Monday, December 28, 2009

Light marks the good, but does religion?

Religion, power, and moral goodness are all essential elements in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. In these two trilogies, these elements cooperate with each other in almost diametrically opposite ways that illustrate the changes fantasy fiction has undergone in the last fifty years. Light and darkness, used literally and metaphorically, serve to characterize the "good" and the "bad" in various ways throughout each trilogy.

J.R.R. Tolkien taught Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, and while he lived and worked in that area, he was for a number of years very close friends with C.S. Lewis. Biographies and letters have suggested that the two great writers engaged in many discussions about the function of Christianity in children's literature (which they were writing at the time): C.S. Lewis thought the role of Christianized religious themes should be evident and direct, whereas Tolkien opted for the understated use of religious themes. This, and various other disagreements about faith, literature, and the relationship between the two, ultimately led to the demise of the two literary giants' friendship.

What they didn't discuss was whether the correct portrayal of Christianity and spirituality in literature should be positive or negative - it's clear that both agreed it should be positive. Since he is directly relevant to our class, I'll examine how Tolkien fits into this. The overwhelming trend in his trilogy is a good-versus-bad binary, represented by those who wish to destroy the Ring and save Middle Earth versus those who wish to obtain the Ring and channel its power into destructive endeavors. The good side is staffed by the members of the Fellowship - Aragorn, a woodsman who turns out to be a king in disguise; the Hobbits Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry; another man, Boromir (although he wavers in his moment of greed, when he tries to steal the ring from Frodo); the wizard Gandalf; Legolas the far-seeing elf; and the dwarf Gimli - and those who aid them: the Elves, Theodan and Eowyn and various other members of the race of Men, and a few others. The bad side is staffed by Sauron (ephemeral and evil, lurking in Mordor while he plots to attain the Ring), his henchman the evil wizard Saruman, and ranks upon ranks of foul Orcs. Each side is characterized and categorized through motivation and colorization: the "good" side is motivated by the (relatively) unselfish urge to save Middle Earth from destruction - I say relatively because most of these characters have the invested interest of living in Middle Earth - and the "bad" side is motivated by the urge to overpower and destroy, through the aid of the Ring's limitless powers, hence their urge to attain the Ring.

I mentioned colorization, too, particularly the use of light and dark. The good side is consistently characterized by pleasent, warm and lighter colors, a reference to the light motifs in the Bible that characterize elements of Good. The Shire is a place of green pleasantness, pastoral and peaceful; Gandalf the White positively glows and is always a source of light, literal and metaphorical (through his enlightening intellectual guidance), in dark places; the Elves glow as they walk through Rivendell and heal the wounded travelers. This use of light functions as a metaphorical reference to the role of light as a marker of the good in the Bible: Christ refers to himself as "the light of the world," while the devil is frequently referred to as the "Prince of Darkness."

Light - metaphorical and physical - and dark frame and categorize the two clearly opposed sides in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, tying it back into the ideals and the divisions of Biblical Christian narratives. In Philip Pullman's texts, the divisions are very different: the Church is a force of pain, grief, evil, and destruction, is positioned opposite the main characters who are signified as "good" through their actions and motivations. However, I'll argue here that light still functions as an indicator of the "good" and the "bad."

The Church, a fragmented organization made up of a variety of committees and sub-groups, funds various endeavors including torture and painful experimentation on children. Priests who are trying to obtain information about Lyra's whereabouts make references to "going downstairs," a suggestion that pales the complexions of others and is a veiled reference to torturing individuals in order to discover said information. In the war that Lyra and Will are unwittingly involved in, the Church is the "bad" side, characterized by actions such as this. Lyra's cohorts, the Gyptians, the Witches, and the armored bears (among others) do not engage in torture, nor do they use the painful and vicious "intercision" operation to forcefully sever children from their daemons, as the Oblation Board of the Church is doing. By default alone, Lyra's side is idealized in comparison to the dark counterpart that the Church presents.

Light gently but persistently characterizes the "good" side of Philip Pullman's diametrically divided narrative, too. Lyra's Golden Compass is a lightly colored object that presents "illuminating" truth throughout the three novels; Lyra herself has blondish-brown hair that glows golden in the sunlight and gives her away as a non-Gyptian, since she is lacking in their characteristically dark hair; another necessary and pivotal magical tool, the Amber Spyglass, utlizes light to function; and, in the triumphant climax of the third book The Amber Spyglass, when Lyra and Will discover their love for one another, they return to Mary Malone coated in glowing gold dust, as viewed through the Spyglass itself. Pullman is not afraid to use the light-soaked imagery that, historically, connotes "good."

Contrary to Tolkien, Pullman's references to Christian religion are specific and unabashedly negative, as mentioned previously - interestingly, Pullman uses the light-dark vocabularly which is strongly rooted in the Christian tradition as he deconstructs its moral standing throughout his narrative. The elements he chooses to illuminate as good include curious, brave, and selfless characters, and as a general rule, consciousness, which is characterized as Dust or light-filled particles that settle on individuals who have passed through puberty. Doing so creates an interesting dialogue with Tolkien, whose Christian undertones preserved the "good" perception of the Church while he used light in some similar ways to Pullman.