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Yin and Yang Quests Tehanu's Fifthteenth Note

Current Note
 The Return of the King
Past Notes
 Following Tolkien's Footsteps
 Tad Episode
 Scary Stuff
 Monstrous Regiment
 Kalevala and the Silmarillon
 Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Middle-earth
 Silmarillion, Creation, sins of the artist
 Rarefied Air
 Quests, Myths and Archetypes
 Arthur: Quests and Legends
 Yin and Yang Quests
 The Power of Myth
 His Dark Materials
 Are We Not Geeks?
 The Two Towers Film: Tricks And Treats
 Two Towers Review, Part 2
 The Return of the King
 Where To From Here?

I ’m reading Tolkien’s letters and there’s a whole world of ideas there I could talk about – the way his delays must have exasperated his publisher, the way his conscientious committee-sitting and household chores seemed to mire him in pointless makework, and worst of all, that he could lavish so many hundreds of thousands of words on letterwriting instead of tackling the dozens of tantalising projects mentioned in them……but he may have been a person who developed his ideas via the act of writing them down, in which case the letters helped. And we get to read about his unique creative process as it appeared to him.

He was such a nerd, a nerd’s nerd really, and more power to them. I think the 21st century is going to be the Golden Age of nerds anyway. You notice it’s all those kids who thought maths camps were the funnest thing that have since grown up to go flying round the world doing interesting work and cycling round France tasting wine in their spare time.

It’s interesting that Tolkien had fans the moment The Lord of the Rings was published, and they were obsessed about the same details as us. Wondering about who Queen Beruthiel was and why she had so many cats….

I get called a ‘Tolkien Fan’ and it annoys me. ‘Fan’ seems to imply a passive admiration of Tolkien’s art and furthermore I doubt Tolkien himself was a fan of anything much, so it’s no way to honour him. His letters give such a sense of the active and participatory way that he admired a vast range of things – philology, dead languages, botany – and the things he learnt grew and changed under the force of his involvement. Not enough to learn languages, he had to revive alliterative poetry or create new mythologies. Surely that’s meeting knowledge more than halfway:: engaging with knowledge until translations and inventions sprouted from it, lived rather than learnt. Tolkien is one of those writers that has seems to point towards a way of ‘living’ knowledge, rather than simply collecting it.

Where I live, the winter has a balance point where things decide that, what the heck, it might as well be spring, though it’s never gotten quite cold enough to kill anything off before that. If you have roses you have to seize that moment of imminent renewal and prune them. Working my way round the thorny sticks, their buds already fat with potential, I had one of those moments that might not have a name, so I’ll call it a moment of apprehension. By that I mean a kind of knowing that is felt unthinking. A knowing-with, not a knowing-of, and it concerned two things I’d been reading.

Tolkien said of The Lord of the Rings, "The real theme for me is about something much more permanent and difficult: Death and Immortality : The mystery of the love of the world in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ to leave and seemingly lose it; the anguish in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ not to leave it, until its whole evil-aroused story is complete."

Tolkien’s letters expand a lot on the Elves and their experience of immortality.

Another thing the letters mention is the way in which he delighted in words, in their sound and construction. Tolkien spent his whole life from early childhood, savouring words "…for the acute aesthetic pleasure derived from a language for its own sake…that particular pleasure of which I am speaking – it is not quite the same as the mere perception of beauty: I feel the beauty of Italian or for that matter of modern English…..it is more like the appetite for a needed food."

To him, discovering a Finnish Grammar "was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before."

Now, looking at the rosebuds I suddenly apprehended that feeling. The Spanish for ‘to sprout’ is ‘brotar,’ and it tastes and feels and sounds more exactly like what I had under my hands than its English equivalent. The word has exactly the kind of ebulliant energy that described the potency springcoiled in each bud. It would be a delight to have more languages and find more words that felt so close to their meaning.

The second apprehension related to the Elves and their immortality.

I’ve made this garden from nothing, and in a few short years it has grown to repay my little efforts with splendid abundance. I made it, and I know it so well that for me next summer’s flowers are laid over the winter’s dead twigs like a precognition — everything is in embryo, powerful in containment, and utterly untiring.

What would it be like for the Elves, who lavished such love on their garden of Middle-earth, as they once regarded it? Who received this potlatching bounty of flowers as their homage, year on year uncounted? Who saw trees live and die, a mere flicker in their lifespan, the same way I watch one flower grow and fade? Imagine how they would be bound to the land they tended!

I ‘apprehended’ how this endless renewal might also become exhausting to a conscious being that changes little in Time. The contrast of Spring’s ferocious energy, year on year, with the sameness of the Elvish experience, must grow wearying and a little frightening.

Tolkien put it like this: "But the Elvish weakness is….naturally to regret the past, and to become unwilling to face chage: as if a man were to hate a very long book still going on, and wished to settle down in a favourite chapter."

When we participate in Tolkien’s world we start to wonder about the huge tales that he left implied at the corners of his stories, where threads lead off into some larger tapestry that we’re invited to speculate about. The question of immortality is one.

That’s the fascination of Arwen. We know so little about her. Tolkien knew a great deal more than he was telling. In one letter he says, "…I regard the the tale of Arwen and Aragorn as the most important of the Appendices; it is part of the essential story, and is only placed so, because it could not be worked into the main narrative without destroying its structure." True enough; Tolkien was consciously writing an epic, a Quest myth, and a heroic romance.

Arwen did have a quest, but her is a different one, and inward quest, what I’ll call a Yin quest. Not an active, fiery Yang quest like you see in Arthurian romances or say, the entire collected works of Goodkind, Gemmell et al, where more of the action is busy, external, and leaves a track through the world.

Yin: soft, dark, passive, weak, female, inward….the Mother, the Valley….I’m quoting from Ursula Le Guin’s translation of Tao Te Ching here. If Tolkien had written Arwen’s story she wouldn’t have done any more than she does in The Lord of the Rings, but we might have known whether she pricked her finger sewing the banner for Aragorn, and looked at the blood, and considered for the first time that it would one day be finite; a symbol of physical pains that might not heal once she chose mortality.

I imagine Arwen’s Quest for the courage to gamble a few decades of mortal love against the immortality (and all she might there meet!) would move us through such symbolic moments. Symbols are the language of poets, and Tolkien knew both his own personal symbols and the icons of a whole literature of Europe. The Yang action in The Lord of the Rings is marvellously balanced by the characters’ inward search. Frodo and Sam after all have only their own tiny spirits to call on for the endurance to challenge Mordor; and their victory is in the end one of acceptance, endurance and surrender – Yin qualities. That wonderful balance could be seen in Taoist terms, though it would probably have horrified Tolkien to put it in that way.

"The Lady of the Lake"
"A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains" - [Click for Larger Version]
(800 x 600 110k)

One of my favourite writers, and for many of the same reasons, is Ursula Le Guin. If The Lord of the Rings is a window into a huge vista, a crowded painting like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, then Le Guin’s books are like Chinese inkwash drawings, also hinting at vast expanses beyond the borders of the immediate story, but peopled with just a few characters drawn in firm strokes. They travel – most notably Sparrowhawk in his small boat flying on the magewind between the islands of Earthsea – but their quests are tilted more inwards, in the search for self-mastery and for the understanding of balance in the world.

Le Guin is a poet, and I’m always amazed by how much significant action happens in just a few pages, but for that reason her books can seem deceptively short. It’s magic to be able to write so beautifully, cutting to the essence of each matter with diamond-clear prose, with no words wasted. (So you can imagine why I find Stephen R. Donaldson so hard to swallow.) As a poet, the action is carried on a series of potent symbols or images. That’s a Yin approach to storytelling, I think. Not that people don’t go places and fight things, but for instance Sparrowhawk’s journey from Roke to Selidor is no longer than his journey between two moments of self-knowledge. Near the beginning: "[he] understood the singing of the bird, and the language of the water falling in the basin of the fountain, and the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirred the leaves: it seemed to him that he himself was a word spoken by the sunlight,"

A few chapters later: "Once in that court he had felt himself to be a word spoken by the sunlight. Now the darkness also had spoken: a word that could not be unsaid."

The inward action of the soul is described in these succinct symbolic moments, once again light and dark, like the moments in LOTR where a last gleam of light reaches under the Mordor pall to touch Frodo at the crossroads of the Morannon; he spies the fallen stone head of the king re-crowned with flowers and says, "They cannot conquer forever." Sam feels the same, spotting a lone star above Ephel Duath. "The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach."

The Light against the Dark: almost the small change of symbolism in fantasy literature. It doesn’t take a genius to use it. I’m always chilled by Le Guin’s different vision of Death as the dark slopes into the dry dustlands under a sky of unfamiliar unchanging stars that never set. I’m always moved by Sparrowhawk’s return to Life: "…until with a roar of noise and a glroy of daylight, and the bitter cold of winter, and the bitter tste of salt, the world was restored to him and he floundered in the sudden, true and living sea." Even in the moment of victory Le Guin does not turn away from the pain of life; there are no ‘lived happily ever afters’ for her any more than for Tolkien.

Like Tolkien, Death and Immortality are consuming interests for Le Guin, and underly the Earthsea quartet as fully as they do Tolkien’s work, yet when The Lord of the Rings came out she was already enough of an accomplished writer to keep her own individuality in the face of Tolkien’s almost overwhelming influence. The third Earthsea book, The Farthest Shore, is concerned with the death of magic (and/or the loss of Meaning) when the world is unbalanced by a necromantic grasping after eternal life: For both Tolkien and Le Guin, that’s the ultimate greed that reaches outside of what the world can allow. The character Sparrowhawk argues against personal immortality:

"Sparrowhawk reached out and took his hand in a hard grasp, so that both by eye and flesh they touched.

‘Lebannen,’ he said… ‘this is. And thou art. There is no safety. There is no end. The word must be heard in silence. There must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss."’

Both authors share a sense of the toughness of life and the value of the struggle to do right. Le Guin looks for that reconciliation of light and dark within what Tolkien would call ‘the circles of the world.’ The balance must be achieved here, accepting the limits of life and asking no more; not blaming the light for casting a shadow.

"…For being and nonbeing
arise together;
hard and easy
complete each other;
long and short
shape each other;
note and voice
make music together;
before and after
follow each other.
That’s why the wise soul
does without doing,
Teaches without talking….." (Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching.)

For Tolkien the balance is achieved in ways beyond our knowing, weighed out by Eru who sits outside the circles of the world, and reveals the fullness of his creation to no-one. But he is assured that Good and Evil are balanced in His hand.

Some days these appear to me as opposing viewpoints. Other days, I can’t see any difference. Tolkien and Le Guin complement each other like the black/white Tao symbol. I’d be poorer for the lack of either of them.

Quotes are from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea quartet, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Farthest Shore

Other quotes are from her translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching

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