Complacency and Sub-Creation

I had the privilege this past Thursday to participate in a Grey Havens Group meeting for the first time. We met to discuss the eleventh chapter of The Silmarillion, “Of the Sun and Moon and the Hiding of Valinor,” in light of its earlier form found in The Book of Lost Tales. As it was my first time, I was asked to read the group out to end the night. I chose a passage which had struck a chord reading the Tale of the Sun and Moon the second time over.

In the Tale, Vána and Lórien lavish the stores of light-dew remaining on the two trees, in hopes that this primordial fire may awaken them to renewed life. The earth drinks hungrily of this divine light to no avail, consuming it. If not stopped, the entire store of the Valar, Maiar and Eldar may have been thus discarded.

Finally, dispirited, Vána and Lórien seek the aid of the “Earth-lady,” Yavanna. Yavanna, hearing their wish, dissolves into tears proclaiming:

“’Tis of the fate of the Music of the Ainur. Such marvels as those Trees of gold and silver may even the Gods make but once, and that in the youth of the world; nor may all my spells avail to do what ye now ask.’” (TBoLT, part I, 201)

She further foretells the Trees shall not be relit until the Gods grow old and the Elves fade. Many are dismayed to hear her say such things of portent and protest. Yet Yavanna resists, realizing in the death of the Trees that they have denied light and aid to the rest of Eä and forgotten the coming of Men.

There are two distinct things being described here. One is complacency. The other is a desire to hold things unchanged, to bring forth only the same blessing.

Up until the rape of the Trees by Ungoliant and Melkor, the Valar lived in ages of peace and joy in Valinor. They felt secure, satisfied in the light of the two Trees and the wonder of the first Children of Ilúvatar. They had forgotten the outside world, the darkness of Middle Earth, and to prepare for the coming of the Second Children.

They were comfortable. In comfort, however, lies stagnation. It reminds me of a great quote by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “The world offers you comfort, you were not made for comfort, but for greatness.” How true this is! How we long for the easy way, the straight path, but we are called to leave that comfort zone in order to help others. From a Catholic perspective, we must remember that earth is not our home, it is a stop-over on our way to the eternal home. Discomfort in the service of virtue should not phase us, but increase expectation and joy at the life to come. This mindset is exceedingly difficult to accept and maintain, as is demonstrated here by the realization of the divine guardians of Eä.

The second point speaks to my creative nature. Adolf Loos, an architect and theorist at the turn of the twentieth century, saw in photography and replication the death of art. Art has an aura, which is dependent upon its setting and original purpose. Take a piece and move it, replicate a three dimensional experience in two dimensions and it can never be the same, the aura is lost.

So much of art and style is applied, with limited knowledge of the original meaning and purpose behind forms and ornament. There is a desire for the glories of the past, but the heart is gone, it is nothing more than image, it become hollow. One has only to look at the various architectural revivals to find endless examples of the barren and vain quality of these imitations. There have been efforts to relearn the process, philosophy and function of the components, but often these efforts have been overshadowed by the over-arching ‘style craze.’

The important thing to realize, though, is that works of the past may never be recreated. They had their time and place. The reproduction is either a cheap copy, which has lost its heart, or, having built upon a true knowledge of the inspiring forces in the original, is not a reproduction at all but a new creation with new meaning, memorializing the past, yet not being the past.

Tolkien expresses this theme beautifully in the Tale. The efforts of the Valar and Maiar to revive the Trees fail, and even when they finally yield fruit, the result is nothing like the expected or the Trees before.

“…to such vast heights did the Sunship climb, and climbing blazed ever hotter and brighter, that ere long its glory was wider than ever the Gods conceived of when that vessel was still harboured in their midst.” (TBoLT, part I, 211)

They set out with pure intention to bring light back into the world and, this time, share it with the wider world. The result was beyond their imagining. Greatness comes not out of comfort and complacency, the known, the tried and true, but venturing into the unknown. Yet the new can be very uncomfortable, even jarring. The Valar and maiar soon grumble, some even calling for the return of the Sunship and the end of this grand new scheme, for

“…in their hearts [they know]  that they had done a greater thing than they at first knew, and never again would Valinor see such ages as had passed…” (TBoLT, part I, 212)

It almost becomes a ‘Leaf by Niggle’ moment. The Valar have created something new, striving to recreate the lights of the past. They spend so much time concerned with the ‘tree and leaf’ that they are unable to see the ‘vast country’ they’ve envisioned beyond.

In this moment, as in ‘Leaf by Niggle’, is crystalized that moment when the creator looks on the created and realizes it doesn’t quite match their original vision. In art, you learn about hand-eye coordination. This does not just apply to actual sight, but the sight of imagination as well. Sometimes it’s near impossible to mesh the physical with the imagined. The initial impulse (at least for me, and apparently both the Valar and Niggle…and by extension Tolkien) is to reject the creation as an imperfect reflection. But that is because we are looking at it the wrong way. We have forgotten that we are not creators, but sub-creators, working in the shadow of the ultimate Creator, God. Something of God’s Truth enters into our subcreation bringing it to a life of its own. The sun and moon, as described in the Tale, perfectly express this concept.


In Review: The Gift of Friendship

Tolkien and CS Lewis: The Gift of Friendship“Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship,” by Colin Duriez, attempts to tell both Tolkien and Lewis’s biographies as a single narrative, illuminating the linkages and influences they had with each other. The focus of Duriez’s writing and the events told, reflects this goal. However, to anyone who has read about either author’s life, there isn’t any new information, just different framing.

For myself, as a avid reader of all things Tokien and related to his works, the writing pertaining to Tolkien was not new…most information being available in his letters or Carpenter’s biography. So in a sense this book works more as a collection of the friendship themed bits.

I have read CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Screwtape Letters and his Space Trilogy, but not much else…and so his life was fresh and new for me. It even helped illuminate further what I know of Tolkien and his beliefs and opinions; particularly as relates to Tolkien’s faith and influence on C.S. Lewis’ conversion.

The dual nature of this book uses each author as a foil for the other, to reveal another layer of their personalities. In this sense, even though we may already know the information, “Gift of Friendship” is a success; and finds all the ties that bind these two greats together. But the fact remains that no real new information or conclusions originate in this work.

A long expected post…

My dear [readers, followers, commenters, fellow Tolkienites, scholars, movie mavens, canon mavens and adventurers in the perilous realm].

[Today I have reached my one hundred and eleventh post: Wandering Paths is eleventy-one today]!

I hope you are all enjoying yourselves as much as I am. I shall not keep you long. I have called you all together for a Purpose. Indeed, for Three Purposes! First of all, to tell you that I am immensely fond of you all, and that eleventy-one [posts] is too [few to explore the perilous realm]…[with] such excellent and admirable [readers].

I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

Secondly, to celebrate [this milestone in the history of Wandering Paths].

…Thirdly and finally, I wish to make an announcement. I [am pleased] to announce that – though, as I said, eleventy-one [posts] is far too [few] to spend among you – this is [not the end]. [You’re stuck with me]. I am [not] going [anywhere].  (LotR 29-30)

Thank you all for your continued readership and support. Your presence is what keeps Wandering Paths alive. I began the blog to share the applicability I’ve found in Tolkien’s work in hopes of inspiring others to a greater appreciation of his work. In particular, I’d like to thank the members of the Grey Havens Group, who have graciously accepted me into the fold and given much fodder for new posts.

I’ve been looking forward to creating this toast; here’s to eleventy-one posts and to eleventy-one more. Thanks for joining me in the journey!


P.S. I’ve done a little house-keeping, so now all post links are up to date for my Reading The Hobbit Series. I have also added a new page devoted specifically to reviews. Take a peak and catch up on anything you’ve missed.

The heavenly…Valinor?

Throughout the Middle Ages a common image in art, architecture and literature is the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem. As the site of much of Christ’s ministry and His death, it formed an important part of aesthetic design. In architecture, the great cathedrals drew directly from the Temple in Jerusalem as the picture of the divine on earth. Proportions, layouts and motifs were drawn directly from both historical reference of the geographic earthly Jerusalem and the idealized heavenly Jerusalem. The trend began with St. Helen’s work in the Holy Land, to build churches and find and preserve holy relics, and continued through the paleo-Christian, romanesque, gothic, renaissance and baroque periods.

In religious art, you’ll often find the scenes of the Bible portrayed outside of Jerusalem. Only it is not Jerusalem, but the city of the patron or the artist. The clothing also tended to reflect the times and society. This equation was fairly common, as a way to make the Gospels real and present to all.

The same impulse may be found in Middle Earth.

This past week, the Grey Havens Group discussed the chapter ‘Of the Sindar’ in their continuing adventure through The Silmarillion. As a “satellite member,” I was unable to join in on the fun, but I was able to read and contemplate in step with them for once, rather than wandering down my own paths.

In this chapter, Thingol and Melian establish the kingdom of Doriath and the palace-city of Menegroth. Thingol is one of the three elves brought to Valinor to see it and lead the Eldar there in the beginning of time. He has seen the light of the Trees and the glory of the Valar. But he stays in Middle Earth, and creates a reflection of that realm in Menegroth.

Thingol enlists the help of the Naugrim in the construction of the Thousand Caves, and enshrines the memory of Valinor in its halls.

“There wrought…images of wonder and beauty of Valinor beyond the Sea. The pillars of Menegroth were hewn in the likeness of the beaches of Orome, stock, bough, and leaf, and they were lit with lanterns of gold. The nightingales sang there as in the gardens of Lorien; and there were fountains of silver, and basins of marble, and floors of many-colored stones. Carven figures of beasts and birds there ran upon the walls, or climbed upon the pillars, or peered among the branches entwined with many flowers. And as the years passed Melian and her maidens filled the halls with woven hangings wherein could be read the deeds of the Valar, and many things that had befallen in Arda since its beginning, and shadows of things that were yet to be. That was the fairest dwelling of any king that has ever been east of the Sea.” (Silmarillion 93)

Thingol and Melian create a glimmer of Valinor in the shadows of Middle Earth. Here is yet another vision of the theory of subcreation in Tolkien’s great mythology. The trend continues with the Exiles, in the creation of Gondolin, a reflection of Tirion on Tuna and later by the Edain in Armenelos and finally Imladris and even Minas Tirith. All are reflections of the “heavenly” Tirion, which itself is a reflection of the home of the Valar: Valmar and the palaces of Manwe on Taniquetil.

Allegory, No! Applicability, Yes!

I recently had a conversation with my sister regarding Tolkien’s work in which she made the assertion that his work is allegory. Now my sister isn’t a big fan, and has only read The Hobbit and seen the LotR films, so I tried to explain, but she didn’t really understand.

According to the dictionary, allegory means the following:

a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation.

Whereas the word applicable means:

able to be applied or used in a particular situation.

Both of these are true on the surface when applied to Tolkien’s work, but the key lies in who determines the character or symbol. While it is probable, though Tolkien despised overt allegory, that Tolkien had specific Truths in mind when he wrote, that was not his purpose in writing. His purpose was to free the writing of all allegory to allow the reader to take control, to see and interpret the writing from their place in life, rather than his own.

Tolkien provides many metaphors which illuminate the process of applicability, most found within his great work ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics.’

The first is the tower metaphor, in which a man builds a great tower using remnants of other buildings in order to see the sea. Others come and berate the man for his silliness and dismantle the tower in order to see its component parts, to see the concrete origins. Yet, the primary purpose of the tower is to see the sea! With allegory, the reader is shown a controlled, empirical interpretation, the meaning is closed, internal, finite. Applicability, or the tower, elevates the reader, allowing them to see further vistas, to see the sea! It is inclusive, infinite.

Think of it this way:

Allegory is the tower with one window. The view never changes. Though at times weather and the vagaries of time may affect the view, the ultimate vision is fixed in time and space.

Applicability is the tower with winding stairs, and windows pointing north, east, south and west, with a viewing platform at the top. In this tower, as one climbs the steps the view changes and even when one comes to the same cardinal point the view differs from the height. The peak of the tower gives yet another view, a vision of all, and yet different from all those visions which came before.

Allegory may be applicable, but as its genesis lies in the author, there is always a fixed point of reference, a correct view.

In the same essay, Tolkien equates myth and story telling with a stew. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Take any one ingredient, taste it alone and it is bland, ordinary. Mix it into the stew of story and you create a savory dish. Though a singular ingredient may shine at any one moment, that depends on the diner: their taste, whether they have a ‘side dish’ (personal experience), if it’s left-overs etc.

These two examples are two of the few times Tolkien resorts to allegory to make a point. Yet even these are applicable. How is applicablity different from allegory then?

In some sense applicability is allegory, in that it references ultimate Truths of the world and human existence. The difference lies in the purposes of the two. Allegory leads the reader by the hand to a singular point. Though the ignorant may read allegory as applicability, once the signified is known, the reader is chained to that knowledge. Applicability, however, allows the reader to approach the tale from their own state in life and find meaning from there. The meaning is not static, but ever changing.

What I’ve come to realize is that applicability can be a powerful vehicle for recovery. This visceral connection in which the reader takes ownership of a tale and colors it with their experiences creates renewal and opens their eyes to Truth.

The genius of applicability is in its ability to show us a facet of Truth through the lens of our current state in life. Truth never changes.  We constantly change. We, the readers, are constantly climbing the winding stair, discovering new facets of that grand Truth we can never fully grasp. The Truth at the heart of myth, at heart of human existence, is so vast it can never be fully perceived. We are allowed catch glimpses, and new vistas as we progress through life. Though we may see many of those facets in life we never see the whole diamond of Truth.

Myth gives us a concrete way to discover and share the Truth, though always in slivers and shards. Applicability brings myth to a higher state, allowing each and every reader to make the tale their own for their current state in life.  In using this mechanism, Tolkien continues a long tradition within the Catholic church of teaching through symbol. Much of ecclesiastical architecture used proportion, geometry and scale to inspire a sense of the sacred and even educate the illiterate. The Gospels and the Bible are proof of the eternal power of applicability. Though thousands of years old, these ancient texts still speak to us, no matter our faith (or lack thereof) or state in life. Particularly following the Counter-Reformation, begun with the Council of Trent, the primary focus of Catholic art (art, architecture, literature etc) was on the creation of the sublime; to uplift the soul and enflame the heart with a love of God and His creation. Though not overtly Catholic, Tolkien’s work is suffused by his frame of reference: his deep and lasting faith. By following the model the Church has used through the ages, Tolkien developed these theories in the field of literature, infusing every word with eternal Truth.

Reading the Hobbit: Fire and Water or the Bait and Switch

With the second Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug, fast approaching, there has been much speculation on where the film will end. The common consensus seems to be with the death of Smaug. Many look to the future and wonder, then, what is left for the third and final movie; a question that is popping up all over news and general media. Most of what I’ve seen claims all that is left is the Battle of Five Armies. While this is true, for those whose focus is where it should be, the death of Smaug is not the climax of the story. That is yet to come.

Though much of the focus of the first two thirds of the book is on the quest in relation to reaching the Mountain and confronting Smaug, the truth is that that is not what the story is about. This is Bilbo’s story! He plays a role in the destruction of Smaug, but Smaug’s death is really just an interlude, setting up for Bilbo’s climax to come.

Now if you’ve read The Hobbit, you know what I’m referring to, but if not, I will touch on all that later.

All that being said, I don’t have a lot to say about this particular chapter. It sets the scene, and while being an important and necessary event, is not the scene. Therefore, I thought I would do something different. Instead of preparing my usual post, I tweeted a stream of consciousness as I read the chapter:

  • Isn’t it odd that greed and wonder at fullfillment of legend prepare, albeit poorly, the men of Lake Town for Smaug’s coming?
  •  Tolkien describes dragons as machinery “of iron & flame,” “dragons of fire and… serpents of bronze & iron” in Book of lost Tales.
  •  Some of this descriptions still seems present in Smaug’s fear of the cold water of the lake and the steams created by his entry in death.
  •  The Master who flees or the ruffian of a fallen house who fights and protects. Who would you follow? Seems like a no-brainer.
  •  Reminder! The Hobbit is a tale for children. You have to love the offhand explanation ‘for he was of the race of Dale’ to explain Bard’s ability to understand the thrush!
  •  Remember! The story’s about Bilbo! Though he played a part in it, Smaug’s death is rather incidental to Bilbo’s story arch.
  •  The moment on the lake, where it’s full of refugees brings to mind the Italian refugees fleeing across the lagoon to found Venice…only in reverse. I hear the strains of Verdi’s Attila.
  •  “I am Bard, of the line of Girion; I am the slayer of the dragon!” Rough, but definitely getting a proto-Aragorn vibe here.
  •  Also echoes both Turin, in Tolkien’s mythos, and Sigurd who slayed Fafnir.
  •  Bard’s entry out of the lake and darkness, out of supposed death to life, again echoes Turin, and prefigures Aragorn.
  •  The Master is such a politician! Ugh…talk about a campaign speech.
  •  This part of the book always strikes me with the lack of nobility of character usually found in Tolkien’s protagonists…Greed.
  •  Whoever said Tolkien’s line between good and evil is clear, just read this chapter and the subsequent events
  •  Tolkien uses these scenes, and those at the gates of Erebor to show greed and materialism’s corrosive might, creating the perfect foil for Bilbo’s act to shine.
  •  That’s not to say some (large) share of the treasure is not due to the lakemen…but there are many on both sides firmly ensnared by goldlust.
  •  Ugh…The Elvenking’s greed is particularly distasteful. Yes, he helps the refugees, but really? He deserves treasure?
  •  Remember he is already on his way to claim some part of the treasure before the lakemen come for aid.
  •  Granted, it should be remembered, they are all assuming the dwarves are dead.
  •  Tolkien could have had some real suspense here with split narrative…if  he had reorganized the chapters somewhat, the reader wouldn’t know if the dwarves lived.
  •  That suspense would make the character’s motives here read in a better light. I don’t think, believing the dwarve’s dead, I would be as biased against the elves and lakemen.
  •  In the end, this chapter becomes a cautionary origin story for superstition. The site of Smaug’s fall becomes a place of fear.
  •  Do you have any scary, suspicious areas you avoid? The locales shrouded in legend? Might there be a dragon there? Think of those impulses, there could be a story there!