Monday, January 10, 2011

J.R.R. Tolkien, Professor of Ancient Beauties

Professor Tolkien once said that a new word should be created, something that meant the opposite of a catastrophe, the opposite of a disaster. He wanted a word for when, against all odds, when all hope seemed lost, through an unexpected turn of events the good triumphed anyway. He suggested "eucatastrophe" for this word.

But Tolkien's work also leaves me searching for a word that I cannot find in our language. He is so determined to entice and allure with the goodness of the world, and the appeal is so strong and insistent, that the closest word I can find is "seduce". But "seduce" is always used of the appeal of bad things: the appeal of the bad is so strong that it corrupts our minds, our will, our character, and leads us down the wrong way to disaster. Tolkien has achieved what few others have done: he has shown the good in all its beauty and desirability, so that the appeal of the good is so strong and alluring that it un-corrupts our minds, our will, and our characters, and leads us down the right way towards health and sanity. When we have finished reading Tolkien, it seems genuinely unthinkable to lie or to betray a friend, or even speak too harshly with our neighbors. Aren't we supposed to be off somewhere helping to heal the world, or building a thing of beauty, or sitting with our friends and raising a toast?

Tolkien creates a world with layer on layer of history, each age leaving its own traces behind. Ancient poems in forgotten languages, hauntingly beautiful, are sprinkled through the pages. The landscape is scattered with the ruins of monuments of earlier ages. And the possibility is never quite gone: someone might take up those songs again, or take the empty throne again, and the crumbling ruins will then become the placeholders for rebuilding the glory that once was. The enchanting past never quite loses its sense of possibility, that it might have a living part to play in the future.

And so the good professor's works inevitably leave us with the impression that he was, after all, talking about this world. They leave us with a sense of unfinished business.

Professor Tolkien invites us to love what is good, what is just, what is pure, what is lovely, those things that are worthy of praise, and to think on these things.

Title for scholars:
Professor of Ancient Beauties

Other holders of the Tolkien chair:
C.S. Lewis
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

8 comments:

Martin LaBar said...

"beckon" or "attract" maybe?

Probably not.

JD Walters said...

Wonderful post. Makes me want to read the LOTR trilogy again! Maybe I will, starting this afternoon!

How about 'enchant' instead of seduce? We speak of being enchanted by a beautiful scene or story-caught up in its beauty, transformed by it.

Weekend Fisher said...

I know, there are so many words that are just '' that close to what I'm looking for. Maybe we'll get it yet. "Beckon" and "attract" are definitely along the right lines; if I could add a measure of the raw power, the "siren call" quality of what Tolkien has accomplished, they'd fill the bill. "Enchant" likewise goes the right direction; Tolkien is definitely enchanting. Here we run into the problem that I'm really trying to do too much with one word: "enchant" has that connotation that, somewhere along the way, reason was muddled rather than restored.

You all nail the SAT vocabulary test, definitely.

Thank you for helping me think it through.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Craig said...

A great post - you have captured one of the main reasons why Tolkein is different and why I love his stories.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Craig

Happy New Year. Thank you for the encouragement.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Howard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Howard said...

What speaks so deeply to me about Tolkien's work was how it was born out of a the depths of loss and wonder - loss of friends in the trenches and wonder of sharing a truly magical moment with his wife (which apparently inspired his first description of Luthien). Such pain and joy, when coupled to the treasure of the Gospel, certainly allows us to enrich our world with that light and winsome grace that speaks of the true value of life.

Weekend Fisher said...

That's part of what touches me about Tolkien. The evils are deep and real. In so many works of fiction, the enemy is nothing more than a plot device for the hero to cut his teeth on.

Tolkien had some real-world grounding experiences in the loss of his friends and the horrors of war. Some of his villains are standard-issue drones (like the orcs), but some of his villains and heroes are more complex than that; sometimes the line blurs or is crossed between hero and villain (Saruman, Boromir, ultimately even Frodo).

And Frodo is most heroic when he realizes he, too, is becoming a villain, and reaches out in genuine friendship to another villain (Gollum). The fate of the world ended up hinging on that.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF