’t allegory? And why does he say that he “cordially dislikes allegory”? The answer to the second question is easy: Tolkien didn’t care much for C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. With the great friendship between the two, Tolkien’s dislike had to be cordial. But it was dislike nevertheless. Whatever it was he didn’t like about his fellow Inkling’s book series, he called it “allegory” and claimed that his own epic novel didn’t partake of it. But surely LoTR contains characters and events that stand for historical situations in a symbolic way. On the other hand, many characters (Mr. Tumnus, for example) and even entire books (A Horse and His Boy, for example) from the Narnia series have no discernible Biblical referent. Tolkien’s claim just doesn’t make sense to me.

On the other other hand, though, Tolkien and Lewis knew more about literature than I know about anything. So I keep pondering Tolkien’s enigmatic statement while I enjoy rereading The Lord of the Rings. I don’t completely understand, but at least the puzzle keeps me from dwelling on the many aspects of this beloved fantasy classic that a certain film director didn’t understand.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I’ve Missed Hobbits

A few years ago, Christopher Tolkien put out a book-length version of The Children of Hurin, a tale that takes up only one chapter in The Silmarillion. In the introduction, he explains that his father thought that three of the stories from his origin myth deserve longer treatment. When I read that I got scared. Three? Peter Jackson had just announced that he was going to turn the Hobbit series into a trilogy, and I became very concerned that Christopher was working to provide Jackson with the material for a third trilogy. Although I dislike every place where Peter Jackson and his two co-writers deviate from the book in their Lord of the Rings series, I can still watch those movies. But The Silmarillion is an even better book in my view and way beyond their capacity to understand, and I didn’t want to have to deal with the bitter choice of either hating or not watching a new trilogy of films.

But I do watch the LotR trilogy from time to lengthy time and cringe when I see again what they did to Aragorn and Faramir. And it’s been a disturbingly long time since my last reading of Tolkien’s original. So as I visit Middle Earth again (the real Middle Earth: the one that springs from books) some things are really standing out as having been driven from my consciousness by that pesky Kiwi and his gorgeous but shallow vision. In writing what I hope will be the first of several posts about The Lord of the Rings this fall, let me get some complaints out of the way by reviewing some of what’s missing in the movies.

The first thing that jumped out at me as I started turning the pages was Frodo’s classical learning. Gandalf isn’t just an old friend who brings fireworks to the Shire now and then; he’s a teacher, and Frodo has learned from him. Frodo knows history. He knows Elven language. When they begin to discuss the Ring and its evil nature, Frodo immediately starts talking about sacrifice and about the courage he will need. Elijah Wood stumbles into his virtues, but the real Frodo has studied ethics with his master.

I was extremely disappointed when the movies came out that there were hardly any songs. But, to my shame, I had forgotten just how many there are. It’s the rare two-page spread that doesn’t have some verse on it in those first hundred pages or so. Hobbits sing while they work, while they eat, while they walk, while they muse. Jackson’s hobbits laugh and pick wax out of their ears, but they don’t seem to sing.

And if they don’t sing, they certainly can’t have any mystical experiences with songs. Frodo speaks poetry as if inspired at one point. He, Sam, and Pippin receive bits of translation in the melodies they hear from the elves they meet traveling through the Shire. Surely Tolkien had the Corinthians’ spiritual gifts in mind during these passages. But Jackson’s hobbits have no mystical, holy inspiration. And of course there are no elves traveling through the Shire, no barrow wights, no Tom Bombadil.

Obviously I’m a little upset all over again about the movies, and I’m doubly upset about having to think about how upset I am about movies while reading one of my favorite books. But it’s not all bad. I read just the other day that Christopher Tolkien, who currently administers the rights to The Silmarillion, dislikes Peter Jackson’s films and will never give his permission for another trilogy. And at least I have distinct faces for Merry and Pippin in my mind now – although Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd are quite a bit plumper in my imagination.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Don’t Let This Happen to You

Lucy Ricardo once wrote a novel. (Season 3, episode 23: I’m sure you can find a link somewhere.) When Ricky, Fred, and Ethel read it and discover that Lucy has based an unlikeable character on each of them, they burn the typescript to try to keep it from publication. Of course wily Lucy has made other copies and sent them to publishers. But her husband and friends still have nothing to worry about: the only publisher interested in Lucy’s work wants to include an excerpt of it in a book on how to write a novel – in a chapter entitled “Don’t Let This Happen to You.”

Plutarch starts his biography of Demetrius, a Hellenic king, by saying that amidst all the examples of virtuous people he has put forward, it could be instructive to see an example of bad living. In other words, Plutarch’s life of Demetrius is his “Don’t Let This Happen to You” chapter. And I think Plutarch was exactly right: the tale of Demetrius makes for some of the most compelling reading in the whole expansive tome.

Demetrius reveals his character early on when he brings women into the temple of Jupiter for sexual dalliances. I mean, come on, Demetrius! There are some Roman temples you have sexual dalliances in and some you don’t, and Jupiter’s temple is definitely one of the ones you don’t have sex in.

But worse in Plutarch’s eyes – and more instructive for modern readers – was Demetrius’ tyranny. Living in the second generation after Alexander, Demetrius vied and jockeyed with the other heirs of the Great King for power in the region of the Macedonian Empire. Early in his campaigns he freed Athens from the tyranny of others only to implant his terrible rule even more firmly. Plutarch partly blames the Athenians for rewarding Demetrius so lavishly and letting the adulation go to his head. He soon calls himself King of Kings and assigns humiliating titles to Seleucus and Ptolemy and the other kings from the realm. This of course only brings their wrath and armies down on him. His fortunes go up and down rapidly, but every time he gains a throne, he uses its power only for his own comfort and pleasure while ignoring the people’s needs, the tending of which Plutarch rightly calls the true work of a king.

At one point in the story of Demetrius, the great biographer of the classic world makes the point that people erect statues for kings for one of two reasons: either adoration or fear. This remark about statues activated a memory of a modern-day ruler who could stand to learn from Plutarch’s negative lesson. For I know a president of a university who lives in a white house, calls his wife “First Lady,” commissions statues and paintings of himself for the campus, and has seen to it that the university has a street and a college named after him. He has publicly stated that his goal as president is to become the longest-sitting occupant of that office in the history of the university, without so much as mentioning the educational mission of the institution, i.e., the needs of the people. Ironically, in the first speech I ever heard from him, he mentioned Plutarch’s Lives.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


A few years ago, a colleague paid me an enormous, humbling compliment. He’d been watching the Paul Giamatti series based on David McCullough’s biography of our second President, and he told me that I reminded him of John Adams. I know what he meant: he meant that I stubbornly stuck with principles, a stubbornness he interpreted as courage. Our workplace had undergone years of political turmoil, and over that period I gave several public speeches for my side of the issues – and then typically found myself on the losing side of votes, usually 4 to some quite larger number. I read and reread Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Plato’s Gorgias when preparing these speeches, and I believed they helped. But if I had known about it, perhaps a reading of Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn would have helped even more.

A couple of weeks ago, I boiled down the theme of Zane Grey’s The Call of the Canyon to the word “Progress.” I’ll do the same today and serry the many themes and subplots of Phineas Finn under the heading of “Compromise.” Compromise is necessary, and the characters – even (or especially) the ones with stubborn principles – have to learn to live with it. Lady Laura tells Phineas that, now that they have each had their separate romances, they have to deal with reality. And reality brings compromise. People who marry have to compromise their ideal views of their mates and of married life. Politicians have to compromise their determination to see their favorite causes come to fruition. Women have to compromise their sense of independence in a male-dominated society. Those who don’t compromise willingly only find themselves suffering when the changes are forced upon them from without.

I can see Trollope walking a fine line throughout the novel, sometimes displaying compromise as the healthy companion of patience, sometimes as a regrettable but necessary evil, sometimes as a betrayal of good form or even of ethical absolutes. The pageant of compromising situations and compromisers is long and multicolored. I dare not begin to cite examples of particular characters who come to terms with compromise for fear that the post end up divided into volumes like a nineteenth-century novel. But one of the most frequent themes is the reality that Members of Parliament, if they wish to enjoy the benefits of belonging to a party, must not vote according to conscience. Or rather, they must trust to the conscience of the party leaders to know where and for how long to compromise on certain points. Asking for everything at once is the sure way to get nothing, and even a severely abridged package of proposals needs a unified voting block in order to succeed. Principles are not abandoned according to this view, only held back for a season.

The difference between me and John Adams (apart from all the other, huge, obvious differences) is that Adams eventually got his way. McCullough – and Giamatti, for that matter – portray John Adams as very reluctant to compromise in the way Trollope tentatively condones, and yet the United States achieved independence. I still wonder sometimes if I should have been even more vocally adamant or if instead I should have sought smaller victories. But the point is moot now: nothing changed except that I left. Still, maybe Phineas Finn offers me a final ray of hope: very near the end of the novel, one of Phineas’s friends tells him that standing up for an unpopular position marks the first necessary step in getting the position accepted. The first flurry of attention to a cause gives some people at least the notion that it isn’t impossible. If a second generation sees the idea move from possible to probable, the third may well uplift it to the Thing Without Which We Cannot Do.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Conclusion of Hume’s Book

The first exposure I had to a lot of details of the artistic and philosophical history of Europe came from Francis Schaeffer’s book entitled How Should We Then Live? Schaeffer definitely had a particular way of interpreting art spiritually, and he probably committed some errors of fact in his historical details. But when I was about eighteen years old, he got me thinking about history and art and philosophy and cultural criticism at a level I had never worked at before. And he was exactly right about at least one observation. He said that the colleges ignore the last part of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, the part labeled “Conclusion of This Book.” A few years after I read Schaeffer’s book for the first time, I took a philosophy class as part of my Ph.D. program, and we covered Hume and his Treatise of Human Nature, and, sure enough, we did not discuss the “Conclusion.”

Hume spends most of the treatise applying empiricist skepticism to the world and showing that we don’t rationally know that things exist and can’t logically know that cause and effect exist. All we know, he says, is that we experience phenomena, and that the phenomena come in patterns. This part of the book leaves us without any basis for science, love, or faith; life seems meaningless. As my professor duly pointed out, Kant says that reading Hume woke him from his “dogmatic slumber,” and that he set about finding a system that would “save” God and science. But in the “Conclusion,” Hume says:
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds [i.e. the uncertainty that God, people, morals, and causality exist], nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther. Here then I find myself absolutely and necessarily determined to live, and talk, and act like other people in the common affairs of life.
Maybe God and science didn’t need saving. I suspected Hume just tossed these lines out in order to try to stave off public criticism of his nihilism, but, retaining my own brand of skepticism, I entertained the thought that he wrote the words sincerely. After all, they are in the “Conclusion to This Book,” and “conclusion” doesn’t only mean the end: it might mean that this position marked the final resting place of his thoughts on the subject.

This year, I read Hume’s other most known works: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The former covered much of the Humean territory familiar to me, but I was amazed to see that the author started right at the beginning explaining that he had no desire to pull the rug out from under religion and science. He makes his point abundantly clear: we should trust our senses, believe in God, and pursue science, but the basis of these human activities is not in the understanding. We can’t prove that cause and effect exist the way we can prove the Pythagorean theorem, but we still believe in them rightly because we have been made with another mechanism of knowledge, which he calls “custom.” A few minutes ago, when I read the passage I quoted earlier, words stood out that I had never noticed before. I had remembered “reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds” and “I play a game of backgammon” and “they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous.” But I did not remember the words “nature herself suffices to that purpose.” Hume only rejects reason here, not our beliefs. He just wants to show that these beliefs come to us by a path that has nothing to do with arguments and syllogisms.

So now I’m thinking about Kant again. Was he really concerned, as I’ve thought, that Hume made belief in God and science impossible? Or did he see that Hume still believed? In other words, was he disturbed only that Hume placed belief on a foundation other than that of reason?

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Zane Grey’s America

Is Zane Grey’s The Call of the Canyon a Great Book? A classic of elegant and instructive prose? Among “the best which has been thought and said”? A garden of ideas whose fruits populate further fields of literary wonder? Is it even a great book with no reference to capitalization? No, no, no, no, and no. But did it make me think the entire time I read? Yes.

I vaguely expected some adventure, some danger, possibly some shooting from a book by the father of the American western novel. What I got was a love story. Love stories are fine by me, but the romance didn’t interest me nearly didn’t interest nearly so much as the conflict that kept Arizona’s Romeo from New York’s Juliet until the last page: the vision of America. Whatever else I might want to deny this as possessing, it has a vision – a relentless vision that Glenn Kilbourne teaches and that Carley Burch eventually adopts.

If I had to boil the vision down to a single word, I’d have to call it “Progress.” Humans are capable of more, Grey tells us through Glenn’s words and through the narrative descriptions of the vast Arizona landscape. They can and should grow morally, intellectually, spiritually, and in personal strength and collective size. I’m not sure from this book whether progress is either desired, possible, or necessary for Mexicans; Grey presents the book’s one Hispanic character as good and hard-working, but doesn’t indicate any path of improvement for her. Native Americans and African-Americans aren’t even mentioned, so the hope of progress probably doesn’t exist for them in Grey’s world. One ugly remark about “immigrants” strongly suggests that they (whoever they are) not only don’t deserve progress but actually hinder the progress of more deserving Americans. But in any case, Progress is available for people named Burch and Kilbourne (despite the almost certainly recent date of the immigration of the family with the latter name), and that Progress is best pursued in the American West.

The cities of the East, exemplified here by New York, pose big problems. There people seek darkness – the darkness of the movie theaters (the story takes place in the 1920s) and the darkness of the dance clubs. The films in those theaters make the boys who watch them grow up to be criminals and the girls who watch them vampires (the word used then for dangerous flirts, soon after shortened to “vamps”). Materialism runs rampant: men want nothing so much as they want cars, and they seem to want them only because they crave speed. The women of the East are slaves of fashion and will wear any revealing, salacious dress if fashion dictates that they must lower their moral standing by doing it. Jazz represents all these evils at once: the fast music, the promiscuous dress, the dark clubs. Many men don’t work; many just trade stocks and cut deals. To make matters worse, these loafers all probably found a way to stay out of the Great War instead of fighting with other Americans for America. The East spends money on entertainment but won’t pay teachers sufficiently to raise a new generation that can rise above the decadence of their tawdry parents. People in the East smoke; according to this book, anyway, hard-working ranchers in Arizona would never pollute their bodies with tobacco. One observation made over and over again is that city women tend not to bear children. And that problem brings Grey to his announcement of the greatest danger of all this bad behavior: the disappearance of the American race.

Grey’s West, on the other hand, cleanses those who visit. Early on, Carley climbs a knoll from which she can see a hundred miles in every direction. “Oh, America!” she exclaims. She never knew the immensity of the land, and any country that big and empty yearns to be filled and beckons to all who see it to the challenge. The West demands hard work and a renunciation of gross materialistic comfort, and those who answer this demand find their spirits growing. (It even seems to me that the “human spirit” in the book is a Hegelian world-spirit that needs the progress of humans in order to fulfill its search for self-knowledge.)

I struggled to sympathize with characters motivated by such a problematic vision. I certainly support the value of hard work, but I don’t believe a person has to engage in sheep-dipping in order to qualify as a hard worker. I also don’t believe that the men who went to the trenches of France were the only ones who served their country in World War I. I can’t condone everything that happens in a dark movie theater, and I can’t approve the message of every movie. But darkness and film themselves are not in themselves evils; I’ve received instruction, entertainment, rest, inspiration, and spiritual uplift from both on numerous occasions. But then the grand vistas of the West have also strengthened me many times, and I have to agree with Grey that they do so in a way nothing else does. I love my country enough to admit its terrible problems, but I can’t see that emptying New York City and transplanting all its former citizens in the Arizona desert will improve anything.