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How Tolkien Ennobled Popular Culture (While Star Wars Degraded It)

Monday, December 1st, 2014 - by David P. Goldman

The_Children_of_Hurin_cover

My last post (“May the Farce Be With You“) drew 280 comments, most of them infuriated, and most of them ill-informed. By way of remedy, I repost below an April 4, 2007 review-essay on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Children of Hurin. My literary friends point out that Tolkien’s style is turgid and his literary muse is lame. I don’t care. No writer in the English language did more to uplift popular culture. Star Wars, I observe, derives from Richard Wagner’s noxious Ring cycle by way of the odious Joseph Campbell, and had a corrupting effect on the culture. The contrast with Tolkien is instructive. Rather than remasticate the pagan idea of the hero, Tolkien created a pagan anti-hero (specifically, an anti-Beowulf and anti-Siegfried) in the tragic figure of Turin. Reconstructed from manuscripts by Tolkien’s son Christopher, the Turin story sheds light on the broader purpose of The Lord of the Rings, and illuminates the fraught relationship between the pagan and Christian worlds.

Many readers objected to the way I threw Harry Potter into the same kettle as Luke Skywalker. A qualification is in order: J.K. Rowling stole from Star Wars as well as from Tolkien (and of course from Thomas Hughes), so that one can read a variety of different standpoints into her work. They all are there, in unhappy cohabitation.

Tolkien’s Christianity and the pagan tragedy

The Children of Hurin, by J R R Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

Reviewed by Spengler

J R R Tolkien was the most Christian of 20th-century writers, not because he produced Christian allegory and apologetics like his friend C S Lewis, but because he uniquely portrayed the tragic nature of what Christianity replaced. Thanks to the diligence of his son Christopher, who reconstructed the present volume from several manuscripts, we have before us a treasure that sheds light on the greater purpose of his The Lord of the Rings.

In The Children of Hurin, a tragedy set some 6,000 years before the tales recounted in The Lord of the Rings, we see clearly why it was that Tolkien sought to give the English-speaking peoples a new pre-Christian mythology. It is a commonplace of Tolkien scholarship that the writer, the leading Anglo-Saxon scholar of his generation, sought to restore to the English their lost mythology. In this respect the standard critical sources (for example Edmund Wainwright) mistake Tolkien’s profoundly Christian motive. In place of the heroes Siegfried and Beowulf, the exemplars of German and Anglo-Saxon pagan myth, we have the accursed warrior Turin, whose pride of blood and loyalty to tribe leave him vulnerable to manipulation by the forces of evil.

Tolkien’s popular Ring trilogy, I have attempted to show, sought to undermine and supplant Richard Wagner’s operatic Ring cycle, which had offered so much inspiration for Nazism. [1] With the reconstruction of the young Tolkien’s prehistory of Middle-earth, we discern a far broader purpose: to recast as tragedy the heroic myths of pre-Christian peoples, in which the tragic flaw is the pagan’s tribal identity. Tolkien saw his generation decimated, and his circle of friends exterminated, by the nationalist compulsions of World War I; he saw the cult of Siegfried replace the cult of Christ during World War II. His life’s work was to attack the pagan flaw at the foundation of the West.

It is too simple to consider Tolkien’s protagonist Turin as a conflation of Siegfried and Beowulf, but the defining moments in Turin’s bitter life refer clearly to the older myths, with a crucial difference: the same qualities that make Siegfried and Beowulf exemplars to the pagans instead make Turin a victim of dark forces, and a menace to all who love him. Tolkien was the anti-Wagner, and Turin is the anti-Siegfried, the anti-Beowulf. Tolkien reconstructed a mythology for the English not (as Wainwright and other suggest) because he thought it might make them proud of themselves, but rather because he believed that the actual pagan mythology was not good enough to be a predecessor to Christianity.

“Alone among 20th-century novelists, J R R Tolkien concerned himself with the mortality not of individuals but of peoples. The young soldier-scholar of World War I viewed the uncertain fate of European nations through the mirror of the Dark Ages, when the life of small peoples hung by a thread,” I wrote in an earlier essay. [2] Christianity demands of the Gentile that he reject his sinful flesh and be reborn into Israel; only through a new birth can the Gentile escape the death of his own body as well as the death of his hopes in the inevitable extinction of his people.

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Slamming Torah: There’s an App for That

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014 - by Susan L.M. Goldberg
heebsilverman

Sarah Silverman, Hipster Jew Goddess.

Last week the Forward covered a “trendy Jewish spoken word” happening in the trendy neighborhood of Park Slope in the trendy part of trendy New York City known as Brooklyn. If the E! network hasn’t made you wary enough of the word “trendy” this article surely should. Basically, it’s about a doctoral student and an app techie using grant funding to study what makes Judaism trendy with millennials. And if that doesn’t set off any alarm bells in your head, let me be very clear: the title “Sermon Slam” shouldn’t fool you. Despite the religious-themed location, if God was invited to join in the party it was to sit and be talked at, not about let alone with.

For those of you unfamiliar with Judaism or hip lingo: Instead of reading the Torah portion, and perhaps even the Haftarah portion, then wrestling with the meaning of the portion through a discussion involving comparative texts, the Sermon Slam for young adults involves attacking the weekly Torah portion with a style akin to a poetry slam – rough-edged spoken verse rooted in the performer’s emotions and personal (potentially uneducated) perspective:

“Spoken word poetry has become increasingly sexy. …When you synergize that with something that sounds boring, like a sermon… it’s an ancient tradition that we’re now embracing and making our own. It’s for the people, by the people. That feels exciting to those of us in our 20s and 30s.”

I’m far from Orthodox, in fact I don’t identify as a Rabbinic Jew (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist) at all. But this self aggrandizing hyperbole annoys me more than black hatters arguing over sleeve length ever could. Seriously, is Judaism so desperate for adherents that we’re getting grant funding to make the Torah “sexy”?

It gets worse. Apparently making the Torah “sexy” doesn’t involve actually reading the Torah as much as it involves creating a postmodern pastiche of Biblical words and pop culture lingo:

References to iPhones and to Facebook popped up in the same sentence as “Kiddush.” And the hallowed Hebrew names of God, “Adonai” and “Elohim,” were uttered in the same breath as “s–t.”

And now you know why I avoid obnoxious hipster Judaism like the plague. With its goddess worship of Sarah Silverman and Lena Dunham and its conversion of New York into the New Zion, this religion has nothing to do with God and Torah and everything to do with Judaizing the kind of liberal self help ethos already prolific within the New Age and Buddhist movements. What’s next for Sermon Slam, a Chopra-esque two-hour fundraising featurette on PBS?

hipsterjew

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Armistice Day and The Forgotten Symbolism of the Poppy

Sunday, November 11th, 2012 - by Leslie Loftis

On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of 1918, the guns of Europe fell silent. We in the US know of November 11th as Veterans’ Day, a holiday to honor those who have served in our military forces.

Sadly, the day isn’t thought of much outside the military. The President lays a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. As it is not usually a day off of work, most department stores don’t even bother with announcing a sale. A news story about Obama’s plans for Veterans’ Day 2011 sums up the lack of gravitas our culture gives to the day. After quoting the news release that Obama would attend the ceremonies at Arlington and then fly to San Diego to watch a football game with the crew of the USS Carl Vinson, the report concluded:

Will you be tuning in to watch the historic event? If nothing else it will be cool to watch a game on a war machine that can literally wipe out an entire city.

I didn’t know much about Veterans’ Day until we moved to London. From the beginning of November to the 11th or the second Sunday, Remberance Sunday, people wear commemorative poppies on their lapels. The British Legion sells the pins as a fund raiser for wounded veterans. (The American Legion does as well, but on a small scale.) On both days, people observe a moment of silence at 11 am. Why two days? During WWII, the moment of silence was moved to the closest Sunday so as not to interfere with wartime production. After WWII ended, the double observance remained, perhaps as a reminder as to why the ceremony had to move.

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An Anthem for the Coming Years: Battle Born

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012 - by Leslie Loftis

PJ Lifestyle is quiet today. We have a grim, nauseous writers block, at least for light pieces. Today we reassess, adjust. I took a walk to clear my head. I’ve been writing about The Killers, so had most of their album in my ‘recently played’ playlist. I had planned a short post at my place about the patriotic anthem, “Battle Born,” but after yesterday I find the song holds more fire than I thought. Whether you like the sound of indie rock or not, read the lyrics:

You lost faith in the human spirit
You walk around like a ghost
Your star-spangled heart
Took a train for the coast

When you shine you’re a hilltop mansion
So how’d you lose the light?
Was it blown by the wind
In the still of the night?

I always saw you as a kind of keeper
A mother to a child
But your boys have grown soft
And your girls have gone wild

From the Blue Ridge to the Black Hills
To the Redwood sky
The season may pass
But the dream doesn’t die

Now don’t you drop the ball

Up against the wall
There’s something dying on the street
When they knock you down
You’re gonna get back on your feet
Cause you can’t stop now

When they break your heart
When they cause your soul to mourn
Remember what I said
Boy, you was battle born

When the night falls on the land
Are you haunted by the sound?
It’s gonna take more than a hand
To turn this thing around

Won’t you lean it on me?
Rescue, set me free

Up against the wall
There’s something dying on the street
When they knock you down
You’re gonna get back on your feet
Cause you can’t stop now

Did they break your heart?
And did they cause your soul to mourn?
Remember what I said
Boy, you was battle born
Cause you can’t stop now

Come on show your face
Come on give us one more spark
Sing a song of fire
Lest we fall into the dark
Cause you can’t stop now

You never know
If you never learn
You never shine
If you never burn
The rising tide
The undertow
The venom and
The overflow
The turn away
The welcome home

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Everything and Everyone You Know is In This Picture

Saturday, June 30th, 2012 - by Charlie Martin

The Earth and Moon seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

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