Thursday, 29 November 2012

Which way you face

I don’t have the Discworld books handy right now, and I don’t remember which one it was, but at one point Granny Weatherwax says something along the lines of “It doesn’t matter where you stand; what matters is which way you face.”
I’m pretty sure Granny Weatherwax is speaking for her author here, and I think I have an inkling what Pratchett might have meant. And a few different things have reminded me of it recently. (Spoilers for The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series below the cut, though if you haven’t read The Lord of the Rings or the Narnia series I’m not sure what you’re doing reading my blog.)
LudditeJourno over at The Hand Mirror wrote a piece on The Hobbit, which begins:
I have no good feminist reasons to love Middle Earth, and plenty to find it problematic. Tolkien was clearly uninterested in women – Lord of the Rings features powerful women primarily as supplementary love interests to powerful men (Arwen and Eowyn) or as much less important to the storyline than corresponding male characters (Galadriel – cf say, Elrond).
Even as it stands I’m not sure this is completely fair. Galadriel made a much bigger impression on me than Elrond, and as far as I was concerned Éowyn rocked. I read that book (and had it read to me) when I was eight, and I didn’t get what was going on between her and Aragorn or why she was so sad when he went to the Paths of the Dead and didn’t let her come. But then she rides into battle and faces down the Lord of the Nazgûl, and wastes him – making sure, in the process, that his last thought is to regret ignoring women (there’s a charm on him that he cannot fall “by the hand of man”). Arwen, I’ll grant you. I am enough of a nerd to have read a lot of the History of Middle-Earth books, Christopher Tolkien’s compilation of his father’s manuscripts, and Arwen doesn’t appear until the late drafts. Earlier, Aragorn was to be paired with Éowyn (earlier still, when he first appeared, he was a hobbit!) Arwen in The Lord of the Rings is a situation, rather than a character. She’s the plot reason why Aragorn and Éowyn can’t be together, and that’s pretty much it. I’d put her expanded role on the positive side of the book-to-movie conversion ledger.
But I won’t deny that The Lord of the Rings, were it written today, would be a sexist book. Why are there so few female characters, and why are none of them in on the main quest? I suppose having men and women camping together on the long march from Rivendell would have raised some sexual tensions, and that Tolkien does seem to have been genuinely uninterested in. Why does Éowyn have to be driven into battle by unrequited love, and not, say, the need to defend her home, like most of the men around her? Why does her healing have to involve marrying Exposition-Monkey Faramir, rather than deciding she doesn’t need a man to make her whole and becoming a ruling Queen of Rohan in her own right? Obviously Tolkien could have removed Éomer from the story if he’d chosen to.
“Fantasy” as an established genre did not exist in Tolkien’s time, though of course there had been earlier stories that we now class as fantasy. Tolkien was writing fairy-tale romance. So look at the way women appear in fairy-tales and romances (Andrea Dworkin is good on this). Look at the Wicked Witch, either the loathsome hag in the forest or the evil enchantress-queen. Now what is Galadriel but an enchantress-queen in a forest? Tolkien wants us to be quite clear that the men of Rohan and Gondor think of her as a Wicked Witch – Boromir’s lines on the subject are passed to Gimli in the film – but we’re to be even more clear that she is not a Wicked Witch, and that the “evil enchantress” story is a product of superstition and fear. And how do fairy-tale heroines react to being spurned by the man they love? Not generally by going into battle; if we can include ballads under the fairy-tale romance heading, more often they lie down and die of grief.
The clearest example of what I’m talking about – Tolkien’s deliberate subversion of the passive-female trope – you’ll have to look up in the History of Middle-Earth, I don’t think this particular incident made it into the Silmarillion. It’s in the story of Beren and Lúthien from the First Age, which you might pick up a smattering of from The Lord of the Rings if you pay close attention (but then, if you’re the type to pay close attention to The Lord of the Rings, you’ve presumably read the Silmarillion). Anyway, in the full version Lúthien finds herself a prisoner at the top of a very tall tree, I think because her father, the elf-king Thingol, doesn’t want her consorting with that human boy. So she makes her hair grow fantastically long by magic, then cuts it off, makes a rope of it, climbs down the tree, and escapes. What is that but a neat reversal of the disgustingly passive Rapunzel story?
Some feminist critics have made a great deal of Shelob, reading her as a symbol of the smothering, emasculating female. I think it’s more likely that she’s a symbol of the terrifying giant spider, like the one that bit Tolkien in his Bloemfontein home garden at the age of three. More problematic to me are the Entwives. Treebeard’s tale of them to Merry and Pippin didn’t make it into the movies. Basically, the female Ents were practical where the male ones were contemplative, and left their husbands in the forest while they planted gardens, which fell into ruin in later centuries. This seems to reflect Tolkien’s real views on gender. Given the amount of time and energy he poured into Middle-Earth, I don’t doubt that it’s an accurate picture of life in the Tolkien household; but, of course, Tolkien was creative and contemplative not because he was male, but because he was Tolkien.

Race is another problematic issue in The Lord of the Rings. Elves are “fair”, though usually dark-haired. Númenorean Men are fairer and stronger and longer-lived and generally more special than everyday run-of-the-mill Men; the Silmarillion reveals that their “blood” descends from Elros Half-Elven, who chose mortal human life whereas his brother Elrond embraced elven immortality. (This technically makes Arwen Aragorn’s great-great-great-great-great... great-aunt, or something.) Purity of Númenorean “blood” really means something in Middle-Earth – for instance, Gandalf tells Pippin that it runs nearly true in Denethor and Faramir, “but not in Boromir whom [Denethor] loved best”. By contrast, Men who are “swarthy” or “slant-eyed” are not to be trusted, and both adjectives apply in spades to the Orcs. And of course, Orcs (and Trolls) are evil by birth, to be slain on sight without scruple.
The thing is, we know Tolkien was not a racist. In his essay on English and Welsh, he insists that ethnic identity has nothing to do with blood and everything to do with what language you speak. “I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones,” he once said, referring to his South African early childhood. In 1938, I think it was, Tolkien’s publishers were negotiating for a German translation of The Hobbit. The German censors – wait, let that sink in. Germany, 1938. Got the picture? Right. The German censors wrote in asking if the author of this work was Aryan. Tolkien wrote to his publishers saying he’d rather not make any declaration of his race at all, but since it was their money on the line he’d draft two replies: one refusing the question outright, and one answering it but rejecting the implications in the strongest possible terms. When Tolkien’s letters were collected after his death, only the latter was found in the publishers’ archives; presumably the outright refusal was the one sent on to Germany. The surviving letter is a marvellous specimen of polite rudeness. Tolkien tells the censors that no, he is not Aryan, as he does not speak Hindustani or Gypsy or any related language (take a moment to imagine the reaction of a Nazi being told that the Gypsies are “Aryan” and the Germans are not!) “However,” Tolkien continues (I quote from memory), “if you are inquiring as to whether I am Jewish, I regret to say that I appear to have no ancestry among that talented people.” He has hitherto taken a small degree of pride in his German surname, he says, but if things go on the way they’re going the day is not far off “when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.” In a letter to a son serving in the army, Tolkien regrets that he is now too old to go and help fight “that dirty little ignoramus Adolf Hitler”. The Holocaust was not then public knowledge; Tolkien’s anger was mainly directed at Hitler’s misappropriation of his beloved Germanic mythology for racist propaganda.
All that being the case, what’s going on here? Again, have a look at Tolkien’s predecessors – The Lord of the Rings is a battle epic as well as a fairy-tale romance. The most classic war epic of all, Homer’s Iliad, depicts both Trojans and Greeks as good men, forced to kill each other for the sport of gods. It is almost alone in its even-handedness up until people started writing about World War I. There is no hint of sympathy for the pagans in the Hebrew Bible or the Maccabees, nor much for the “Saracens” in the Chanson de Roland, all of which appear to have influenced The Lord of the Rings. More recently, take a look at the depiction of natives in the works of Rudyard Kipling or H. Rider Haggard. The idea that racism cannot be true even in principle – that not only is no race evil by nature in the world as it is, but that no race could be evil by nature in any possible world – is very recent indeed. Tolkien differs from earlier writers by making his irredeemables unequivocally non-human.

Similar problems arise with the Narnia series. Though not as urgently present a threat as the Orcs are in Middle-Earth, Narnia has quite a few thoroughly evil races – Ogres, Hags, Minotaurs, and a dozen or more others mentioned only in lists of the creatures assisting the White Witch at Aslan’s execution. Narnia also has some evil human nations, notably Calormen. Calormenes are dark-skinned, slave-traders, bad poets, and worship gods that are “more impressive than agreeable to look at” (not like crucifixes or tortured saints, then?) There appear to be two good Calormenes in the whole of the Narnian universe, namely Aravis Tarkheena in The Horse and His Boy and Emeth Tarkaan in The Last Battle, whose virtue in both cases consists of worshipping the Narnian god instead of the Calormene ones. And Lewis’s sexism is much more blatant than Tolkien’s. Three Narnia books (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Silver Chair, The Magician’s Nephew) have Wicked Witches for their boss villain, but women on the side of virtue are never in charge. There are no Galadriels or Éowyns here.
But that’s just scratching the surface. There are dozens of problems with the Narnian world, which surface the moment you try and think what it would really be like to live there. Ana Mardoll has been deconstructing the series chapter by chapter (at the time of writing she’s just begun The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), and has very little good to say about any of it. While she’s not always fair in her criticisms, she’s found a lot of genuinely problematic points in the series. And some of them really do reflect Lewis’s own conservative outlook. He really did believe in martial glory and chivalry, in Platonic essentialism, in unquestioning faith and obedience to God, and he had a slightly disturbing fixation with the concept of pain as a moral corrective.
Mind you, he also had a very different philosophy of fiction, both as a literary critic (that was his day job) and as a creator, to what Mardoll’s evidently is. Mardoll frequently asks us to consider perspectives that Lewis doesn’t take, such as asking how a character who’s lived in fear all his life due to being a dwarf in a human-dominated Narnia will feel about being nicknamed “our dear little friend”. Lewis would reject that whole approach as “realism”, which he felt tended to spoil stories; in one essay he deconstructs the economics of The Wind in the Willows, with tongue in cheek, not to criticize The Wind in the Willows but to criticize the practice of realistic deconstruction. And truth to tell, the Narnia stories are a lot like the impossible drawings of M. C. Escher – they convince from the viewpoint the artist imposes, but collapse if you look at them from any other angle. Maybe that’s one reason why Tolkien, who put so much time and sweat into making Middle-Earth completely consistent, didn’t like Narnia. It is something of a backhanded compliment to Lewis’s skill that Mardoll finds Narnia so immersing she can’t help but ask questions like this.
The real point, though, is to compare Narnia not with recent stuff like Harry Potter but with other 1950s children’s adventures. And frankly, Narnia comes out head and shoulders above its contemporaries on the very same metrics by which it now falls so far short. Girls adventuring at all was new. Brown protagonists like Aravis were new. In The Horse and His Boy and much more in The Silver Chair, Lewis even takes time to point out that, when you have talking non-humans, that has to mean the human norm isn’t definitive – Aravis is Hwin’s human just as much as Hwin is Aravis’s horse; night-time meetings feel natural to owls; Puddleglum is frivolous and bubbly by Marsh-wiggle standards; gnomes feel much more comfortable in caves than above ground.

I’ve used Lewis and Tolkien as examples because they’re childhood favourites and because they happen to have come to my attention via my blog reading list lately. (Oh, and I think there’s some sort of movie being done with one of the Tolkien ones.) But I could have picked any number of other things. Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man is egregiously racist by modern standards, but it amounted to a brave call for equality at the time. Alas, Darwin’s humility in the face of other people’s research, which in anthropology then was so much colonial hogwash, only allowed him to conclude that “negroes” were almost as intelligent as whites. Indeed, it seems that one of Darwin’s driving passions was the need to prove that black people shared a common ancestry with white people – a popular theory pointed out that, since “negroes” were clearly identifiable as such in Egyptian paintings made a bare thousand years after Noah’s Flood, and since they’d gone three times that long since without any change worth a damn, well, they must already have been black at the time of the Flood, so obviously they weren’t descended from Noah, and since Noah was the ancestor of all human beings, look, it says so right in the Bible, clearly “negroes” by that reasoning were not human.
So what’s the lesson here? Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion devotes a chapter to identifying a gradual progression towards equality and empathy in modern thought; Steven Pinker spends an entire book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, seeking an explanation. Lewis himself, though not generally friendly to the idea of progress, knew enough about the history of thought from his literary studies to acknowledge the point. It’s tempting to conclude that Tolkien and Lewis and Darwin and all the rest were “progressive for their time” (which would give the first two a coughing fit!) and wrap up there. But I absorbed enough of Lewis’s worldview as a teenage Christian nerd to be suspicious of the idea that progress happens as a matter of course and is good in itself. “They were good by the standards of their time” is true, but it’s not enough. I remember arguing with a friend who said it was all right for the Romans to have slavery, because “that was their culture”. What, then, is to stop us from saying that it was all right for the Southern States to have slavery because that was their culture? Or that hatred of Jews was “German culture” in the 1930s? I could keep going.
Here’s another example, not literary at all this time, and with no temporal component to the culture gap. I think, if I were an American, I would have voted for Barack Obama this month, with reservations about how long it’s taking him to close Guantánamo Bay and pull the army out of Afghanistan. On the standard left/right axis – that is, in their views on the proper roles of corporations, employees, and the state in the national economy – the Democrats are at about the same position as the National Party here in New Zealand, which I will never vote for or support in any way. So why do I support the one and oppose the other? Because the Democrats are pulling America to the left, and the National Party are pulling New Zealand to the right. It’s not where they stand, it’s which way they’re facing.

The political ideas that are “liberal” to our generation would have been “radical” to our grandparents, or in some cases our parents. Their “liberal” is our “conservative”. It necessarily follows that the radicals keep winning. It further follows that our “liberal” will be our children and grandchildren’s “conservative”, and what seems radical to us they will take for granted. Which way are you facing?

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