“In truly good writing no matter how many times you read it you do not know how it is done. That is beacause there is a mystery in all great writing and that mystery does not dissect out. It continues and it is always valid. Each time you re-read you see or learn something new.” ― Ernest Hemingway
Fred on the Head has posed an interesting question: Do you re-read?
To this I can only plead: Guilty.
There are about a dozen works I find myself returning to, and for exactly the reason Hemingway cites above. In fact, three of Hemingway’s works are on my list: The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Killers, and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. For me, they never lose their power to amaze and teach. Even when my intention is to analyze, I end up getting lured in once again by the robust narrative.
Mishima’s Patriotism leaves me reeling each time I experience it. What a show: breathtaking eroticism and rapturous prose made all the more vivid and potent by the blunt reality of sepukku. Whoa.
Among the classics, I keep returning to A Midsummer’s Night Dream and Beowulf more than any of the others. And I’m in the process of travelling to Mordor once again with the Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve almost finished The Two Towers, and am just as carried away by Tolkien’s imaginative world-building as the first time I experienced him.
All good friends I could never get tired of.
Writing in the latest Imaginative Conservative, Jay Wesley Richards and Jonathan Witt offer a useful summary of Tolkien’s themes in Lord of the Rings. They point out that Tolkien’s epic is a war tale that was not intended to be an allegory, but still applicable to the issues of the time in which it was written. I’d add that Tolkien’s insights are applicable to many current issues as well.
In response to the early criticism that the methods of Sauron’s forces and those of the Fellowship are “indistinguishable” since each side kills the other, Richards and Witt note that the Fellowship observes Just War theory: They fight aggression, they fight honorably, and, as far as circumstances allow, they are charitable to those they defeat in battle. But such acts rise from a fundamentally different worldview from their enemies:
There is also the stark difference between what Brian Rosebury calls “the diversity of good and the sameness of evil.”Among the free peoples of Middle-Earth there is widespread and mostly tolerated diversity, which extends to what does not happen. For instance, King Théoden and later Aragorn might have tried to insist that a primitive and ancient people known as the Woses join their military alliance. Instead Théoden takes the gracious help they offer, and both he and Aragorn honor the Woses’ desire to otherwise stay out of the war.
Compare this to the homogenizing slavery and oppression of those who bow the knee to Mordor. The contrast is stark enough that only a reader blinded by a philosophy of war devoid of even the crudest nuance could miss it.
I think that’s the key to understanding the differences between Sauron and the Fellowship, as well as the difference between totalitarians and small “r” republicans. The desire to flatten reality and make all the same drives all totalitarians, whether Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot. One of Russell Kirk’s principles of conservatism tell us, “They [conservatives] feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.”
The notion that one possesses an absolute and universal truth is too often used to justify the initiation of violence to enforce that truth. As Tolkien counseled, men are not wise enough to choose for all. Now that lesson is certainly applicable today.
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.