Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Tolkien, Pullman, Le Guin and the problem of evil

Powerful myth-makers all three. I'll argue here that "His Dark Materials" and "The Earthsea Quartet" are better for us than Tolkien, and that it does actually matter, because it relates to how we see evil and good in human behaviour.

Fine writers all three, Tolkien (above) in particular an eminent scholar and prof. But in The Lord of the Rings, creatures tend to be either good or evil, and the source of evil is ultimately supernatural. I mean, what is the Dark Lord? Orcs, some humans (Wormtongue) bad, skewer 'em. Hobbits good, most men good, elves good. OK, there are exceptions - Boromir gives way to jealousy and greed for power, and dies for it - but mostly, evil in the book comes from without, not within, the major characters.

In Phillip Pullman's trilogy, evil is altogether more complex. Bad things are done for what might be good reasons. It helps that Will and Lyra are well-rooted in their own worlds. Individuals behave both badly and well, and it doesn't take a Dark Lord to tempt them. In fact, there is no external Dark Lord.

A more profound thinker on the problem of evil, yet a creator of unforgettable characters and events, as all three of these writers are.

Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea Quartet takes us back into the land of wizards and dark forces, but it's not MiddleEarth, because her wizard is much more complex than Gandalf; the harshness and cruelty of his early life makes him a difficult person, and out of this comes, in the first book, a dangerous and damaging act- he releases a supernatural evil thingy into the world, and eventually he has to deal with it.
Less well-known now than the other two, she is under-rated and comparatively under-read. There is much of Earthsea in the Harry Potter stuff. (I'm being polite...I seem to remember that Le Guin said yes, she was a bit startled at first, but took it as a compliment and moved on. A lesser soul might have reached for the lawyers. )

OK, so what?

If we simplify evil it is much easier to dismiss the Other as "the bad guys." Nice and simple. A War on Terror, as The Simpleton President put it. Islamist terrorists do dreadful things, but there is no Dark Lord, there is no Mordor. The way to deal with evil is surely not to simplify it. 

There is hatred, cruelty, fear, greed within each of us, to differing degrees and we come to terms with it, control it, or fail to do so. A War on Evil would be a war on ourselves, each of us. Oversimplifying evil is a dangerous temptation.

In this song, the character feels lost and confused in a world full of grey.

That's right Oscar - it's hard dealing with the complexities of life, it takes a lot of emotional and intellectual maturity. We surely deal with terrorism by combating terrorist plots and actions, and addressing the causes of their rage, intolerance and hatred, not by oversimplifying them as "the bad guys," servants of Mordor.

The moral world of the Lord of the Rings, much as I love it, is infantile, compared with that of Pullman and Le Guin, and it seems to me that powerful cultural artefacts do influence at some level how we see the world. In "Despatches," Michael Herr describes young marines in Vietnam behaving like the John Wayne characters they had seen in movies.... 

If we are lucky enough not to live in dreadful poverty and danger, if the circumstances of our lives don't drive us to bitterness desperation, we should at least stand a chance of finding the Balance within us that stops us running for easy answers that are no answers. Even North Korea isn't Mordor (though I confess it's not my ideal holiday destination.)

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