Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Platypus Reads Part V

Knowledge plays a key role in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Eomer troubles over questions of moral knowledge, to which Aragorn replies: "Good and evil have not changed since yesteryear, nor are they one thing among elves ... and another among men." Gandalf puts his skills in archival research to use in Gondor where he discovers the scroll containing the description of the One Ring. The Council of Elrond fills a whole chapter with historical narrative and debate. The desire for knowledge leads both Saruman and Denethor to use the Palantiri to their doom. Frodo discovers the limits of knowledge in Gandalf's admonishment: "... do not be too hasty to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."

After living for nine years in Southern California, I can say with some confidence that people in Connecticut place a higher value on knowledge and education (Southern California has its own virtues that Conn. lacks and could learn from). This is backed up by the fact that Connecticut boasts some of the best schools and highest test scores in the nation. Even the boy whose father pumps your gas feels the pressure to get into Harvard or Yale.

As a son of that state, then, I feel a strong resonance with the value Tolkien places on knowledge and learning. More than any fiction writer I can think of, Tolkien makes facts, history, ethics, poetry, oral tradition, an inextricable part of the plot and beauty of his work. His heroes are not only warriors, lovers, and adventurers, but also academics, poets, historians, "lore-masters." He makes strong minds, and not merely strong bodies, attractive and beautiful. The "why" of this can be found in the motto written over the entryway of my old high school: "In Christ are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Platypus Reads Part IV

When he was pressed with the question "what is The Lord of the Rings about," J.R.R. Tolkien usually stated that it was not about anything. On one occasion, however, he gave a different answer. He said that, if it was about anything, it was about death. This can be seen, as I mentioned in the previous post, in the fact that much of Middle Earth is in terminal (or at least advanced) decline when we are introduced to it at the end of the Third Age. The return of King Elessar does bring hope, but it is a limited one. The elves do not remain in Middle Earth to share it, nor does Frodo.

As a survivor of childhood cancer, I was introduced to death at an early age. In fact, the life I live is one given by grace. One might say "on borrowed time" (as if each of our lives isn't just that). I might have died in '91. The interval, short or long, I live in is the gift of God.

Mortality. It means giving up life upon this Middle Earth; the joy and the pain. Aside from that ultimate voyage, however, there are many lesser deaths that we face upon this shore: moving away, graduation, changing churches, parting with dear friends. Each of these is felt as a loss; an awareness of time breaking in upon a soul born for timelessness. They are glimpses of the flaming sword burning east of Eden. Tolkien captures those moments in a way unequaled by all writers I know save, perhaps, one.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Platpus Reads Part III

I grew up in Shelton, Connecticut; a small, rural town straddling the Housatonic River. It was a land of forests, rolling hills, and quiet rivers. Thus, imagining J.R.R. Tolkien's Shire was never very hard for me. I often felt as though I lived in it.

Being on the East Coast, there was a lovely sense of history to Shelton; though it pales in comparison with that of Tolkien's England. Main Street was still dominated by the shells of the old mills and the J.P. Morgan Restaurant; from a time when the great robber-baron himself had high hopes for the town. The Plumb Memorial Library still sported its quaint Victorian exterior, my friend lived in a 200 year old converted farm-house, many of the churches were at least that old, and crisscrossing the woods were miles and miles of stone walls, stone foundations, and little old cemeteries.

Quaint. Charming. But I never thought then what all this beauty meant. Shelton is part of a dying civilization. You can tell from the size of the trees, all thin and slender, the growth of the last fifty years. Two hundred years ago, they were mostly felled to make room for the bustling farms and homesteads that all those walls marked out. These were the days when Connecticut was part of the largest concentration of America's population: the Industrial North. It was Connecticut arms, forged by the great American gun companies, placed in the hands of men from New York, Ohio, and Massachusetts, that crushed the under-populated South and put an end to the "War Between the States." The rotting hulk of the great Colt Arms Factory can still be seen on the Hartford skyline, like the dome of Osgiliath. Now, thanks to AC, people are pouring in to Charlotte while each census quietly removes another house seat from the armory of her conquerors. But it is more than that. The families I knew growing up add to the tale. How many of them boasted two children, or only one? We were part of a rather conservative circle where three was thought average, but five was unnervingly large. Like old Europe, New England is slowly dying out.

This is one reason that Tolkien's works speak so powerfully to me: they are haunted with a sense of loss and decline. The old stone work of Minas Tirith is better than the new. Many houses in the White City stand empty. Beregond reflects that there were always too few children in the city. The realm of Arnor is lost. Eriador is depopulated. There are no more entings. Even the long life granted Aragorn is paltry in comparison to that of his longfathers. With the exception of Rohan and the Shire, everywhere we turn in Tolkien's world we see that the civilizations are not as great as those that preceded them. For a Yankee, at least, that rings true.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Platypus Reads Part II

As I continue to process our grand trek through The Lord of the Rings, I thought that I'd share some helpful resources for those interested in delving deeper into Tolkien's world.

The first is the indispensable biography by Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. To date, this is the only "authorized" biography, and it is the best of any that I am aware of. Carpenter explores his subject with care and dignity. He makes no attempts to sensationalize a rather mundane(for his generation) life, while avoiding a sort of "hagiography" devoid of any mention of Tolkien's quirks and struggles. The portrait that emerges is of a middle class college professor, quiet, friendly, incurably nerdy, highly intelligent, a bit thin-skinned, often melancholy, devoted to his family, and completely unremarkable where it not for the fact that out of his ordinary life came the most extraordinary work of the 20th century.

The second book is the equally indispensable Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien. Here, Tolkien is allowed, more or less, to speak for himself. The letters provide a wealth of insights into the origin, creation, author's interpretations, and details of The Lord of the Rings, as well as casting another light on Tolkien himself.

Third on the list is Tom Shippey's J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Shippey is of particular interest as a commentator on Tolkien because he taught from Tolkien's curriculum at both Leeds and Oxford. Shippey has also placed himself in the role of Tolkien's defender in modern academia, a world often completely hostile to Tolkien's project and values. While neither a Catholic, nor a Christian, Shippey defends Tolkien's achievement with the upmost vigor in a way that is accessible to both the specialist and the non-specialist alike.

The final book on this list, and the one that I've just finished a second read through is Rose A Zimbardo and Neil D. Isaacs' collection Understanding The Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism. This collection of essays presents a wide range of material from C.S. Lewis' original review of the trilogy to Tom Shippey's analysis of Peter Jackson's film adaptations. The essays very in style and accessibility providing material for the trained scholar and popular reader alike.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Platypus Observant Part II

My wife and I have been reading through J. P. Moreland's "Kingdom Triangle" over the past month. As a spiritual discipline, Moreland suggests writing down and recording answers to prayers, as well as asking God for signs to demonstrate His presence in our lives. (Note: these are spiritual disciplines that are meant to go along with an active life of the mind, participation in Christian duties, etc. We are not meant to be "sign-chasers," or "those who put God to the test.) So I thought while reading these things yesterday, ok Lord, let's give it a try.

Response I:

I don't typically pray with my wife for short car trips in town. On setting out to run a few errands yesterday afternoon I was stuck by a sensation that we really needed to pray on this trip. I suggested it to Sharon, and we did. Five minutes later, we barely escaped a nasty accident that we could have done nothing to prevent or escape from. We staid to help the people in the two cars involved, and thanked the driver who had been able to maintain control of his vehicle long enough after the collision that destroyed the entire back half of the other car to swerve and miss us as he passed us from behind.

Response II:

After registering that we were witnesses with the police, we went on with our errands. We needed an extra set of drapes to cover our sliding glass door. The problem was that the drapes we had bought were discontinued. An initial inquiry at the store came back saying that there were no more left at that location or their sister location. However, on a hunch, the sails clerk checked a completely different section of the store and found a heavily marked down set!

So, in gratitude, and as a spiritual discipline I am writing this blog post. Praise God!

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Platypus Reads

My wife and I have just finished reading The Lord of the Rings together. We started with the Silmarillion and then moved on to The Hobbit and so on. It's a journey that has taken us some eight months to complete. All this has put into my mind the importance of having favorite books; books that you turn to again and again over the years for insight, guidance, challenge, and comfort. My personal top three are, in chronological order (not order of preference):

The Oresteia
by Aeschylus:

Aeschylus, as the greatest poet of the old tragedies in Athens, presents us with a struggle between conflicting claims of love, loyalty, and honor in a world doomed to destruction apart from a divine intervener and a human atonement.

The Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

Tennyson, poet laureate to Queen Victoria, uses the Arthur legends as the backdrop for an elegy of the Victorian age; a civilization undone by its failure to live up to, and grasp the threat to the intellectual and moral foundations of, its own ideals.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien:

J.R.R. Tolkien, an Oxford don, presents us with the great epic of 20th century literature; a work that centers around a theme that stretches all the way back to Gilgamesh and Edan: death.