Saturday, November 24, 2007

An Annoying Literary Post

This literary tangent by Matthew Yglesias has me thinking. Six or so years ago, in the midst of enjoying Peter Jackson's film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, I re-read John Gardner's Grendel, a re-writing of the epic poem Beowulf, which has recently become a highly-praised film. My father taught Grendel every year in his regents English class; my senior year Gardner had accepted an invitation my father extended year after year to come and speak to our class. Unfortunately, just weeks before, Gardner was killed in a motorcycle accident, so I never got the chance to hear him speak.

My parents belong to a Book Club, and around the time that I was reading Grendel, my father told me how he was going to approach his review - as a piece of counter-cultural political criticism. I used that as a jumping off point for an entirely political hermeneutic of the novel, which allowed me to bring in Nietzsche, and Richard Nixon (not very strange bed-fellows, really), and the whore-madonna complex. I also spent part writing on a comparison of Grendel with Lord of the Rings. While I do love the books, and Jackson's adaptations are among the finest films ever made. For all that, though, the perspectives of two scholars of Anglo-Saxon could not be more different, and those differences were reflected in their respective popular novels.

In the final instance, the differences between Gardner and Tolkien were linked not just to one being and American and another being British; one being a devout Roman Catholic and the other being an atheist; and one writing twenty years after the other. Context might not be everything, but it certainly account for many of the differences. The men were very different people, and their respective political opinions most certainly could not be more different.

In the video appendices to the films, a Tolkien scholar argues the novels have a multi-cultural point of view; he also argues that there is an environmental theme to the books. I argued that, in fact, Tolkien's view was hardly multi-cultural in the sense most contemporary scholars use the term. His approach to nature was far more in keeping with a certain pagan view, animistic and occult, with overtones of almost Luddite disdain for human industry. This reactionary, one might almost call it (after Ernst Bloch's discussion of Jung in The Principle of Hope) fascist attempt to recapture a prehistory that not only never was but never could be, is as far from the kind of responsible environmental concern we know today. It is a mix of acquiescence before the multitude of natural mysteries that surround us and a reverence for those mysteries bordering on worship.

I suppose, as a further aside, I should toss in Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, which was a too-clever-by-half attempt to retell, again, Beowulf, this time through the eyes of an Arab chronicler. It, too, was turned in to a movie, The 13th Warrior that, while entertaining, ends up, like Crichton's work, too-clever-by-half.

Virtual Tin Cup

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