December 16, 2003

Getting Tolkien Wrong Again

Via Kathy Shaidle comes this rather unoriginal article on the Christian faith underlying Lord of the Rings. The writer gets a few things wrong.

First, the character of Gandalf is not, as the writer (one Kevin Miller) states, "clearly a Christ figure." There is nothing so clear about the "resurrection" of Gandalf -- in fact, it is more correct to state (and one could find this out from simply reading Tolkien's own commentary on the book, available in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien) that Gandalf is clearly an angelic messenger and aide -- mostly as a morale-builder -- to "free men and creatures everywhere" in the war against "the Shadow" -- aka, Sauron (who, by the way, is not meant to represent Satan but only one of his lieutenants). Jesus wasn't, according to what I was taught in church in my "long ago youth," a mere angel.

Then Mr. Miller goes off into a slight tangent where he outlines what I presume are some of the objections Christians might have to seeing the film: "How can one reconcile the scenes of violence, destruction and occult-like practices with the above information about Tolkien's faith? How could the love of Christ spawn such a monstrosity? Perhaps, you may be thinking, reading all that pagan mythology from the Middle Ages seriously messed with Tolkien's head, co-opting his faith rather than the other way around."

Excuse me for not entirely understanding what Miller is talking about here -- the only "pagan mythology from the Middle Ages" that I am aware of Tolkien being much involved with is Beowulf -- and he came to the conclusion in studying it that that poem was in fact a Christian rewriting and/or composing of a work with pagan characters that was yet meant to resonate with Christian listeners.* (Somewhat like his own work.) Again, this information is available with a little bit of research; in fact, it is easier to get one's hands on a copy of "The Monsters and the Critics" than it was before the movies came out -- I had to borrow it from the community college library.

But I suppose this is meant to be a bit of parental reassurance rather than a serious scholarly treatise on the man and his work. Miller has read the thumbnail bio of Tolkien that just about every writer on this subject has had time to peruse for the last three years, and seems to at least have a better idea of the plot and characters than many movie reviewers, though he makes the theme sound like Christianity Lite: "If you're good enough, and merciful enough, then doggone it, Jesus will love you!" Actually, he seems mostly to have gotten his ideas from the films; that's the feeling I get anyway. (Perhaps that is where his misconception of Gandalf as the Messiah comes from -- all that white light and stars and the makeover when he "returns.")

It would have been nice, though, if he had done more than (it seems) skim the book. The films, while excellent adaptations of the novel, are not really the best source for understanding its author's religious beliefs.

*Disclosure: I wrote a paper a couple of years back for a Medieval Humanities class on the Christian themes in Beowulf, so I am not just talking out of my behind. I may scrounge up the paper and put it online one of these days; it was all right, though not one of my best.

Posted by Andrea Harris at December 16, 2003 12:17 AM

Um, well, in The Hobbit, which I personally reckon is by far the better book than the LOTR, a lot of the ideas are taken from medieval Germanic mythology, including the Scandinanvian Eddas. The names of the dwarves, for instance, are lifted straight out of there. There's one pagan influence.
Tolkien learned Finnish as a kid, also, so he could read the Kalevala in the original language, a collection of pagan Finnish myths/songs/stories put together by Elias Lonnrot.

Posted by: TimT at December 16, 2003 at 02:41 AM

TimT, where are you getting your information? It sounds slightly askew. I believe Tolkien studied Finnish on his own, but I don't know if he ever learned it enough to read the Kalevala in the original language. I could be wrong, but from the way he wrote about it I don't believe he learned it enough to read it. (Finnish, incidentally, is a difficult language that is not even part of the Indo-European language group. It has six cases, for one thing... Yes, you can say I "studied" it as a child too. All I remember of it, though, is how to say "Good evening, sir/ma'am." He was influenced by its sounds to base some of his Elvish languages on it.)

PS: Tolkien was not of the opinion that The Hobbit was the better than Lord of the Rings. He always regretted that he let it be published as it was; it has a certain unevenness in tone, and too many "asides" to the audience that break the mood. I pretty much concur with his own judgment, but YMMV.

I could just be being overly pedantic about the "medieval pagan myths" line. Medieval Europe was actually at its height Europe's most Christian period, the legends and stories such as the Tales (by the way, Tolkien said of those, something like "the only resemblance between my ring and that Ring is that both are round." Obviously there are similar elements -- dragons, dwarves, etc., names that he lifted -- but he used them to different purposes. Anyway, the way the author phrased it made it sound as if he was one of those people that think of the Middle Ages as one long "Dark" period because people didn't have central heating, etc. etc. etc.

I need coffee.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at December 16, 2003 at 06:36 AM

And... here is my comment going into the right place. (I had posted it in the above entry; yes, I needed coffee.)

Posted by: Andrea Harris at December 16, 2003 at 06:37 AM

First of all, I personally would love to see that paper on Beowulf. It was a favoured story of mine when I read it all those years ago. I agree with Tolkien that The Hobbit was rather twee. I have always see the LOTR as a more Christianised version of Wagner's Ring Cycle. I do find all these Christians' dissecting LOTR rather amusing. Many of them seem to be only using Jackson's version of LOTR and not the actual books written by Tolkein (and especially his other fiction & non-fiction writings on the subject).

Oh one more note, I wonder if your readers are aware that LOTR is going to be made in a West End Musical. Am I the only one that finds this prospect revolting in extremis?

I will leave you with one question. Do you think the Silmarrilion could be made into a film?

Posted by: Andrew Ian Dodge at December 16, 2003 at 10:57 AM

Mygawd, another redesign...

As a published translator of Beowulf (excerpts at this location), I was astounded to learn that current academic prejudice fiercely denies Christian influence in the work. My publisher solicited Anglo-Saxonist reviews before accepting the translation. Some of the responses were ugly and ignorant, assuming that I'm some sort of evnagelical when I'm actually an unbeliever. I was reluctant to accept the importance of Christianity in the text, but it cannot be denied honestly.

I've written extensively about Tolkien on my weblog, and I expect to add more Tolkien essays soon, when ROTK opens.

Posted by: Alan Sullivan at December 16, 2003 at 05:09 PM

I get my information about Tolkien from ... memory, which in turn comes from ... television documentaries! So yeah, I don't know whether Tolkien was able to read the Kalevala in the original.
Speaking as a person who has a general interest in myth, folk stories, etc, and who has read some Germanic myths/poems/sagas (in translation!), I can say that there are a couple of moments in the LOTR and The Hobbit where pagan themes/ideas appear. I can't recognise any real Christian themes, though...
I personally prefer The Hobbit because it's shorter, it packs a lot more action in, is funnier and is more entertaining than the LOTR. But that's just me.

Posted by: TimT at December 16, 2003 at 08:53 PM

Andrew, I for one do not think the Silmarillion as a whole could be made into a movie, but pieces of it could be excellent standing on their own: Beren and Luthien, Turin Turambar, perhaps the Fall of Numenor, and that's just what immediately comes to mind, not having read the Sil in two or three years. The creation myth itself--the Ainulindale and the Valaquenta as well as the first few chapters of the Quenta Silmarillion proper--might actually be better animated than live-action, but only if it was good animation, something both highly artistic and original, not either CGI, Disneyish or anime. Could they do the entire thing as a series of films? Probably not, but I'd sure as hell love to see them try.

Posted by: Dave J at December 16, 2003 at 09:15 PM

As much as I love JRRT, I could never get past the first few pages of the Silmarillion. He just started throwing out too many names, associations and histories for me to get into it. What I liked most about those first few pages was, IIRC, the fact that the world/universe was created by music, with "evil" being the discordant tones. Is that right, or is my memory failing me?

Posted by: cardeblu at December 17, 2003 at 01:59 AM

The Silmarillion isn't really something one can read all the way through like a novel. It's more like a Bible or a collection of Greek mythology; one reads bits and pieces here and there. Or at least, I do. (Yes, I know there are plenty of people who read the Bible and collections of Greek mytholgy straight through from beginning to end. But one doesn't have to, unlike novels.)

Posted by: Andrea Harris at December 17, 2003 at 07:08 AM

Andrew: speaking of the musical... actually, let's not. Let's just pretend it isn't happening. It's better that way. (I read about it ages ago on the website. Shudder. I hate musicals anyway.)

As for the idea that Tolkien's stories are based on Wagner's Ring cycle, there are some superficial resemblances (there is, for example, a "ring of power") but the tone of Wagner's story is entirely different. For one thing, there are no hobbits -- that is, there are no humble people coming into the affairs of the great to actually do the task and make the difference that all the important, powerful people had been unable to accomplish that Tolkien conceived of. Wagner's story is all big important people (even his dwaves could hardly be described as "homey" or "humble"). Also, Wagner's story is the truly pagan one (there is no aspect of Christian thought to it, such as the idea of the humble being raised to a higher level by divine grace).

Posted by: Andrea Harris at December 17, 2003 at 07:20 AM

Andrea, yes lets not talk about the musical...shudder.

I know that Wagner' epic was not Christian but based on pagan/Norse mythology.

It would be interesting to have an animated series based on the Silmarillion. I have always seen it as the "bible" for Middle East as well. I must admit the first time I read it, I did it straight through, which was rather tough. At times it does read like the History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Posted by: Andrew Ian Dodge at December 17, 2003 at 11:42 AM

I posted some longer commentary/explanation in my blog: ,
but basically, Tolkien thought that the Beowulf poet was a Christian intentionally writing about heathen people in the past. The Christian references in the poem are almost all simply invocations of God (Ruler, Measurer, etc.) and Cain and Abel are the only names from scripture: no Christ, Saints, etc.
Christian themes are a different story, of course.
And Tolkien never really learned Finnish; he discovered it while in school at Oxford, but was never fluent. However, he based the phonology of Quenya (loosely) on Finnish.

Posted by: Mike Drout at December 17, 2003 at 04:11 PM

The Wagner parallels are much stronger for the movie. The composer even used leitmotifs... and cinema is by nature akin to the Wagnerian concept of total art.

Posted by: Alan Sullivan at December 17, 2003 at 05:46 PM

There's an article about Wagner, Tolkien, and the music in the films in the New Yorker..
Now that I come to think about it, the Wagner/Tolkien link seems pretty interesting. Wagner lifted the plot for the Ring Cycle from the Siegfried poems (pagan Germanic literature). Tolkien would probably have drawn his stuff from the same source.
Wagner was one of the first people to inspire interest in old Germanic mythology - T.S. Eliot and Joyce got a lot from him, and it's probably fair to say that C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams et al were indirectly influenced by him as well.

Posted by: TimT at December 18, 2003 at 12:22 AM

Not only does Howard Shore use Wagner's concept of "leitmotifs" (virtually all cinema composers do), but at the very end of the credits to Return of the King (or, on the soundtrack CD, the orchestra coda after the Annie Lennox song), Shore practically lifts a whole passage of Wagner, the "Magic Fire Music" which ends "Die Walkure."

Posted by: dnash at December 19, 2003 at 05:05 PM