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 TV-Tropes.com 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.

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