Sunday, November 12, 2006

Hagiography of Heroism: Part 2

And just as Abraham, Isaac, Moses and the rest of the heroes of ancient Israel were led by the divinity himself (the Biblical god is very clearly male and part of the action), so are the Hobbits guided and assisted by Gandalf, the bearded patriarchal wizard who is immortal, from over the sea” and not from Middle Earth. His magical powers, affinity with the “lesser” deities of Rivendell and Lothlorien and finally the ownership of a “ring of power” confirm this godlike status. Gandalf job is also biblically godlike – to cryptically lead the heroes into difficulties, into increasingly dangerous tests and then midway – when things appear most grim, to disappear. His appearance at the moment of even graver crisis is intended to replicate the “saved by providence” or the “last minute rescue” of older, greater stories. Of course, the reader (or viewer) responds to his heroic re-entry with responses trained over centuries. Unfortunately, a closer or repeat reading/viewing leaves us wondering whether the Hobbits, or indeed, the “big people” wouldn’t have muddled along just as well without Gandalf’s aid. Perhaps that is a similar question that readers are left asking when reading the Bible – where divine intervention is often arbitrary, capricious, if not entirely disadvantageous (as in case of long suffering miserable Job). Yet, Tolkein’s epic doesn’t just exhort the weak to greatness – a theme that is most likely linked to the author’s own position as an English subject during the two world wars, it explores two other strands of desirable heroics. In both cases, Tolkein draws upon and refers to the non-Biblical cultures and traditions that shape European/neo-European thought.

Tolkein’s novel is replete with verses, perhaps to confirm its own attempt at epic storytelling or simply to recreate and reflect older traditions. In addition to its well known verse about the ring, there is another, once again referring to and echoing the New Testament and other Mediterannean, Greco-Roman, myths this time:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost
The old that is strong does not wither
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
(Tolkein, 1954, in seven volumes 2001, 224)

The verse applies to the “other” hero of the novel, Aragorn, or the “man who would be king,” once balance is restored to Middle Earth. The lines could as easily be applied to Odysseus, that old hero from Homer’s poem who wandered for twenty years but still wasn’t lost. Just as Homer’s hero shall be revealed as the only great survivor of the war at the opportune moment, so is Aragorn destined to labour in the shadows. And just as Christ is the true “King of the Jews,” unrecognised by most of his subjects except a small core of believers, Aragorn too must submit to derision and humiliation until he can finally be anointed king – after all Christus does mean the “anointed one.” Like Christ, he is destined to wander in the wilds, and only towards the culmination of the action does he begin to gain momentum, acquiring believers, supporters and followers in his battle against the “darkness.”

Drawing on a second strand- one that combines Romano-Semitic heroic principles that forms millennial European/Western cultural identity, Tolkein constructs his second “hero-in-disguise” as the archetypal leader, sharing special and close affinity with the divinity, much like Odysseus is aided by Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who aids Odysseus unstintingly. And Christ-like, Aragorn too has a familial, if not directly blood-linked relationship, with the “divine” creatures in the novel – he marries Arwen, the last of her line who in an echo of Christ chooses mortality to become human. Aragorn’s own bloodline is linked to the Elves, suggesting that he too had the option of “crossing the sea” with the elves, yet it is his “destiny” to remain mortal and eventually die in order to restore order to Middle Earth.

Not surprisingly, the relationship that Aragorn shares with godlike Gandalf is also quite different from that of the Hobbits. Aragorn seems to play the role of protégé and enforcer, a position that allows him to at some hypothetical point in time claim a position of equality with Gandalf. Not only does Gandalf seek Aragorn’s advice, but also accepts the future king’s ability to challenge and defy his own authority. So unlike the Hobbits, who are only protected by some magical quality that preserves their childlike innocence, Aragorn’s strength is innate and sufficient. So Aragorn may wrestle with the Dark Lord, and Gandalf can merely frown. Not surprisingly, it is Gandalf who finally crowns Aragorn as the “true” king, at the latter’s own request, in a scene that is strikingly reminiscent of accounts of Charlemagne’s ascension to the throne. Thus, in a curiously monarchist conservative sleight of hand, king and god are conflated in the novel.

The paper thus approaches the third heroic archetype: tragically embodied by Theoden, the aging king of Rohan. He is also imitated, although with a contrived, and tacked on “happy” ending, by his niece, Eowyn. It is an archetype that draws equally on the pre-Christian European traditions, from the Saxons, the Vikings or the Greco-Roman as well as from the more subtly referred to Biblical ones: that of the heroic suicide. The idea for most traditions is one that we know well – and is encapsulated in the Greek root for the word “tragedy” – τραγωs or “goat,” referring to the ritual where a goat or another creature could be sacrificed to restore health to the entire community.

Not surprisingly, the tragic hero has to sacrifice himself for the greater good of the community. Heroism of this sort has unrelentingly a single end – a glorious death fighting the enemy for the safety of the community. From Achilles to Samson, the heroic suicides intend to cause as much damage to the enemy while destroying themselves. The aging disgraced king of Rohan rides again in the novel to do precisely the same. Like Samson, whose atones for his moment of weakness, by perishing while pulling down the hall of the Philistines, --- atones for his weakness in resisting Saruman by riding to his “glorious” death. Outnumbered, weakened, facing an enemy many times larger than his own, Theoden’s glorious charge is celebrated with near-Homeric war-ecstasy by Tolkein.

Tolkein’s self-confessed enterprise was to “create a mythology” for England, a country that the writer knew first through the embedded nostalgia of the colonials in South Africa. Not surprisingly, the kingdom is not only threatened in the novel, but the order restored is of the most archaic and conservative kind – sexually, politically and socially. The heroes are not only all male – they are also racially white and practically Anglican in their moral outlook. Interestingly enough, what appear in the novel as hints about the rebellious colonies selfishly refusing “civilized rule” was inflated to Sauron’s army dressed in “oriental” turbans, dark eyeliner and veiled faces by director Peter Jackson in the film trilogy.

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