Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Creative Platypus Endevour

Some time ago, my friend Josh came to me with an idea for a web comic.  It never really got off the ground, but he's posting the three pages that we collaborated on over here.  Sometimes things work out, and sometimes things don't, but creating new stuff is something we humans are bound to do.  To paraphrase Tolkien: we make because we are made.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Seeing Beowulf Through Tolkien: The Platypus Reads Part CXCIX

After spending a few weeks wrestling with Tolkien's interpretation of Beowulf, I found myself sitting down and reading Seamus Heaney's translation of the text during a spare moment.  I came to the place where Beowulf presents Hrothgar with the hilt of the ancient sword that slew Grendel's mother.  Hrothgar looks down at the hilt with its ancient runes and carvings depicting the war between the giants and God and meditates on the fortunes of men.  In a flash of insight, I thought: this is the whole poem!

Let me explain.  Tolkien believed that the genuine contribution of the Northern peoples to European culture was the theory of courage.  The Northern heroes, at their best, were men who fought for order against chaos -a battle they knew they were doomed to lose.  If they were true heroes, their souls would join the gods and aid them in the final battle against darkness and its monsters and again go down fighting, spitting in the face of the meaninglessness that would ultimately consume even the gods.  Tolkien said of them that they did not consider defeat a refutation.  The gods were still in the right even if they would lose in the end.  Tolkien believed that the Christian poet of Beowulf sensed the value of this theory of courage and sought to preserve it in his work.  If ancient pagans could die for order and light knowing that those things would lose out in the end, how much more should Christians die heroically (this was a great age of mission and martyrdom for the Anglo-Saxon church) when they know that Good and Truth will win out in the end.

Move back to the wondrous hilt.  The golden hilt, with its untranslated runes and depictions of the war between order and chaos is the old body of pagan poetry that the Christian poet so admired.  It has richness, beauty, and power, but the blade itself had only power to kill and then perish in the blood of Grendel's Mother.  Without that blade, the hilt is useless, a mere artifact of remembrance.  We're never told that Hrothgar has a new blade fitted to the hilt.  Symbolically, he can't: the old paganism may give a man power to die well, but once the old gods have failed, Hrothgar has nothing definite with which to replace them.  The Christian poet of Beowulf, however, sees use for the old tales.  The tales, with their theory of courage, are the hilt into which the unbreaking blade of Christianity is to be set.  The poem, if you will, is an answer to Alcuin's what hath Christ to do with Ingeld?  If Tolkien is right, then the Beowulf poet might say that Ingeld, properly understood, prepares us to serve Christ the better by reminding us just how far a man can go without hope.  If he, without ultimate hope, can still walk as a hero under heaven, how much more so they who believe in the triumph of the risen Christ?

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Resources for Tolkien on Beowulf: The Platypus Reads Part CXCVIII

I first encountered the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf in my senior year of high school.  Being the dutiful little Tolkien fan that I was, I promptly checked out The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays from the local library.  The Monsters and the Critics set my feet on the right path and I've loved Beowulf ever since.

Flash forward.  This is the fourth year I've taught Beowulf.  Over the past summer, I was beginning to worry that my understanding of Tolkien's argument had gotten a little rusty.  I'd studied the poem as part of a larger course of study in Anglo-Saxon history during college and all sorts of things had crept in from other authors -not to mention my own meager thoughts on the poem.  With the help of the extended kinship network, I got my hands on a copy of The Monsters and the Critics, but some family friends were also able to track down Beowulf and the Critics for me.

Beowulf and the Critics is a scholarly edition edited by Michael D.C. Drout of two unpublished essays that served as material for the much-condensed The Monsters and the Critics.  Delving into this volume unearths the original arguments, nuanced and expanded, that are sketched (albeit with firm, definite lines) in the published work.  It's a great chance to watch Tolkien name names, interact with portions of his opponents' texts, and express the limits of his own theories and conjectures.  The explanatory essays by Drout are also useful for situating Tolkien's work amidst the broader scope of Beowulf criticism.  For fans of Tolkien's fiction, a little reading between the lines of the essays helps to draw out Tolkien's own creative proclivities and sheds light on the greater Tolkienian "project" in works like The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings.

A final word of caution: Drout's critical edition should not be your first stop for understanding Beowulf, nor is it meant for the casual Tolkien fan.  It is a critical edition of unpublished scholarly material and meant first and foremost for academics.  That said, Drout does happily acknowledge that the volume will draw the interest of fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, and has not left them out of the reckoning in producing the volume.     

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Final Thoughts on "The Talismans of Shannara:" The Platypus Reads Part CXCVII

And so we come to the end.  It's appropriate that this final post on the first seven books of Terry Brook's Shannara series should come in October.  That's about the time I finished my first read through the The Talismans of Shannara all those years ago.  Without further comment, then, let's get down to the finale of the Heritage Series.

*Spoilers and such*

We last left our heroes back at chapter XXV out of a total of XXXVII.  That's a lot of ground to cover.  Coll has to be recovered and his role among the scions of Shannara made clear.  Wren has to face her betrayer and triumph.  Par must succeed in taming the Wishsong and resisting the advances of First Seeker Rimmer Dall.  Walker has broken the siege of Paranor, but his final objective still must be made clear.  Minor characters like Damson, Morgan, Padishar, and Matty Roh still have their stories to tell.  Over all this still looms the question of how the Shadowen can be defeated.  How do you sum that all up?

Let me try.  The climax of The Talismans of Shannara plays out like a well-run campaign of Dungeons and Dragons.  Each character has their moment of glory and their special skill to contribute in defeating Rimmer Dall and his Shadowen hordes.  These "moments of glory" are nicely parceled out in a series of stock scenes: the chase (Morgan eludes the Seekers), the assault on the convoy (Morgan rescues Wren), the assault on the stronghold (Damson and Matty rescue Coll, and Walker, Morgan, Matty, and Damson rescue Par), the boss fight (against Gloon and against Rimmer Dall), and creative problem solving (destroying the Creepers).  These scenes are well-narrated and linked together with enough plausibility to keep us reading.  When it's all done, there's a nice debrief among our troop of PCs where the GM Stick, Walker Boh, helps answer any nagging questions.  It's nice, but only that.

The Talismans of Shannara can be a bit of a disappointment after the authorial break-outs achieved in The Druid of Shannara and the second half of The Elf Queen of Shannara.  That's true, but it shouldn't blind us to the overall achievement.  Even the Talismans moves the level of Brooks' craft well beyond that achieved in The Wishsong of Shannara, and the world of The Four Lands has only grown richer and more complex by the end of the Heritage Series.  Moreover, this enriching occurs without ever giving us the sense that the world of the first three volumes has simply been "relaunched" or worse, completely overhauled in the process.  When the company finally drifts its separate ways and Walker lies down to sleep the Druid sleep, we are left with a feeling of deep continuity, a sense that the story has been completed and all is as it should be.

That's how I ultimately feel after spending two summers with these books.  Sure, there were more worthy books I could have read, but that wasn't my aim.  My aim was to tie up some of the loose threads from my boyhood, to lay some unfinished business to rest.  Life goes on in the Four Lands of North America, and though in my mind the Shannara Series may be sleeping the Druid sleep, I do look forward to the day it will awake again with old friends and new adventures.