Saturday, March 31, 2012

Tolkien's Golden Child-Silver Child

Great post by the Herch here advancing a new and interesting thesis about heroic pairs in Tolkien's works.  It's an intriguing idea and I highly recommend that you check it out!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Platypus and Even More on Secondary Sources: The Platypus Reads Part CXLIII

There's something I've noticed while reading Tom Shippey's Road to Middle Earth.  Shippey really wants Tolkien to be an atheist.  It may not be a conscious desire, but it's a decided bent in both his books (The Road to Middle Earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Twentieth Century).  I have immense respect for Dr. Shippey's work, so this isn't an attack.  I notice this sort of warping even more with Verlyn Flieger who seems to have a dire need to turn Tolkien into a Barfieldian acolyte.  I also notice it in Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings where he seems to need Tolkien to have a very privatized faith to set off against what he seems to see as Lewis' overly militant faith.

I don't just see this warping tendency in Tolkien criticism either.  There are Catholic commentators who need Shaekspeare or Lewis to be crypto-Catholics in order to enjoy them.  There are Protestant scholars who need Dante to be a proto-Protestant before they can enjoy him.  All of this seems to be a natural human tendency: we want people we like to agree with us; we want the things we enjoy to validate our core beliefs.  The problem comes when this causes us to put aside our commitment to Truth and the genuine love of neighbor that comes with it.

I remember hearing Lewis' stepson, Douglas Gresham, speak.  One of the things he said about the Inklings that struck me was that they profoundly disagreed with each other on almost everything and yet could still be friends.  He went on to say that we've lost that ability in recent years; more and more now, to disagree with someone seems to mean that we have to hate them.  If what Gresham said is true, then we should expect to see the kind of warping I described above become more and more prevalent.  If we find ourselves liking something, we will need bend it as much our own way as possible in order to feel justified in continuing to like it.

In light of these things, then, I feel the need to say that Tolkien spoke truely when he said that The Lord of the Rings was a deeply Catholic work.  I am not a Roman Catholic.  There are places Tolkien goes where I can't follow, but I will say this: Middle Earth could not be what it is were it not for Tolkien's conservative, Tridentine, Roman Catholicism.  If I would honor Tolkien and love my neighbor as myself, then I have to honor that fundamental truth about Middle Earth and not fudge it.  The same goes for other authors I love but disagree with: Robert Heinlein, Homer, Frank Herbet, Aeschylus, Ursula K. Le Guin.  If they're living authors, then I may hope for them to be won over to my point of view; that's fair game.  The point is, that they must come as real people of their own free will, not as bits of wish-fulfillment in my own musings.  Looking back at my own bits of literary criticism, that's really hard to do.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Platypus and a Pile of Secondary Sources: The Platypus Reads Part CXLII

The 2011-2012 school year has been for me the year of the secondary sources.  I have determined that it is high time I go back to my professional roots and continue in earnest my study of Ancient Greece.  This has meant countless trips to the used bookstore to catch anything the universities are dumping and getting a helping hand from some very kind family friends.

In preparation for my great trek, I started off at the popular level in an attempt to build up my interest and ease back into the swing of things.  To begin with, I chose The War That Killed Achilles by Caroline Alexander and The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss.  Once the wheels were in motion, I picked up the pace a bit with a tour through Oswyn Murry's Early Greece, Robin Lane Fox's Traveling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer, and Vassos Karageorghis' Early Cyprus.  Now that we're full-steam-ahead, I've turned to Gregory Nagy's The Best of the Achaeans, and A.B. Lord's Epic Singers and Oral Traditions.  Once Lord is out of the way, there'll be plenty more to come.

I iz rEdin mushEn

To balance things out a little (other than a heavy dose of Doug TenNapel, Ethan Niccole, and Mike Mignola comic books), I've also picked up Tom Shippey's Road to Middle Earth and begun reading it in tandem with Tolkien's Unfinished Tales and Correy Olson's lectures over at "The Tolkien Professor."

In the midst of two out of three of my favorite subjects (the other being Tennyson), I was reminded of something I hadn't thought of in some time: the purpose of a good secondary source.  One of the frustrations with higher academia is that one spends so much time dealing with the conversation about what one loves and little time actually dealing with the thing one loves.  I think this can grow into a sort of academic disease, a love of mere talk, or a debased Scholastic interest in hairsplitting and organizing.  It was one of the things, frankly, that turned me off about the academe.  I've spent my time with primary works whenever I could, preferring to get as close to the thing loved as possible.  Uncharacteristically inundating myself with high-quality secondary material then, I was suddenly reminded why this genre exists: at it's best it fires us with a renewed love for the primary material and opens up new vistas of engagement.  A truly good secondary source is like finding a friend who shares your admiration of a given thing; you draw together in fellowship as you combine your powers in pursuit of the object loved.  This is a bit easier to remember with people, but books are people via proxy.  There is still a mind and a person behind the words on the page.  The friendship may be a little one-sided unless you can strike up a correspondence with the writer, but that's still what secondary sources are: friends who share in your pursuit of what you love.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Lost and Gone Forever: The Platypus Reads Part CXLI

This post will be a review of Witchfinder: Lost and Gone Forever, the second volume in Mike Mignola's Sir Edward Grey series.  If you wish to remain spoiler free, don't read on.

As the name suggests, Lost and Gone Forever brings Sir Edward Grey to the American Wild West on the trail of occult evil.  To briefly summarize the plot, Grey travels to Reidlynne Utah on the trail of Lord Adam Glaren, a British nobleman who has committed an unspecified crime.

Grey's first attempts to locate Glaren are a disaster with the Englishman's failure to understand frontier culture landing him in the stereo-typical bar fight.  The locals then attempt to run him out of town and Grey is only saved by the intervention of the mysterious Morgan Kaler.  What exactly Mr. Kaler does, we never find out, but he seems to be a sort of occult detective himself.  Throughout Lost and Gone Forever, the older Kaler adopts a mentoring role, with Grey slowly learning that he doesn't know as much about the occult as he thinks.

On the way to Kaler's homestead, the two men encounter Kaler's friend, Isaac, a sort of intuitive idio-savant.  Over diner, Grey and Kaler speculate about the strange disaster that destroyed Reidlynne's church.  The apparently magical disappearance of the whole congregation cements Grey certainty that Glaren is in the area but Kaler remains skeptical.

The following day, Kaler takes Grey past the local Indian reservation where he points out a white woman named Eris who Kaler suspects is the real source of the trouble. Eris seems to be using magical powers to gain the support of the Paiute tribe for her strange syncratistic religion.  Passing on, Grey and Kaler are suddenly set upon by a mysterious sniper.  Kaler fires back but apparently fails to wound the sniper leading to a pursuit.  The two detectives track their assailant to his camp where they discover that he is Lord Glaren. When Grey attempts to apprehend Glaren, however, he finds that Glaren has become a zombie.  Kaler devises a way to kill (again) the undead nobleman and blames Eris.  More proof of Eris' involvement comes the next day when the duo are attacked by stone dog.  Only the timely intervention of Isaac saves the two from the magical abomination.  While patching up Isaac, Grey discovers that the idio-savant has a magically prolonged life.  In a gesture of friendship, Isaac passes on the source of his magical invulnerability, a bracelet, to Edward.

That night, Edward has a strange dream that urges him to seek out the Paiute's "sacred mine" for more clues.  Upon setting out the next day, Kaler and Grey fall into an argument about the use of magic in fighting evil that continues themes raised in In The Service of Angels.  When they reach the mine, Kaler and Grey discover the corpses of the missing congregation and are forced to fight them off when they revive as zombies.

Elsewhere, we see Eris lead the Paiute to a man she claims is one of their ancient wisemen, Kaipa.  He welcomes them, but can only speak to one of the old women.  To this old woman Kaipa reveals that Eris has forced his soul back from the Realm of the Dead and is using Christian and Paiute souls to gain magical power.

Moving back to Grey and Kaler, the two heroes exit the mine only to find Eris and an army of zombie cowboys.  Grey is "killed" while Kaler fights on.  Passing into the realm of the dead, Grey finds Kaipa and somehow is able to kill him.  With Kaipa dead, Eris loses her link with the afterlife and is turned into a tree by a vengeful Paiute spirit.  His mission accomplished, Edward says good-bye to Kaler and Isaac and returns to England.  An afternote tells us that while Grey kept his Christian faith, he became much more interested in other beliefs after the Utah incident.

With that summary of events out of the way, we can move on to analyzing the story.  The question that comes to mind is "what is 'lost and gone forever'?"  As an opening attempt we might point to the vanished congregation that serves as the Mcguffin for the plot.  Moving deeper, we might look at the context for the title, the old song "Clementine."  In that case, it is the miner's daughter that is "lost and gone forever."  This could point us back to the dead Christians whose bodies are stuffed into a mine shaft.  It could also remind us of Mary, the clairvoyant from In The Service of Angles, whose death cements Edward's commitment to destroying the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra.  On a more esoteric level, it could be a reference to the loss of Grey's "simple" view of Good and Evil as he gains further knowledge of the occult.  This seems likely as the argument over whether evil should be used to fight evil goes all the way back to Hellboy: Darkness Calls and Hecate's challege to Grey that he will learn to do evil to do good.  It is also the key motif of In The Service of Angles and forms the substance of much of Kaler and Grey's conversation.

If this last point is true, then it may cast Grey's increasing "tolerance" in a sinister light.  Mary (notice the name's symbolic resonance with the apparently Roman Catholic Grey) warns Grey that his continued pursuit of the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra will destroy him.  Given that Grey seems to eventually achieve a deathless state, this destruction should probably be understood as moral or spiritual.  Given what we've said above, it seems as if Grey's quest to destroy the Brotherhood will lead him into increasing compromise with the dark powers until he loses his ability to distinguish Good from Evil.  This seems to match with the Grey we see in Darkness Calls who seems merely interested in hearing Hecate's "story" and learning her "perspective;" a far cry from the Grey who blasts his way into situations with Latin invocations of the Trinity and bits of liturgy.

As a final note, the art by John Severin in this addition is really a treat.  I do miss Mignola's style, but he continues to find excellent partners in creating the visual end of Hellboy's world.  Though I tend to focus on the story aspect of these comics, the art of the Hellboy series deserves every bit as much attention.  Perhaps someone with training in the arts could volunteer?