Thursday, December 08, 2005

Gods? What gods?

I promised you a post on religion in the LOTR trilogy, and, after a really interesting post over at an expert's site in response to my female orcs question, I'm motivated to write it. (I know you people want to hear about pastry, and I promise you'll get an exam update at the end of this post--or you can just skip on ahead if this bores you.)

At least one person snorts derisively at the notion that there's no religion in LOTR, and he details the various deities and deity-like beings in the world that Tolkien created. (For a short version, go to the Encyclopedia of Arda and look up Iluvatar, i.e., the "Father of All," and maybe follow some of the links.) I don't quibble with that in the least. What has struck me, however, is that the characters in the trilogy do not practice a religion--we never once observe anyone going to any kind of church-like meeting, for example, or invoking a deity before doing something. Elrond doesn't ask for anyone's blessings before the Fellowship sets out. No deities get thanked when something works out well. There is no mention of morning or evening prayers--the closest we ever get to that is when Faramir and his men face the west before sitting down to eat (when Frodo and Sam are with them). The beings in Middle Earth have a variety of histories and talents, the normal age to which a given type of being lives varies, and some beings are immortal (Elves), but there aren't any deities that resemble the Jewish, Christian, Hindi, or Muslim god(s), and there are no practices invoking such a being. There are immortal and deity-like beings--the Valar--but they are not routinely mentioned or invoked, and, in fact, unless you rummage around in the appendices and the Silmarillion, you'd be hard-pressed to know much about them.

The other thing about this that stands out for me is that free will is explicit--most clearly when Gandalf tells Frodo (in the book, I think, though Merry or Pippin in the movie) that we can't choose the times in which we live, we can only choose what we do in the times into which we're born. That is, Gandalf recommends choosing a course of action that seems right and honorable, not (for example) presuming to discover what a deity wants you to do and then submitting oneself to the deity's will. (Rather Kantian of him, in some ways, I suppose.)

Tolkien was a devout Catholic, I believe (and, I think, was responsible for C. S. Lewis' conversion to that religion), and I think he regarded the trilogy as a religious work, in some sense of that word. One could easily argue that the trilogy is informed by--or, really, based on--a notion of good and evil, and, given the primacy of ents, the disgust with Saruman and his machines, and the glorification of the basic simplicity of hobbits, a certain crunchy-granola-organic approach to the world. Certainly the "good" beings regard themselves as stewards rather than owners of the land, and they take a quasi-Lockean approach (take what you need, while leaving enough and as good for everyone else) that avoids the tragedy of the commons. The "bad" beings pillage and destroy, often for the sake of being able to do so. Wanton destruction delights orcs and disgusts ents and hobbits and so on. However, a set of moral values does not a religion make. One can argue--and, of course, people argue to me all the time--that religion is somehow a necessary and/or sufficient condition for a moral system, but that's so patently false, in so many dimensions, that I'll only lay out the counterargument if someone really asks me to do so: religion is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a moral system. That, then, is where the question of religion in the trilogy really arises. The trilogy clearly has a moral system, and even a deity, in the sense of a creator, but there isn't anything resembling religious practice.

Yeah, you're saying, but what about exams? Things went reasonably well today, though, of course, not perfectly. The sablee dough fought me tooth and nail, but I finally managed to wrestle it into a tart shell and a disk (for the bottom of the ice cream bombe) and bake them both. Spinning my ice cream was fine, but filling the mold was a pain in the butt. The Cup Cake(s) are in the freezer and I think they'll be fine, too; I only have to present one, but the recipe makes two, and I saw no reason to waste the ingredients, and you never know when you're going to have a glazing accident. The creme brulee was also fine, I think, but, since I didn't get to make a sugar cage today, I won't know for sure until tomorrow when I present it. Tomorrow I have to make lemon curd for the tart, make meringue for the tart and then torch it, torch the brulee and put it in a cage, spray the bombe with cocoa butter, glaze the Cup Cake with the chocolate mirror glaze I made today, and bake a souffle. I will present everything tomorrow, too, including my paper cone, which is a tiny bit of a pain, especially for the chef, but I just didn't get to the cage today. Seriously, I have five hours to do everything I listed there, and I did a lot more than that today, so . . . On the other hand, shit can happen, so I'll only really be relieved once it's over. I'll also be relieved when I don't have to deal with my classmates' lackadaisical attitudes, too--not everyone, by any means, but a bunch of people just piled up dishes near the sink and . . . walked away. Some people don't do their dishes very often, so they pile up on their tables or speed racks and then that pile gets moved and not washed; those of us who make something then wash, then make something then wash, were getting perturbed today. Other people weren't doing their assigned jobs--some people because they were helping with the Mound O Dishes, but some people because, even after 24 weeks, have not figured out how to determine what their cleaning responsibilities are. And, of course, some people are just perpetually slow. Whatever--we're nearly done with it.


Blogger Larry Jones said...

I've never read Tolkien and I only saw the first of the three movies and didn't pay attention. On the other hand, I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools and read the bible and catechism. Oddly, this post makes exactly as much sense to me as my conventional religious training.

12:41 AM  
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