Sunday, January 9, 2011

Three Scenes for the Elven Queen

#14 in the series, "J.R.R. Tolkien--Smut Peddler!"

There are three scenes featuring Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings. We've now dealt with the first, in which the Fellowship encounters the White Lady of Lorien in her palace atop the mallorn. The second, which we won't get into just yet, involves only Frodo, Sam, Galadriel, and her Mirror. The third and final scene brings the Fellowship and their hostess together one last time for a ritual of considerable significance in the traditions of the fairy-tale: the ceremony of gift-giving.

From its beginning with William Morris's The Wood Beyond the World, fantasy literature has been firmly identified with medieval imagery. LotR is the type- specimen of the tradition. How many of us would have known (or cared) what a "vambrace" was if we hadn't encountered the word in the Return of the King? And of course Tolkien was a professional medievalist, an expert on the literature and life-ways of the western Europe of a thousand years ago. But why was he a medievalist? Why, for that matter, have all the Great Ones of fantasy--Morris, Dunsany, Eddison, Lewis, Tolkien, Le Guin, and now George R. R. Martin and J. K. Rowling--set so many of their tales in a medieval setting?

Let's start our journey toward an answer by following the FREPE. This is a mnemonic used by anthropologists when describing any human culture. The FREPE for a fantasy medieval society would run, very broadly, something like this:
Families are extended, patriarchal, and close-knit

Religion may be important but is usually kept in the background. Diversity of religious/metaphysical opinion does not exist--everyone believes pretty much the same thing.

Education takes place at home or in cloistered settings. Books are rare and valuable.

Politics is the business of an aristocratic elite. There are kings, nobles, ladies and lords. Commoners are seldom visible, but (contrary to actual medieval practice) serfdom does not exist.

Economics is very definitely non-capitalist.
I'd like to focus on this last point. Fantasy literature is fake-medieval for more than aesthetic reasons. Morris, the founder of the modern fantasy tradition of castles and kings, was a revolutionary socialist who spent much of his life trying to revive the medi- eval craft-guild; indeed, he is best known today not as an author or a radical, but as an interior designer and the creator of Morris furniture. Le Guin, the most honored fantasy author of all time (Hugo, Nebula, Gandalf, Lifetime Achievement and National Book awards) is an anarcho-feminist who has written the only convincing Utopian novels I have ever read: The Dis- posessed and Always Coming Home. Just about everything Le Guin has ever written has included an at least implicit attack on "propertarianism": late-imperial, industrial, statist capitalism.

So: why did Dunsany, Tol- kien, Le Guin, et al. set their tales in worlds with- out machine guns, stock-exchanges, credit-default swaps, or Great Gatsbys? It's not just the castles and sailing ships, the cobbled streets and torch-light, the flashing swords and pris- tine forests that make a fairy-tale world "medieval." The Middle Ages were the last time in history that most people on this planet could survive without turning everything (including themselves) into a commodity. Ours is a world of Bernie Madoff and Casino Jack, but once upon a time. . . . Only in a pre-modern, pre-capitalist world could Frodo travel thousands of miles across alien territories and not have to spend any money. Not a silver penny! And he can only do this because his author ignores the Invisible Hand and relies instead on the Open Hand: the gift. Fairy-tales are a collective, fading memory of a time before the Almighty Buck, of a time when not everything was assigned a numeric, monetary value. If you want to talk about gifts--as opposed to commodities--then the fairy-tale is one of the few ways we still have to do it.

In "modern" "civilization," giving is often considered a negative behavior. We can't just give citizenship to all those pesky illegals, can we? It's far too valuable!. So it may be easy to lose sight of the social significance of generosity. In most soci- eties, throughout almost all of history, most goods and services were circulated as gifts, not as things to be bought and sold. Did Jesus sell his life on the cross? To listen to Mel Gibson you'd think he had. And Yoga Journal is none too eager to remind its well-toned readers that Lord Buddha spent the last 45 years of his life as a beggar. Feudal warriors offered their swords to the local lord; lords fed and clothed their retainers. No money was exchanged; the value of a man's arm was not set by "market mechanisms." The great cathedrals of Europe were built on donated land with volunteer labor. Chinese emperors made such magnificent gifts to their Tibetan gurus that to this day the Han name for Tibet is Xizang, "Western Treasure-house."

From Shostak's "Nisa." Mother Eve would have looked like this.
Lewis Hyde refers to the gift as "anarchist property." The gift is the original ownership, the property of the original anarchists, the Ancestors. Gift-giving is in our genome: humans and bonobos are the only animals that share food with anyone other than their children, as well as being the only primates who copulate face-to-face. And those of us humans who still retain a connec- tion to the Ancestors--for example, the Zhun/twasi Bushmen--have in their !Kung language the word kxaro. This is a word for a concept almost completely alien to English-speaking culture, so much so that we have no word for it. A kxaro is a "market" where nothing is bought, sold, bartered or traded, but only given: a network of formal, ritualized gift-exchange. It wasn't until a couple of generations ago that the Bushman even learned what a commodity is. They would have been better-off without the knowledge: they hadn't needed it for 100,000 years.

Given the economic structure implicit in Middle-earth's medievalness, we can anti- cipate that Galadriel will give gifts to her guests, gifts "fit for a queen," as we still say. And given the powerful charge of symbolic energy the Lady of the Golden Wood carries with her whenever she appears, we can also anticipate that her gifts will carry a good portion of that emotional electricity. Tolkien, as usual, does not disappoint us: every one of the gifts Galadriel gives to the members of the Fellow- ship is not only sumptuous, but charged with hidden meaning.

Readers of modern literature are used to thinking of the "meaning" of objects in terms of symbolism, of "objective correlatives." Hollow men with heads full of straw stalk the pages of our poetry; bits of cutlery sum up a woman's failed relationship with her mother. But in the non-literary world every gift is, by the fact of being a gift, a bearer of meaning--namely, the meaning of the emotional bond between the giver and the recipient. What is the "meaning" of a piece of cheap plastic crap from Walmart? Utterly nothing--unless it was bought for you by your child with her lunch money. Poof! The piece of crap is crap no more. The magic that can trans- form even Walmart junk into something marvelous is the decision to give it away rather than to sell it or hoard it. And if that decision is motivated by love, no spell of Faerie is mightier.

Magic is something Galadriel is famous for. On the other hand, we don't usually associate the Lady of the Golden Wood with cigars. . . . TBC

homage to Christina-Taylor Green
may she find refuge from suffering in the bardo

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