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Due to a change in my external circumstances, and the necessity of two hour commute (both ways) daily, I have been glutting myself on imaginative literature in the past few months.  There is a wealth of good stuff on audio, and it is a very good way to ‘catch up on your reading’, if you define reading loosely enough.  Since the commute began, I have been fortunate to acquaint and re-acquaint myself with some of the great names in imaginative literature; JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, George Macdonald, Ursula LeGuin, Stephen King, Tim Powers, ER Eddison, Jack Vance, and many others too numerous to mention.  In a way, it has been kind of an exercise in “comparative fantasy”.

One of the most frequent objections to fantasy literature is that it lacks ‘depth’, that fantasy literature is an endless repetition of a “good vs evil” theme that resurfaces in book after book, series after series.  Usually, the critics blame Tolkien.  The contrast between Good and Evil that Tolkien traces in his epics are as sharp as shadows on the moon. It is not nuanced enough to reflect the “real world”.  Then, to hear some people talk, all writers of fantasy literature written since The Lord Of The Rings have slavishly followed Tolkien down the path of rewriting Paradise Lost according to their own moral vision.

The critics are wrong.  Prior to Tolkien, fantasy literature, what there was of it, was strangely amoral.  James Cabell’s Jurgen was a flighty rascal.  Dunsany’s little fables were as likely to celebrate hashish eating as martial courage.  Mirlee’s Lud-In-The-Mist incarnated no Manichaean vision of good and evil.  The resolution of her tale was a satisfying Hegelian synthesis between the quotidian comfort preferred by her Whig protagonists and the whimsy of the Jacobite fairie folk they so disdained   E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros was thoroughly aristocratic both in tone and aspect, a sort of a High-Tory-on-LSD ‘romaunce’, peopled by proud-speaking haughty grandees entirely dismissive of the pettier sort of folk and their concerns. There was no room for hobbits in Ouroboros.  Indeed, inasmuch as fantasy literature dealt with Good and Evil at all, it was to offer an escape from the stultifying decayed-Evangelicalism public morality of the day into an earlier, more permissive world.

Tolkien’s great achievement was the creation of a morally consistant parallel world.  To me, the single brilliant imagining of the race of hobbits brings his re-creation of the Good into sharp focus.   The hobbits are good, almost Pelagian, although some of them can be better than others.  There are individual hobbits that appear “spoiled” (or ‘bent’ to borrow from Lewis’ mythology), such as the Sackville-Bagginses or the Sandymans.   These two families, however, were introduced as foils for the healthier Bagginses and the Gamgees who good-naturedly suffer their trepidations.  Because the Sackville-Bagginses and the Sandymans are so rare, the Shire appears to govern itself.  The rules are unwritten, all offices are mostly ceremonial, and the canons of good behavior are everywhere acknowledged and practiced.  As fantasist Gene Wolfe  observed in a clairvoyant essay; living under what Mr. Wolfe calls Folk Law in a face-to-face society may be the most salutatory framework for human life, much in the same way that folk tales have the deepest resonance, and folk tunes have the most haunting and unforgettable melodies.

Yet, the Shire is not good in a vacuum.  The hobbits are King’s Men in the very best sense of that word.  The King, although absent by the time of the narrative recorded in The Lord Of The Rings, serves as a locus for the values of The West.  ‘The West’ is shorthand for all those parts and peoples of Middle-earth not yet seduced or tyrannized by Sauron, although it can include more easterly populations such as the Beornings, the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, the Wood-elves of eastern Mirkwood.  Although the King has been absent from the government of the Shire for more years than separate us from the Battle of Hastings, his health is toasted at every meeting of the Shiremoot and his will is followed as best the hobbits can in their political vacuum.

Even the West is not good in and of itself, though.  It is good because of the loyalty of the remnants of the Numenoreans and their allies to that which is Beyond the Sea that ‘the West’ stands as a bulwark to the trepidations and contaminations of Sauron.  The weight of this allegiance is never explicitly explained within The Lord Of The Rings itself, but its presence can be felt in the same way you can tell where the sun is with your eyes closed.  Tolkien’s continual references within the narrative to older, more primordial material; even Gondolin being mentioned in the first few pages of The Hobbit, weave a web of numinosity about his tale whose nexus is the Elder Race, the immortal Elves, who had opposed Sauron (and his greater master Morgoth Bauglir) in the past.

The Silmarillion revealed plainly what The Lord Of The Rings only hinted at.  The Elves are good because they  revere the Valar, the preserving and governing Powers of the World, who came into it at the behest of the world’s Creator Eru Iluvatar, a monotheistic deity.  It is this realm, the realm of Valinor across the Sea, whose values are echoed by the denizens of ‘the West’.

In a sense, you have a kind of a neo-Platonic universe obtaining in the Tolkien legendarium.  The Elves know next to nothing about Eru, the One, except for what they have learned from the Valar.  The Men of the West have no direct access to the Powers in Valinor.  Everything they know about it has been mediated to them by the Elves, who are abandoning Middle Earth.  The hapless Hobbits, in their turn, would not have survived as long as they had in the rough and tumble of Middle earth without the constant protection and supervision of the Men of the West, the Dunedain.

You can hear all three layers in a musical representation on the soundracks to Peter Jackson’s films, especially in the Council of Elrond.  First, there is the Elvish theme; atmospheric, ascetic, and other-worldly.  Then, there are the virile horns of the theme of the West, vigilant and ready for action.  Finally, there are the homespun strings of the Shire theme.  They blend and fade into each other by the end of the piece.  I don’t know how deliberate that was on the part of the composer, Howard Shore.

Wheels within wheels, indeed.

Immediately post-Tolkien, there were a lot of Good-vs-Evil sagas, most very derivative, retelling Tolkien’s story after him.  Others, like Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series, eshewed binary Good vs Evil to create a more nuanced, more Buddhistic unary moral Universe.   LeGuin’s emphasis on “balance”, as if good and evil were polarities like male and female or acidic and basic, came to be echoed in a lot of fantasy worlds, such as the Star Wars universe with its depiction of the Bright Side and the Dark Side of the Force, or the recent popular animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, where all the tension in the series is caused by the Fire Nation getting out of balance with the other three elemental nations;  the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, and the Air Nomads.  Fire Lord Ozai is not Satan or even Sauron.  Ozai’s opponent is not Avatar Aang, but rather his son Zuko who, through the tutelage of the saintly Uncle Iroh, can restore the Fire Nation’s necessary line to the spectrum that is the Avatar universe.

I didn’t like Star Wars, and although I dearly love the Avatar animated series, unary, “balance”-based moralities don’t seem to produce satisfying eucatastrophes in the same way that fantasists are able to when good is truly good and evil is truly evil.  I haven’t read, or even followed the movies inspired by, the Harry Potter novels, but I think I am correct in assuming that Rowland’s moral compass is more like Tolkien’s and less like Lucas’, which makes the opposition to her tales by conservative Christians even more puzzling.

Finally, there has been a movement within the fantasy genre itself away from a strict good vs evil paradigm and more towards what defines rather pungently as Crapsack World, where all the choices are between real-l-l-ly bad, bad, and not-so-bad-but-still-iffy. I have digested several works of this sort, some of which are very good; China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and The City And The City (both of which are brilliant), Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, and of course, the Crapsack World to end all Crapsack Worlds, George R. R. Martin’s Westeros.

Funny thing about Westeros, though.  Just when I was beginning to tire of Martin’s unrelenting cynicism, the pointless violence, and the continual betrayal which punctuated life in his series, Martin showed a bright little corner where life was good, men were fair, and decent people could live decent lives.  It was buried deep in Brienne’s arc in A Feast Of Crows, when she accompanies the septon Maribald from the ruins of Saltpans to the Isle of Silence, where a strong abbot has created an island of peace, faith, and rest in the turbulent sea of conflict, cynicism, and blasphemy that was the norm in Westeros.

I read somewhere that George R. R. Martin is the son of a dockworker from Bayonne, New Jersey.  True to his working class roots, Martin teaches us that the good is not something that occurs haphazardly.  It is the result of consistent effort over an extended period of time by people who actively desire to be good and just, and it flourishes best where the eyes of the powerful are elsewhere.  It also seems to me that Daenarys Targaryen’s extended and somewhat tedious sojourn in the Slavers’ Bay is to allow her to learn the difficult lessons in statecraft that will make her the kind of queen Westeros so desperately needs.  As a wise man once told me, good works do not make you righteous the way paying your bills makes you solvent, but  they do make you righteous like exercise makes you strong.

I can live with that.   I can more than live with it, I can applaud it.


Of course, I make a number of assumptions here:

1) Romney will take North Carolina, Florida, and Iowa. At this point, I think all of these states could easily go into Obama’s column.

2) Obama will win Virginia. I think this is pretty certain. I think Obama will win New Hampshire as well, although I think that is just as iffy as Romney in Iowa.

I’m basically putting this up to see how well I do on election day. If Obama wins North Carolina, Ohio, or Florida early on Election Day, I’m going to bed.

Image“For in the end it is Middle-Earth and its dwellers that we love, not Tolkien’s considerable gifts in showing it to us. I said once that the world he charts was there long before him, and I still believe it. He is a great enough magician to tap our most common nightmares, daydreams and twilight fancies, but he never invented them either: he found them a place to live, a green alternative to each day’s madness here in a poisoned world. We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers – thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.”

From the foreword to The Tolkien Reader, J.R.R. Tolkien, 1968, Ballantine Books
Foreword written by Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn

This is from my son’s Tumblr page.  I hesitate to call it a blog because Tumblr is just a couple of steps above 4chan and people have been known to post some really objectionable and unedited material there.

For some reason, my son’s discussion of American director Whit Stillman’s film Metropolitan tweaked the nose of the hipster-gioisie milieu in which he lives and moves and has his being.  I’m just impressed that any 21 year old knows who Wit Stillman and Chris Eigeman are.

Who knows.  Maybe soon he and his friends will be discussing Charles Fourier.


now im going to make an AMV using clips of chris eigeman and chief keef

okay alex i will tell you my feels on Metropolitan and Stillman in general


In a way, I think American cinema needs a director like Stillman. Irony has been kind of a constant in a lot of popular film here and most of our beloved films have had some ironic schematic orchestrating a lot of a movie’s interactions with the audience, especially when addressing the class system of the United States. That’s why I think a lot of people enjoy Anderson because his films are really biting of the American upperclass and utilize a lot of ironic movement to generate humor. As American movie goers, we’ve become desensitized to the “plight” of the American bourgeois, a reality to people like Stillman and a welcomed circumstance that has been lampooned by people like Franzen in The Corrections and by Wes Anderson over the years, and its common for us to treat people who have definitive power and influence in our society with a lot of derision. However, the way we do this is by introducing our own vocabulary, our own manners (an important word to use when describing Stillman) and making it the primary lens from which we view this world. We view these people as alien, kind of remote, and the only way we have of relating to them is through antagonism or by taking the rich out of their frame of reference and putting them in ours, because it reflects the struggle of rich vs. poor that we’ve been taught is the reality (“the rich raise your income taxes, they live better than you do and don’t care about you, kim kardashian spent a ludicrous amount of money for a wedding and got divorced in three months isn’t that fucking ridiculous i could have paid off my student loans with 1/64th of her budget for that wedding”). And because these feelings or conceptions are the immediate response to imagery exemplary of the upper class, it is easier and simpler to make film that takes them out of their context and places them in our own and makes fun of them. Stillman proves that you don’t have to go through the effort of taking the rich out of context to make fun of them because the rich are capable of doing this on their own homefield.

I can understand why people dislike Stillman. He isn’t ironic in his films at all. This goes against our expectations of depictions of the upper class in film to be! Stillman isn’t crude, ironic, or chastising of the upperclass in his film and we absolutely, positively despise him for it sometimes. We want to see these people punished or stumble because it makes us feel better about our selves (this is some pretty basic shit that goes all the way back to Aristotle’sPoetics and what not) but Stillman won’t let us have the satisfaction. That’s because Stillman is a part of that world and that world has its own rules on how and why people fail, and to have his characters fail to such a point that they’d be brought to our stature is disingenuous to his characters, his experience, and to the rules of that reality. Really, when you first watch his films you feel a bit uncomfortable and annoyed that these people who clearly live better than you do and dress better than you do are having a good time and aren’t suffering, but then you watch them do things and talk about interesting things and you start laughing because, jesus christ these people are doomed and they know it.

To me, Stillman’s documenting the fall of an empire. He’s a chronologist of the privileged in America and he knows that the upper-class identity has been smudged by popular culture. I don’t think he’s trying to defend it in any way, but he is definitely trying to preserve some truths about that culture that the American audience isn’t exposed to. Metropolitan is a funny movie because it’s 100% American bourgeois and it’s genuine in its depiction of both the good and bad of that culture and does so without taking the culture out of context. I think a lot of people complain about the movie being 90% conversation, but fuck Louis Malle took a movie about two friends eating dinner and talking and made it really captivating so don’t tell me shit about how a movie about people talking is boring okay last time i checked people thought lost was a great show and you can literally reduce it to a clip reel of people reacting to shit. These conversations were definitely ones I could see myself having with people if I ever had the chance to run into such opinionated, quickwitted young people, or made the effort to leave my bedroom to see James, Andrew, Cass, or Galeon more. Really, it’s watching these people who have this structure of manners in place and seeing them being so unmannerly by it that makes Metropolitan such a great film. I think Nick has some great moments in that film that make you really sympathetic to him as a character and sympathetic of his awareness that his world is becoming more and more ephemeral with each passing day.

At the same time I’m really attracted to Carolyn Farina.

tl;dr i can understand why people hate stillman and Metropolitan but that is because he isn’t playing by our game in the first place and we want him to because we think our game is the only one worth playing