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“Notes” on Dostoevsky

Some books are so good that they leave you without very much to say. That was my initial reaction after reading Crime and Punishment. I loved the novel—loved it so much that I couldn’t talk very much about it. The Lord of the Rings will has not been displaced as my favorite story, but Dostoevsky has made it onto my list of favorite authors with one book. That is hard to do.

Fortunately, I just finished Dostoevsky’s (much shorter) novel, Notes from Underground, which left me more thoughtful than awed. My tongue is a bit freer now. Notes, which initiated the second, better, half of Dostoevsky’s writing career, reminded me of Crime and Punishment in some ways. Its narrator seems to suffer from a character defect similar to his successor Raskolnikov’s—living so completely in the world of theory that he misses truths that seem obvious to the rest of us. Raskolnikov, however, is not quite so oblivious as the narrator of Notes. He is capable of genuine compassion, and of having real relationships with other people. The “underground man” in Notes is not.

The underground man seems to have resigned himself to living in the world of theory, much as it frustrates him at times. From the safety of this world, he enjoys tearing other people’s ideas to shreds. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really have any ideas of his own to substitute for them. Raskolnikov, being more aware of the world around him, wants to put his theories into practice. And this is ultimately what gets him into trouble.

Had Raskolnikov left things where the underground man would have left them—merely arguing that superior men have a right to disregard the common understanding of ethics—he would never have gotten into the sort of trouble he did. Instead, he tried to test out his theory, to prove that he was indeed a superior sort of man. Of course, his theory proved defunct. In trying to prove himself superior by murdering the old pawnbroker, Raskolnikov only puts himself in the same category as the commonest, lowest sort of man. This realization is a shock to his system—a shock from which, thankfully, he does not recover.

The murder forces Raskolnikov to make a decision. Either he can destroy himself, or he must become an entirely different sort of man. Escaping the world of theory is not enough. Raskolnikov needs to escape something far closer and more deadly—himself.

The underground man concludes his story about Liza the prostitute with another insult to his audience. You’ve seen how bad I am, he says. But do you realize that my faults are in you, too? I may be the anti-hero—but you are not the heroes. The things you hate about my theories find expressions of their own inside you. “We have all lost touch with life, we all limp, each to a greater or lesser degree.”

So what is the solution? Multiple people try to argue with Raskolnikov, to change his mind in some way. Their persuasion has no effect on Raskolnikov. Logic does not sway him—he has logic of his own to counter it. His own emotions are so out of touch with the feelings of those around him that sentimental appeals barely register.

“The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing,” wrote Blaise Pascal. Ultimately, Raskolnikov’s repentance does not result from reasoning. Neither does it result from the usual understanding of emotion. Raskolnikov’s emotions are certainly engaged in his repentance, but he does not repent because he suddenly feels how horrible his actions were. Instead, Raskolnikov has to surrender everything–reason and emotions–to what he realizes is the truth.

How to escape the world of theory? Surrender to the truth that encompasses both our internal and external worlds. The underground man never surrendered. He preferred dragging everyone into the mud with him. But Raskolnikov, after his long struggle, decided that there was something more important than himself. He surrendered to the truth, and in prison he found a freedom greater than he had ever known.

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Posted by on October 3, 2013 in Classic Literature

 

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Ten Ways to Annoy a Tolkien Fan

There are more, but these will do for a start.

1. Call The Lord of the Rings a trilogy.

Just so you know—it isn’t. This is an unfortunately common mistake. Someone made it in a book review I was reading today, thus inspiring this post. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as one book, but it was so long that it was published in three installments. It ain’t a trilogy. It’s a book.

2. Claim that The Lord of the Rings is pro-war.

For starters, there are consistent pacifists, but very few people who would argue the opposite—that all wars are always good. But if you mean that The Lord of the Rings encourages unnecessary warfare, you haven’t been reading it carefully. (Or you just watched the movie….) Faramir basically outlines Tolkien’s philosophy of warfare in The Two Towers. Warfare is sometimes necessary but never desirable.

 3. Argue that The Lord of the Rings is racist.

If you’re worried that Tolkien’s characters have little mercy for evil monsters, all I can say is that you must hate folklore. All the mythologies I can think of have similar monsters, and that includes non-European nations.

4. Whine that people prefer The Lord of the Rings to “true literature.”

It is true literature. And it is part of the reason I went on to read Beowulf in full, along with The Kalevala, Nordic legends, and a book of random Old English poetry. The Lord of the Rings is many things, but it isn’t shallow.

 5. Complain that The Lord of the Rings is too complicated for ordinary people to understand.

This group should get in touch with the folks in #4. Maybe they could find a happy medium somewhere.

6. Argue that The Lord of the Rings is “escapist.”

Philip Pullman earns an F here, I’m afraid. His essay “The Republic of Heaven” shows a remarkable failure to understand Tolkien from someone obviously versed in his writings. Does Tolkien include every aspect of life in his stories? No–but does anyone? This sounds like a rehashing of the debate over whether art imitates life, or the other way around. I’m inclined to answer “yes” when anyone asks that question. In any case, my initial reaction to The Return of the King was a reaction to its darkness. Fluffy Tolkien is not.

7. Fret about the lack of female empowerment in The Lord of the Rings.

If a close study of Galadriel’s character doesn’t help you here, then you’re hopeless. And, honestly, there are some people who can’t enjoy certain kinds of fantasy, including Tolkien’s. That’s fine. If Tolkien repels you, copy C.S. Lewis’s policy in regard to detective stories–don’t comment on what you won’t like anyway.

8. Complain about the lack of empowerment in The Lord of the Rings in general.

Tolkien didn’t write the story to make people feel good. In fact, when asked to suggest a theme for the story, his response was “Death.” Tolkien’s mythology was born, quite literally, in the trenches of World War I. If All Quiet on the Western Front teaches nothing else, it shows that most people involved in that war were not feeling very empowered.

9. Call Frodo a wimp.

Okay, so you love Sam. Great. We do, too. Some of us even like him more than Frodo. But Frodo is not a wimp. By making that assertion, you are making us question whether you have actually read the books. If you haven’t, read them (of course), and in the mean time distinguish between the movie and book versions of Frodo. And be prepared to argue with people who think you missed the point of the movie.

10. Ask why the eagles didn’t carry the Fellowship to Mt. Doom.

Just kidding. Ask away.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2013 in Fantasy

 

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Roverandom!

I do not usually spray Lysol on library books, but when I do, I do it thoroughly. (Yes, I feel you cringing.) Rest assured—under normal conditions, I do not spray books. I do not write in books. I do not highlight books. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

Like the semester my dorm room was infested with bedbugs. Apparently rubbing alcohol kills the nasty things, so I sprayed the covers of my books with it before taking them home. Just in case. (The books survived quite nicely.)

In this case, the library book smelled rank, and not from mildew, either. I’m not entirely sure why, and I don’t want to speculate. Anyway, it was either Lysol the book or send it back. I didn’t want to send it back. The book was Roverandom, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I figured that Tolkien is worth a little Lysol.

The story was occasioned by a trip the Tolkiens took to the seaside. Michael Tolkien, who was three at the time, broughtRoverandom along a little black-and-white toy dog, which he carried everywhere. One day he took it on a walk along the shore, and it was lost. J.R.R. Tolkien searched the rocks where it had fallen, but he was unable to find the toy. Michael was terribly upset, so Tolkien made up a story about the dog’s adventures to comfort him. Incidentally, John ended up more interested in the story than did Michael, who was apparently satisfied by the explanation in the first chapter—that the toy dog once was a real dog, but had been enchanted by a wizard, put into a toy shop, sold and given to Michael, and then had run away while they were at the seaside.

Tolkien sent the story to his publisher when the publisher wanted a sequel to The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings was slow in coming. But Roverandom is clearly a pre-Hobbit story. While Roverandom includes some elements of Tolkien’s later mythology—giant spiders, and an Elvenhome in the far West, for example—the story reads more like E. Nesbit’s Psammead stories. Clearly Tolkien was still working out some of his ideas about fantasy. The few times Elves are mentioned, they are more Tinkerbell than Elrond.

Roverandom is not a life-changing story—Tolkien hadn’t readied it for publication, after all—but it is an entertaining look into the development of Tolkien’s style and subject matter. The three wizards in the book are each, in their own way, prototypes of Gandalf. Fortunately, Gandalf was not prone to exclamations like “Idiot! Be a toy!”

Otherwise, The Hobbit might have had a very different ending.

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2013 in Fantasy

 

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Fantasy Q&A

Q: So what is fantasy, anyway?

A: There are many definitions of fantasy, but I’ll narrow it down. 1) It has to do with boring teachers, the beginning of summer break, and baseball. 2) Something to discuss with your therapist. 3) A literary genre that I happen to like. Too much.

Q: Maybe you should see the therapist after all….

A: Me, and a lot of other people.

Q: You mean computer geeks?

A: It’s true that a lot of technology-lovers also like fantasy. But many of those who have written classic fantasies have hated technology. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels, for example, most of the evil characters are also adept at using technology for evil purposes. Mordor is, in essence, an industrial wasteland.

Q: So who started this whole fantasy thing, anyway? Tolkien?

A: Good question. We don’t know. But it’s thousands of years old—just read The Odyssey.

Q: You mean the ancient myths? But people believed those. See why fantasy is dangerous?

A: Once people began believing the myths, they became a part of religion, not fantasy. As long as you know that your stories are stories, you are safe.

Q: With so many serious problems in the world today, how can you justify reading fantasy instead of realistic fiction? Isn’t that escapism?

A: J.R.R. Tolkien addressed that very question on a number of occasions. His question: What group of people is most worried about escape? The answer: Jailers. In any case, if you are unjustly imprisoned, getting out is the sensible and realistic thing to do.

Q: I expected a serious answer to that question.

A: I was being serious. And good fantasy is always applicable to real life. At the very least it will deal with ethical questions, which we all have to face. And many fantasies go beyond that. C.S. Lewis and N.D. Wilson both snub progressivism. J.R.R. Tolkien criticizes pragmatism. Madeleine L’Engel attacks central planning.

Q: But isn’t fantasy unrealistic?

A: There are two answers to that.

No. If C.S. Lewis had had Aslan stand up on the Stone Table and dance a jig, we would say his books were unrealistic. But Lewis didn’t do that. Narnia had many fantastical elements—talking animals, shape-shifting serpents, enchanted weather. But put together, they all made sense. You say, “If Narnia were real, this is how things would be.”

Yes. Of course. So is every other story. So-called “realistic” stories about someone becoming a multi-millionaire, overcoming all obstacles to find the man of her dreams, and so forth, are often untrue to life. In fact, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, they are more likely to deceive some people into thinking that such things could really happen. No sane child will make killing a dragon his life’s goal for very long. But to overcome all obstacles to become the hero of the soccer team—that seems realistic. And for some people it could very well become an obsession.

Q: Who is this C.S. Lewis you keep bringing up?

A: C. S. Lewis was an Oxford literature professor who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, a seven-book fantasy series. The major character in the series is Aslan, a regal lion who loosely corresponds with Jesus Christ. Some people may feel inclined to blame Lewis for later Christian allegorical fantasies that combined biblical truth with terrible writing. Lewis, however, explicitly denied that the Narnia books were intended to be allegorical. Poorly constructed copies are to be blamed, not on their authors having read too much Lewis, but on having read far too little.

Q: I’ve heard Narnia has a witch in it. Isn’t that bad?

A: Yes. The White Witch is very bad, which is why she is killed at the end of Lewis’s first Narnia book. You’re right that you should be cautious about stories that include magic, since some fantasies can become occultic. But most of the pioneers of modern fantasy have been at least nominally Christian, and their careful treatment of magic shows that.

Q: What do you mean by “careful”?

A: Tolkien said that “magic,” in our language, is a problem word, because there is no distinction between evil magic—the sort that no one has a right to practice—and what I will call natural magic. “Natural magic” is the sort of “magic” that the good characters can safely practice, because it is simply a part of being what they are. Thus, Tolkien’s Elves can use their “art” to reclaim an important jewel from the Dark Lord, N.D. Wilson’s characters have the strength of dandelions or aspen trees in their blood, and Lewis’s lion Aslan can create the world. That’s a short explanation, but it’s a start.

Q: Okay, okay. I understand. But you have to admit that Lord of the Rings fans are really annoying.

A: No, I don’t.

Q: But all those coffee table edition books…and Elf languages…and fake Gollum voices…and people yelling “You cannot pass!” at the top of their lungs….

A: Well…maybe they—that is, we—can be a little annoying. My only comfort for you is this: they are few and far between. Avoid certain online forums, go underground when each new Hobbit movie comes out, carefully screen your friends, and you probably will survive. If the Nazgul don’t catch you first.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2013 in Fantasy, Humor

 

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“In the Tradition of Tolkien”—Or Not

In one of his letters, J.R.R. Tolkien described his recurring dream of a wave sweeping over the land, destroying all in its wake. He also expressed his surprise at discovering that one of his sons shared that same dream (which came to life in Tolkien’s narrative of Númenor’s sinking). It’s an unusual dream, to be sure, which added to my surprise when I read of a similar incident in Susan Cooper’s fantasy Silver on the Tree. The drowning of the Lost Land is perhaps my favorite moment in her entire The Dark Is Rising sequence. No, I don’t suffer from an abnormal love of flooding, and I have not shared Tolkien’s dream. But perhaps the drowning of the Lost Land is one of the most mythic moments in the sequence. And myth is a thing sadly lacking in too much contemporary fantasy.

When I pick up what I think is a fantasy novel and find, instead, a gladiator story in an imaginary world with a few strange creatures (as I did last weekend), I find it a little ridiculous. There are many wonderful ways to use the fantasy genre, but a substitute for ordinary historical fiction is not a very good one. Perhaps I’m prejudging the book–I didn’t bother reading it in its entirety, after all, so I won’t name it here. But I think the weakness I saw is a very real danger that many fantasy authors face–one that many of them face unsuccessfully.

The earliest fantasies were primarily about inspiring wonder of one sort or another. Unlike modern “fantasies”, they were not about being “gritty” or including a certain predetermined amount of excitement (read: sex and violence).

That isn’t to say that fantasies should not be exciting. It also isn’t to say that fantasy must always be a vehicle for wonder. There are other legitimate uses–as a social critique, for example (think Gulliver’s Travels) or even as a work of sheer nonsensical fun (Alice in Wonderland, anyone?). Where problems arise is when authors try to write a fairly ordinary love-story or war-story in a fantasy setting. A setting that is unnecessary to the plot of a story adds nothing, and can in fact be distracting. And then there are those settings that are less about imagination, of any sort, and more about the author’s darker daydreams. I have no patience for those sorts of stories at all. Not only are many of them morally bad, but their very focus almost forces them to become bad art.

But the lack of wonder in many fantasies has nothing to do with their belonging to a particular subgenre and more to do with a basic misunderstanding. I can’t recall the number of Facebook advertisements I’ve seen for stories “in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien.” Well–they aren’t. Or at least they aren’t in the few advertisements I’ve actually clicked on. Many authors seem to think that Tolkien achieved what he did by creating an imaginary world with lots of battles between good and evil. But that’s only part of the story. Before Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, he studied myths. He read fairy stories. He understood what made them different from realistic novels. Many authors today don’t seem to recognize that distinction. “Gritty” fantasies, according to Tolkien’s view of the genre, are entirely missing the point.

Susan Cooper, so far as I’m aware, made no claims to be writing “in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien.” And she wasn’t. Tolkien, for one thing, did not base his stories on the Celtic and Arthurian mythologies that Cooper used so heavily. Cooper also based her works in the recorded history of Britain, while Tolkien was trying to give the English the mythology they never had. Their worldviews, too, differed greatly. But Cooper understood that wonder is the key to fantasy, that fantasy isn’t about being “gritty” or even exciting. Good fantasies “in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien” are about learning to look at the world with new eyes–to see the earth truly for the first time. And, after reading Cooper, I think I can say this honestly. I will never think of flooding in the same way again. Or the ocean. Or even a set of doors.

And that, I think, is the point.

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2013 in Fantasy

 

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Frodo versus Robespierre | The Imaginative Conservative

If Tolkien meant Sauron to represent modernism (and he did), Sauron certainly has a connection with the villains of the French Revolution. Chesterton, too, makes it into this article from The Imaginative Conservative web journal.

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2013 in Guest

 

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The Hobbit (or, Saruman the Unwise)

I barely watch movies at all, but I made an exception for The Hobbit. There were a number of changes, but Peter Jackson (unlike the directors of the Chronicles of Narnia movies) really seems to understand what was important to Tolkien. Yes, I know at least one person who probably will think that the The Hobbit movie posteradditions to the story have produced the cinematic version of Saruman’s Isengard. (That means pollution. Lots of it.)

There were a few changes I could have done without, of course. But I do understand why they were made. And, in general, they were in tune with the spirit, if not the specifics, of the books. Such as the characterization of Saruman.

I was curious about how Saruman would be portrayed from the time I first knew that the White Council would be included in the movie. When all your viewers know that one of your main characters is a wizard in the process of going bad, you have to play it right. And Saruman is certainly played right. Actually his increasingly bad moral fiber is probably a moviemaker’s delight—there can now be a “bad guy” among the Wise without ruining Elrond or Galadriel.

In this first installment of The Hobbit, Saruman still supports the “good” side. But he has begun to believe that great deeds are the only way to hold back the forces of evil. And that, although I don’t recall Tolkien using it as an explanation of Saruman’s later betrayal, fits very well with the explanation Tolkien did offer—that Saruman, in studying Sauron’s devices in order to defeat him, became susceptible to them. In Elrond’s words: “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill.”

In the movie, Saruman is portrayed as someone too interested in “bigness.” Only great evils need be fought, and only great force is sufficient to oppose them. In having those attitudes he is not unlike Sauron. Sauron, of course, would also use small things to advance his cause, but his cause was the cause of bigness itself—of uniting everything under his own power. Gandalf loves little hobbits. Radagast loves small animals. Elrond and Galadriel love the nuances of their own culture. But Saruman—like Sauron—is mainly concerned about what is great and important.

In the end, it is the small decisions that destroy a culture. Tyrants do not walk into a vacuum. Somewhere somebody made a wrong choice. Their neighbors made the same choice. It takes many pieces of gravel to pave a road.

Saruman, according to The Lord of the Rings, eventually took the problems in Mirkwood seriously and successfully planned a way to drive out the Necromancer. But his fascination with “bigness”—and evil itself—worsened. It was not long before he turned himself into “Saruman of Many Colors” in order to increase his power. By doing so, he destroyed himself.

Meanwhile, a very small hobbit in a very dark cave had compassion on a very dangerous creature. And in doing so, he saved the world.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2012 in Fantasy

 

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