Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Pagan Tragedy as Christian Antecedant

Matthew Lickona links to this outstanding piece inspired by the newly released Tolkien book, The Children of Hurin.
It is too simple to consider Tolkien's protagonist Turin as a conflation of Siegfried and Beowulf, but the defining moments in Turin's bitter life refer clearly to the older myths, with a crucial difference: the same qualities that make Siegfried and Beowulf exemplars to the pagans instead make Turin a victim of dark forces, and a menace to all who love him. Tolkien was the anti-Wagner, and Turin is the anti-Siegfried, the anti-Beowulf. Tolkien reconstructed a mythology for the English not (as Wainwright and other suggest) because he thought it might make them proud of themselves, but rather because he believed that the actual pagan mythology was not good enough to be a predecessor to Christianity.

Read the whole thing.


CMinor said...

Odd--The notes to my Frederick Rebsamen trans. of Beowulf proposes that the poet was either a Christian or Christian influenced, although I suppose it is based on older legends. I'll be interested to read what the essay says; the viewpoint sounds almost a little un-Tolkien based on the conventional wisdom about him.

CMinor said...

Okay, just read the article, and the guy's two previous essays on Tolkein. My two bits' worth:

I'd have to go back and reread a whole lotta Tolkien, plus Hurin, plus what Christopher Tolkein has to say re Hurin before I'd declare authoritatively that the gentleman is being very creative with the data. But my gut reaction is, what he has to say doesn't exactly scream "unimpeachable source" at me. It doesn't help that almost all of his cited sources are his own previous articles.

Mythlore is a U.S. journal that publishes a lot of scholarly work on Tolkien--I think some of its articles can be read at its website. I think I'll hold off judgement on what T. was trying to do with Hurin until I've read the book and had time to look over what they're saying there.
I'm afraid Spengler doesn't inspire confidence.

BTW, I checked Burton Raffel's Beowulf, too. He also considered it a Christian work--overtly in places.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, sorry. Have you taken off your links & prior posts? Or is this computer just glitchy today? I'm using the college library.

Darwin said...

I wasn't as impressed with his other articles in Asia Times when I went on to read them as with this one -- though I guess I took his links to previous articles as simply refering to previous things that he'd written rather than trying to cite himself as an authority.

I guess I was taking this more at the level of a glorified blog piece than a definative scholarly tak on Tolkien. (I'll have to look Mythlore up one of these days. I haven't heard of that since the days my folks were active in the Mythopeic Society 20+ years ago.)

While not quite sinking to the level of perfidy of an English major, I guess I do have a certain appreciation for plausible and consistent explanation of "what somethhing means" regardless of whether or not its clear that that's actually what the author intended. (Though I draw the line at such things as 'A Truth Universally Acknowledged': The Dialectic of Marxism and Homoerotic Desire in Pride and Prejudice -- that's why I went into a field where the text is key.)

The question of how Christian Beowulf is is something I'm not sufficiently up on. It was certainly written down by a Christian, from what I recall. The question would be how fully formed the epic was before it reached its Christian scribe. (For instance, I believe that pretty much all of the sagas were written down by Christians -- even the ones that are strictly about pagan mythology. However, one assumes that the paganism portrayed is more or less accurate.)

I would say that Turin (and the other narratives in the Silmarillion which bear a certain semblance to pagan mythology) differ strongly at least from the classical mythology with which I'm far more familiar in that instead of seeing a hero as being afflicted by fate of by the gods despite his best efforts; we see a hero who through his own vices in led into undoing himself.

This is, I think, an explicitly Christian view. Christianity certainly deals with darkness, but it does not deal with tragedy in the pagan sense.

That and I just liked seeing Wagner get the smack around -- I like the man's music, but I have to agree with Tolkien on what he did to Germanic mythology. (Though I think the author of this article over plays the extent of any explicit master race/proto Nazi influence in Wagner.)

Darwin said...


I think the T Rex comic is pushing it down to the bottom of the page in IE...

1990bluejay said...

Thanks for posting this. I had mentioned this review to my better half since it had piqued my interest.

I admit to reading Spengler just for his quite different takes on events and such. I wouldn't call his analysis the best in the world, but I thought the review had merit and highlighted something that others neglect - Tolkien's amalgamation of the modern and anti-modern in his creation makes us disquieted. And, as we know, we don't necessarily like that feeling.

As for Mythlore, it's not a great journal; Tolkien research frankly deserves better than the "articles" that appear. Some are quite solid, others are so trite that they didn't merit consideration, much less publication. The Mythopoeic Society publishes Mythlore as well as hosts Mythcon. The same problem plagues both - an uneasy mix of academics and fans. I delivered a paper at MythCon about medieval Spanish works as an influence for some of the events in The Silmarillion. Yes, very academic, but the dude carrying The Idiot's Guide to the Lord of the Rings and the chic in costume should have figured that papers like mine, fractals, and orality-literacy theory wouldn't be of interest to them.

Sorry about the rant, but it does illustrate that Tolkien's appeal and his complexity are easy to dismiss and the journal that is devoted to him and the other Inklings isn't necessarily the best venue for analysis of his works. Frankly, Spengler's attempt is better than many academic article I've read.

CMinor said...

Well, it's a valid question--I just didn't think the author did a very good job of supporting his thesis. Between you and me, he struck me as one heck of a stuffed shirt as well.

A number of things made me think he wasn't the authority he seemed to be trying to make himself out to be. I didn't get the vibe, for instance, that he had read any C. S. Lewis besides Narnia. It's a safe bet he's never read Lewis's retelling of the Psyche myth, Till We Have Faces, or he wouldn't have dismissed L.'s fiction so quickly.

In the linked article, he calls LOTR a distillation of Christian belief (or some such); in a previous article he calls it a roman a clef Well, which is it, darn it? The view that people and events in LOTR were meant to symbolize real-world
events has been around since the books were published, and I believe was soundly denied by Tolkein. As there are any number of theories as to which groups and events stand for what, I'm inclined to just take his word for it. It's more interesting as Christian allegory anyway, even if T. said it wasn't!

I don't doubt T.'s view in Hurin is Christian, especially when compared to, say, the poetic Edda. T.'s Christian worldview permeated his writing, which may be why LOTR is so Christian despite his insistence to the contrary. But I did get the impression the reviewer was trying to go a step further with that (and slap Wagner, who seems to be a personal bete noir) and I just didn't see him producing the brass tacks to support it. That and he shouldn't have picked on Beowulf--the poetic Edda would have served him better. (Check out Raffel's notes if you get the chance--he does a good job of defending the work's Christian roots.)

So were your folks into the whole speaking Elvish thing? Mythlore now has Elvish chat sites! :-)
(Sorry, I don't, BTW.)

CMinor said...

Do you think the popularity of the movies had anything to do with Mythlore being less scholarly?
I haven't used it in years, and even when I did it wasn't a typical journal (scattered among the scholarly work were fan art and poetry even twenty-odd years ago) but it had some good articles that really couldn't be found anywhere else. I didn't feel the lowbrow side of it detracted much from the good stuff.
And who knows, the chick in costume could be working on a dissertation!

Darwin said...

I don't know if my folks spoke elvish, but they definately had some stuff memorized in it...

I think there's always been a scholary/fannish dichotomy going on with the Mythopoeic Society -- though the fan side may have got lower brow in the last decade or so. (Haven't most things?) There was definately lots of costume wearing back in the 70s at MythCons and such.

1990bluejay said...

Sorry about the lag in responding.

CMinor wrote:
"Do you think the popularity of the movies had anything to do with Mythlore being less scholarly?"

Not necessarily. Mythlore as you noted, has always had an mix of fan production as well as scholarly articles. And yes, many of the articles in Mythlore couldn't be found elsewhere; some could have been published in other journals, but picking you way through to the quality could be quite tedious and the fan content is more, or at least that's my perception.

I think the films helped in part, since it raised the profile so to speak, but even now more than ever, you're getting popular and cultural studies types writing as well as film studies. But none of these really do literature or linguistics, per se, and so much of Tolkien's detailed work is glossed over - at best - for the latest fad or ideological soapbox.

"And who knows, the chick in costume could be working on a dissertation!" Wouldn't surprise me in the least, but a little professional courtesy and decorum please - wait until the Q&A to leave. :)