Or a Tale of Two Towers: Art and Archetypes in Middle-Earth

Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is conspicious in that it contains no places of worship. Few fantasy authors resist the urge to have temples and gods (usually malevolent ones with slimy and unappetizing minions, against which the hero uses guile, good sense or solid biceps in contests of thinly-disguised allegory). Tolkien limits himself to places of portent or places of wonder – places where the gods or great personages of the past have touched the earth, but have never consecrated.

While Tolkien’s demiurges intervene in human and Elven affairs, they do so with the immediacy and sudden familiarity of the Greek gods. When Ulmo meets Turin Turambar, he does not appear from some aperture in the clouds, complete with god-rays, he strides out of the surf of the Sea near Vinyamar, water dripping from his scaled armour. (It is painfully revealing of our Judeo-Christian heritage and largely inadequate imaginations that we always expect divine intervention to come from on high – deus ex machina suspended on cables and pulleys over our small world-stage – the gods that people pantheons can be anywhere: in a tree, under a stone, or before us on the road.) Nor does Turin kneel humbly, his deference and his defiance are contained in the same gesture. They inhabit different worlds that touch on occasion, and cribbing for salvation is not part of the Tolkien mythos. Another opportunity to abandon classical modes of representation (and our pavlovian fall-back reflexes) and explore new ways of depicting the meetings of men and gods.

I have always been struck by the similarity between Babel and Barad-dûr. Tall, easy to see from afar, Babel is a good landmark to start from. A good time? The 16th century.

That the Bible be the inspiration is incidental, the concern here is not the religious context, but the visual one, (despite the curiously truncated and illogical moral that is intended to guide the reader).
Nor does the historical Babel, the Etemenanki, enter into consideration; the archaeological Babylon was as yet unexcavated, the allegorical Babylon, though, was very real. The vast and repetitive architecture of Babel prefigures the Industrial Age as clearly as the invention of the steam engine centuries later. The inhumanity implied by the monstrous construction, as well as the folly, are inherent in the moral.

For the rest of the newsletter, please visit the web site.