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

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.