Saturday, July 30, 2022
Friday, July 29, 2022
Like the Nile, the Niger floods every year at about the same time, bringing a surge of water to the delta that sustains it through the rest of the year. But unlike the Nile, the Niger is highly unpredictable; years when the flow of water is close to the average are rather rare. Instead, some years there is a vast flood that inundates most of delta, while in other years there is not much of a flood at all. This meant that to thrive in the delta, people had to be adaptable and develop strategies to feed themselves whatever the river happened to do.
In each of the delta's three basic subsistence strategies (farming, herding, and fishing), only deep, sharply focused knowledge of the effects and potential of prevailing environmental circumstances could ensure long-term adaptive success — in other words, specialization. But concentrating on a single highly specialized strategy in unpredictable conditions is also a recipe for frequent and disastrous failure. Diversification — spreading the risk of failure across a wider range of options — would be a better strategy but, since success with any food-production system called for a high degree of specialization, no single group could hold and exercise the necessary degree of knowledge in more than one activity. The demand for diversification is incompatible with the requirements of specialization, yet each is fundamental to survival.
The paradox was resolved in the inland Niger delta by the development of special relaitonships between specialists. These relationships allowed each group to pursue its occupation exclusively, while sharing bonds of mutual obligation.
In the most productive basins of the delta, the cultivated West Africaqn rice (O. glaberrima) has successfully held off the diffusion of the higher-yielding Asian varieties, largely because of its greater genetic variability and capacity to produce a crop under a wide range of conditions. More than 41 distinct varieties of O. glaberrima are known, among which some will survive variations in water depth from one to three meters. The delta's rice growing specialists, the Marka people, sow a mixture of varieties in the same field, each with different growing periods (from 90 to 210 days), varying tolerance to soil porosity and pH, and sensitivity to the timing of the flood. Their fields are long and narrow, cutting across several soil types along a progression of potential flood levels. The multiple sowings are made at intervals of several days or weeks The procedure and timing of Marka rice cultivation are determined to some extent by intricate astrological observations; this and other aspects of their activities are kept secret and not freely shared outside the Marka community.
I find this fascinating. There was no overarching authority in the delta; each ethnic community was entirely independent of the others, and each was also divided into clans and villages with no supreme leadership. They survived in an environment that demanded cooperation because each clan of farmers had a time-honored bond with at least one clan of fishers and another of herders, strong enough that that they would accept terrible terms of trade in years when their traditional partners were in tough straits. Presumably this doesn't work well all the time, since nothing does, but it has worked well enough to have lasted at least 2,500 years. Even under the empires that dominated this area in medieval and modern times (Mali, Songhai) the warlords mostly left this system alone and did not try to interfere.
In this rich environment, full of food and people, arose one of Africa's first cities: Djenné-Djenno. That, at least, is how UNESCO spells it; others prefer Jenne-Jeno. The name means "ancient Djenné", and it is indeed just a few miles from the modern city of Djenné. Today the old city is a great mound 10 meters tall, covering about 30 hectares (75 acres). It is surrounded by at least 30 smaller mounds that seem to have been occupied at the same time.
A modern city of the inner deltaSerious archaeology at Djenné-Djenno began in 1977. The excavators dug only four trenches, the biggest 3x4 meters, only one of which penetrated to the lower levels of the mound, and proceeded to publish a complete history of the site. Other archaeologists were a little appalled but also fascinated, because the lower levels of Djenné-Djenno radiocarbon dated to around 250 BC. That was about a thousand years before the first written evidence of cities in west Africa, provided by Muslim traders who followed the caravan routes across the Sahara. Muslim writers gave the impression that these cities (notably Timbuktu) had grown up fairly recently because of that trade, and in the absence of any other evidence their view held the field.
But Djenné-Djenno seems to have been a large settlement early in its history, and by 600 AD it had reached its maximum extent. A reasonable estimate, based on 19th-century towns in the inner delta, would be that it had around 27,000 inhabitants. Djenné-Djenno thrived down to around 900 AD, then slowly faded at its sister city grew; it was abandoned by 1400 AD.
Archaeology has continued at the site but only a small portion has yet been explored. Archaeologists feel certain, though, that the city never had any sort of citadel or monumental core. There are no larger-than-average buildings, and no evidence that any part of the city was ever wealthier than any other. So far as anyone can tell, it was probably governed in the same way the rural areas of the Inner Delta were governed, by clan elders constantly negotiating with other clan elders. There must have been added complexity because some inhabitants were not farmers, fishers, or herders, but potters, smiths, and other craftsmen. Perhaps they formed their own clans and their own relationships with food producers.
Iron production was especially strong at the ancient city, making it the second oldest known center of Sub-Saharan iron making. Deposits of slag around the town show iron was made on a large scale. There is iron ore pretty much everywhere in Africa – that's why the soil is so red – and the real problem with iron manufacture was always wood for making charcoal. It seems that the problem was solved in the Inner Delta, probably by setting aside certain wooded areas to be cut every 10 to 15 years for burnable wood.
Another interesting discovery is that Djenné-Djenno was a trading center from an early date, since imported goods such as copper and exotic stones are fairly common in all levels of the mound. Pottery from Djenné-Djenno has been found at Saharan oases. Perhaps they traded with the Roman Empire.
From my old web site:
In 1890 the Indians of the American plains were in desperate straits. The buffalo were dead, their soldiers had been defeated, and they had been confined to reservations on land no one wanted. The US government promised them food, seed, and tools, but nothing was delivered. They were dying of starvation, disease, and despair. Then a prophet appeared. A Paiute man named Wovoka preached that if the Indians abandoned the drinking of liquor, did no harm to any person, and danced in a way he taught them, the world would be convulsed by a great cataclysm. The whites would disappear and the Indians would dwell in a paradise on earth. The buffalo would come back, and the dead Indians would return to life, forever. The “Ghost Dance,” as it was called, spread rapidly all across the plains, and thousands of Indians dropped everything else to dance Wovoka’s dances and await the renewal of the world.
In 1919, on the opposite side of the world, the British protectorate in New Guinea was convulsed by another religious movement, dubbed by white observers the Vailala Madness. In the local dialect it was called iki kave, “belly-don’t-know;” in pidgin, “head-he-go-round” or “all-a-same-whiskey.” Cult members were regularly overcome by violent, convulsive, movements, accompanied by eye-rolling and moaning. These motions spread rapidly across the whole district. It seems that at first their meaning was mysterious, but within a few months the ideology of a classic “cargo cult” had grown up around them. The “head-he-go-round men” taught that soon an immense steamer would arrive from the land of the ancestors loaded with axes, knives, tobacco, calico, and food; in some versions the ship was also bringing rifles that would be used to drive the white men out of New Guinea. The cult incorporated a melange of native and European elements. A cult shrine was called “The Office” (in English), traditional dancing was discouraged and the old masks burned, but on the other hand the main ritual was a funeral feast for the dead that closely followed traditional native forms.
Anthropologists used to call these new religions “crisis cults,” because they arise in times of great crisis, or “acculturation cults,” because many of them have arisen when the tribal cultures of the world were subjugated by European imperialism. Anthropologist Weston LaBarre (1911-1996) was an expert on these crisis cults, and in The Ghost Dance (1970) he used them as a way to analyze the nature of all religion. La Barre was an atheist– it is interesting to note that the Chevalier de La Barre who was famously executed for blasphemy in eighteenth-century France was a distant relation– and also a trained Freudian analyst. He thought religious belief was a kind of neurosis from which a fully sane person would be free. In The Ghost Dance religion is coldly dissected using the tools of ethnography and psychology, and it is found to be a neurotic relic of primitive civilization, out of place in the well-adjusted modern mind.
The Ghost Dance has long been one of my favorite books, and I have been trying for years to write a review. My problem has been that I find the book so fascinating that my reviews grow to crazy length, studded with page-long quotations. There is just so much in the book that I want to share. I do not love the book because I agree with everything it says. On the contrary, I find La Barre at times positively maddening. Much of his Freudian psychology now seems about as useful and relevant as Aristotelian physics. Sometimes he is appallingly smug. The book is strangely structured and contains much that I find merely distracting. What makes The Ghost Dance wonderful is the amazing breadth of La Barre’s learning, which spans worldwide anthropology, Biblical studies, literature, the Greek and Roman classics, and psychology, and also his clear focus on what religion is for. It is commonplace now to read anthropological accounts of religion which deal entirely with its social aspects. Religion, these books tell us, arose to encourage group solidarity, or some such thing. While La Barre understands that religious institutions serve many purposes, for him religion is something that operates within the mind, and its primary value is in how it makes believers feel. We do not deal only with the world outside us, but also the world inside our minds:
Man lives in two worlds, a matter-of-fact one of common public experience, the other of mysteriously “supernatural” and compelling private dream or trance. More precisely, these two “worlds” of man are really two modes of psychic experience in the individual. (42)We have different ways of dealing with problems in our two worlds. “Thus,” La Barre wrote, “material culture, technology and science are adaptations to the outside world; religion, to the inner world of man, his unsolved problems and unmet needs.” (45) In Freudian terms, religion is a psychological defense mechanism against a reality that is sometimes too hard to bear. It is this psychological approach that gives The Ghost Dance its power. While sometimes La Barre’s Freudian terminology seems downright bizarre, his double background in both anthropology and psychology is what makes his book so fascinating.
La Barre resisted all attempts to explain religion in rational terms. Sometimes he seems to protest too much, but you have to remember that when he was writing there were powerful schools of behaviorist psychology that denied any reality to psychic events, and also a powerful school of “functional” anthropology that sought to interpret every act and belief in terms of adaptation. “We must protest,” La Barre wrote, “the insistence on rationalizing the irrational.” (289) Religions are analogous to neurotic symptoms, and they work in the sense that they help people suffering from psychic distress (all of us) get through their lives. Because we must somehow get through our lives, the mechanisms that enable us to get along are so important that they trump all considerations of rationality. “Huge populations, for long centuries, under cultural impetus, can act irrationally. They can.” (290) Many of La Barre’s contemporaries were also concerned to overturn the bias against “primitive, irrational” native peoples that colored much early anthropology. It is true, says L a Barre, that we need to restore fairness and balance to our approach to other peoples. However, we should not do this by pretending that native taboos and magical practices are rational, but by recognizing that our own taboos and rituals are equally irrational. “It is indeed disturbing to have it hinted that part of culture can be irrational – and fairly enough so long as one does not confine this privilege to ‘prelogical’ primitives, but extends the franchise to all men.” (289)
What is the source of the religious ideas and symbols that are u sed to assemble these elaborate defense mechanisms? To La Barre, as to most Freudians, the roots of religion are in the family. In times of trouble we wish for a strong protector, or a nurturing caregiver; when and how could we have formed the idea that bigger, stronger beings would protect and care for us? As La Barre notes, one of the distinctive things about religion is that in some ways a cult will be the same for all believers, but on the other hand the experience of the divine is a deeply personal thing that people have great difficulty describing in words.
What is it in the individual that makes for the shaping of group religion? What private-public Mysterium is it that all individuals have in common but do not share? (10)Obviously, it is the family: everybody has one, but no two are exactly the same.
The secular scrutiny of religion makes the Referent quite clear; and further study also explains the fearsome hiddenness, ambivalent projection, psychological ambiguity, and the strikingly individual and thenic variety of the Mysterium tremendum et fascinosum. The Mysterium is in a sense objective, and, in fact, has been experienced; but each individual has forgotten its erstwhile nature and original location. Religion *is* what a man thinks and feels concerning this unique unknown, and what he does with his ignorance. An understanding of the phenomenon embraces also the explanation of why religious response is uniquely human. The context is the universally human nuclear family, the condition is the individual human neotony. In religion the projected parent still stands, as of yore, between us and physical reality, and is still sometimes confused with it, the divine attributes being those of creator, ancestor, law-giver, protector, feared ally, lover and friend. At the base of every religion is the familial experience, and all religions consequently contain some basic oedipal story in their myths. . . .This passage gives a fair sample of LaBarre’s writing, which mixes passages of clear, vigorous prose with Freudian jargon, convoluted syntax, what seems sometimes like a conscious effort to awe the reader with his learning, and that godlike pose of psychic authority that Freud perfected and his followers copied as best they could. You can sometimes sense the German lying behind these pronouncements about “The Father” and “The Mother,” making it seem as if these were universal constructs perfectly understood by the analyst, whose wisdom you, the reader/patient, must absorb if you are to make any progress in overcoming your neurotic blocks. The argument is reinforced by universal assumptions – the father is the disciplinarian, all societies have oedipal myths – that are simply not true. La Barre is a good enough anthropologist to recognize the diversity of human societies, and most of The Ghost Dance is devoted to laying out the diversity of human religious beliefs. La Barre veers back and forth between two modes, which we might call the ethnographic and the analytic. His wonderful ethnographic accounts emphasize the irrational elements in various belief systems, and their psychic richness, but there is no attempt to say that they are all the same. Then he switches back to analytic mode and asserts the underlying our religious diversity are the same psychic needs, rooted in The Family, where The Infant, in the "stage of pre-oedipal narcissistic omnipotence," depends on nurture from The Mother and protection from The Father.
La Barre’s model of how new religious movements begin is quite straightforward. In a time of crisis, people feel that their traditional religious structures and beliefs are no longer adequate: “Man is stripped of his protective cultural garments, and for a while he is exposed to the heartless winds that sweep the universe.” (349) A prophet appears preaching something new. (La Barre’s professional fieldwork was done among South American Indians, and usually calls this figure a shaman.) This prophet is someone we would almost certainly consider insane, because only someone unmoored from social and physical reality can imagine a new religion and believe in it. In the very extremity of his psychosis, the prophet embodies the neuroses of his contemporaries and his dreams give expression to their deepest wishes. This new religion will incorporate elements of past tradition while rejecting others, and it will add some novel element. It will often be apocalyptic, promising that the world will be destroyed and remade in a vast cataclysm. If people find the new belief comforting, it will spread, because “religion is the feeling of what is desirable and comfortable in crisis situations.” (45)
Although La Barre develops his model using examples from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it obviously applies perfectly to the origins of Christianity. The Jews had lost their political independence and were undergoing a profound religious ferment when a prophet appeared whose teachings mixed elements of Jewish traditions with new ideas. He predicted the coming of a hero figure, the “son of man,” who would usher in an apocalyptic overthrow of the world, after which the first would be last and the last would be first. Like so many modern prophets, he was then hauled before the agent of imperial authority to answer for the possible political implications of his teachings: “Jesus standing before Pilate is just another messianic prophet standing before the District Officer.” (254) After his death, his followers so longed for the presence that had given them psychic comfort that they imagined he would come back and fulfill his prophecies himself.
To La Barre, Christianity is thus the ghost dance of Judaism in its time of crisis, and in a somewhat different form it served as the ghost dance for the whole Roman world as it fell into ruin. Every belief system can be interpreted in this way. Marxism was the ghost dance of a Europe convulsed by industrialization, and in its Bolshevik form it became the ghost dance of a collapsing Russia. Nazism was the ghost dance of a humiliated Germany.
But the term “crisis cult” can be criticized on two grounds: is not every moment in history in some sense a “crisis”, and does not “cult” imply invidious reality judgment? The only answer to the criticism is, yes it is, and yes it does. But that is what life is like, a chronic crisis, and that is what science is, making invidious judgments about competing hypotheses or belief systems. (96)It is to these “invidious judgments” that I turn by way of conclusion. In his tour of worldwide cultures, La Barre finds exactly two things worthy of praise. Among the ancient Hebrews, he admires their reverence for the “that which is,” a reality beyond our control that we can admire, fear, or worship, but that is not subject to any kind of magical manipulation. It is because of this core belief in the awesome, unchangeable reality of the world, La Barre thinks, that so many of our greatest scientists have been Jews. Among the ancient Greeks, La Barre admires their love of rational discussion, in which any man’s words were valued for their sense, not the status of the speaker. This tradition of fair and open debate led, he thinks, to both democracy and philosophy. Pretty much everything else about human endeavor comes across, in La Barre’s writing, as just another neurotic symptom.
The point of Freudian analysis is, first, to help patients escape from their delusions and see the world as it is and, second, to help them find the strength to go on without the comfortable crutches of infantile belief. When I encounter this approach to psychology, either in Freudian form or in self-help books like Judith Viorst’s Necessary Losses or Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, I end up thinking, what’s the point? Is spirituality only a sort of psychic toughness? Does growing up simply mean shedding the comforts of youth, one by one, until one stands exposed to the heartless winds that sweep the universe? Why would we want to do that? Because it is the truth, La Barre would answer, and our most important measure of adult sanity is the ability to face the truth and get on with living. Freud would add that understanding is itself a tool of healing and growth. Whether this psychological approach will ever lead to a happy, well-adjusted society, I have my doubts, but then perhaps the record of millenarian religions is not so great on this score, either. If understanding the world and ourselves is an important goal, either for humanity or just for you, then consider reading The Ghost Dance, because I have read few books that approach its level of learning and insight.
April 10, 2009
Crazy short video of a wind turbine that was struck by lightning.
American book publishers, squeezed from the right by library bans and the like, are being intimidated into avoiding projects that might offend loud voices on the left. "Sensitivity readers" who flag objectionable words and phrases are widely employed to help avoid trouble on social media. (NY Times)
Baskets made of pressed flowers by Shannon Clegg, lovely.
Murals of birds and other things by Spanish artist Taquen.
Plan for selective tree cutting and controlled burns at Yosemite, intended to protect the Park landscape and especially the famous Sequoia Groves from catastrophic fire, is blocked by lawsuit from environmental groups. (NY Times, Guardian)
Interesting short essay by Kevin Drum on what went wrong with America in 2001-2010, which shows up in many metrics as the worst recent decade.
More from Kevin Drum: the marriage rate in the US has been falling since 1949, years before feminism or the counter-culture or gay rights had any impact. The driving force is almost certainly economics.
Meanwhile in Ireland, The average age for a groom is 37.8 and for a bride is 35.7.
In the NY Times, the dog lawyer who defends animals condemned to death for violent behavior. I don't want in any way to condemn this; our species has an awful record of animal cruelty, and thanks in part to people like this lawyer things have gotten better lately, at least outside factory farms. But I do sometimes get the sense that some Americans and Brits care a lot more about their dogs and cats than they do about other people.
Explainer on Sri Lanka's economic crisis, which is basically about overspending and debt, not organic farming; the government tried to force all farming to go organic partly to hide the fact that they couldn't afford to import fertilizer.
Scott Siskind on using Forer statements – those statements about "you" that people feel are accurate, which skeptics use to explain astrology etc. – to discuss some basic things about how you are probably like other people. Most of the ways people think they are unusually weak, or suffer to an unusual degree, are shared by everyone else. I think this is truly important. Nothing degrades empathy like believing you were singled out to suffer, and very often the best move you can make in life is to talk about what is bothering you and discover that others have the same struggles. I think about this every time I read a story about students who dropped out of college because they felt like they didn't belong.
Judges use wikipedia.
Vox piece interview with a native activist about land acknowledgements. Interesting but I hate the way they use the word "originally", as if the people living somewhere in 1750 had been there forever.
Inside the multinational logistics center in Stuttgart, where American, British and other allied specialists keep weapons flowing toward Ukraine. Their goal is "door to door" – arrival in continental Europe to Ukrainian front line – in 48 to 96 hours. So far they have moved 78,000 tons of supplies. People who shout for more aid to be sent, and faster (including Zelensky) are ignoring the reality that it has simply taken time to build up the logistics routes into Ukraine, and in the short term sending more of one thing means sending less of something else.
Twitter thread analyzing Noam Chomsky's latest remarks on Ukraine.
Russian recruit, home recovering from a shrapnel wound, reports that he was sent to the front after only five days of training.
Tens of thousands of educated people are leaving Russia; since the start of the war, 16,000 have gone to Israel alone. Some may go back after the war but history suggests only 1 in 10 migrants ever returns.
Igor Girkin says that rather than reinforcing their threatened position in Kherson, the Russian leadership has decided to launch a frontal assault on Avdiivka, which he seems to think is a colossal waste.
One reason the Russians thought they could easily conquer Ukraine was the vast network of agents they had installed before the invasion began, which did open many doors for their troops.
Institute for the Study of War campaign assessment for July 27, with notes on the limitations on Russian activity.
Thursday, July 28, 2022
Hydraulic fracking transformed America's energy landscape; these days more than half of our oil and gas come from fracking, and we are completely independent of Middle Eastern oil. As they wrangle in Washington about how much money to spend on transitioning to clean energy, a question comes to mind; how did we pay for fracking? In the NY Times, David Wallace-Wells explains:
Perhaps the most striking fact about the American hydraulic-fracturing boom, though, is unknown to all but the most discriminating consumers of energy news: Fracking has been, for nearly all of its history, a money-losing boondoggle, profitable only recently, after being propped up by so much investment from venture capital and Wall Street that it resembled less an efficient-markets no-brainer and more a speculative empire of bubbles like Uber and WeWork. The American shale revolution did bring the country “energy independence,” whatever that has been worth, and more abundant oil and gas. It has indeed reshaped the entire geopolitical landscape for fuel, though not enough to strip leverage from Vladimir Putin. But the revolution wasn’t primarily a result of some market-busting breakthrough or an engineering innovation that allowed the industry to print cash. From the start, the cash moved in the other direction; the revolution happened only because enormous sums of money were poured into the project of making it happen.
Today, with profits aided by the energy price spikes of the last year, the fracking industry is finally, at least for the time being, profitable. But from 2010 to 2020, U.S. shale lost $300 billion. Previously, from 2002 to 2012, Chesapeake, the industry leader, didn’t report positive cash flow once, ending that period with total losses of some $30 billion, as Bethany McLean documents in her 2018 book, “Saudi America,” the single best and most thorough account of the fracking boom up to that point. Between mid-2012 and mid-2017, the 60 biggest fracking companies were losing an average of $9 billion each quarter. From 2006 to 2014, fracking companies lost $80 billion; in 2014, with oil at $100 a barrel, a level that seemed to promise a great cash-out, they lost $20 billion. These losses were mammoth and consistent, adding up to a total that “dwarfs anything in tech/V.C. in that time frame,” as the Bloomberg writer Joe Weisenthal pointed out recently. “There were all these stories written about how V.C.s were subsidizing millennial lifestyles,” he noted on Twitter. “The real story to be written is about the massive subsidy to consumers from everyone who financed Chesapeake and all the companies that lost money fracking last decade.”
There is nothing unusual about this. The building of America's railroads was a boondoggle on a similar scale, and most investors lost money. In most of the country (New York is the exception) nineteenth-century investors lost a ton of money trying to build canals, hardly any of which were ever finished. Capitalism was able to supercharge economic growth in Europe and its settler colonies because of the way stock markets and other mechanisms can raise huge amounts of money to throw at promising technologies. At one level this is a scam, in that very few ordinary folks investors ever made any money in canals, railroads, coal, airplane manufacture, airlines (a truly awful investment), or many other new tech booms. Or fracking. But in the bigger picture this spigot of money, directed at wherever the potential for growth seemed highest, created the modern world, and investors who spread their money around usually came out ahead in the long run.
So, yes, fracking happened because a lot of investors threw money at it, and lost. David Wallace-Wells seems to be decrying this waste and wishing the money had been spent on solar instead. But technologies developed with all that money may end up having a great value in the future, if they enable (as investors are now betting) efficient geothermal energy.
Besides which, the same thing is happening in clean energy. American companies are spending gigantic sums on solar and wind, thanks to a new spigot of Wall Street money being directed toward those fields. I should know, I make half my living these days from new solar farms. The money is now flowing toward solar because 1) the technology has reached a point where it makes economic sense, and 2) many investors want to see their money working toward saving the planet, hence all those "Green" investment vehicles. They are still wrangling about subsidies in Washington because climate alarmists think the transition isn't happening fast enough and want the government to "do something." A secondary issue is that the Chinese seem to be massively subsidizing their own solar industry, and many Americans don't want to see China dominate this technology or vacuum up all the "green jobs."
But you can bet that if we do transition to green energy, most of the money will come from investors, some of whom will lose a lot. Capitalism thrives despite is gigantic flaws because it has this world-transforming power, and nobody has found any other system that can do this thing nearly as well.
Wednesday, July 27, 2022
From my old web site:
A few weeks ago I was working with a crew of male archaeologists, aged 25 to 45, and I mentioned that I was listening to On the Road (1957) on tape. Has anyone else read it, I innocently asked? Sure, they all said. Several times, one said. Somebody gave it to me for my 21st birthday, said another, and the next week I hitchhiked from Chicago down to see the Kentucky Derby. And another guy in our company, they told me, used to belong to a sort of traveling commune based on the book. I was astonished. I knew that On the Road had inspired many young men to set out for the west coast, but I no idea I would find so many fans so close at hand. Why does Kerouac's story affect young American men so powerfully?
On the Road is a novel, but it is closely based on Jack Kerouac's own experiences wandering America in the late 1940s. The main characters are the narrator, Sal Paradise, a young writer very much like Kerouac, and his crazy friend Dean Moriarity, who closely resembles Kerouac's friend Neal Cassady. Out of college and without anything to tie him down, Sal travels the country by Greyhound bus, borrowed car, and hitchhiking, seeking adventure and friendship. He makes many friends, but the most important is Dean. Not a college boy like the rest of Sal's circle, Dean is a child of the streets who grew up mostly in reform schools. They meet when Dean is thinking of becoming a writer, but this is just another of his mad schemes that follow one after another throughout the narrative. They meet again when Sal hitches out to Denver. With their other friends they have uproarious drinking parties and stay up all night talking. Other adventures follow: cross country trips, a stint as a cotton picker, a stay with friends in San Francisco, more parties, visits to black jazz clubs to hear the latest bop, and finally a journey to Mexico City.
The most striking thing about On the Road is the brutal realism of the adventure scenes. When he is hitching, Sal is lonely, cold, hungry, worried about money or the next ride, and he often wishes he were someplace safe, warm and dry. The drug addicts he meets look like hell. People who spend hours in the car together become cranky and call each other names; parties often degenerate into drunken quarrels. As I was listening to the story I often thought that instead of making me want to hit the road it made me happy that I have enough to eat and a roof over my head. The down and out quality is part of point for Kerouac, tied up with the meaning of the magic word "Beat." For the proclaimer of the "Beat Generation", "Beat" meant two things: down and out, and beatific. Poverty and saintliness are deeply connected; you can't find ecstasy without indifference to things like warm beds and decent clothes. At one point Sal describes Dean's suitcase as "the beatest suitcase in the world," and he seems to mean both that it is old and worn out, tied together with string, and that it is a symbol of Dean's willingness to hit the road whenever the mood strikes him. To me the value of this indifference came out most clearly when Dean and Sal have hitched a ride east from California with a middle-aged couple who spend the whole trip worrying about where they will eat and stay, how far they should drive before looking for a hotel, and so on. Dean and Sal, who don't mind sleeping in the car and don't care much about eating, spend their time engrossed in conversation about their deepest hopes and fears, part of their plan to become the best possible friends. Their courage makes them seem free in a way their anxious traveling companions are not.
Freedom is indeed the point of much of what Sal and Dean do. They seek freedom to go where they want and do whatever they feel like, but even more they seek freedom from burdens and cares. They are always trying to live in the moment, without worrying about the future or the past or what anyone else thinks of them. They scorn domesticity and safety; they seek a kind of ecstasy in which everyday worries disappear. As Sal says near the beginning of the book,
. . . the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars. . . .Sal and Dean look for this freedom from care among blacks and Mexicans, because they have the idea that worry about the future is somehow a white thing. They look for it in alcohol, in marijuana. They look for it on the road. Sometimes, for a little while, they find it—they escape from the everyday and live in shared moments of companionship and adventure.
Besides the cold and hunger, the other thing that struck me most forcefully about On the Road was the attitude toward women. Sal says that he is looking for a woman to love and marry, but he never finds one, so his romances don't play much of a part. Dean, on the other hand, is the sort of charismatic rogue women can't resist, and he can't resist them, either. He romances a string of them, marries three, and has children with two. His devotion to his wives and children, though it seems sincere, isn't enough to keep him from getting out that beat suitcase and hitting the road whenever the mood strikes him. His wives curse him, scream at him, threaten to leave him, leave him. No matter; he hits the road anyway, his wives' curses lingering in the air behind him. That co-worker of mine who used to be part of a traveling commune has settled down quite a bit lately. I joked, "Well, he's really sold out to the man, hasn't he? He has short hair, a desk job, a house and a wife...." "That's just it," someone cut in. "It isn't the man he sold out to." And this perfectly captures one of the moods of On the Road, in which women are part of that list of cares a man has to leave behind to find freedom.
Not that Kerouac has anything against women; his female friends are among the most appealing characters in the book, and Dean's wives always come across as right and Dean as wrong. Yet it is Dean who is the hero, not his abandoned wives; the last sentence of the book is, "I think of Dean Moriarity." Dean is a hero to Sal because he is crazy enough to live life to its fullest. An ordinary sort of person with a conscience is forced in the end to choose between a life of boyish adventures and life as a husband and father. Dean, truly indifferent to duty and care, does both simultaneously. (Incidentally, the real Neal Cassady kept up his roaming ways for years after On the Road ends; he spent the 60s wandering the country in a psychedelic bus with Ken Kesey and the rest of the Merry Pranksters.) Sal, like Jack Kerouac and almost everyone else, simply cares too much—about his friends, his work, his family— to truly be carefree.
So On the Road is in a way another of the unending series of artistic attacks on the comfortable but anxious life of the bourgeoisie. Break free, it says; don't spend your life working at some dead end job or in some dead end relationship because you are afraid of the discomfort that will follow if you say no. Stop fretting and live. What separates Kerouac from the anti-philistine herd is, first of all, his constant emphasis on friendship; and, second, the honesty of his artistic gaze. He sees clearly the price of freedom and he lays out as plain as day that only a psychopath like Dean Moriarity can be completely free. The rest of us, though, can try for moments of freedom like the ones Sal manages to find in Dean's company. We can measure the comforts we achieve against the cost in opportunities for adventure; we can look at standard notions of success with an eye trained to spot chains and burdens; we can learn indifference to "necessities" so that we can focus on getting the things that truly matter to us. Here is the power of On the Road: it lays out the choices we face in life with an honesty and power that can make us see our own lives in a new way.
November 16, 2002
Tuesday, July 26, 2022
More from my old web site:
Between 1400 and 1700 the governments of Europe killed somewhere between 35,000 and 200,000 people for the crime of witchcraft. It was during the Renaissance, not the Dark Ages, that the fear of witches reached its peak; the terrible fires of the Rhineland that depopulated whole villages burned against the backdrop of world exploration and scientific revolution. Leaders of both the Protestant and Catholic reformations joined the outcry against witches, and notable preachers and the founders of seminaries added their denunciations to those of eminent judges, famous courtiers, and brilliant scholars. Sometimes it seems that the whole continent was witch mad, including some of the grandest intellectuals. Jean Bodin, author of a famous book of political theory and creator of the first quantitative economics, wrote the most terrible of all the witch books, arguing that anyone who opposed burning witches must be a witch himself and deserved to be burned.
Reading books about witchcraft written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is a profoundly unsettling experience. Apparently sane men foam at the mouth about the threat posed to civilization by impoverished old women who fly to the Sabbath, and the petty crimes that earn them the wrath of their neighbors (milk spoilt, sheep sickened) are revealed as part of a gigantic conspiracy against Christendom hatched in Hell and organized by demons. Scenes of horrific torture are presented as Christian good works, since it was the theory of the witch hunters that the witches only denied their crimes because they were in the grip of Satan. Sometimes, indeed, the victims were tortured and exorcised at the same time, and their exhausted confessions marked the moment at which they were freed from the grip of the Evil One.
Why? The question has hung over Renaissance history since men of the time wrote their own narratives. Their own explanation was that they were so greatly afflicted by witches because they were approaching the End of Days, and their reading of the Bible suggested that attacks by demons would intensify as the second coming approached. During the eighteenth century Enlightened philosophers dismissed the whole witch panic as a symptom of the medieval barbarism and religious stupidity they were struggling against. Though both these explanations still have defenders, historians have abandoned them since we have failed to find evidence that either Satan's assault on humanity or religious stupidity was worse in the 1600s than in any other time. The questions remains unanswered.
The latest attempt to offer some kind of explanation of the witch craze comes in the form of an immense book from British historian Stuart Clark. Thinking with Demons (1997) is an amazing book, and Clark's learning is astonishing. The history of witchcraft has been my chief intellectual hobby for 15 years, but Clark has read dozens of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century demonologies that I have never even heard of. His 686 pages of text are followed by no less than 106 pages of bibliography--and these are big pages with little print. Clark's intent is to understand what witchcraft beliefs meant to intellectuals during the centuries when the crime was routinely punished by death. It is a question I find fascinating, and Clark's picture of thought and belief is rich and convincing. Yet in the end, though he manages to rule out a whole class of possible explanations, he comes no closer than anyone else has to answering the basic question of why so many old women were burned.
Books of Renaissance demonology are so repulsive to us that we instinctively dismiss their authors as backward savages. The works of witchcraft skeptics, on the other hand, are so pleasing to us that we try to assimilate their authors to ourselves, making witchcraft skepticism a sign of modernity and classing the skeptical authors as "progressive" or "advanced." Clark shows that this is a gross distortion of the historical situation. The basic beliefs that made up the lore of witchcraft were nearly universal among Renaissance writers. The existence of witches and demons was proved by their appearance in the Bible. The reality of the cures, curses, and other magic performed by village witches was accepted nearly as widely as the truth of scripture. Since everyone knew that the sorts of verbal charms and spells used by witches could not have any power of their own, their efficacy could only come from the assistance of demons. And have demons ever helped people without demanding something in return? Obviously magicians had sold their souls to get their power.
Even most of the skeptical writers accepted that witchcraft was possible. The Renaissance skeptic whose work was best known in his own time was German physician Johann Weyer, who denounced the witch trials of Cleve in an emotional book published in 1563. Weyer believed that the trials he witnessed were perversions of justice because the poor old women convicted were too weak in mind and ignorant of theology to even understand the crimes they were accused of, let alone commit them. What they needed, he thought, was the care of doctors and ministers, not the attentions of the torturer. Weyer's humanity and compassion shine across the centuries, but there is nothing particularly modern about his thinking. He had no ties to up-to-date science, and he accepted the possibility of witchcraft--indeed, he suspected that it was rife among the cynical courtiers who promoted witch trials as a way to advance their careers.
Those skeptics who completely rejected the reality of witchcraft, such as Montaigne and the English writer Reginald Scot, were hardly more intellectually progressive than Weyer. They tended to take their inspiration from the ancient Cynics and to be skeptical of everything, including the advanced science of their day. Their thought points toward nothing in particular, certainly not toward modern science.
The intellectual arguments demonologists used were not only widely accepted, they were very old; none of them would have seemed unusual to St. Augustine. They existed, therefore, centuries before the time of the witch burnings. They also existed after the fires ceased to burn; as Clark shows, most English writers of the early 1700s continued to accept both the activity of demons in the world and the possibility that people would ally with them, even though English witch trials had stopped in the 1660s. If there is a direct connection between witchcraft skepticism and the rise of experimental science, nobody has yet been able to find it.
Clark's exhaustive tour of the intellectual underpinnings of the witch trials shows that intellectual changes explain neither their start nor their end. What, then, does explain it?
Fear. Fear that the Christian world was under assault by demonic forces was the thing witch persecutors had in common with each other and that distinguished them from those who, though they accepted the possibility of witchcraft, were not particularly concerned about it. Clark demonstrates this convincingly. The advocates of witch burning thought their world was descending into chaos, and they sought order in a religiously-based government. This was the age that elevated the divine right of kings to rule to its most absurd pitch--and what better way for kings to prove they had God's sanction than by warring against those soldiers of Satan, the witches? For the intellectuals who codified and chronicled it, witch burning was one weapon in a war fought against demonic disorder, a war also fought with preaching, catechism, church reform, the hiring of more policemen, the imposition of harsher penalties for criminals, and the elevation of royal power to a divine sacrament.
The question of why so many people were burned as witches during the Renaissance is therefore the question of why so many people were afraid. There are many possible explanations, from the Black Death to the Turkish conquests to changes in the weather. All of these may have contributed, but my guess is that the pervasive fear was generated by the same great changes that make us celebrate the Renaissance as a time of marvels. The opening of new continents upset the old structure of the world and overturned parts of the economy, enriching some people and some regions while ruining others. New ideas were exciting but also frightening. Religious reform thrilled those who sought a more perfect church but abolished many comforting traditions; confessional conflict turned what had been a source of comfort into a sphere of battle. Rapid change is disturbing, and sometimes it makes people profoundly afraid.
But whatever the causes of the fear that haunted Europe, the hanging and burning of so many innocents reminds us of the grim dangers of being afraid. When people are afraid, they lash out stupidly. They mistrust friendship and put their faith in violence and revenge. They elevate petty criminals and political opponents into agents of the Devil and make war upon them. In times of fear we should do all that we can to set it aside, for it is a wicked counselor. We should turn, instead, to the other legacy of the Renaissance, the faith in the intellectual power and great traditions of our species that we call humanism. We must reject madness and obsession in favor of reason and empathy. If we must use violence, we should use it with reluctance and with compassion for the those we fight against, not as if we were battling demonic creatures born of our darkest nightmares.
April 13, 2002
For a review of a more recent book that sheds light on these questions, see here.
There was nothing besides the artifacts to mark this out as an important grave; as you can see from the plan, the artifacts were jammed into a space barely big enough for a standard modern coffin.Museum Burg Linn in Krefeld is not much for posting large images.
Monday, July 25, 2022
Another review from my old web site:
The more I learn about J.R.R. Tolkien, the more amazed I am by The Lord of the Rings. The latest work that Christopher Tolkien has managed to salvage from his father's voluminous notebooks, The Children of Húrin, is much like all of the other material we have seen since The Silmarillion: it has a few intriguing inventions and the occasional memorable phrase, but it is really only a curiosity, not a book worth reading in its own right. Nobody but a true fan of Middle Earth would get past page five. The writing has long patches of dreariness, the story is not especially interesting, and the flashes of Tolkien magic don't redeem the overall drabness. One reviewer said that the plot of The Children of Húrin "unfolds with the inevitability of Greek tragedy," which is one way of putting it. You could also say that nobody ever does anything remotely surprising, and that the future bad consequences of various acts are so obvious when they are performed that you have to wonder how the elves ever got their reputation for "lore and craft."
The Children of Húrin is a longer version of a story already told in The Silmarillion. I am going to ruin the plot for you now, without regret, since part of my purpose is to give you an idea of what the book is like without your having to read it. It begins in confusion. In a few pages we cover the genealogy of the protagonists, the geography of Middle Earth in the Elder Days (not the same as it would be later), and the cosmo-political situation. This is nothing like the marvelous way in which the struggle against Sauron slowly unfolds as we follow the gripping story of The Fellowship of the Ring. There is no artistry here, just a textbook rolling out of facts and names. Unpronounceable high elvish names that all look rather alike, I might add, so if you don't remember The Silmarillion you won't have any idea who is who anyway. (A friend pointed out to me, after I published this the first time, that the introduction might have been written by Christopher Tolkien to make this fragment publishable on its own.)
What is going on is a war between the elves of Middle Earth and Morgoth, the original Dark Enemy of Tolkien's universe. The most important elves are the Noldor. Long ago the Noldor left Middle Earth to live with the Valar, the lesser gods, in the enchanted realm of Valinor. After an age or so they got bored with happiness under the gods' protective wings and, corrupted by Morgoth's whispers, staged a sort of rebellion. They left Valinor, after killing some other elves to steal their ships ("this was the first kinslaying of the Eldar") and landed back in Middle Earth. There they found that while most of the elves had remained loyal to the Valar and opposed Morgoth, most of the men had gone over to the dark side. Only three "kindreds" remained loyal, including the family of Húrin.
At first the war with Morgoth goes well for the elves. The Noldor have been filled with divine knowledge and something also of the gods' powers during their time in Valinor and, "mighty in lore and craft," they defeat Morgoth's armies of orcs and balrogs. Unable to destroy his great fortress, Utumno, they besiege him within it. Across the northern half of Middle Earth they build mighty kingdoms and gleaming cities, full of magic weapons and other wonders. These are the places that float in the background of The Lord of the Rings: Gondolin, Nargothrond, Menegroth of the Thousand Caves.
But Morgoth is himself a god, and final victory is beyond the power of the elves. The Valar will not help them, because of rash and terrible oaths sworn when the Noldor were leaving Valinor, and Morgoth's cunning and power slowly wear down their defenses. His favorite trick is to get his enemies to fight each other, and this turns out to be rather easy with the Noldor. They are so proud and quick to anger, and so given to swearing Great Oaths that cause those around them to "quail at the fell words" and always lead to something bad, that they have trouble uniting even in the face of ultimate evil. Morgoth breaks the siege of Utumno and defeats the elves in a series of battles, culminating in The Battle of Unnumbered Tears.
Among the elvish army at that great defeat was Húrin, leader of one of the free human kindreds. He and his wife Morwen, who is said to be nearly as beautiful and proud as an elvish princess, have a son named Túrin and a newborn daughter named Niënor. Morgoth tries to extract from Húrin the location of the hidden city of Gondolin. He refuses.
Then Morgoth stretching out his long arm towards Dor-lómin cursed Húrin and Morwen and their offspring, saying, "Behold! The shadow of my thought shall lie upon them wherever they go, and my hate shall pursue them to the ends of the world. . . . The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda, and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will. But upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. Wherever they go, evil shall arise. Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill counsel. Whatsoever they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death."Morgoth then binds Húrin into his high seat on the mountain of Thangorodrim, saying "with my eyes you shall see, and with my eyes you shall hear, and nothing shall be hidden from you."
The rest of the book follows the gradual fulfillment of this curse. Actually, I have to say I was rather underwhelmed by the horror of Morgoth's revenge. Fostered by an elvish king, Túrin grows into a great warrior and a leader in the wars against Morgoth. He is proud and quick to anger, which gets him into trouble and leads to the deaths of several of his friends, but these faults seem almost to have been a requirement for leadership in the Elder Days. The kings of the Noldor do far worse. Eventually Túrin becomes war leader of the elven kingdom of Nargothrond. He aggressively assails Morgoth's minions wherever they can be found. His success breeds overconfidence, and he has a great bridge built over the river that protects Nargothrond, so that his armies can more easily cross it to fight on the other side. Morgoth, of course, has been waiting for this – and, I mean, who wouldn't be? But isn't there a Greek word for the blindness the Gods send on men so they will do the stupid things that bring on their inevitable destinies? – and he then unleashes the mighty host he has been preparing for this day. With it goes Glaurung, Father of Dragons, whose fire turns the tide of battle, and the elves are defeated. Of course, the remaining defenders of Nargothrond are unable to destroy Túrin's great stone bridge in time, so Morgoth's army crosses it and sacks the city.
Glaurung is one of the story's more interesting characters. Besides his fire and his vast strength, he uses his gaze and his voice to great effect. Meeting Túrin amidst the ruins of Nargothrond, he reminds him of the family he left behind when he went to be raised by elves:
"Evil have been all your ways, son of Húrin. Thankless fosterling, outlaw, slayer of your friend, thief of love, usurper of Nargothrond, captain foolhardy, and deserter of your kin. As thralls your mother and sister live in Dor-lómin, in misery and want. You are arrayed as a prince, but they go in rags. For you they yearn, but you care not for that. Glad may your father be to learn that he has such a son, as learn he shall." And Túrin being under the spell of Glaurung hearkened to his words, and he saw himself as in a mirror misshapen by malice, and he loathed what he saw.Glaurung knows full well that Morwen and Niënor left Dorlómin long ago, but Túrin is tricked by the dragon's power and goes in search of them. Meanwhile, Niënor comes to the ruins of Nargothrond to find Túrin, and instead finds Glaurung. She asks him about Húrin, and he answers:
"I know not. He was left here to defend the women and weaklings; but when I came he deserted them and fled. A boaster but a craven, it seems. Why seek you such a one?"Her memory erased, Niënor wanders aimlessly in the woods until she stumbles upon a village of woodmen, who take her in. Of course, Túrin and his sister eventually end up living side by side, fall in love, marry, and conceive a child. At this point Glaurung emerges from Nargothrond and attacks the land where Túrin and Niënor are living. Túrin slays the dragon, but in his death throes Glaurung reveals all, saying to Niënor, "and the worst of his [Túrin's] works grows inside you." She throws herself off a cliff, and Túrin throws himself on his sword.
"You lie," said Niënor. "The children of Húrin at least are not craven. We fear you not."
Then Glaurung laughed, for so was Húrin's daughter revealed to his malice. "Then you are fools, both you and your brother," said he. "And your boast shall be made vain. For I am Glaurung!"
Then he drew her eyes into his, and her will swooned. And it seemed to her that the sun sickened and all became dim about her; and slowly a great darkness drew down on her and in that darkness there was emptiness; she knew nothing, and heard nothing, and remembered nothing.
Which is all rather unfortunate. But not especially tragic or horrible, at least not to me. The whole message of Tolkien’s legends is that to die battling against evil is about the best end any human can hope for, and even some of the immortal elves choose struggle and death over eternal bliss in Valinor. I imagine Húrin must have been rather proud of his son, who went down fighting and even slew the Father of Dragons before Morgoth undid him. The incest is a little icky, but Túrin and Niënor had not seen each other in 25 or 30 years when they met and fell in love, and anyway they were caught in the spell of Glaurung and the revenge of Morgoth, so who can blame them? At least they found some happiness together in a time of unending war.
Thus The Children of Húrin. It is a small piece of the legends Tolkien created for his Elder Days, and it has the characteristics of all his writing about that time. I know that some people like this stuff, but like is the one word I would never use about it. I am sometimes amazed by the breadth of Tolkien’s vision, and sometimes the murky oyster bed of his writing gives forth pearls, but on the whole I find it numbing. It is too alien, too cold, too stylized, and the characters are too drained of the flesh and blood of real human life to hold my interest.
The Elder Ages were a time of High and Noble Purposes. These are stories of angels, not men and women. The elves are not perfect, which is a good thing, but on the other hand they all have the same faults: pride, greed (especially for magical treasures like the Silmarils), jealousy, and a weakness for swearing those Great Oaths when they are angry. There is much "love," but all of it the bloodless love of those romances in which the hero and heroine fall in love after hearing descriptions of each other's virtues, without ever meeting. This is love without either friendship or sex. Or humor, something peculiarly missing from these tales. In the Elder Ages, nobody ever laughed because something was funny. They laughed in joy over their victories, or in defiance of their fates, or in the Face of Morgoth, but not once in either the Silmarillion or The Children of Húrin does anyone laugh at a joke. The narrow emotional range of the characters fits the odd, black and white flatness of the universe. The landscape has mountain ranges and plains, but few places described fully enough for us to recognize them if we saw them. So little is said of Gondolin or Nargothrond that we have no sense of what made them wonderful. This world has no economy — no fields, no flocks, no forges, no spinning wheels — no ecology, and little history. These stories are little more than parables dressed up in chivalric prose.
Of course, the most distinctive thing about the Elder Ages is not the stories themselves but the language Tolkien used to write about them. This strange mix of Old English words, Shakespearean grammar, and Edwardian archaizing is so easy to mock there is hardly any point to the exercise. Word order is often inverted to create heroic effects: "Helms too they chose;" "By his sword we should have known him." The key words are those that suggest nothing in the modern world: ancient, lore, craft, sorcery, sword, dragon, meddle, mighty, fell, and of course Tolkien's own vocabulary: elves, dwarves, orcs, and the litany of flowing words in invented languages. "Armor" might suggest panzers, so Tolkien preferred "mail", or sometimes hauberks and byrnies. Helms are always tall; armies are called "hosts" and are like unto forests of spears; people hearken to words of wisdom, take counsel, deal great blows, and quail at nameless terrors. Heroes are always slain, never killed, and not until after their dooms draw nigh. I confess that I rather enjoy some of the sentences that come out of it, like this description of Sauron when he was Morgoth's chief lieutenant:
Sauron was become now a sorcerer of dreadful power, master of shadows and of phantoms, foul in wisdom, cruel in strength, misshaping what he touched, twisting what he ruled, lord of werewolves; his dominion was torment.But you can only take so much of this. One of the models for this prose must have been the high-minded speeches Shakespeare gave to his most annoyingly noble characters, like Henry V and Brutus. Shakespeare, though, had the sense to break up this sterile nobility with other kinds of speech, something Tolkien, writing about the Elder Days, refused to do. He gives us Henry V without Falstaff. This is a frigid desert of language, and if sometimes it has the beauty of arctic sunsets, it is too cold and inhuman to be endured for long.
Reading Christopher Tolkien's introduction to The Children of Húrin, I was once again amazed by the vast amount of material Tolkien produced. In his papers are dozens of unfinished stories, thousands of lines of alliterative verse, notes and scraps on everything from languages to genealogies. And yet all of this would mean nothing if he had not somehow managed to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Without those two books, so different from The Children of Húrin, Tolkien would only be one of those mad world-makers you sometimes read about in literary magazines, intriguing to the kind of people who collect paintings by mental patients.
In writing about hobbits, Tolkien found a way to communicate his vision of another world in a way that millions have loved. The hobbits, I think, are the key. Because they are not proud and high-minded, Tolkien could write about them in prose that was not frigid with honor. They are little and plain, and when they find themselves amidst great events they feel what most people would feel: fear, uncertainty, and fatigue. They use contractions when they speak. Surrounded by hobbits, other characters seem more human. Gandalf the Grey is worried, confused, and sometimes humorous; Strider has a rough-hewn quality much rougher than Húrin ever acquires during his days as a woodsman. Even the orcs take on some of the long-suffering courage of ordinary human soldiers. People say things that one can imagine people actually saying. For the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings the high style of the elf lords and their deeds is mostly in the dim background, and the occasional touches of noble archaizing lend exotic color to the story without killing it.
Another difference between The Lord of the Rings and the stories of the Elder Days is in the level of detail. The Lord of the Rings is a tapestry of astonishing richness. Much of the depth comes from the hints of ancient history and the interweaving of present and distant past, as the characters walk down ancient roads through landscapes of ruins. One of my favorites bits is the woodwoses, primitive people who look exactly like crumbling stone statues of their ancestors made by who knows what bygone civilization. But there is more. LOTR is full of exactly-described places, from The Prancing Pony and the Barrow Downs to Helm's Deep and the plains of Mordor. The weather changes from day to day and season to season. Most important, though, are the characters. One king of the Noldor is much like every other, but Aragorn, Boromir and Faramir are heroes in quite distinct ways. Tom Bombadil is maddening, but at least he is a unique creation, unlike any other being I have ever met in myth or literature. In Galadriel and especially Eowyn Tolkien even made attempts at giving character to women. Sam, the least aristocratic of the characters, is a joy, the more so as the story moves toward its climax and Tolkien fell more and more into that cursed high style. Frodo is a truly great creation.
The Hobbit was a radical break from all that Tolkien had written before. This change could not have been easy for Tolkien. His preferred style was an expression of his deepest aesthetic impulse, his revulsion for the modern world. He put this aside because he wanted to be a writer, and writing means communication. He later said that he regretted "writing down to children", but at least he was making a real effort to speak to someone. He tried to be funny. He wrote silly songs, had his heroes ride in barrels, made Gandalf defeat the trolls through sly trickery and Bilbo win the ring by cheating at riddles. The black and white moral world is grayed a little by the acts of Thorin, who is wicked in ways that go far beyond the petty sins allowed to Túrin. Even Bilbo is hardly saintly. The landscape is enriched by irrelevent wonders and terrors, like Beorn, the spiders, Laketown, and the magic swords taken from the troll horde. The Lord of the Rings toned down the silliness of The Hobbit and mixed its earthiness with some of the honorable elvish frost leaking through from earlier ages. It moved the focus back to the cosmic struggle between good and evil. But it kept enough of the lowered tone and the richness of character and world to make it the greateast of all modern fantasies.
Fantasy fiction concerns the making of worlds, at which Tolkien was the greatest master, but also the telling of stories. Unless they are put into an accessible form, imagined worlds are simply elaborate daydreams. In Tolkien's writing I see two conflicting impulses. He sought refuge from the horrors of the twentieth century in his imagination. In Middle Earth, heroes of the greatest nobility acted out simple dramas in which the good and beautiful warred with all that was ugly and wicked. This is what gave Tolkien peace amidst the cares of his time. But Tolkien also wanted to be an author, that is, to write books that people would buy and read. To do this he had to modify his vision. He had find other ways of writing, and to tell stories in which all was not as pure and neat as in the visions that drove him. He had to create heroes and villains with enough humanity to invite sympathy or disgust. That he did this amazes me. He made himself a great storyteller as well as great imaginer, and the result is one of the most wonderful of all stories. The Lord of the Rings is the place to encounter Tolkien, not The Children of Húrin.
May 31, 2007