Film

The Tolkien Legacy

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Christopher Tolkien in 1996

It’s a rare, if not exceptional, case. In an era where most people would sell their souls to be talked about, Christopher Tolkien has not expressed himself in the media for 40 years. No interviews, no announcements, no meetings — nothing.

It was a decision he made at the death of his father, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), British author of the hugely famous Lord of the Rings (three volumes published in 1954 and 1955), and one of the world’s most-read writers, with some 150 million books sold and translations into 60 languages.

Was this long-held public silence simply a whim? Certainly not. The 87-year-old son of the great J.R.R. Tolkien is the calmest man imaginable. A distinguished Englishman with quite an upper class accent, who settled in the south of France in 1975 with his wife Baillie and their two children. Has he kept mum because he does not care? Even less likely. During all these years of silence, his life has been one of incessant, driven, almost Herculean work on the unpublished part of his father’s oeuvre, of which he is the literary executor.

The “money quote” that’s been going around from this first interview ever by Christopher Tolkien, his father’s literary executor, is this one, which lends the article its title (“My Father’s “Eviscerated” Work – Son Of Hobbit Scribe J.R.R. Tolkien Finally Speaks Out”):

Invited to meet Peter Jackson, the Tolkien family preferred not to. Why? “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25,” Christopher says regretfully. “And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.”

This divorce has been systematically driven by the logic of Hollywood. “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time,” Christopher Tolkien observes sadly. “The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.”

The headline is somewhat misleading, since the bulk of the article is really just about the enormous place of Christopher Tolkien in his father’s legacy. That said, I can appreciate his family’s unhappiness with the popularization of that legacy in film, though my own sense of it is that it has served to introduce more folks to the “real” thing in the canonical Tolkien works. After all, there have been mondo-gigantic boosts to book sales following the release of the films. More people are reading Tolkien than ever. And that is an encouraging thought.

Read the whole thing.

Aslan is on the move

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The Lion of St. Mark, from the Echternach Gospels (8th c.)

The Sunday of Forgiveness, March 6, 2011

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

“They say Aslan is on the move.” With these whispered words, the seventh chapter of the allegorically Christian novel by C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, introduces the character of Aslan. “Aslan is on the move.”

I happened to hear those words again this week when watching the film version of this story with my daughter. We began reading the book together, as well. Those of you who have read the book perhaps feel a bit of the excitement of those words: “Aslan is on the move.” But for those who haven’t, here is the next thing that Lewis writes:

And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.

I, too, felt something curious upon encountering those words, words I’ve been seeing again and again for many years since I first read them as a child. What occurred to me this time was this juxtaposition: “Lent begins next week. Aslan is on the move.”

In Lewis’s tale, Aslan is a great lion. He is not only a talking lion, but happens also to be the rightful king of Narnia, the fictional land into which Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy stumble. Narnia is at first dominated by the White Witch, who makes it always winter in Narnia, but never Christmas. Yet Aslan is more than a lion, for he is also a symbol of our Lord Jesus Christ. But when the four children first hear his name, they have no idea who he is. But they know that he is coming, and with him, comes the springtime.

In most languages, the holy season we are about to embark upon is called simply the Great Fast, but in English, we have inherited our terminology from Latin, and it is called Lent. The word Lent now is used almost exclusively to refer to this season in the Church’s calendar, but its older meaning has nothing to do with fasting or extra church services leading up to Pascha. Lent means “springtime.”

We have had a fairly heavy winter here in the Lehigh Valley this year, and if you are at all like me, the coming of spring is most welcome. Indeed, I feel a strong sense of anticipation for some sunshine, warmer air, and for signs of life to begin emerging. And here, precisely where we are balanced between winter and spring, weary of the heaviness and darkness of the past season, here we encounter Lent, the springtime of the Church.

I think many people greet Lent not with a sense of anticipation but, many times, with dread! Such people, if they are trying to be serious about their spiritual lives, may feel what Edmund does in the book, a sort of “mysterious horror” or perhaps drudgery, as they think about the fasting, the extra church services, the sermons about repentance, and so on. They may even think that this attitude of suffering is what God wants for them. And if they are not serious, Lent is probably all the more tedious, because here is yet another thing impinging upon their perfectly busy lives. They are probably hoping to stay insulated both from winter and springtime, kept in a perfect box of perfect weather with a thermostat to keep their spiritual life from being anything but utterly bland all the time.

But we do not have to be those people. For a great adventure is now beginning. We can, like Peter, feel “suddenly brave and adventurous,” that there is a great task set before us that will define us and fulfill us. Or like Susan, Lent can be “as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by,” a time of intense and often heart-rending beauty. Or perhaps we greet Lent like Lucy, with “the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer,” for freedom is at hand, and everything becomes possible.

Springtime is precisely about freedom. We are able to go outside again, to stretch our arms and legs, to reconnect with life. This is the time to stretch not only our limbs but also our spirits, to clean not only our homes but our hearts. Repentance, the theme for Great Lent, is not fundamentally something dark and negative, but rather beautiful and powerful, because, like springtime, it is the cleaning out of our hearts, the rededication of ourselves to what truly matters. In this spiritual springtime, we emerge again from the traps we’ve devised for ourselves so that we can be watered with the showers of divine energy, to turn our faces clearly toward the sunshine of the love and healing of God, to grow toward Him once again.

This Sunday is called the Sunday of Forgiveness, and this evening at Forgiveness Vespers we will give and receive from each other precisely that great gift. If we do not forgive, if we do not show up and make that forgiveness real, then we cannot expect that God will forgive us. Indeed, we essentially pray again and again that He will not, because we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. And if you are at all like me, you need forgiveness.

Forgiveness is the restoration of relationship. It is when we come home by the path of repentance. In this Great Lent, most especially if you have never done it before, come with us on the journey. This journey cannot be taken only by coming to church on Sunday morning like you always do. Lent is almost invisible on Sunday morning, because Sunday is always a celebration of the Resurrection. But in the bright sadness, the secret glory of the Lenten services during the week, something else emerges, something that gives that resurrectional celebration its true meaning.

When I was watching the film, and it came to the part where Aslan was going willingly to be sacrificed on behalf of a traitor, to give his life in exchange, I became a little concerned that my four year old daughter was perhaps not quite ready to see that sort of thing on screen. But although the film makes it clear what happens, the act itself is essentially done off-screen. But all my concerns were wiped away by what happened a few moments later.

You see, after the grief of Susan and Lucy at seeing the great lion killed, they hear a great crack, for the stone table on which he had been sacrificed breaks in two. And then his body disappears. And suddenly, he’s back, standing on the crest of a hill in glory. At that moment, my little daughter’s face lit up in a way I’ve never seen before, and she immediately said, “Oh, I love him!”

When I asked her at the end of the movie how Aslan was like Jesus, she said right away, without any hesitation, “He rose again!” And he did.

So here we now stand, perched once again at the edge of the great adventure, the turn of the season from the dark entrapment of winter to the refreshing freedom of springtime. Will we follow the King the whole way? Will we enter into His time of glory? And when we see Him emerge from the tomb on that Great and Holy Day of Pascha, will we quite naturally say, “Oh, I love Him!”?

May it be so for you.

May the God of forgiveness and of resurrection, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be therefore glorified always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Ecological Vision in James Cameron’s Avatar

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Ecology was never particularly a subject I thought I would find myself thinking too much about, much less writing about, but it seems to keep coming to the fore for me, especially as I’ve begun to apprehend more of its theological, rather than secular/political, significance. Framing this theological vision in terms of “the story of home” (which is one literal rendering of oikologia, from which we get ecology) makes a good deal more sense than putting it in the rarefied categories of “environmentalism.”

As Master Bueller once put it, “A person shouldn’t believe in an ism.” I don’t agree with him, of course, that a person should instead “believe in himself.” Our confidence and spiritual center as Christians is in Christ, not in ourselves. Ferris’s substitution of self-worship for ideology—and boldly explored in what is still one of the most entertaining films to come out in the past 30 years—is not really much better, but at least he got it half right. Ideology is not the answer. As an Orthodox Christian, I assert that communion is the answer. And that brings us to James Cameron’s Avatar.

This past Sunday afternoon, I went with my father-in-law to one of the local big cinemas (alas, not to the Emmaus Theatre, which, not surprisingly, is probably not going to be showing Avatar; Update: Actually, it looks like it is!), and we took in a matinée of Avatar. I’ll be honest: I like big, action-packed sci-fi flicks, and that is precisely what I expected to see in Avatar. I’ve read some reviews from some of my fellow Orthodox which criticize the film’s lack of character development and serious dialogue, as well as its theological unidimensionality, but I wasn’t expecting any of that kind of depth in Avatar and wasn’t disappointed when it wasn’t there. I still judge these kinds of movies like I do Star Wars, which particularly in its 1977 first installment also didn’t have that kind of depth. What it and Avatar do have are archetypal characters dealing with fairly predictable situations in fairly standard ways. All that means is that I still try to watch these movies like I watched Star Wars through the early ’80s—like a kid hoping for a good time. I see nothing wrong with that sort of homely fun. I also admit to some amusement at the film’s humans’ quest for a mineral called unobtainium. Some critics, it seems, took this to be a sign of uninventiveness on the filmmakers’ part rather than the sci-fi in-joke that it is. But no matter.

Anyway, for an intriguing, if brief, comment on the soteriological problems of the film, see these remarks. But perhaps my favorite weblog review is this one from the Front Porch Republic, which takes a localist/conservative look at the film, rather than a neo-conservative/globalist look (the worldview for much of the right-ish punditry on this flick).

That being said, I do think that there are some fascinating questions being explored by Avatar which go a bit beyond the standard cinematic explosions-in-space fare that I was raised on. Given the basic Idyllic-Noble-Savages-in-Tune-with-their-Planet set upon by the Bad-Mean-Military-Industrial-Civilized-Types narrative of the film, there are some writers who have taken Avatar to be “environmentalist” propaganda, and it may well be and may even have been intended that way. But I still think there are some elements of the film worth thinking about and worth comparing with Orthodox ecological and cosmological vision.

One of the basic assumptions of much of modern secular environmentalism seems to be summed up in this question: How do we take mankind out of the picture? Man is typically conceived of as an alien on Earth, and thus the environmental project is to remove man’s presence as much as possible from the planet. The only permissible sentient life is the “noble savage,” who are writ quite large (literally) in Avatar. The Na’vi people are essentially sinless and innocent.

It is a common notion in pagan cosmology and anthropology that there is an identification between mankind, the planet and the creator—in most ancient myths, mankind is birthed from an earth-goddess, and the planet Pandora in Avatar is no exception. The Na’vi’s goddess Eywa is essentially a sort of consciousness for the planet itself, which the scientists there tell us is host to a bioneurological network more complex and conscious than the human brain, via bioelectric connections that run through all the flora of the planet. The fauna, including the Na’vi, are able to interface with other animals and even with plants, thus allowing memories to be stored in the shared network. “Memory eternal” for each person is entirely possible in the mind of their goddess, and there seems to be some kind of communion which can be attained between persons by means of the connection to Eywa.

What I think is worth noting in this pagan/pantheistic view of god, man and nature is its similarity to Orthodox Christianity. With most heterodox, anti-sacramental forms of Christianity, matter and spirit are so disconnected from one another that the environment is looked upon as something wholly “other” from man—thus, one is either an environmentalist seeking to remove man from nature or one is an exploitationist seeking to use nature for all it’s worth. Either way, the human intuition underneath paganism and still present within Orthodoxy is lost—that man is not apart from the rest of creation, but rather is its pinnacle, and also that he is meant to serve as the creation’s priest, making sacred use of materiality as an offering to god/God, to be returned back to him as a means of sanctification. The most bloody pagan knew this as he killed bulls on his altar, and the Christian knew this as he received the Body and Blood in the unbloody sacrifice of the God-man on his own altar.

The Na’vi form a coherent culture, one which is deeply concerned with Place. This goes a bit beyond the devotion to “the forest” or somesuch that we have seen in other kind of environmentalist films (e.g., Fern Gully). The Na’vi not only have their Hometree, but they also have what amount to temples and cemeteries. It is finally the threat to their holiest shrine that is the greatest potential catastrophe in the film. This, too, is an indication of a sense of the holiness of Place, that materiality not only has a functional purpose but a spiritual significance, that any given place is irreplaceable and unrepeatable.

One thing that is a bit different about Eywa, the planet goddess of the Na’vi, is that she apparently hears prayer. This is why I regard the theological vision of this film as more pagan than truly pantheistic. In this, I regard the film as more advanced than most modern environmentalist theologies, which usually want nothing at all to do with a deity with any sort of personal existence. But when we see swarms of native creatures begin a coordinated assault on the mechanistic military of the invading humans, narrated by the deep-chested declaration of Neytiri—”Eywa has heard you!”—then we are clearly being told that this is a deity with self-awareness and with potency. Eywa is concerned only with “maintaining the balance” of life and does not take sides, much like the Holy Trinity Who is not partial and only acts according to the divine plan. But both, nevertheless, in some way interact with the persons in their care in a way that can only be understood as answering prayer.

Another intriguing element in the film is that all energy is “borrowed.” On Pandora, what that seems to mean is that, when anything dies, it returns back to the planet and ceases to exist. Yet its being is somehow remembered by Eywa, such that sentient voices can be heard by those who tap into Eywa’s neural network. Again, this is a more advanced vision than modern secularism, which has no idea whatsoever how to deal with death (other than coming up with new ways to hasten it). That humans (and Na’vi) have always put their dead into the ground is an indication of our understanding of the connection between that ground and the flesh which is made from it. Thus, even in death, the Na’vi’s communion is in and through Eywa. Further, even basic communication seems to carry with it the notion of communion and interpenetration, as with their repeated phrase, “I see you,” meaning “I am looking deeply into you.”

Yet while the Na’vi can only hope for the storage of their memories in Eywa, perhaps in a modified form of the personal oblivion of Hindu and Buddhist Nirvana, the Christian knows that “Memory eternal” in God’s memory means that He continues to give us His energy so that we may live forever, whether we are righteous or wicked. The Fathers teach us that we are not naturally immortal, but God does sustain us forever, such that we are effectively immortal.

This leads me to my final question, one which I have not yet seen any writing on at all: Why is it that the scientist leading the Avatar Project, played by Sigourney Weaver, is named “Dr. Grace Augustine”? It’s possible, to be sure, that the juxtaposition of Grace and Augustine is purely coincidental. But could it perhaps be an anti-Pelagian comment, that salvation for a people (whether the Na’vi or the humans who are exploiting them) can only come through divine intervention?

So, yes, I am looking forward to a sequel.

Update Dec. 26, 2009: One bit that could probably do with some fleshing out in the above is the major difference between pagan and Orthodox Christian theology—the utter dissimilarity between the Creator and Creation. We have no idea whether Eywa is the creator of Pandora (indeed, she seems to function on the purely created level), but the identification of Eywa with the Na’vi and other life puts this theology firmly in the pagan camp. Persons are quite literally children of their deity.

For Orthodox Christianity (and Judaism before it), the Creator is utterly different from the Creation. Creation is not birthed from the Creator, but rather created ex nihilo. This is probably a major reason why the traditional Jewish and Christian image of God is as Father and not as mother, to preserve the critical theological affirmation of the total difference between the created and the uncreated. Indeed, it is this difference which makes the Incarnation of the Son of God such an astounding miracle. It is honestly nothing terribly special if a deity which is already identified with her worshipers chooses to make herself known as one of them. It is something else entirely if the eternal, changeless, infinite, invisible and uncreated God becomes temporal, subject to change, finite and visible, while yet simultaneously retaining all the fullness of His deity.

Pagan philosophy had begun to head in this direction by the time of Christ (that is, to profess a total disjunction between uncreated and created, as the Unmoved Mover and the Moved), which is why the Incarnation took the world by storm. This is also why the big theological problem of the early centuries of Christianity was not how this man could be God, but rather how God could possibly have become man.