Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Gospel According to Tolkien

Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth


Ralph C. Wood

Finished Reading: 11.2009

This is a summary of Tolkien's work, seen through the lens of Christianity. The story can be read and enjoyed without this monocle, but the lens provides some different color. Ralph Wood explores Tolkien's creation story (as beautifully told in the Silmarillion), wrestles with the reality of evil, the insistence of good to overcome evil, the redemption of sins, and finally an interesting parallel of the after-life (from The Debate of Finrod and Andreth, which I have not read). In addition to these sources, the author draws heavily from all three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and various other published histories of Middle-earth.

The Gospel is the fulfillment and completion of all other stories, and the Kingdom can be seen in many places, often in simple clothing, not easily noticed. The author argues that Tolkien's work is influenced by his Christian faith, though The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory with a one to one connection (such as is the case with his contemporary, C.S. Lewis' story of Aslan the Lion playing the part of Jesus Christ in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Rather, the author explores how Middle-earth is a pre-Christian culture that can exist within the framework of historical Christianity. My interpretation of this is that, since there are no Jews in these stories to have received revelation from God (as the chosen people did before the coming of Christ), the Elves, Hobbits and Men of these stories would have their own explanations for what is going on in the world around them, and it is totally conceivable that some future traveler might show up one day from a far away land to link the Gospel to all their experiences.

Much like the Aztecs or Mayans who had no direct connection with the ancient Jewish culture, though they shared a time and a planet, God was yet at work in all peoples. Middle-earth recognizes that there is a God, but doesn't quite know how he works. This shows that God's love, morals, and peace can still be known without direct knowledge of Jesus and his saving work on the cross. Just as the ancient mezzo-American cultures had a spiritual and religious life that isn't nearly Christian, Middle-earth was doing it's own thing the only way it knew how; but the author argues that it can be seen as being closer to Christianity than one would guess at first glance.

Examples of Good and Evil and the Redemption of sin can be found throughout the stories. Frodo is continuously merciful to Gollum. The resurrection of Gandalf was a sacrifice to save the others in the Fellowship. The promise of the coming kingship is realized in Aragorn. Balrogs and Ringwraiths have turned to evil, abandoning any good that once may have been to follow something "precious."

What happens after death is not well-established in Tolkien's major works. Elves are immortal and don't think much on death, but Men are meant to die after a short time on Earth. The Elves can return to the Undying Lands of Valinor (which seems to parallel heaven in some ways) but an after-life for Men is not understood (save "going to join one's Fathers"). In the last chapter of Wood's book, he references an interesting, though little known Tolkien story called The Debate of Finrod and Andreth, where the title characters, one an Elf the other a Man have a conversation about the after-life. He alludes that this story contains the strongest ties in Middle-earth to a Christian after-life, with Men having eternal souls and speaking of knowing God (Illuvitar) who is incarnated and descends bodily to Middle-earth in the "Consummation of All Things," which sounds a lot like the End Times. From the point of view of Tolkien's major works, this idea is seen as a Christian-like hope for a life beyond the present.

In some ways this book is academic and dry as the author searches to find and rationalize what he is looking for in the text. Often the obvious is stated, but perhaps for good points. To learn more about a beloved masterpiece of literature through a new lens is interesting and educational but the best opinions are perhaps given wings on the soaring pages of fantasy.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Some Assembly Required

Michael Sorkin

Finished Reading: 11.2009

Architecture criticism can be boring, usually revealing the facts about a new building with some sort of back-story thrown in. Maybe a few academic concepts are dangled before the reader, but opinions offered are often eye rollers, the critic trying to make what should be largely subjective an objective diatribe. Michael Sorkin, however is witty and entertaining, and straight-up funny. Obviously he gives his opinion like the rest, but I find myself generally in agreement and in the end, entertained and impressed. I read Sorkin not for assembled bricks and steel but for his words, many of which require a dictionary.

Some Assembly Required is an engaging collection of essays and articles previously published throughout the 1990's, touching on various topics such as urban design, over-glorified architects, post-modern design failures, and even a surreal futuristic commentary on the evils of Walt Disney. Sorkin lays blame on the Mouse frequently, for his influence on the total destruction of good and wholesome architecture is evident throughout. The Disneyfication of America has left us in a fake, flat, stage-set cardboard world of no certain meaning, where the next things are made to look like the old things and are cherished because that's just how we roll. There is a strange nostalgia for non contextual styles in places where they don't belong.

Particularly noticeable is Sorkin's rebellious nature, writing as the one on the inside who hates that there even is an inside because it is so predictable. I picture him wearing black leather and riding a motorcycle to an architects party where everyone else shows up in black tie. He brings the beer, they bring the slide rules. He isn't afraid to tell the ugly kid that his face is ugly, and that his house is lame. He understands changing culture, and identifies clearly where architecture fails in each individual, unique, contextual cultural instance, meekly giving way to the many times copied (see xeroxed for older essays) and blindly disseminated global, banal, form letter of a culture that doesn't mean anything.

A good variety of places, buildings and individual architects are described and criticised to give the book a nice sampling of scales. I like good writing that attempts to kick the pilotis off the corner of a Corbusier knockoff now and then.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy

Finished Reading: 11.2009

The epic tale of Eastern European aristocratic life begins amidst some rich Russians attending splendid parties, speaking highly of the grand shadow cast by Napoleon upon the continent as he fights his distant war against nations unconcerned for here. Their domestic life seems distant from the death blows on the battlefield, it being but a romantic notion to be toasted. Finally, and alas, the war knocks on the doors of Moscow, burning with total destruction the solitary stability until now ubiquitously known. For many years these evil clouds hide the bright prospects of the future, but miserable deaths are followed by joyful births, and life goes on again with the cyclical yearning for adventure in youth, the steady hard work and simplicity of adulthood, and the remembrances of other times now forgotten.

Equal parts high society dinner parties and muddy field trench poker games, the contrast in the stations of life is exceptionally poignant. During one battle between the Russians and the French, a Russian commander retreats and pulls his remaining troops back to safety. To those who had only heard of the battle back home, the word heard was of a glorious Russian victory over the cowering French. In reality, this particular Russian commander had sent a messenger to bring word of victory to his superiors as he retreated to safety. He hoped to be given a promotion to Commander-In-Chief, in charge of all fighting in that region, on account of his assumed great victory. However, there is another inconvenient commander who outranks him, and so he leads his whole regiment around the countryside, their goal over the next few days being to hide from the ranking commander until this commander's promotion can be received. Napoleon is seen only as sub-plot while the legitimate Russian commander acts as enemy to these troops. During the confusion the soldiers are starving and fall to looting and marauding the local towns. The reported glorious victory is actually a sham, as the Russian army is on the verge of shooting itself. Meanwhile at home, the aristocrats celebrate the glorious victory against the French, and beautiful young ladies smile as they dance with their admirers in the ballroom, hoping to impress a gentleman or a soldier with an aim to improve their family's social standing with a fashionable and wealthy marriage.

I enjoyed the last chapters when Napoleon has gone home where it is warmer, leaving cold Russia to itself and the families whom we've followed throughout the story, having been ravaged by war and despair, are now living well enough as a loving family, entrenched in the happy business of domesticity. A little girl sits with her father to hear a story, a wife talks about her day to her husband who barely pays attention, and the servants take extra pride in their service to their beloved masters for everyone is happy. The atrocities of war are forgotten for now, as life goes on in the brief few breathes one can take before stumbling again into war. But those battles will not be fought by this aging generation, for they have already fought and died their deaths. The young ones who gaze out of foggy windows wondering what lies beyond, they will one day learn to fight. They do not know that beyond this peace there will be more war, followed by peace again, for they remain still on this side of the pane. War and Peace and War and Peace and Such.

This example of historical fiction is captivating. We often wonder what happened at some great event beyond the often repeated and remembered moments in books and movies. How was Napoleon feeling before he gave the orders to attack in a certain battle? Was he tired or worried about his hair? Had he a disagreement with one of his generals or perhaps he had just finished a delicious meal of crepes? We don't really ever know, but historical fiction allows pretending within the framework of fact. Not only could these events be true, but they very well might be for all we know which is often more exciting than the truth anyway, though in this case much longer to get through.

As for this novel being the greatest ever written (as has been supposed by some), I cannot attach such a prestigious medal to the lapel of any book, but certainly War and Peace is standing somewhere close, taking up half the room.