Here’s Lev Grossman writing in Time Magazine on the new popularity of fantasy fiction:
It’s interesting to compare the present moment to another one when fantasy was a big deal: the 1950’s, the decade when The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings were published, two of the founding classics of modern fantasy. By that time in their lives, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien had lived through some massive social and technological transformations. They had witnessed the birth of mechanized warfare – they were both survivors of World War I. They had seen the rise of psychoanalysis and mass media. They watched as horses were replaced by cars and gaslight by electric light. They were born under Queen Victoria, but the world they lived in as adults looked nothing like the one they’d grown up in. They were mourners of a lost world, alienated and disconnected from the present, and to express that mourning they created fantasy worlds, beautiful and green and magical and distant.
God knows, characters in fantasy worlds aren’t always happy: if anything the ambient levels of misery in Westeros are probably significantly higher than those in the real world. But they’re not distracted. They’re not disconnected. The world they live in isn’t alien to them, it’s a reflection of the worlds inside them, and they feel like an intimate part of it.
Modern man inhabits a world that is increasingly alien to him. There is no sense of place, of history, of community. The nobility and purpose of the Fellowship of the Ring, and the family and community spirit that inspire Katniss in The Hunger Games awaken us to the possibility of a life enriched by interconnection and mutual concern. And then there’s that sense of wonder we can recall from childhood, and can feel again in imagined worlds.
I was greatly pleased by the news that J.R.R. Tolkien’s son discovered his father’s manuscript of an original translation of Beowulf and had it published. And this thoughtful review in The Catholic World Report is just as enjoyable. Tolkien’s inspired translation is a forceful reminder that whatever perversions and distractions may delude and ensnare modern man, certain truths endure:
At the least, we can say that there is more reality to Old English folklore than in the perverse fantasies by which Americans now live. When a society promotes disloyalty and monstrosity so far as to celebrate dragons and vampires and witches, when respectability-craving “conservatives” can always find reasons to compromise with the next phase of an ongoing anti-Christian revolution, when piles of gadgets and toys and luxury goods are offered in compensation for the loss of faith, family, and roots—why, in such times we could do worse than to recall Beowulf’s trusty kinsman Wiglaf, who lives by the dictum that “[k]inship may nothing set aside in virtuous mind.”
This reminds me of Sam Francis’ review of James C. Russell’s The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity, which argued that northern European Christianity was heavily influenced by the pagan worldview of its adherents. Unlike the “world-rejecting” Oriental religions, northern Europeans embraced and celebrated the world, including their past:
The saints and Christ Himself were depicted as Germanic warrior heroes; both festivals and locations sacred in ancient Germanic cults were quietly taken over by the Christians as their own; and words and concepts with religious meanings and connotations were subtly redefined in terms of the new religion. Yet the final result was not that the Germans were converted to the Christianity they had originally encountered, but rather that that form of Christianity was “Germanized,” coming to adopt many of the same Indo-European folk values that the old pagan religion had celebrated.
I think J.R.R. Tolkien would approve.
Hwaet! Comes news that J.R.R. Tolkien himself translated Beowulf as a young scholar and set it aside in a desk drawer. Now his son has had it published.
Time to break out the mead! To Heorot!