Essay: Orthodoxy and Tolkien
Maureen writes: You will probably remember that Taran gave us his take on LOTR as seen in Ukraine in GreenBooks back in 2004. I thought all the TORnsibs would appreciate this translation of an article that appeared in a Russian Orthodox magazine. It’s a little rough, but the quote from Tolkien translated back to English should give people a chance to test their familiarity with “On Fairy Stories”. Can you recall it?
The Question of Tolkien and the Answers of Tolkienism
Father Yuri Kononenko
One could say that a man’s spiritual growth begins with a Question. Not with only one, though, but rather with a compilation of many: What is the meaning of life? Is there something valuable, beautiful, or genuine about it? If the surrounding world is bad, how can I change it? Questions like these, may they sound exactly like this or not, are in fact a single and very important Question.
Then man will begin to search. More often then not he will find lies and things look like the truth in place of answers. Occasionally he will find steps towards the truth. And, as the first, and the second originally intertwine, already the choice depends on everyone as to what they see in the inconsistent phenomenon: good or evil, the way up or the way down.
“Often I see people who are completely confident in that which is commonly said: the world is the way it is and belief in things like honor, faithfulness and mercy is youthful maximalism and, in essence, are only fairy tales. These people are either lying and don’t really think that at all, or they are deeply lost and are the most unhappy people on the planet and nothing would convince me otherwise. Because if there is no such thing as faithful friends, as eternal love, as loving-kindness, as chivalry, then why in the world did we write such things as fairy tales?”
The matter of which this person is speaking is of “living fairy tales”, of Tolkienism, and the above statement is taken from an article by an author-Tolkienist. From our point of view, this movement (or, if you will, this frame of mind), which had become so popular in the past 10-12 years, also has an atmosphere of a spiritual quest. True, this quest doesn’t always lead to the truth, although it often stops at its doorstep or it can go in a completely different direction, but the important thing is the tendency to a dissatisfaction with dull commonness and to a search for something more.
In the modern world, detached from God, good has degenerated into an abstract idea and has become intertwined with many-sided evils. Life has acquired a cold, grey color of inner despair, in spite of an outward appearance of colorfulness. It was amazing, when such a book as the ‘Lord of the Rings’ appeared, where good was beautiful and evil was unambiguously disgusting. For everyone had gotten used to the idea that Judas wasn’t guilty of anything and light without shadows doesn’t exist, when suddenly good and evil, returning to Christianity, were shown as polar opposites with all the strength of a brilliant work of art.
“The world of Tolkien is clean. It is clean, in spite of the rivers of blood in the ‘Silmarillion’ and the unusual story surrounding the Ring. His heroes, at least those who are developed, are pure and good. His villains aren’t developed at all, such as the person of Sauron.” This is what is seen and treasured by readers of the ‘Lord of the Rings’.
People rightly understand the world of Middle-earth as a symbol of our world. And what is the most important in our world? Is it not the fight in our hearts between God and the devil – a battle full of tragedy, but thanks to the Resurrection, is already guaranteed a victory? Or to put it differently, the main thing is the hope and courage (that are against all logic), the mercy (even this can be the doom of someone), and the victory, even when defeat seems inevitable. These are the greatest contents of the ‘Lord of the Rings’.
From the words of Tolkien himself, every eucatastrophe in art is “one moment that unfolds before us a higher answer: a distant, evangelical brightness, an echo of good news in the real world” (from his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’). Tolkien himself was a convicted Catholic Christian all of his life.
It is mainly these ‘echoes of good news’ that have given birth to this strong urge to gather the books to yourself and fill them with your very being. “These books provoke the world,” wrote one of the masters, that is, one of the masters of the ever popular Lord of the Rings role-playing games. But what can we understand from these kinds of games?
Right now we have, in the minds of modern philosophers and studiers of culture, a ‘postmodern condition’ and its main distinctive feature is its relativity to everyone and everything. This, a game becomes a disposition, a way of life. But there are many kinds of games. Can a ‘living game’ find the truth in earnest? If say, then which game and which truth? What kind of dangers can be found on this strange path? And they, as already was necessary to be convinced, exist, and furthermore seriously…
Consider that role-playing games are the most adequate assimilation of the surrounding world with this epoch. To too seriously and simply treat any given information doesn’t allow the post-modernist to use historical experience, for then everything is relative. That is why such things as games are so urgent and inevitable. At the same time, the loss of integrity of the human ‘self’ demands work above itself – something more intensive, but not so much through denial, in the form of self-excavation and digging in search of the ‘true self’, but through affirmation, in the form of the development of the guise, accepted by the ‘self’ and the reducing of these to a common denominator.
Role-playing games give rails to this kind of movement. Rails of reincarnation through social gaming activities, when new realities are interpenetrated and smelted together. Remember those words: the form of the development of the guise. The movement of the role-playing games came into being from Tolkien, but now it has a much broader horizon then just Tolkienism.
The most important thing in role-playing games (whether it be Tolkien or Walter Scott or a science fiction or a psychological drama) is the ability to become someone else for a time and believe in it. As a rule, there are not spectators in these games, for they only require participation in your own world. A person plays, first and foremost, for himself and the deeper he does this, the more the game reveals for him and for other participants. The mixing of worlds (“Say, Sergey, you goblin, don’t come near my elves at the hospital, or our swords will make you into a patient!”) only spoils it and isn’t welcome. The game is worthwhile, only when played seriously, if your role opens new discoveries in himself.
This whole thing can be a plus, and it can be a minus.
The plus is that a positive role can change the person himself for the better: actions of the game done at the game are considered to be responsible actions for real life. The role of Aragorn, for example, could change someone for the better (in principle, as long as he doesn’t become too proud of himself).
The minus is that if the roles of Aragorn or Frodo don’t change people for the better, than the roles of antagonistic characters, such as orcs or Nazgul, more actively enter into the spirits of the players. For example, it seems that being Gollum can also be fun, to be able to stay in the game and ‘get carried away’ in real life.
(So, what’s up, Gollum? Or is it Sauron or perhaps a Nazgul? It seems that our friend has successfully reincarnated as a Nazgul, and then told himself off, again and again. He still hasn’t decided yet…)
Gradually, the darker characters became more popular, for they hit closer to home for the modern man. Does this surprise you? Not really. Should we blame Tolkien? If so, then we should blame Dostoevsky too, for there are many who read his novels and prefer to draw closer to Raskolnikov, Ivan Karamazov and his other less than savory characters. The game isn’t so much the seduction as it is the displayer of that, which is hidden. For, as it has already been said, if a negative role is played game after game, seriously, then the person can become corrupted.
Little by little, Tolkien and his ‘echo of good news’ move away from the periphery of the gaming movement. Such things as historical reconstructions appeared and became just as popular, for they are easier and more accessible. For example, in ‘The Crusades’ crowds in real, manufactured armor, exterminate each other with textolite swords; already without any labor of existential problems.
Games have appeared based on videos games such as Warcraft and Quake, and there are even more primitive, at times even basic, such as paint-ball. Games have even appeared of witchcraft and paganism. The striving for maximum credibility has led to interest in the learning of magic rituals of different eras and cultures and to the performing of them.
“If you look long into the abyss, the abyss will begin to look at you.” And, believe it or not, during these role-playing games, appearances of real evil spirits are not uncommon. This is a very real, very serious danger. After all, demons are only there to invite…
Through his books, Tolkien has awaken the Question. Many Tolkienists have understood that the Answer lies beyond the spheres of these games, good and bad, and have turned to the Church. Also, many have accepted and accept the games as a romantic meeting with a cool way to pass the time.
Praise God, that He can use even evil to do great good. As in former days of counter-culture, Tolkienism has approached the main Question of what a man should be and whathis world should be and has clearly demonstrated the dangers of incorrect answers. Those who have ears, let them hear.Posted in J.R.R. Tolkien, Old Special Reports, Tolkien on May 31, 2006 by xoanon