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The Making Of A Myth, Part 5 – The Use Of Primary Colors

I wonder what J. R. R. Tolkien would think about Harry Potter. Or Twilight. Or dystopian fantasies like Veronica Roth’s Divergent. Would the author of “On Fairy-Stories” be a fan of the darker forms fantasy has taken in the last decade or so?

I wonder what J. R. R. Tolkien would think about Harry Potter. Or Twilight. Or dystopian fantasies like Veronica Roth’s Divergent or urban fantasies like The Black Sun’s Daughter series by M.L.N. Hanover. Would the author of “On Fairy-Stories” be a fan of the darker forms fantasy has taken in the last decade or so? These are interesting questions.

Tolkien believed that fairy stories were a means to three particular desirable conditions: recovery, escape, and consolation. Many speculative writers are familiar with his thoughts on escape. I myself have written a number of posts on the subject here at Spec Faith (see for example “What to Make of Dragons, Part 7 – Escapism”). We probably know less about his thoughts on recovery and consolation, however. In exploring what he wrote about the former, I find ideas that suggest how he might react to today’s fantasy.

First, what exactly did Tolkien mean by “recovery”?

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining — regaining of a clear view . . . We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity — from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.

I wonder if this familiarity might not be a serious problem for Christian writers, explaining why our fiction, even our fantasies, seem to lack a freshness. We know the rudiments of our faith, and it is these elemental principles that we realize the rest of the world needs to embrace, so we convey them over and over until they lose some of their power and potency, even for us.

God is a God of grace. Jesus died for our sins. Ho-hum, Christmas again, a celebration of the Incarnation. Familiar terms trip off our tongues with ease, but with less and less meaning. And the concepts find their way into our fiction, but with less and less force.

The need, Tolkien suggests, is recovery, but many writers despair:

Who can design a new leaf? The patterns from bud to unfolding, and the colours from spring to autumn were all discovered by men long ago. But that is not true. The seed of the tree can be replanted in almost any soil . . . Spring is, of course, not really less beautiful because we have seen or heard of other like events: like events, never from world’s beginning to world’s end the same event. Each leaf, of oak and ash and thorn, is a unique embodiment of the pattern, and for some this very year may be the embodiment, the first ever seen and recognized, though oaks have put forth leaves for countless generations of men.

We do not, or need not, despair of drawing because all lines must be either curved or straight, nor of painting because there are only three “primary” colours.

In the same way, Christian writers need not despair because there is only one way to salvation, because there is only one begotten Son of God, because by grace alone may we be reconciled to God. In other words, Truth is not limiting to the writer since it impacts people in different ways. Christians, however, seem to tell the Old, Old Story in an old, old way.

A writer who recognizes weariness of The Same, will inevitably try to break free:

there may be a danger of boredom or of anxiety to be original, and that may lead to a distaste for fine drawing, delicate pattern, and “pretty” colours, or else to mere manipulation and over-elaboration of old material, clever and heartless. But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the wilfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium. (Emphasis mine.)

So Tolkien apparently saw no answer in exploring to the edges (or beyond) of Truth and Beauty. Rather, the great need is Recovery.

Before we reach such states we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red.

Being “startled anew” by God’s love, for example, a Christian writer is freed to make old truth shine like a new beacon:

Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.

So what do you think? Would Tolkien believe that gems turned into flowers or flames in Harry Potter? In Twilight? In dystopian fiction or urban fantasy? Or would he think these things “dark or unremittingly violent” or “mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium”?

My guess? He’d see a few gems but a lot of drabness and maybe even some delirium.

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Galadriel
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I wrote a blog post  last January about this…kind of. Tolkien set out to create a “new myth” for England, and argubly succeeded. But I don’t think it refects England or our world anymore, so I proposed that “Doctor Who” is the modern myth of its country.
As for what Tolkien would say of it…I have some of that here
 

Shawn
Guest

I believe Tolkien would be troubled by many of the books today that celebrate and glorify darkness – i.e. HP & Twilight. These books live in dark places. Tolkien didn’t celebrate ‘darkness’ in his stories. Instead, he used them to show the light and truth.

Kessie Carroll
Member

I’d argue that Tolkien’s own works were very dark. Just read The Two Towers and Return of the King and see how dark they are. When I first read them, I battled depression the whole time. But eventually, Good triumphs over the darkness. Same for Harry Potter. Sure, it gets dark, but is there light at the end to show darkness’s ultimate defeat? Absolutely.
 
Now, Twilight is a whole other ball of wax, seeing as it’s romance with fantasy elements. I don’t think there is any good or any evil in Twilight. It’s one giant swath of gray (and the series finale is the most anti-climatic pitiful excuse for a climax I’ve ever read).
 
I think other authors are far more dangerous than Meyer or Rowling. Phil Pullman in His Dark Materials, which is an utterly compelling and fascinating trilogy, paints a world in shades of black with no light to redeem anyone. The ending is unsatisfying because the main characters are simply screwed forever. The End.
 
I think Christians need to read more broadly and pick their battles. Harry Potter and Twilight are literary small fry when it comes to dangerous ideas.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

I believe Tolkien would be troubled by many of the books today that celebrate and glorify darkness – i.e. HP & Twilight.

Shawn: As some other commentators have said afterward, I’m not sure these two can be fairly conflated. Though I know some readers might abuse Potter to endorse their own dark desires, I’d also argue it’s contrary to the creator’s intentions, and the clear direction of the entire story. And as our previous guest columnist said, Christians should read anything else, including Potter, in the same way we read and “interpret” Scripture — that is, we must practice a consistent hermeneutic.

I guess I’d simply ask: what in Harry Potter “celebrates and glorifies” darkness?

Mentioning the story’s magic can’t count, because a) similar magic is key in other stories that all of us enjoy, and b) real-world darkness does not include the made-up magic of Potter, such as “apparating” between locations or riding on flying brooms.

From Kessie:

Twilight is a whole other ball of wax, seeing as it’s romance with fantasy elements. I don’t think there is any good or any evil in Twilight. It’s one giant swath of gray (and the series finale is the most anti-climatic pitiful excuse for a climax I’ve ever read).

That matches what I’ve heard. With one disclaimer about Twilight — that even it is a copy of a copy of a copy of legitimate human desires to be loved — I would agree about its darkness and seeming glorification of at least “gray” morality (which I mean as very faint praise). This seems best illustrated by this popular and thrown-together graphic:

… And is most recently repeated by none other than George “Sulu” Takei, star of Star Trek, who was trying to “broker peace” between tongue-in-cheek mocking videos by William Shatner, for Trek, and Carrie Fisher, for Star Wars. (Slight content caution about the below embed; however, Takei kept things clean, and didn’t need to get as nasty as Shatner and Fisher were even in their “just for fun” barbs!)

[Takei] Sci-fi fans be warned, there are no great stories, characters or profound life lessons to be found in Twilight. … In Twilight, the only message that rings through loud and clear is: “Does my boyfriend like me?”

Again, I do believe one can use this message to point to the only true Lover of anyone: Christ. But in doing so, one needs to subvert the main point of Twilight, and cannot easily point to the story’s resolution as a reflection of Christ’s love for His Church, or its individual members (which Potter does reflect, by its story’s end).

Kessie Carroll
Member

Also, Jesus doesn’t only love us because He doesn’t know what we’re thinking and our blood smells good.

A. T. Ross
Member

LOTR is much darker than anything in Harry Potter. By far. Much grittier. Edgier. Harry’s scar is healed in the end of the Potter books; in LOTR, Frodo never recovers. Rowling said the Potter books are about death, but ultimately they are about resurrection. Tolkien also said his books are about death and the desire to escape it. “But I should say, if asked, the tale is not really about Power and Dominion: that only sets the wheels going; it is about Death and the desire for deathlessness.” Tolkien goes on, noting that “Death is not an Enemy! I said, or meant to say, that the ‘message’ was the hideous peril of confusing true ‘immortality’ with limitless serial longevity. Freedom from Time, and clinging to Time. The confusion is the work of the Enemy, and one of the chief causes of human disaster.” (From Tolkien, Letters). In contrast to Potter, where Harry is able to remain faithful after being greatly tempted, Frodo fails in the same place and succumbs to his temptation. They illustrate two different sides of the same Christian experience, two responses to temptation.

 

Maria Tatham
Guest

Becky, I think it’s great to discuss how Tolkien might view current fantasies, even though we’re obviously making more or less informed guesses. It’s great to see his views taken from this essay and his letters, because these are some places where his ideas are found. It’s hard to infer them from his fiction only.

By the way, it was enlightening to see Potter and Twilight put in their very minor places as far as truly dark fiction goes! So thank you, Kessie!

Liking Potter might have been a problem for Tolkien, if we consider an analogy. Would he have applauded a series set in the orcian culture, in which some sterling orc had a meaningful, heart-warming, exciting adventure there; and, in which the elves were depicted as, let’s say, self-interested snobs, and far less in every way than THE ORCS?

Tolkien’s ideas would be well-informed, because he understood literature, the history of ideas (some), and the nature of genre so well; although, his thoughts are never to be seen as the last word on anything, right?

Obviously, as a writer of fantasy and a poet, he understood dark things, and their peculiar lasting appeal. That’s why he could write with such insight about the One Ring of Power, which tempted everyone, if I’m remembering rightly, except Strider/Aragorn (who is a Christ type). Because he understood darkness so well, and even liked some of it, I believe, this led to some interesting elements in the history of the elves, that is, that these first-born of ME awoke to life in a starlit, not a sunlit word. This wasn’t simple chronology but meaning, I feel.

About darkness in Tolkien, consider Beren and Luthien, as well. Beren first saw Luthien dancing in the forest at night; together they set out on a quest into an underworld; together they moved through ME as changelings for a time.

If he here to adjudge Potter and Twilight worthy because of their artistry and ideas, if he saw them as glimpses of the Greater Story, he might have enjoyed them. And he might have laughed out loud at Potter. Though getting past calling evil good and good evil would have been difficult for him, I think.

Wish we could know. At any rate, don’t you think he would have enjoyed the discussion, and would have had much to teach us and some things to learn?
 

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[…] written about the trend toward darkness that current fantasy has taken (see for example “The Making Of A Myth, Part 5 – The Use Of Primary Colors,” “Too Dark?” and “Exploring Darkness Or Exploring Light.”) Urban […]