Monday, February 28, 2005

Tolkien, Wagner and the Mythic Imagination

Child, if you will, it is mythology. It is but truth, not fact: an image, not the very real. But then it is My mythology. The words of Wisdom are also myth and metaphor: but since they do not know themselves for what they are, in them the hidden myth is master, where it should be servant: and it is but of man’s inventing. But this is My invention, this is the veil under which I have chosen to appear even from the first until now. For this end I made your senses and for this end your imagination, that you might see My face and live. What would you have? Have you not heard among the Pagans the story of Semele? Or was there any age in any land when men did not know that corn and wine were the blood and body of a dying and yet living God? C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress

Myth brings us into a very strange world, but there is a very familiar quality to this strangeness. Somehow the imaginative landscape of myth puts us in touch with our deepest experiences and aspirations to immortality. And there is a reason for that-it reveals the reality (albeit in a veiled form) of the world we live in, our intuitions about human life and the forces that shape it. It is no wonder, then, that it is through the medium of “myth” (or story) that we can contemplate our most profound desire for divine guidance and fellowship. Pagan myths like the Aeneid have such a familiar ring to Christians because of its “messianic” tone, as does the Odyssey, for its theme of longing for home.

It is no wonder, then, that such notable Christian authors as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, rather than dismiss myth after their conversions, embrace it and give it new content and meaning, inspired by what Lewis called the “true myth”-the Incarnation of the Word. In God in the Dock, he draws attention to this very mystery: “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.” This is what underlies Wisdom’s counsel to John in The Pilgrim’s Regress: Myth is not a lie, but underscores a profound truth which lies at the core of human experience, and in the hands of fallen man, it is fragmented from truth. But Wisdom himself has come, and joined together what had been fragmented-story and truth.

It is in this vein that we can now try to understand what Professor Tolkien tried to accomplish in his justly renowned Lord of the Rings (as well as Silmarillion). The characters we have come to know and love in Lord of the Rings and Silmarillion, as well as the story lines, were not original creations of Tolkien’s.

Anyone who’s read Tolkien’s trilogy will readily recognize some aspects of Wagner’s Ring trilogy (Das Rhinegold, Die Walkure, and Siegfried), a retelling of the Old Germanic bardic tale Der Nibelungenlied. The Sauron-like Alberich forsakes love, and decides to snatch the Rhinegold (which can only be given to those who would choose power over love) from the Rhine maidens and make a ring of power. Wotan, chief of the Nordic gods, finds out about the existence of the Ring. He realizes he needed to pay the giants Fafner and Fasolt for the construction of Valhalla, and had agreed to give them Freia, the goddess of youth. However, the terms are renegotiated, and it is agreed that they would be paid with the Rhinegold. Loge, who negotiated the transaction, describes the wretched Alberich as “the thief who stole the Rhinegold, and now it is more precious to him than any woman’s love.” The danger is apparent, for whoever makes the Rhinegold into a ring, it will make him the most powerful man in the world. The ring is characterized as having “runes of booty hidden in its golden hue, providing power and riches without measure.”

Once Alberich fashions the ring, he invokes its power to change into whatever he wishes, and even to vanish. But Loge captures him, brings him to the upper world, and forces him to give up the ring to Wotan, but not before Aberich utters a curse upon it: This ring gave me power, now may it bring death to him who wears it…care shall overwhelm him who wears it!” Alberich, of course, has plans of his own, and having impregnated Grimhilde, who bears Hagen, who will carry out his father’s evil desires. Only the hero Siegfried stands in the way. Siegfried is characterized as a child of nature, having no guile, with a harmonious relationship to nature (at least in Wagner’s retelling). Thus, the ring can have no power over him, but in spite of this, Hagen, in his machinations, slays Siegfried, and his bride Brunnhilde, stricken with grief, falls into his funeral pyre with the ring. Siegfried’s funeral flames rise to the heights of Valhalla itself, and the banks of the Rhine overflow. The Rhinemaidens recover the Ring, and the world is renewed.

In Wagner’s retelling, the story is one of the power of love overturning the love of power. It is love that will triumph and save the world, as the lust for power proves to be man’s undoing. Wagner is the consummate neo-pagan-for him, myth served to enhance a closeness to the tempestuous forces of nature and human feeling. His god is nature, and in his hands the Nibelungenlied (which, in its 12th century form, tries to maintain at least some semblance of Christian influence) is purged of any Christian meaning.

This is why, perhaps, Tolkien didn’t care much for Wagner’s handling of old Germanic myths. In Tolkien’s hands, the Christian mystery would shine forth, sometimes in very subtle ways. The message of Tolkien’s trilogy is not simply that the lust for power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but rather that in the end, that the power to dominate man and nature ends in futility, because there is a greater power-the power of good, before which it crumbles and falls to ruin. Sam gets a clear vision of this when, as he and Frodo approaches Mordor, he looks up in the dark sky and sees a star shining brightly. He is reassured at that moment that whatever the power of the Ring and the treachery of Sauron, it is only a momentary power, a passing thing. There, in the dark sky, shines a light that the power of Sauron can never touch.

Tolkien, a good Catholic churchman, was a thoroughgoing Augustinian in his understanding of good and evil. For him, as for St. Augustine, “evil has no existence except as a privation of good (Confessions III:12) Goodness is the principle of the universe made by Illuvatar, who leads in the song that would bring it about. Melkor sings a decisively different tune, which brings a note of dissonance to the symphony composes. Melkor can never make anything original. He only corrupts the melody established by Illuvatar. Good, on the other hand, is substantial, and enjoys a robust existence and power that the evil of that the Ring of Power can never enjoy. The Ringwraiths have become something less than what they were intended to be-kings who rule their kingdoms. The power of the Ring has made them subject to the power of Sauron, which degrades them into something monstrous and phantom-like. In another telling moment, Frodo in The Two Towers has another moment of clarity. As he and Frodo come to a crossroads, he sees something very intriguing:

“Standing there for a moment filled with dread Frodo became aware that a light was shining; he saw it glowing on Sam’s face beside him. Turning towards it, he saw, beyond an arch of boughs, the road to Osgiliath running almost as straight as a stretched ribbon down, down, into the West. There, far away, beyond sad Gondor now overwhelmed in shade, the Sun was sinking, finding at last the hem of the great slow-rolling pall of cloud, and falling in an ominous fire towards the yet unsullied Sea. The brief glow fell upon a huge sitting figure, still and solemn as the great stone kings of Argonath. The years had gnawed it, and violent hands had maimed it. Its head was gone, and in its place was set in mockery a round rough-hewn stone, rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large red eye in the midst of its forehead. Upon its knees and mighty chair, and all about the pedestal, were idle scrawls mixed with the foul symbols that the maggot-folk of Mordor used.
“Suddenly, caught by the level beams, Frodo saw the old king’s head: it was lying rolled away by the roadside. ‘Look, Sam!’ he cried, startled into speech. ‘Look! The king has got a crown again!’
“The eyes were hollow and the carven beard was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was coronal of silver and gold. A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of this stony hair, yellow stonecrop gleamed.
“‘They cannot conquer for ever!’ said Frodo. And then suddenly the brief glimpse was gone. The Sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the shuttering of a lamp, black night fell.”

However bleak the times are, this passage reminds us that the original goodness with which Illuvatar created all rational creatures-men, eleves, dwarves (at least indirectly), and hobbits-with a dignity that sets them apart from the rest of creation. The years may have “gnawed” away at it, violent hands may destroy it, but none of these forces are quite able to completely wipe out this regal dignity. Man, though fallen, was made to be king. He is a king who has abdicated his God-given role in creation. But “the king has a crown again.”

In the hands of Tolkien, these Old Norse and Germanic myths are infused with Christian meaning. His reworking of them of these myths is intended to show us a pre-Christian world where God’s power and goodness is manifest. The Christianity of the Lord of the Rings is not overt, but rather it is taken up into the symbols of the story itself. The elvish lembas bread is taken as a eucharistic symbol, giving strength to Frodo and Sam in their arduous journey. The redemption of the world is achieved not by a destruction of the world by fire, but by a restoration of the king to his throne, and the initiation of the “days of the king.” Wagner and Tolkien represent two ways of approaching the mythic imagination-one without Christ, and the other transformed by the Incarnate Word. The Incarnation is the myth that gives meaning to all myths, because it is true. This is the real power of Tolkien’s mythmaking-the myth made fact.

No comments: