December 30, 2002



Inspired by an insipid sideswipe at Tolkien, no longer online. 'Sokay, you'll get the gist as you read.

I'll only add this: if mythographers restrict themselves solely to preserving the artefacts of the oral tradition, it follows they can only become progressively more irrelevant as human society, even human nature as we know it diverges from what it was in the protohistoric era those myths germinated in. I mentioned Campbell in the post below, who started people thinking about how hero-myths, with their emphases on inheritable leadership ability and rising (or falling to) one's genetically appointed station, were bolsters for a time of priest-king absolute rulers. (Brin and others have pointed out how incongruous it is to see them return in bad modern fantasy offerings like Star Wars.)

If the defenders of unspoiled myth like "ACD" have their way, then myth as myth is frozen, in a time we no longer know. It's not just arguing the existence or lack thereof of an open question, as one writer low in the thread suggests, about which of our modern literary works will rise to the status of myth-equivalence a few centuries on... it is an assertion that nothing that has been written since the printed page took hold, or ever will be, can EVER rise to that status. Is humanity to rise to ever-increasing dominance of the planet, the human body and brain, possibly someday even the distant stars, without any revision of the mythos? Can it still influence us all as much if there isn't one?

Tolkien wanted to preserve the old myths, perhaps more than anyone. Lord of the Rings (or more properly, the Silmarillion, from which it derived) was an attempt to re-envision them for modern palatability. He saw rightly that a society that could not bridge the distance to its founding mythos could easily become lost in a relativist void; he tried to build something like a bridge back... devoted to the spirit and intent of the myth-tellers of the pre-literary Anglo-Saxony he had studied his entire life. The best of the myth revisionists are intent on homage: T.H. White and Wagner both tried something similar, in a less Oxbridgy fashion. C.S. Lewis tried to bridge back to Christianity in a similar fashion, with his Narnia tales.

An honest critique of Tolkien from the mythographer's point of view would acknowledge the writer's intent, not too different from their own, and judge its success on those merits, for better or for worse. Did Tolkien bring the spirit of the Eddas and Beowulf into lives which otherwise would not have known them at all, or does its success merely overwrite them, like overwriting a computer hard drive, with something less lasting and true? What effect did Tolkien's long struggle with the imperatives of commercial success have on his original, high-minded vision? Did the events in the times he wrote in, the 1940s in Britain, divert his purpose too much? Is the tale he constructed, with that great walking, talking, Campbellian hero-king Aragorn walking right through the middle of it (not to mention the obsequious manservant Sam), the tale that should even be told, however well, in this more egalitarian epoch?

Those would be questions I, personally, value reading the well-written insights of any educated classicist on. But this particular drive-by shooting of a column, which lumps in Tolkien's work, with its novel and non-commercial original purpose, with those of all his imitators no matter how poor or derivative, then dismisses the lot as unsatisfactory compared with the wellspring of original myth, and neglects the author's intent in writing entirely, is, sadly, without value... as are the beside-the-point insults hurled by its writer's defender, ACD in that thread.

(Their line of argument, it should also go without saying, is entirely negative criticism. If one assumes greater knowledge of our myth-roots is valuable, which I would concede... what force will divert the average person's mind to their contemplation? The choice is not between Tolkien and Beowulf... Beowulf doesn't have a movie out. In the theatres this week, the dividing line is between the myth-inspired Middle Earth and the other pop entertainments it competes with for public attention. Given that the author's original book is deeply rooted in an Old English view of the world, and whatever your other choice of movies tomorrow night certainly is not, and given the movie's remarkable truth, given the medium, to the author's vision, one would have thought the majority of mythographers would have seen its recent success as, if not the least bothersome mass culture phenomenon of our time, at least not a huge threat to their own work, taken by itself, at least.)

Posted by BruceR at 02:23 AM



Hope everyone had a great Christmas, and is looking forward to a great Tuesday night. In case you were wondering, here's what you missed in the life of Flit:

*I moved. Anyone who actually knows the virtual me and wants to drop by the coolest house in North York for a drink, write me and I'll send that new address.

*Used the excuse of packing and unpacking to overhaul the PC while I was at it. Believe me... it's sweet.

*Saw The Two Towers for the first (but not the last) time, as well as the extended director's cut of the first LoTR movie. On the latter, I honestly can't say which I prefer... on the former, it truly is everything I had hoped for. You know, you think reading all that Joseph Campbell would have immunized me to archetypal hero myths, but sure enough, watching the years fall off Theoden-king's face, I was a basket case again... nearly as bad as seeing Hobbiton for the first time a year ago...

In terms of conception and scope, of truth to both his art and Tolkien's, one simply cannot complain of director Peter Jackson's vision. (Roger Ebert's bitch, which I've seen and heard several times now, that Jackson has lost Tolkien's "whimsy" in the course of making an action movie, only shows the rotund movie critic's own ignorance of the literary material.) The quibbles that remain are those one would have found, oh, in a college dorm one night in the late 80s, arguing what Tolkien really meant by this or that paragraph, differences in interpretation from one aficionado to another... I may disagree with the emphasis in places, but I can see how Jackson and Co's head got to where it is at easily enough. (The classic example being the unsubtle treatment of Saruman, mentioned here before.) Blessed with the same skill, the team, the talent and the budget, I personally might have taken a somewhat divergent path, but I'd still be going to the same place. Both paths are true.

*The disappointment of the holidays thus far has been Bioware's Neverwinter Nights, which I finally purchased. I'm sure the actual role-playing adventure on the computer disc is nice enough, but I've lots of RPGs still to finish already. I was looking forward for, oh, at least the last two years, to the Aurora module-creation toolset, and it's a big disappointment... largely because of incompatibilities with ATI video cards. In short, the toolset requires opening up of multiple windows in OpenGL, and that can lock Radeon-equipped computers right up. There's various tweaks one can attempt, and a few I might try that I haven't seen on the websites anywhere yet, so I haven't fully given up.

Two things I note from the experience, however. Three or four years ago, I'd have been perfectly happy to lock myself in a room for a week until I'd figured out the best solution to get Aurora up and running. Maybe I'm getting old, but I simply don't have the time or inclination to fix serious inherent problems with out-of-the-box software myself anymore. If it doesn't work after reasonable tweaking now, hey, well, I got ripped for $80 for a crap product then. Life's too short. The other thing that amuses me? That Bioware, Canada's best computer games company, couldn't design a product that was friendly to ATI, one of the largest Canadian computer parts companies and the only realistic competitor for that tortious NVidia monster south of the border. (Of course, it should go without saying that working in OpenGL in the first place, and courting the wrath of the demon Microsoft itself by doing so (Practically MS DirectX standard's only competition left is OpenGL), may have had something to do with it, too.)

Posted by BruceR at 01:05 AM