In my last blog post I made a brief allusion to The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – describing how the possible responses to an evil and morally bankrupt social context are two-fold; one represented by the character of Boromir, the other by Faramir, his younger brother. Boromir shows how easily one can fall from grace – rather than accept the broader, ethically loaded aspects of the situation in which he finds himself, Boromir views the One Ring solely in terms of his own, narrow frame of reference (i.e. as a Weapon which could be used to defeat Sauron and thus save Gondor), ignoring its deeper significance as something that destroys all who touch it. This, in my view, is similar to a person in this day and age who, while working for large corporates, makes “pragmatic” justifications of the global free market and hierarchy; ignoring political debates and claiming that the current system is the best of all possible worlds. To take this tack neglects the fact that the imperial logics of domination and exploitation are eminently destructive – causing social problems and environmental degradation that threaten the survival of all of humanity. As Gandalf might have said, these things are “altogether evil”. Just like Boromir, millions of people around the world today compromise their principles to support a “pragmatic” approach. There is nothing wrong with compromising in principle – such moderated efforts are often neccessary – the problem is compromising with something that will not itself compromise.
Faramir, on the other hand, takes a better stance. Although he is also tempted by the ring, he eventually lets Frodo go, in the hope that his quest will be completed. This approach, despite seeming idealistic (especially seeing as it puts Faramir’s life in jeopardy by angering his father), is actually more pragmatic, as the situation in Lord of the Rings (like ours) is something of a zero-sum game. Structural inequality and greedy industry just aren’t sustainable. The environmental devastation, decline in social values and over-reliance on advanced technology that such a system will eventually create are certain to strip away from us what little moral fibre we still possess. Faramir takes a wiser, broader view of the situation, and sees the fallacy of Boromir’s false pragmatism. Even though Faramir believes he is probably dooming himself and his people, he still makes his choice, because to commute his judgement and take the ring for himself to use against the Enemy would end up in total defeat anyway. As I said in my last post, I think this attitude is a good one to carry with you in life – you may be forced or tempted to participate in an evil world, but it is ultimately up to you to respond wisely and virtuously.
I personally feel that this little Aesop is also a starting point for thinking about a moral challenge that Tolkien left Pagans with in LotR. Because that book, despite being very popular within our community, is nonetheless hugely Catholic, as this blog entry by Loren Rosson III describes. It presents a view of history that is inherently negative – seeing the search for moral life as inherently self-defeating unless the Judeo-Christian God is involved. The world is doomed to ever spiral downwards into greater depravity without the redemptive power of Christ. “The long defeat” of the Elves is a masterful piece of Catholic historiography – it doesn’t matter how wise, or powerful, or beautiful or kind you are; without Jesus, you’re screwed.
But what might surprise some people is that the notion of the noble defeat is not a Christian trope – but a Pagan one. The literature that has come down to us from our Pagan ancestors is full of tragic heroes, doomed to die but battling for honour anyway. Ragnarok is perhaps the best example, although I have been told that its world-ending grandeur could have been a later Christian imposition. In this mode, both Boromir and Faramir are tragic heroes for different reasons – Boromir because of his weakness, Faramir because of his noble ceding of the key to victory (much like Freyr giving his sword Skirnir) and thus making his defeat seem inevitable. Supposedly it is this sort of fatalism that Christianity “cures” – Pagans were fatalistic and lacked hope; the Christians gave them something to hope for.
But ultimately, I think Paganism has had the last laugh. While Christians have been counselling us to put our trust in a land of silver glass beyond the sea, people have nonetheless been working away at fighting the manifold troubles and evils that the world contains. Scientists, philosophers and other people inspired by the work of the Classical World have managed to bring us closer and closer to a better, loving world in which nobody goes hungry or thirsty. The depressive historical narrative that Tolkien offers is now being questioned – not in favour of some naively whiggish idea of “progress”, but rather of a good world where people can, in theory at least, lead the good life. This optimistic cosmology – of a world where death and life are just part of a single, great round; where it is our duty and our priviledge to make things better for everyone, not because it suits us but because it is right – is profoundly Pagan. Tolkien’s representation of Pagan theodicy was incomplete – rather than a world of fatalists waiting to become Christians, as the hagiographies might have it, the Pagans were world-loving optimists. We are told of the Celts making legally binding loans to be paid back in the Otherworld, and charging through life with no fear of death. And why? Because the world they lived in was a good one. El Mundo Beuno. Tragedies do happen, but the overall rightness of things will endure. Life goes on.
The Long Defeat was only ever half the story.