Oct. 8th, 2013

hth: (Hth the 2nd)
[personal profile] hth
I follow fewer magic/occult-specific blogs than I used to, as the amount of magic-proper that I do at this point in my life hovers just above zero, and neoplatonism gives me a rash. However, I'll always keep Rune Soup on my list, because it's just full-on a trip, in every possible sense of the world. Gordon is eccentric and funny and his writing style is this odd whirl of ideas, most of which he just tosses out there and slides on past; I seriously understand about one-third of what every post says. By the time I do my research, I'm usually up to two-thirds. I'm not usually a subscriber to Secret History of the Universe type stuff, but holy shit, sometimes reading Rune Soup convinces me that world is crazier and more of it than we think.

He's got a good recent post on Tolkien, which you should absolutely read.

Let me first say that the point on which I'm still not convinced is that there's anything particularly pagan about Tolkien's moral universe -- or rather, if there is, it's mainly based on the aforementioned neoplatonism, which was so thoroughly absorbed into Christian philosophical thought so early on that it's silly to imagine that paganism retains any ownership of it, lo these many centuries later. That whole process of history moving from the purity of its great cosmological forces into denser, more complex, and more flawed "modernity" -- sure, that predates Christianity, but it's a late entry into pagan thought and sealed into the very early foundations of Christianity, which from my perspective makes it more fundamental to Christian thought.

As best I can unwind the argument, it's that the fatalism of Middle Earth is the authentically pagan element -- that it lacks the triumphalist vision of Christianity: Middle Earth is a world without the Kingdom of God, where all heroes are only victors until their defeat, where evil is a fundamental presence that can be somewhat corralled, but never eradicated. Of course, did you see what I did there? That's two completely different statements that I put next to each other as though they were restating the same thing. In Tolkien's work, they basically are: if all the battles and the heroism are fights against evil, then to say that heroes always fall in the end is pretty much the same thing as to say that evil always gets the last word.

The thing is, heroic morality is *like this,* but *different.* Pagan stories about heroism do, generally speaking, end with the hero's gruesome death, with the hero meeting some foe who (through trickery or strength or luck) simply can't be defeated. And that's important. That's so important, I think, and for the same reason that Gordon seems to be thinking of when he says, "This is the cornerstone of Middle Earth’s morality. One acts as best one can in a much larger context than is ever possible to grasp. The decision to choose a moral road happens on a moment-by-moment basis, not because one is moving toward a preferred outcome that is fully visible from the outset." The morality of heroism is that you fight on, *knowing that every fight may be your last.* There are no assurances that you'll win, or even that you've chosen the right battle. You don't ask for assurances. You don't take refuge in apocalyptic thinking, in the idea that your virtue will be rewarded, or any other type of "preferred outcome," other than perhaps harboring the hope that someone remembers your story. It does feel a bit gruesome from the perspective of modern Western thought, where everything should contribute to PROGRESS and the BETTERMENT of the world, as well as Western occultism, which also emphasizes coming closer to perfection, through "rising on the spheres" or whatnot. As far as we can tell, most indigenous European paganism just didn't have that concept that the choice of right action was about pragmatism, about getting to the best possible goal. The thinking was that pragmatism was the *default* -- that pretty much everyone tried to improve their station. But morality happened in those moments of not knowing, of choosing virtue with no particular reason to believe you'd be rewarded for it.

More and more, I find myself coming back to this vision of morality, which I agree Tolkien does capture much more powerfully than any other modern writer. The world is so complex and so unknowable that I think a lot of us are well and truly paralyzed by trying to figure out which actions will lead to our preferred outcome. Maybe this is a cop-out, but a lot of times lately, I find myself saying, in essence, fk it. Cattle die, kinsmen die. The dragon got Beowulf and will get you, and all the empires, and all the works of humans. Even the heroic vision of immortality through fame is close enough to a lie as makes no difference; if you're lucky enough to be remembered, it won't last all that long -- go far enough back into the 100,000 years of human history and there are no more immortal names. So I find myself being sort of released from the burden of Saving the World. The question I end up asking myself isn't what will the ramifications of this action be down the road, but will I be proud of myself or ashamed of myself if I do this? Like, ten minutes from now. Will I feel like I'm a slightly better person, ten minutes from now, or a slightly worse person? Of course, for this to work, you have to have a sense of what a "better person" might look like. Otherwise you have no way to answer the question. And that's what wisdom is largely about, and the reason I've often argued that wisdom is the one and only virtue that you can't have too much of. In Tolkien's terms, it's why the characters he presents as most virtuous -- Gandalf, Galadriel, Faramir -- flatly refuse to handle the ring. Because they know who they are and what the best version of themselves looks like, and they're able to see that the ring is going to make them not-so-slightly worse people. The fact that Frodo does handle the ring, and essentially sacrifices himself to it, shows not that Frodo was more or less virtuous, but that the Best Possible Frodo is a different person from, say, the Best Possible Gandalf. Frodo's particular road was about his love of home and family and his passion to preserve that; self-sacrifice made sense for him in a way it didn't for any of the other characters. It was the particular Fate laid on him and specifically relevant to his -- well, I'd use the word da/n, his soul or gift or destiny. Even though Frodo's life was pretty well shattered by his experiences with the ring, he went out pretty old-school pagan heroic: the best Frodo he could ever have been.

It sounds like an easy morality at first glance -- don't think about the future! Screw the consequences of your actions! But the longer you think about it, the more you realize it's really, really, really not easy at all. Being the best possible You that you can be, *literally in every moment and with every little choice* (because you never can see which choices count most), is relentlessly difficult. I fail at it 99.44% of the time, and the excuse I use to rationalize my failures is usually, "Well, it won't really matter, there won't be any major consequences." Except that I'm obviously lying when I tell myself that, because the major consequence is that I'm just slightly *more* not-my-best than I used to be. And that's everything. (Shoulder to the wheel, Dollhouse fans!)

Wow, I was going to talk about Middle Earth vs. Arthuriana, but maybe this is more than enough for one day. Anyway -- Be a Better You -- read more Rune Soup!

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