Wednesday 4 September 2013

The 'turning' of heroic literature


One of the primary functions of literature, of art generally, has been to priovide examples of heroism: of courage and endurance in a good cause.

One example is the Old Testament, which can function as a series of cameos of heroic virtue in the face of persecution, corruption and a multitude of disadvantages. The way I remember the OT from my childhood is, indeed, in exactly this way - David and Goliath, Sampson, Daniel... heroic figures. (There are better examples, of course, but these are the ones I remember.)


The same applies to the Book of Mormon, and indeed this line of thought was stimulated by an e-mail from commenter 'MC' who is an active Mormon. He described how the BoM functions to provide a set of heroic examples upon which modern Mormons can model themselves.

When I again looked through the BoM, I could see that this was indeed something of a Key to understanding the special role or function of the BoM in the LDS church: more explicitly than the OT, and in greater number and with more variations on the theme, the Book of Mormon provides one account after another of individual courage and endurance in faith; in face of recurrent apostasy, decadence and violence - and thus a spectrum of hero models, from whom the modern Mormon may gain inspiration and resolution. 


In the increasingly secular environment of the twentieth century, this role has devolved from scripture to fiction, and especially to the 'fantasy' genre of which Tolkien is the greatest exemplar.

I myself have used characters and situations from Lord of the Rings in order to model and clarify situations in life, and from whom to gain inspiration.

The Harry Potter series is a more recent example - and much of the appeal of HP comes from its many and vivid depictions of self-sacrificing heroism.


Scripture and fantasy are traditional genres, and the atheistic, radical, progressive opposition can only parasitize upon heroic literature - as when the heroes of Carol Kendall's (excellent) Minnipins/ Gammage Cup story are depicted rather in the fashion of sixties counter-culturalists with their unconventional dress, poeticizing and abstract painting;  nonetheless, their heroism is in service of traditional 'goods' and made possible by the eccentric reactionary Walter the Earl.


But despite its fundamental rootedness in the traditional, and despite its quasi-scriptural basis; heroic fantasy literature can be turned against traditional values, as happened when Tolkien was adopted by the sixties counter-culture, and interpreted to be in favour of drop-out drug culture, the sexual revolution, and extreme Leftist utopianism generally.


The same has now happened with Harry Potter, but in a much nastier fashion given the modern environment of media-spun political correctness, with an organization called the Harry Potter Alliance - which bureaucratically harnesses Potter-mania to all the latest hot-button causes of modern Leftism, with Potterphiles deployed as funders of radical pressure groups - and thereby 'turns' heroic idealism from defence of tradition into subversion of The Good.


As with the Left's appropriation of Tolkien, the HPA works by ignoring the deep Christian structure of the novels, and focusing on superficial aspects which can be channeled into 'supporting' a pre-existing agenda.

But the HP novels are much more ambivalent about tradition/ Leftism/ the sexual revolution than is Lord of the Rings.

With her post-Potter works and public persona, JK Rowling herself seems to have turned against the deep Christian and traditionalist structure of the Harry Potter books, and embraced all the distinctive concerns of modern Leftism.


The turning of Harry Potter shows the way that Leftism works. It was made easier by the fact that the deep Christianity of the Harry Potter books is - while real and powerful, as depicted by John 'The Hogwarts Professor' Granger's analyses - covert and coded; while the more Leftist concerns are much more obvious: for instance the Nazi-like 'racism' of Voldemort and the 'pure blood' death eaters.

Thus makes it easier to invert the meaning of HP; but in fact, such is the power of the mass media to impose its own categories (by selection, emphasis, diversion, invention, shock) - that even real life personal experience can now be reframed to mean its opposite: this is a matter of daily, headline routine.

Modern people believe what they are told by the mass media; not what they know by experience: we are tabulae rasae, 'hollow men', the 'men without chests' - each night forgetting everything; each morning waiting to be re-filled by the latest media content.

So the potential benefits of heroic literature are quite simply turned-against their traditional and Christian basis.

Perhaps the LDS church has been fortunate that the Book of Mormon is off-the-radar, being considered as beneath the notice of the mainstream mass media culture; which has not therefore condescended to 'reframe' its stories of heroic virtue into meaning the opposite of their real meaning; a process which has, of course, long since happened with the Bible.



Matias F. said...

I think the Book of Mormon is already on the radar of Leftism:

Wm Jas said...

Could you expound a bit on the Left's appropriation of Tolkien? I've never heard of this, and I have to admit I'm finding it hard to imagine how LoTR could be read as pro-drugs, pro-sexual revolution, etc. Most leftists I know either disdain Tolkien or accuse him of racism, sexism, etc.

Bruce Charlton said...

@MF - I have of course heard about this show - but I didn't get the impression that it had focused on anything specific about the BoM... and anyway it is aimed at non-Mormons (obviously!), so is unlikely to subvert Mormon beliefs, I would have thought. Indeed, such an onslaught would probably have the opposite effect.

Whereas the subversion and turning of Mainstream Christianity came from within - from Bible scholars, Bishops, Theologians etc. who applied secular modes of analysis (historical methods, philosophy, science, and the 'isms') to the Bible.

Indeed, the paganization of the Bible began in the Renaissance, for example Michelangelo's great statue of the 'beautiful boy' David - not in the slightest degree Christian, but highly compatible with the sexual revolution both then and now (and perhaps consequently, David is, I believe, a favourite Bible character among epicene Christians).

With such first rate geniuses busily at work subverting the Old Testament, Christianity was really up-against-it, and this continued as long as there were geniuses in the West.


@WmJas - I have seen this described in dozens of critical studies of Tolkien - that US campuses in the mid-sixties would have students sporting the pirated Ace paperback editions or later Ballantyne paperbacks with their weird psychedelic covers - and there was a craze of Gandalf for President, Frodo Lives, Tolkien is Hobbit-forming type badges/ buttons.

Tolkien was perceived by this group as a visionary and exotic 'trip'.

The same thing happened in a smaller way in the UK in the early 70s - with Tolkien pastiche reaching the mainstream of Pop music (and topping the charts) with the group Tyrannosaurus Rex/ T. Rex led by Mark Bolan.

Even now, most of the heavy hitting Tolkien scholars are non-Christian/ anti-traditional/ pro-sexual revolution - and the one exception (Veryln Fleiger) is on the liberal side of Roman Catholic.

(Tom Shippey - the greatest ever Tolkien scholar - is strongly pro-traditional, but not (or not-quite) Christian.)

When I posted this:

I had to censor some comments from one of the most famous Tolkien scholars, they were so intemperate.

A more modern example of the kind of utopian Leftism I mean is Defending Middle Earth by Patrick Curry - - who is, as you can see, a fairly mainstream New Age Eco Leftist (although he supposes himself to be anti-modern).

JP said...

On the Left's destruction of fantasy:

Ferdinand said...

off topic

Are you acquainted with Plinio Correa de Oliveira works?

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - very good links.

@F - No.

Titus Didius Tacitus said...

Ralph Bakshi made a Lord of the Rings animated movie in 1978. Given the sensibility of Bakshi's work, starting with Fritz the Cat in 1972, there could not have been a firmer signal that Tolkien was accepted as good raw material for the politically correct trash-culture mill.

Titus Didius Tacitus said...

For lovers of the Beowulf epic, the 2007 animated movie which turns Beowulf into a lecherous lying braggart and the father of monsters is pure horror. It's brilliant at degrading and negating, inverting and making ridiculous elements of the main epic of the English-speaking peoples. I think it will inoculate people against the poem, making it hard for them to read it "fresh".

Bruce Charlton said...

@TDT - Yes, I watched it at a movie theatre. It was a crushingly embarrassing experience, and I have never since looked at it.

By contrast, following the failure of Bakshi's first part, rights to the second part of the animated movie were sold to Rakin-Bass, who made a stop-animated musical version pitched at 'a family audience'. It is just about the cheesiest and most vulgar movie I have ever seen (culminating in the cheery, interminable orc song: "Where there's a whip [*whu-pah*], There's a way") -

yet its heart is in the right place, and there are moments of genuine heroism (notably Eowyn's killing of the Nazgul).

Crass commercialism is always to be preferred to clever subversion (when there is a choice).

Bruce Charlton said...

@TDT - Agreed about the Beowulf movie - it started out quite well, then because simultaneously dull, sensationalist and hero-subversive.

Commodore said...

This is very interesting to me, because I completely reject the trend of "hero" teaching cited from the Bible onward here. Maybe its my highly Protestant/Reform background speaking; the old impulse of the Reformation to reject veneration of saints is still very much alive, and I think this is the reason.

The Old Testament is a wonderfully honest book, and I would certainly never want to emulate most of its characters! Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, Job...the "heros" of the OT were all deeply flawed and broken men. That's good! God is incredibly active and full of grace in each of their lives, redeeming them and sanctifying them despite their depravity; Christ is present in the OT in each of those old "heros'" lives, and Hebrews makes it clear they lived looking forward to Him. Christianity does not rise or fall on the perfection of its saints, but in their weakness and God's strength despite them, through them.

Focusing on a human hero to emulate is a recipe for failure and can toy with the danger of idolatry; there's only been one perfect man worth emulating, and He clearly set Himself as an example, but bridged the gap in his disciples' failures with love...which must come first. Start by adoring Jesus, emulate Him as a child tried to emulate his or her beloved parents. Take solace that God calls an incredible menagerie of flawed people His Own and then makes them pure, not the other way around!

As an aside, I rather liked the new Beowulf for one character, the horrific wreck that was Grendel. His wretchedness inspired equal parts disgust and pity, and I wanted him to be blotted out, destroyed, made nothing, just because of how upsetting he was to the eyes and ears. And the pagan, the virtuous heroic pagan, response would be to kill Grendel. Christ's response is to redeem such wretches.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Commodore - Thanks for your presentation of that perspective: certainly there is and should be room for it in Christianity; although it seems like a stale bread and water kind of faith to me personally!

Commodore said...

@BC- Would you be able to expand on how it is a stale and tasteless kind of faith for you? Honestly curious.

Bruce Charlton said...

@C - It's hard to argue, indeed I don't really want to argue it. Indeed the church of which I am a member is conservative Protestant, albeit Anglican - with doctrines much as you describe - and it is a fine institution in many ways. However this style of Christianity does not engage my whole person, nor my sense of delight - there seems to be so much more possible in 17th century (Caroline) Anglicanism or Anglo-Catholicism as was, in Orthodoxy and in the CJCLDS - to name four.

MC said...


To find a hero inspiring or to look to him as an exemplar is not the same as worship. Young boys, especially, are prone to look for heroes to emulate. Why not emulate a man like Moses, who spoke with God and saw God's power made manifest through him? [I agree that Solomon and David are less than ideal heroes, for obvious reasons]

Emulation of Jesus is of course the pinnacle, but in some ways it's more helpful to see how a fully mortal and flawed, though still righteous and heroic, man is supposed to live as a disciple of Christ.

To the extent that Christians no longer think of Samson and Daniel, etc. as heroes, it it is likely due in part to the "metaphorization" of the Bible. If Shadrach, Meshach and and Abed-nego didn't really survive being thrown into a furnace, then it's harder to care much about.

Bruce Charlton said...

The question of Christian heroes is interesting - perhaps especially for men.

In this interesting book

the author suggests that the ascetic monks and wonder working Saints had an heroic role as men doing battle against demons - and indeed I believe this was true (I'm thinking of the likes of England's premier Saint - Cuthbert of Linidsfarne).

If theosis is sought by asceticism and constant prayer, the risks of demonic take-over and intractable spiritual pride are apparently much increased. But if they are overcome, extraordinary levels of holiness are possible (something never seen today).

It seems obvious to me that we need heroes, and that that is one of the roles of the Old Testament - it is not a matter of perfection, but of exceptional courage, endurance, devotion, repentance - if the word hero balks then exemplar could suffice.

To say that only Jesus can be a Christian hero is to put too much psychological weight on Him - the human mind requires variety and refreshment.

Christianity *can* be reduced to something very simple - and there is something deeply impressive with Protestant austerity: that is true - but for most people (for me) the bare bones, the minimum and irreducible residue, are not enough for a strong and viable Christian life.

tweedyprof said...

Tom Shippey is a philologist, like Tolkien, and understands the love of languages. And he is, as Bruce said, not-quite-Christian, indeed, I would say, rather tone-deaf about Christianity. As for Flieger, well, she is tone-deaf, too, to the kind of hard, that is, true, Christianity Tolkien believed in. Therefore, I am happy to announce that I am now writing the best yet, or my best-yet, book on JRRT.