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Somewhere in Tolkien’s letters he makes clear that the Dwarves of Middle Earth are his Jews. The Dwarvish language of which a few short examples are given is obviously derived from Semitic sources, just as High-Elven stems from Finnish and other Northern European roots. The Dwarves were created before the Elves in the Silmarillion, Tolkien’s posthumously-published compendium of the myths underlying the Lord of the Rings trilogy—but they were created rather by accident, and the whole business had to be done again from scratch to get it right. Thus Tolkien acknowledges in allegorical fashion the precedence of the Jews and their positive qualities (apart from the fact that they are clannish, like to spend their lives digging for wealth, and their women have beards). The Dwarvish alliance with Elves and Men against the Dark Lord makes clear Tolkien’s view that the Jews have their hearts in the right place, and the friendship of Legolas and Gimli is downright ecumenical.

Thus a Catholic author has no difficulty inventing a mythological parallel for the Jews, and treating them rather decently. Why don’t Jews invent myths for themselves? That is the question raised by Michael Weingrad in an article in the new Jewish Review of Books, entitled, “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia.”

There is plenty of what critics later came to call el real maravilloso (the “miraculous real” of Alejo Carpentier or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, usually mistranslated as “magical realism.” But there is nothing like Tolkien or C.S.Lewis. “Indeed, one wonders why, amidst all the initiatives to solve the crisis in Jewish continuity, no one has yet proposed commissioning a Jewish fantasy series that might plumb the theological depths like Lewis or at least thrill Jewish preteens with tales of Potterish derring-do,” Weingrad asks.

The question, I believe, is not why Jews don’t write fantasy literature, but why Christians do. His rather limp explanation is:

It is not only that Jews are ambivalent about a return to an imaginary feudal past. It is even more accurate to say that most Jews have been deeply and passionately invested in modernity, and that history, rather than otherworldliness, has been the very ground of the radical and transformative projects of the modern Jewish experience. This goes some way towards explaining the Jewish enthusiasm for science fiction over fantasy (from Asimov to Silverberg to Weinbaum there is no dearth of Jewish science fiction writers).

That is a hard position to defend: what about Jewish devotion to Kabbala? Weingrad comes closest to an explanation by referring to Christian interest in the pagan past:

Christianity has a much more vivid memory and even appreciation of the pagan worlds which preceded it than does Judaism. Neither Canaanite nor Egyptian civilizations exercise much fascination for the Jewish imagination, and certainly not as a place of enchantment or escape. In contrast, the Christian imagination found in Lewis and Tolkien often moves, like Beowulf or Sir Gawain, through an older pagan world in which spirits of place and mythical beings are still potent. Nor is this limited to fauns and elves. This anterior world can be dark and frighteningly alien, as Tolkien has Gandalf indicate in The Two Towers. “Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves,” the wizard says, “the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not.” Lewis sounds the same note in Perelandra when, far below the surface of the planet Venus, his protagonist catches an unsettling glimpse of alien creatures, and wonders if there might be “some way to renew the old Pagan practice of propitiating the local gods of unknown places in such fashion that it was no offence to God Himself but only a prudent and courteous apology for trespass.”

Contrast this with the treatment of the great and symbolic monster of ancient Judaism—the sea-creature Leviathan, whose terrifying pagan majesty as the personification of the watery depths the rabbis were determined to strip away:

Raba said in the name of R. Yochanan: The Holy One will make a feast for the righteous
out of the flesh of Leviathan, and what is left will be portioned out and made available as
merchandise in the marketplaces of Jerusalem.
(Bava Batra 75a)

To subject the primal abyss to the forces of commerce is to demythologize with a vengeance—and to do it wholesale at that.

And he observes, “Tolkien had famously converted his friend and fellow Oxford don from skepticism to Christianity through a series of conversations that led Lewis to the realization that ‘the story of Christ is simply a true myth.’

Tolkien’s concern was to purify the myths of the pagan past to make them more amenable to Christianity. As I wrote in a review of Tolkien’s wonderful posthumous prequel to TLOR:

In The Children of Hurin, a tragedy set some 6,000 years before the tales recounted in The Lord of the Rings, we see clearly why it was that Tolkien sought to give the English-speaking peoples a new pre-Christian mythology. It is a commonplace of Tolkien scholarship that the writer, the leading Anglo-Saxon scholar of his generation, sought to restore to the English their lost mythology. In this respect the standard critical sources (for example Edmund Wainwright) mistake Tolkien’s profoundly Christian motive. In place of the heroes Siegfried and Beowulf, the exemplars ofGerman and Anglo-Saxon pagan myth, we have the accursed warrior Turin, whose pride of blood and loyalty to tribe leave him vulnerable to manipulation by the forces of evil.

Tolkien’s popular Ring trilogy, I have attempted to show, sought to undermine and supplant Richard Wagner’s operatic Ringcycle, which had offered so much inspiration for Nazism. [1] With the reconstruction of the young Tolkien’s prehistory of Middle-earth, we discern a far broader purpose: to recast as tragedy the heroic myths of pre-Christian peoples, in which the tragic flaw is the pagan’s tribal identity. Tolkien saw his generation decimated, and his circle of friends exterminated, by the nationalist compulsions of World War I; he saw the cult of Siegfried replace the cult of Christ during World War II. His life’s work was to attack the pagan flaw at the foundation of the West.

It is too simple to consider Tolkien’s protagonist Turin as a conflation of Siegfried and Beowulf, but the defining moments in Turin’s bitter life refer clearly to the older myths, with a crucial difference: the same qualities that make Siegfried and Beowulf exemplars to the pagans instead make Turin a victim of dark forces, and a menace to all who love him. Tolkien was the anti-Wagner, and Turin is the anti-Siegfried, the anti-Beowulf. Tolkien reconstructed a mythology for the English not (as Wainwright and other suggest) because he thought it might make them proud of themselves, but rather because he believed that the actual pagan mythology was not good enough to be a predecessor to Christianity.

Christianity proposes to transform and ennoble the pagan without, however, erasing his pagan origin. To make Englishmen into better Christians, Tolkien therefore believed that he had to first make them into better pagans, by purifying the pagan myths that preceded the “true myth.” The pagan only can understand myth, that is, a story by which the divine intrudes into the world and takes shape among men.

There is an interesting parallel between Tolkien and Rene Girard, who believes that ritual sacrifice stems from “mimetic violence” in which primitive peoples choose an arbitrary victim in order to control their common impulse towards violence. That is the origin of ritual sacrifice as a repetition of this event, and myth as recollection of this event. Christianity thus is the anti-myth, the “true myth” by which the ancient cycle of mimetic violence is put aside for ever by the ultimate sacrifice, namely God’s self-sacrifice. As a matter of pure anthropology I don’t think there’s a shred of historical evidence to support Girard’s account. Sacrifice has an entirely different origin in Judaism and Christianity; the standard account is Jon Levenson’s Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son.

A few of the ancient Canaanite and Babylonian myths do peek through Jewish Scripture, such as the Leviathan mentioned by Weingrad. But Judaism has no need of myth; on the contrary, it is hostile to it. There are of course mythological elements attached to the first chapters of Genesis, but Genesis mainly is a family history. The miracles of Exodus have a mythological quality, but it is not a necessary one: what occurred, Jews believe, was miracle, not myth.

Most remarkable in Jewish scripture is that the entire account of the House of David and the subsequent exile and redemption of Israel over the first six hundred years of the first millennium B.C.E. contains very few supernatural elements at all: the lightning igniting Elijah’s sacrifice and his assumption into heaven, Elisha’s reviving of the Shunnamite woman’s son, Saul’s interrogation of ghost of Samuel, for example. Compare this to the contemporary of the authors of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, e.g. Homer, who lived in a god-infested world.

I do not mean to deprecate the Christian treatment of myth. As I wrote about Tolkien’s Hurin volume,

Tolkien is a writer of greater theological depth than his Oxford colleague C S Lewis, in my judgment. Lewis is a felicitous writer and a diligent apologist, but mere allegory along the lines of the Narnia series can do no more than restate Christian doctrine; it cannot really expand our experience of it. Tolkien takes us to the dark frontier of a world that is not yet Christian, and therefore is tragic, but has the capacity to become Christian. It is the world of the Dark Ages, in which barbarians first encounter the light. It is not fantasy, but rather a distillation of the spiritual history of the West. Whereas C S Lewis tries to make us comfortable in what we already believe by dressing up the story as a children’s masquerade, Tolkien makes us profoundly uncomfortable. Our people, our culture, our language, our toehold upon this shifting and uncertain Earth are no more secure than those of a thousand extinct tribes of the Dark Ages; and a greater hope than that of the work of our hands and the hone of our swords must avail us.

Nor do I mean to suggest that Jews are less prone to idolatry than Christians. As the Tanya, the Kabbalistic treatise by the first Lubovitcher Rebbe, puts it, all of us are idolaters, for if we believed the First Commandment — that Hashem is our God — we never would sin.

But Jews and Christians are different, in a way that Michael Weingrad does not quite appreciated. He wants more Jewish fantasy fiction, and write:

We will probably see more Jewish writers producing fantasy, as younger Israeli writers seek to follow global trends, and as younger American Jewish writers shed older instinctive hesitations about the genre. But we will have to wait some time, if not forever, for a genuinely Jewish fantasy work to appear. It may not be impossible, but it will take some audacity and may require more literary stimulation than any anthology of forgotten Jewish mythic materials, such as Schwartz and Dagan have given us, is likely to provide. It would require at least a Jewish education equivalent to the philological and medievalist backgrounds of the Oxford and Cambridge dons Tolkien and Lewis. Perhaps there is some Jewish Studies professor or yeshiva student even now scribbling in a notebook.

Why? Christians like Lewis and (even more) Tolkien have an existential need to address myth, which we do not. There is nothing wrong with Jews reading and enjoying Tolkien, whom I have called the most Catholic author of the past century—any more than it is wrong for Jews to listen to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or Mozart’s Requiem. But this genre has uniquely Christian characteristics, which Jews should understand—and admire.

Image by Arseni Mourzenko licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 



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