Sunday, November 28, 2010

Into the Bush--And I Don't Mean Dubya

I read an anthropologist once who claimed that if you're parachuted into the middle of an isolated valley in, say, New Guinea, and you need to get in with the locals as quickly as possible, just strike up a conversation on any of these three topics: (1) death/disaster/dismemberment, (2) the wicked ways of those strangers yonder, or (3) sex. A quick glance at the typical blog (such as this one) reveals the wisdom of this advice. I'm "in" with you, correct? And not because of sliced-up eyeballs or those wicked strangers over the next hill.

The great theme of all story-telling---and Joseph Campbell wasn't the first to notice---is the human life-cycle. Whether it's a story about a young girl growing up, or of a young man finding a mate, or of a newlywed dealing with hostile in-laws, or of a child dealing with a parent's jealousy, or of anyone confronting sickness, old age, and death, the fairy-tales of every culture encode that culture's collective experience about the passage of the human personality through time. And some of the most popular stories in world literature are those that deal with the theme I'm calling "Young Man Seeks His Fortune."

Here's the standard scenario: a young man somewhere between puberty and full adulthood takes leave of his (often widowed) mother and, armed only with her blessing and a few ancestral gew-gaws inherited from his (usually vanished) father sets out in search of . . . well, the story-tellers are usually a bit coy about his goal. No sooner has our Young Man taken a dozen steps out the door, however, than he finds himself in a forest. A deep forest. A dark forest. A mysterious forest that professional mythographers writing for Parabola magazine would have us believe is a stand-in for the collective unconscious, but which an audience in, say, 25,000 BC Ethiopia---lacking a copy of The Portable Jung---would probably have thought was something more obvious. Namely, that universal non-archetype: The Bush.

A scary place, The Bush. It must be: otherwise, why does our Young Man need a sword? And if not a sword, some other ancestral gew-gaw from the long-and-pointy department. With the help of his Long Pointy Thing the Young Man penetrates into the farthest recesses of the deep, dark, scary Bush. And having reached the deepest, the darkest, the very scariest nook/corner/cranny/recess of The Bush, what does our stalwart Young Man discover?

(Cue voice of Goofy) Gorsh! It's . . . a lady!

And such a lady! Drop-dead gorgeous, of course. Tall, well-proportioned, pale . . . not a lot of sunlight in your typical deep, dark forest. Long hair, natch---unless she's from the Kalahari, or the Young Man is a young lesbian looking for the butch of her dreams. And why not? Fairy-tales can take place in the 21st century . . . and maybe they had butch-dyke goddesses back in 25,000 BC Ethiopia, too. Venus of Willendorf, anyone? At any rate, the story makes it perfectly plain the Mysterious Lady---or whatever we call her---can be any fill-in-the-blank sex-object you wish. The point isn't what she looks like (or even her gender), but where the story is leading us. And it isn't down the road paved with good intentions. Or maybe it is.

For it's inevitable (the story assures us) that something wonderful will happen: our Young Man is going to fall in love with the Lady of the Deep, Dark Wood. But to win even the finest love, as we all know, is a struggle. For the hand of his beloved, our Young Man must do battle. And Tolkien's young man? The Lady of his dreams is no ordinary Mysterious Lady. And he's no ordinary Young Man. And the Lord of the Rings is no ordinary fairy-tale. For Tolkien's young man isn't quite following the traditional fairy-tale script. Among other things, it appears he's brought along reinforcements. . . .

(to be continued)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

El Squanto vs The Zombie Pilgrims!

Happy Thanksgiving! On this, the most sacred day on the year for America's food retailers, let us pause to consider the life of the man who made that first Thanksgiving possible: Squanto.
     Most of us heard vague rumors of this Indian guy back in grade school. He was a gentleman of the Patuxet tribe who helped the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony during their first miserable year in New England. It was he who taught them the fish-in-the-hole trick to fertilize their corn, taught them to plant squash and pumpkins, served as ambassador to surrounding Native tribes, and navigated them around unfamiliar territory. By most accounts, it was Squanto who saved the Pilgrims' bacon and ensured the survival of Plymouth.
     Something that always bothered me as a kid was a question my history picture-books never answered. How did Squanto learn English? In those texts the Pilgrims were Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise landing on an alien world and encountering locals who all sounded like James Earl Jones. More modern textbooks say Squanto learned his English from passing fisherman. What they don't tell you is that those fisherman kidnapped Squanto and sold him into slavery. He spent nine years in England before a sympathetic master arranged for him to return. However, an English slave-raider than captured him and sold him in Malaga, Spain. Our hero escaped, made his way to England, and after one failed attempt to return home via Newfoundland finally made it back to his home village after an absence of fourteen years. . . .
     . . . only to find that his home was gone. A smallpox epidemic had annihilated the Patuxet, passing through their village so rapidly that recently planted corn was still growing in the fields--fields that had just been taken over by the Pilgrims. For Plymouth Colony was founded literally on the ruins of Squanto's home village. Sure, Squanto was all too happy to assist the Pilgrims: he had no choice. He had nowhere else to go, and his tribe was gone. He was the sole survivor.
     Comparatively speaking, Squanto was lucky. The Pilgrims could have treated him, and the other Natives with whom they came into contact, much worse. Afterall, the Plymouth colonists--by their own admission--merely engaged in graverobbing:
The next morning, we found a place like a grave. We decided to dig it up. We found first a mat, and under that a fine bow. . . . We also found bowls, trays, dishes, and things like that. We took several of the prettiest things to carry away with us, and covered the body up again.
At least the Pilgrims left the body alone. Had Squanto ended up down south in Virginia he'd have had an outbreak of zombies to deal with. Here's the description from that wonderful book, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen:
[The Virginia colonists] spent their early days digging random holes in the ground, haplessly looking for gold instead of planting crops. Soon they were starving and digging up putrid Indian corpses to eat. . . .
Me, I prefer mashed-potatoes. One wonders how many aristocratic planter families in the Old South are descended from ancestors who ate human flesh. It's the kind of thing you wish Faulkner had written about (and you thought "A Rose For Emily" was gross!). So as many of us in the next few days sit down to sumptuous meals, let us spare a thought for a man with strength, loyalty, intelligence, and courage to rival any luchador, and for the important role that zombies have played in American history. Take care and . . . eat well.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

She Says Whip It--Whip It Good!

If asked to name a character in the Lord of the Rings who could be called "sexy," most readers would likely reply: "Galadriel." Long before Kate Blanchet flared her nostrils for Peter Jackson, illustrators knew intuitively that the Lady of the Golden Wood was Tolkien's "It Girl," and were having a field-day trying to depict her Itness. The calendars produced by the Brothers Hildebrandt are infamous for their Disney-esque silliness; their renderings of clouds, for example, are visual analogs of purple prose. And their Galadriels make this war-veteran refugee from the First Age look barely past puberty, not elf-queen but prom-queen.

Yet the Hildebrandts' illustrations do capture something of her sexual nature, a smouldering Something we know is hiding in there somewhere beneath the virginal white bridesmaid dress. And after exposure to the imposingly lovely Ms. Blanchet, some film-goers might be tempted to think of Galadriel as a kind of Swedish porn-star: she is, afterall, beautiful, statuesque, pale-skinned, regal . . . and appealing to anyone with a blonde fetish. With dark hair instead of light and a whip instead of a Ring of Power, the Lady of the Golden Wood might make a good dominatrix. She even talks like one: "All shall love me and despair!"
     (The above illustration is a detail from the Tolkien Calendar for 1976, published by Random House. She's Ms. May, incidentally.)
     But when you read about Galadriel (vs watching the movies) the picture gets more complicated. For the fact is, LotR tells us almost nothing about what she looks like. We're told she's tall, blonde, "fair" . . . and that's about it. Critics take issue with Tolkien's lack of character description, but it seems to me this "lack" is really a cagey way of accomplishing his real goal. And that is NOT the goal of the good novelist--namely, to get you to identify with the characters. Rather, his goal is that of the teller of fairy-tales: the get you to project your unconscious. Galadriel is beautiful because Tolkien allows you to attach your own notions of beauty onto the meager scaffold of his description. Her sexiness is almost entirely in your head--which is where nine-tenths of all sexiness is, anyway.
     Tolkien's frequent use of the adjective "fair" is also part of his program. "Fair" translates the High Elven word vanya. This word's original meaning was "beautiful," and was applied in particular to the First House of the Eldar, who came to be called the Vanyar (the "-r" is a plural marker). As the Vanyar were all pale-skinned and blond, vanya eventually came to have the secondary meaning of "having a fair complexion." Unlike English-speakers, who believe beautiful people are blond, the High Elves believe blond people are beautiful--but so are brunettes. Aragorn calls raven-haired Arwen vanima (another form of vanya), and Tolkien's wife, Edith, had dark hair and dark eyes. The Master of Middle-earth can hardly be accused of having a blonde-fetish . . . yet he was well-aware than many of his readers did and do.
     Galadriel as a symbol or image is clearly intended to attract a certain amount of physical interest, curiosity . . . even longing. She's supposed to be pretty, though how much of "pretty" overlaps with "sexy" is up to the reader. The context in which she is placed, however, reinforces the notion that "sexy" is definitely part of the picture. For as a character in a fairy-tale---and that's what LotR is, albeit a very long one--Galadriel is the central figure in a literary scenario easily recognized in a thousand fairy-tales from all over the world. This is the scenario we may call "Young Man Seeks His Fortune." And the fortune our young man is seeking? In the immortal words of George Carlin: you don't gotta be Fellini to figure this one out!
(to be continued)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Monster (?) and the Critics

Mainstream critics have had a dreadful time trying to get a handle on Tolkien's work. Even a casual glance at the Lord of the Rings reveals an almost total lack of the characteristics that define serious, respectable writing in the 20th (and 21st) centuries. There's no ironic distancing, no agonized interior monologues, no verbal fireworks, no anti-heroes-with-heavy-emphasis-on-the-"anti," no monologues mascarading as dialogues (a la Hemingway), no convoluted symbolism. If your idea of literature is Jane Austin or Leo Tolstoy (and why not?) Tolkien is going to be a letdown. As one famous Austin/Tolstoy lover once wrote:
When it appeared in the library I avoided it. It looks dull, I thought. It's probably affected. It's probably allegorical. . . . Once I went so far as to pick up volume II and look at the first page. People were rushing around on a hill looking for each other. The language looked a bit stilted. I put it back.
And of course, any Tolkien fan knows of Edmund Wilson and his famous "Oo, Those Awful Orcs!" or Katherine Stimson and her "Frodo lives--on borrowed time," or Isaac Asimov's "the One Ring is not wholly evil," . . . or Ursula LeGuin, who wrote the above review. (Or rather: beginning-of-a-review. How her essay "The Staring Eye" ends is another matter.)
    How can any aesthete with street-cred possibly take Tolkien seriously after reading a real heavyweight like Cormac McCarthy? Tolkien only hints that Gollum eats babies--in Outer Dark we get to see it done. Now there's serious writing for you! Yet in choosing non-modern modes of expression for his work, Tolkien appears to have abandoned modern themes as well. In addition to a lamentable lack of baby-eating, rape with corncobs, and sliced-up eyeballs, in LotR there is no alienation, no class warfare, no existential torment, no grappling with Important Social Issues of Our Time, no moral ambiguities. And certainly no sex.
     That last one is the clincher: the final proof of Tolkien's status as a lightweight. EVERY modern author writes about sex. You just can't have a modern novel without a potpourri of adultery, rapes, incest, bestiality, and--if the writer is a Mormon housewife--hormonal awakenings triggered by sparkly corpses. Someone once defined the plot of the Great American Novel as "aging college professor contemplates adultery." I never could figure out why the contemplative had to be a professor and not, say, a lawyer (Atticus Finch?) or a sharecropper. Aren't sharecroppers, well . . . hunkier?
     Refusal to "confront" adultery, or any other Awful Truth of human lust, is prima facie evidence of authorial cowardice: so say the Guardians of the Literary Canon. And--volunteering to face the cannons of World War One notwithstanding--a coward is what Tolkien must have been. For the Lord of the Rings contains no adultery, no rapes, no incest, no bestiality, and (a laita i Valar!) no sparkly vampires. Therefore, the Lord of the Rings contains not even the tiniest bit of sex.
     Or does it?
     I would like to suggest that that those who have found no evidence of sex in the Lord of the Rings are victims of either the Evil Fluoride Conspiracy or saltpeter in their mashed potatoes. For the Awful Truth is that Tolkien's masterpiece is loaded with sex, dripping and oozing with sex, pulsing and pounding and panting with sex, growling and grunting and groaning with sex, sex, sex! That's right: sex, my friends! SEX!! Stop looking at me like that!
     You don't believe me? Your primitive earth-minds cannot comprehend? Then let facts be presented to a candid world. . . .
(to be continued)

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Greatest Pornographer of the 20th Century

Quick! Name a four-letter word that:
   (1) is common in ordinary English, and
   (2) ends in "K," and
   (3) means "intercourse."
Give up? Probably not--most native speakers of English (and many non-speakers) can name this word fairly easily. Or rather: one such word. For there are two words that fit the above criteria. Can't think of the other one? Don't be embarrassed: only a genius is likely to be able to. A genius like . . . J. R. R. Tolkien.
   Tolkien is now so much a part of global culture that he seems almost a part of the landscape. Scholar speak of him in the same breath as Shakespeare; scientistics casually call a new-found species of short-statured hominins "hobbits"; legislators quote Gandalf against capital punishment; "elves" are no longer cute little sprites who hide in buttercups but knife-wielding death machines with perfect hair.And the literary movement that Tolkien spearheaded--"high-fantasy"--has made possible everything from A Wizard of Earthsea to World of Warcraft.
   According to Publisher's Weekly, by the year 2000 The Lord of the Rings had sold 100 million copies in 40 languages. By 2008, according to UNESCO, Tolkien's works had been translated 1,198 times, making him more frequently translated than Poe, Plato, or Perrault. Mind you, those 100 million copies were sold before Peter Jackson's movies were released, and before LotR's translation into Mandarin. Following publishing's general rule of thumb that every book has a minimum of three readers, and assuming that at least half of the people alive in Y2K could read, Tolkien was familiar to roughly one out of every ten literate people on the planet.
   Of course, J. K. Rowling has by now far surpassed Tolkien in terms of popularity. But unlike Tolkien, the worthy Ms. Rowling had the advantage of being carried by the world's largest publisher of children's books--and they had and still have the advantage of a captive audience in every elementary school in America. Thanks to Scholastic's marketing department, Rowling may never know if her work is really as good as her sales figures attest, of if her appeal is merely the result of saturation advertising. Which is a terrible pity: I'm sure she'd rather be known as a good writer than as "that lady who's richer than the Queen."
   But perhaps it's just as well that Harry Potter is more popular with the kids than Frodo Baggins. Rowling by all account is a sweet Scottish lady you'd invite to your mum's for tea. Tolkien, on the other hand . . . Tolkien was more than he seemed. For John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was in cold fact two very different people in a single form a flesh: a veritable Jekyll and Hyde of high fantasy. By day: tweed-suited Oxford don, staunch Roman Catholic, war veteran, loving husband, doting father. But by night . . . .
   smut peddler!
   That's right: the greatest pornographer of the 20th century was none other than J. R. R. Tolkien--and I can prove it. Don't believe me? Tune in again next week--if you dare. . . .
(to be continued)