Myth, Judgement, and the Jackson Way:
The Review of Reviews
-- Maureen McKittrick Stewart
Thousands of J. R. R. Tolkien's fans are standing in line to voice their opinion of the nearly complete film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. None of the truest devotees are likely to be really content until The Return of the King: Extended Edition is released. All--including me!--have voiced opinions about what Tolkien meant and how well the film portrayed his themes.
I am beginning to see that we may have missed the point; or at least that we have only understood a part of it.
Some feel it is their appointed task to champion Tolkien's faith and are scandalized that it isn't clearly manifest in the film. Why would it be? Tolkien very carefully removed all objects or phrases or ceremonies that are associated with religious practice from his book. He wished to evoke Enchantment, as he said, not the Domination of allegory. The Book of Common Prayer defines the word sacrament as, "An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." Tolkien carefully crafted a story that conveys the reality but leaves out the signs--or at least weaves them in so subtly that they are a part of the woof of the tapestry. In the enjoyment, the reader (or viewer) may or may not come to perceive the Numinous within the myth, but it will be according to his or her own choice.
Others have brushed up their toes and waxed lyrical about masterpieces and cinematic history and the triumph of the human capacity for creativity. They too are scandalized that none of the fine performances by the many actors are to be honored by the traditional accolades granted by the film industry. But I ask you, how do you nominate actors who played roles that would only be diminished by being crammed into the normal film script formula? Is Frodo a lead or a supporting role? Aragorn? Sam? Gandalf? To my mind, if you nominated one, you'd be compelled to nominate all--and I can't figure out whether it should be categorized as leading or supporting; I really can't.
Even the cast, writers, and producers have been pressured to answer, "What does it mean?" Their answers have been widely variant and illuminative of the character and hopes and desires of each, but haven't really gone very far in getting deeply into the scope of Tolkien's myth. But why should they? Would you destroy it by revealing the stage of your own personal journey to millions of critics, each with an axe to grind and opinion to be agreed with? I don't think even Elrond would have the fortitude for that, if we could reach him at his current residence in the Uttermost West, and he at one time faced down Sauron!
The common element in all of these paeans, pans and particulars is measurement. Even the wizards who should know better are attempting to cram this myth into X = Y, into mere allegory. In a short essay entitled Myth Became Fact C. S. Lewis makes an important illustration about the function of myth in the human psyche. I am suddenly aware that our culture of quantification, of tables, of graphs and charts and percentages has so permeated our mode of being that we have lost our capacity to receive stories in their entirety.
Though I have been enjoying them for years, I have not yet managed to read everything that either Tolkien or C. S. Lewis have written. From various biographers and scholarly sources I know that a part of the paradigm in Myth Became Fact is in fact an understanding that he discussed with and learned from Tolkien. So I stumbled upon this in the last month or so in one of those combined volumes that contain several works at a bargain price. ("God in the Dock," edited by Walter Hooper.) I think I remember that I picked it up from the bargain book table last spring.
Here is how Lewis depicts the function of myth in our lives and how we can destroy or diminish it:
"To explain this we must look a little closer at myth in general, and at this myth in particular. Human intellect is incurably abstract. Pure mathematics is the type of successful thought. Yet the only realities we experience are concrete--this pain, this pleasure, this dog, this man. While we are loving the man, bearing the pain, enjoying the pleasure, we are not intellectually apprehending Pleasure, Pain or Personality. When we begin to do so, on the other hand, the concrete realities sink to the level of mere instances or examples: we are no longer dealing with them, but with that which they exemplify. This is our dilemma--either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste--or, more strictly, to lack one kind of knowledge because we are in an experience or to lack another kind because we are outside it. As thinkers we are cut off from what we think about; as tasting, touching, willing, loving, hating, we do not clearly understand. The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think. You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of the nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, nor analyse the nature of humour while roaring with laughter. But when else can you really know these things? 'If only my toothache would stop, I could write another chapter about Pain.' But once it stops, what do I know about pain?"
Neither can you study story in a theater seat, or beauty while your eyes are popping at visual textures and patterns and the dance of images on the screen before you, nor the poignancy of a wistful voice singing of home and rest as men obedient to a madman fling themselves into a hopeless battle, nor the exultation of eucatastrophe when the Ring is destroyed and despair turns to joy. As soon as you try, you are thrust out of knowing.
"Of this tragic dilemma myth is the partial solution. In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction. At this moment, for example, I am trying to understand something very abstract indeed--the fading, vanishing of tasted reality as we try to grasp it with the discursive reason. Probably I have made heavy weather of it. But if I remind you, instead, of Orpheus and Eurydice, how he was suffered to lead her by the hand but, when he turned round to look at her, she disappeared, what was merely a principle becomes imaginable. You may reply that you never till this moment attached that 'meaning' to that myth. Of course not. You are not looking for an abstract 'meaning' at all. If that was what you were doing the myth would be for you no true myth but a mere allegory. You were not knowing, but tasting; but what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle. The moment we state this principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction. It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely."
When we simply weep and rejoice as faithful companions are sundered but Frodo is healed in his departure from the Grey Havens, how much more we understand the ties of friendship and the cost of love and consolation of community. How much more satisfied and inspired we are before we have begun to try to say, "This phrase touched me," or "That scene was powerful because
" How quickly the enjoyment and enchantment fades when we seek the enjoyment itself by trying to reach to grasp it or hold onto it or measure it.
"When we translate we get abstraction--or rather, dozens of abstractions. What flows into you from the myth is not truth but reality (truth is always about something, but reality is that about which truth is), and, therefore, every myth becomes the father of innumerable truths in the abstract level. Myth is the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley; in hoc valle abstractionis.* Or, if you prefer, myth is the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with that vast continent we really belong to. It is not, like truth, abstract; nor is it, like direct experience, bound to the particular."
Both Lewis and Tolkien, steeped in the long tradition of story from both Pagan and Christian culture, had an appreciation for and inside knowledge of the power of myth and story to transcend our hearts and minds. Both wrote works of myth that continue to speak to many even after the critics of their own day have died and new critics have arisen to take up the war on meaning, while their books remain in print, nourishing both imagination and thought. Tolkien showed Lewis, and Lewis here declares that even God is a poet, for:
"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. It happens--at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle."
In picking apart the movie adaptation of Lord of the Rings, we are limiting both Tolkien's original work and the enchantment of the film. We are confining a magnificent myth to the narrow walls of allegory and confusing reality with mere facts. Let us go through the mines and allow the myth to speak for itself and rejoice that even altered in interpretation it remains a call of the horns of Elfland--a call to wonder and delight and hope and courage and perseverance beyond the bounds of our prejudices and assumptions.
Tolkien has said that a good story provides consolation, recovery and escape. If nothing else, perhaps Jackson's adaptation has helped us to recover our capacity to receive the Great Stories. Can consolation and escape be far behind? "If God chooses to be mythopoeic--and is not the sky itself a myth--shall we refuse to be mythopathic?" (Lewis, Myth Became Fact.)
* 'In this valley of separation.'
May we all reawaken our capacity for story!
Are you mythopathic or at least determined to become so? I'd love your feedback.
Maureen McKittrick Stewart