Tag Archives: Tolkien

On Fantasy, Tolkien, and Video Games

Ok….so after 17 years, I have finally come across a fantasy/scifi story that is in the same league as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  I’ve come across many good moral allegories, but they don’t count. Let me try to explain.

As much as I love Narnia, even that was merely a thinly-veiled allegory. It is still in the genre of, here-is-an-extended-metaphor, with one-to-one mapping of meaning (e.g. Aslan = Jesus, Emperor over the Sea = God the Father, Telmarines = Modernists, etc, etc). Like Tolstoy, it is the top-down, enforced meaning, the kind of story that works from externals, that explicitly tells you what its message is.

Then there is another kind of writing…a kind that explores the dimensions of our universe…that isn’t so much about a “point” or a “lesson”, but lets you feel the fabric of reality, that odd mix of beauty and pain and wisdom, grief and hope, that is…deep-down, plain old true. I don’t mean the escapist literature which is merely there to give you a “what if” fix in never neverland…but the kind, that, despite it is fiction, really does touch some deep core within you–because you recognize it….because something in it echoes and resonates in a way only true things can. It “fits” with the cosmos as they really are, a sort of cosmological accuracy, for lack of a better term.

Dostoevsky was able to do it, in The Brothers Karamazov. Yes, it was fiction–and yet, he touched on something very, very real. There was something more “true” about it that many padded autobiographies, there is a brutal and vulnerable honesty in Dostoevsky…and (unlike many who don’t quite succeed), he touches truth.

OK, so Dostoevsky is set in our world: it is not fantasy. What makes something fantasy is not (I would argue) the inclusion of elves, fairies, and orcs…but rather what Tolkien first did, rather brilliantly. Yes, Lord of the Rings is not an “allegory” in the sense of C.S.Lewis’ Narnia. Middle Earth is a complex world, with no easy one-to-one mapping of the symbols to earth, with no forced, top-down, explicit morality or religion. BUT….Tolkien does touch upon the structure of reality, particularly of the invisible realm (e.g. the moral realm, the realm of virtue and vice and faith and corruption–in short, the metaphysical realm, the realm of religion), and make what is invisible, visible. In other words, the moral/metaphysical is made physical. The ring physically morphs Gollum, it expands and burns. Despair is smoke clouds and screeching wraiths on bats. Hope is literally a star, a loaf of bread eaten. Inner beauty is made physical (in the high elves), and inner ugliness is made physical (in the orcs).

In the Silmarillion, the Elves are what men are now. But by the time of Lord of the Rings, the Elves that are left on Middle Earth are…not men. They are quasi-angels, beings of pure goodness. By their very presence they scatter wraiths, and their very bread and cloth burn the impure. This “flatness” also applies to teh orcs: they are evil, in its pure form. There isn’t any ‘human complexity’ to them, because they are the physical manifestation of the inner realm of men. As the men are batted between orcs and elves, between the dark lord and Westernesse…it is really, in a long epic form, the story of man within himself. This isn’t thriller escapism about random battles that never happened. This is about battles that have occured. It is about the struggles of everyman, in the invisible realm of the soul.

Almost all other fantasy miss this point. They just see the magic and dwarves and spells as so much make-up to jazz up story like any other. Suddenly…in other fantasies, orcs function merely as another humanoid species, and dragons are no different than horses. It is merely a technological change. It is no longer that “flat” world of the fairytale, where everything speaks of the inner man.

Tolkien’s Ring is moral corruption, is the temptation of evil itself. When it calls him, we don’t need a subplot about Frodo struggling with pride or selfishness or powerlust–because, that is the point of the Ring. It is those things already. When other fantasy writers try to make another Tolkien, they throw in endless minutiae, detail, vivid other worlds….but they are not as deep as Tolkien, because they do not resonate with reality, with our own inner world, with our own struggles. Tolkien resonates with reality. That is what makes Lord of the Rings an entirely different animal from all the other fantasy I’ve attempted to read…which are really just variations on other fiction, either without implicit morality or all, or with tacky explicit morality, making it merely allegory, not true fantasy.

OK. I thought only Tolkien could pull it off. I certainly never can. But then…I ran into this video game, or I should say, I spent 30+ hours watching my brothers play it. Yeah, I know, I don’t normally think much of videogames, they seemed to scream “TAWDRY ESCAPISM” in huge letters. But this one was different.

It’s Starcraft 1 (1996), Starcraft 1: Brood Wars (1998), culminating in Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty (2010).

Oh, it isn’t perfect and it has its flaws…but it resonated. It had the same cosmological accuracy, the same resonance about the nature of the universe, of reality itself, of the struggle of the inner man, but made manifest in physical terms. I was, to be honest, stunned and blown away. I never thought this could be pulled off again.

My brothers just finished Blizzard’s sequel (Heart of the Swarm, 2013)…which was, point by point, the sloppy opposite of everything in the first 3, especially its immediate prequel, Wings of Liberty. These last two couldn’t be more different than night and day.

So here I am, for the first time in 17 years, experiencing fantasy like Tolkien again, and then…I’m sobbing/nauseated/laughing…at this supposed sequel which trashed it so badly it was a joke.

I guess I sound really silly. Chill out dude, it was just a game. But no, its not “just entertainment”. This is about the nature of reality.

Christian Joy qualitatively the same as Sorrow

This is from a 1944 letter to his son.  Tolkien has just heard a sermon on the healing of Jairus’ daughter and is reflecting on the healing of a young boy Tolkien had witnessed in 1927.

But at the story of the little boy (which is a fully attested fact of course) with its apparent sad ending and then its sudden unhoped-for happy ending, I was deeply moved and had that peculiar emotion we all have–though not often. It is quite unlike any other sensation.

And all of a sudden I realised what it was: the very thing that I have been trying to write about and explain–in that fairy-story essay that I so much wish you had read that I think I shall send it to you. For it I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce).

And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint has suddenly snapped back. It perceives–if the story has literary ‘truth’–that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story–and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.

Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. . . . So that in the Primary Miracle (the Resurrection) and the lesser Christian miracles too though less, you have not only that sudden glimpse of truth behind the apparent ananke of our world, but a glimpse that is actually a ray of light through the very chinks of the universe about us.

–Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 100-101

(I reposted from this blog: http://dogmadoxa.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-greatest-fairy-story.html)