Tag Archives: The Lord of the Rings

The Secret Fire

Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

A Review

‘May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.’
(letter by G.B. Smith, from ‘a trench in Thiepval Wood’, Somme, 1916)

samwise-the-brave

Samwise Gamgee – inspired by the working class soldiers Tolkien fought alongside in the Somme.

This solidly-crafted biography charts in meticulous detail the fellowship and harrowing experiences of four friends during the First World War: JRR Tolkien; Christopher Wiseman; Robert Gilson; and Geoffrey Bache Smith, who called themselves the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society) formed when they were pupils of King Edwards School, Birmingham. Although Tolkien and the evolution of his legendarium is the ultimate focus, Garth lovingly brings alive the remarkable friendship enjoyed by the TCBS – from school to Oxbridge to the Trenches – and how its camaraderie and intellectual culture provided the terroir for Tolkien in developing the mythos and motivation for Middle Earth. For fans of Tolkien’s Secondary World there is exhaustive detail about its painstaking gestation – from the languages created out of philological interest, to the poems that first started to flesh out the world evoked by them, and then onto the Lost Tales and the first inklings of the Silmarillion. As an account of creative process the book is fascinating by itself and should be of interest to any writer (especially of imaginative fiction). However, what makes the book gripping and resonant is how ‘four went to war and how they fared’. It is a Boys’ Own story that collides with All Quiet on the Western Front. The chummy proceedings of an apparently elite coterie of white, male privilege might seem unappealing, but when one learns the details of their lives – the fact that Tolkien was orphaned and scraping by, for instance; or how they resisted the shallow irony and jingoistic rhetoric of their age; that they loved, and feared, and fell out, and faltered – then they become far more sympathetic. And whatever their politics or predilections, opportunities or opinions, they were human beings, fragile, unique consciousnesses, crushed by the wheels of war. Two of them survived, but were haunted by the trauma of combat and its toll for the rest of their lives – and the two who didn’t are emblematic of the millions of arrested narratives of the Lost Generation.  Their unsung song gave Tolkien his MO, if he needed one beyond his philological obsession with invented languages. That he latched onto the ‘lost tales’ of Old English and attempted to stitch together their tantalising fragments, perhaps is telling though of someone who lost his parents, lost his closest friends, and lost the England he knew. The fact that he could have so easily lost his life in the bloodbath of the Somme, as so many did, is chilling. Even though we know he survives it tense to read these sections. One stray bullet or piece of shrapnel and that would have done for him and the books millions have come to love, the ‘book of the century’. And this is the heart of Garth’s argument – that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not mere escapism (although in a world gone mad a desire for that is possibly the sanest thing) but a bold rebuttal of all that the so-called ‘war to end all wars’ stood for, and a lifetime’s effort to manifest the vision of the TCBS and all they stood for: aestheticism and accountability, colloquy and friendship, in defiance of the barbarism of the age. Tolkien’s project does not deny reality – he had endured its sharpest edge and was not naïve to its horrors – but seeks to transform it, by articulating its deepest patterns. In his work, the Great War became the Greater War, between cosmic forces of light and dark, good and evil – and, in contradiction to the common misreading of his work as being morally simplistic – he wove in flaws and nuances into his characters and cosmology. His was no mere Manichean universe. He did not believe in the divisive populism of his time, which sought to demonize Germans as the ‘Hun’, or the ‘Bosch’ (deeply aware of his own Anglo-German heritage, and of the common roots of those two nations). Both sides were morally culpable, both were tainted by the obscene crimes of war, and after his experiences in the Trenches he was in doubt as to the futility of armed conflict in resolving anything: ‘The utter stupid waste of war, not only material but moral and spiritual, is so staggering to those who have to endure it. And always was (despite the poets), and always will be (despite the propagandists)…’ Beyond the scrupulous pathology the book offers in its fine scholarship and clear-eyed recounting of events, its strength lies in its defence Tolkien’s world, and by extension, of Fantasy as a genre, in which ‘Nihilism is replaced by a consolatory vision’ (p80). Garth argues convincingly for Fantasy’s robustness and validity: ‘In its capacity to warn about such extremes [e.g. the Totalitarianism that arises from the ashes of the First World War], fantastic fiction has the edge over what is called realism. ‘Realism’ has a knee-jerk tendency to avoid extremes as implausible, but ‘fantasy’ actually embraces them. It magnifies and clarifies the human condition.’ (p223) Fantasy can provide the long-view about what it means to be human: the Epic enables us to resituate ourselves within the myths we live by, reminding us of our soul’s song so easily lost in the white noise of the world. But rather than leading us away from manifest creation, it reunites us with it, with the ‘Secret Fire that burn[s] at the heart of the world.’ (p255) Tolkien, expressing the vision of the TCBS, said, as a 24 year old, that they ‘had been granted a spark of fire … that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world.’ That vision has inspired millions, and, in this Age of Endarkenment, it is needed now more than ever.

Tolkien and the Great War: the threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth, is published by Houghton Mifflin, 2003

 

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2018

(thank you to Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis for the gift of this book)

Summoning the Hero

The Writer’s Quest, part 2

Enter the Hero - Beowulf steps up to the role

Enter the Hero – Beowulf steps up to the role

At this time, Beowulf, nephew of the Geatish king Hygelac, is the greatest hero in the world. He lives in Geatland, a realm not far from Denmark, in what is now southern Sweden. When Beowulf hears tales of the destruction wrought by Grendel, he decides to travel to the land of the Danes and help Hrothgar defeat the demon. He voyages across the sea with fourteen of his bravest warriors until he reaches Hrothgar’s kingdom.

Every creative act is an act of courage – it is ‘yah-boo-sucks!’ to death, to oblivion, to mediocrity, to being a passive consumer of life. We have everything against us – common sense; the pressure of earning a living; unhelpful peers; inner critics; crazymakers; noisy neighbours; that household chore that really needs your attention; that cold call; Climate Chaos; global financial meltdown; random asteroids and super volcanoes threatening to Destroy The World in an instant! See these as threshold guardians – they are the equivalent of the three-headed dog Cerberus that guarded the entrance to the realm of Hades. They are there to test your mettle, your tenacity. How much do you want to follow your dreams? Is your Push bigger than your Pull? Hollywood screenwriters use the useful idea of the ‘Fear/Desire Axis’ – which, despite its name is not some terrorist cell, or Bond-like super-baddy organisation. Basically, the actions of every character (and, possibly, every human being) is governed by the principle. Imagine it like a see-saw, with Fear at one end, Desire at the other. When a character’s desire outweighs their fear, they move forward. When that mean old bully fear tips the balance, they freeze or retreat. The locus of optimum dramatic tension is the tipping point between the two – the trick is to sustain this as long as possible. Shakespeare kept Hamlet stewing in his own juices for five acts, prevaricating, unable to act. This was the Prince of Denmark’s fatal flaw – he oscillated between ‘to be or not to be’, like some dodgy alternator. If he had killed Claudius in Act One, Scene One – end of story. Instead, Shakespeare wisely spun it out and elicited powerful drama from the psychological anguish experienced by the Dane at his tipping point, creating early Nordic noir.

`Yet, finally, the Hero must act – whatever the consequences. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam reach the uninviting entrance to Shelob’s Lair, reeking of carrion, plot snags and foul things. Neither of them are keen to enter – but they have a mission, to take the One Ring to Mount Doom and destroy it. This ‘desire’ outweighs their ‘fear’ and, steeling themselves (Frodo, with Sting) they step into the dark. This makes them heroes. Of course, if they had thought – ‘sod this for a game of soldiers’, and gone back to the Shire, they wouldn’t have been (and they wouldn’t have found much of a Shire to go back to). Novelist John Cowper Powys talked about how a character’s behaviour is governed by a ‘concatenation of imperatives’161 – incrementally, things build up (like ounce weights on the scales) until the protagonists simply have no choice (or so it would seem to them), or if they do, it’s a Hobson’s Choice – a choice which is really no choice at all.

And so into the darkness the plucky hobbits step – with their magic sword in one hand, and the Light of Elendil in the other. And so must we, as writers – armed with only a pen (or keyboard) and the frail light of our inspiration. In the Welsh legend of the bard Taliesin, Gwion Bach is reborn shining with awen (inspiration), stolen from Ceridwen’s cauldron – ‘Behold the radiant brow!’ cries the weir-ward when he is rediscovered, a helpless babe in a coracle. Consumed by our ‘illumination’ we venture into the Perilous Realm, like Wandering Aengus in WB Yeats’ classic poem: ‘I went for a walk in a hazel wood because a fire was in my head…’

Setting off on the Writer’s Quest of the creative process is perhaps akin to being a knight in a medieval romance, venturing into the forest (although we are probably more like Parsifal at this stage – the Holy Fool – more than the accomplished Paladin). Be prepared to make a fool of yourself, turning up at Court on a donkey in a patchwork costume. Let yourself make mistakes – give yourself permission – because so much success comes from creative ‘failure’, from trial and error and happy accidents. Embark in the spirit of creative play – and you will be more likely to create something original. Start thinking that you ‘know it all’, that you have the answers, and you will have nothing to learn (and readers will probably be less inclined to listen). Start your quest with questions – and your journey will be a journey of discovery, fuelled by curiosity and delight, some of the essentials for a writer.

10 Essentials for a Writer

  • Pen. Paper. A lack of excuses.
  • Curiosity & Delight.
  • A willingness to say ‘yes’ to life/a rebuttal of the ‘no’s’.
  • Ability to rewrite and listen to feedback.
  • Staying power (an internal composition engine).
  • An appetite for adventure.
  • Risk-taking.
  • Boldness.
  • Humour.
  • A healthy book habit.

Gawain had a pentagram on his shield to remind him of the ‘five Christian virtues’. In Scotland, at the Castle of the Muses, I met a South-African ‘knight’ called David told me of the essential chivalrous qualities as he sees them. A knight has:

  • the wisdom to do what is right
  • the will to make it happen
  • and the strength to make it endure.

And he suggested the three traits of a warrior are: impeccability, unpredictability, and responsibility. These latter qualities could certainly apply to a writer: impeccability in terms of being conscientious of one’s craft, attending to the details, keeping one’s house in order; unpredictability, in terms of originality of thought, ideas and execution; and responsibility, in terms of what you write, what you choose to bring into the world. These are the qualities we need to summon in ourself as we heed the call to adventure and set off to face our foe. In essence, the Hero is our Higher Self – and writing can help us connect to it (as well as to our Lower Self, our Shadow).

I call these the Avatarian and Atavistic Impulses.

Basically, writing can bring out the best and the worst in us – both in its execution and on the page. Writers can be beasts and saints, charismatic or tedious bores. Good to be around, or the partner/friend from Hell. Selfless, or selfish. Certainly there is an element of selfishness in writing – in indulging in one’s fantasies, as well as in the single-mindedness needed to see a project through to completion; and yet one could argue that in spending precious years slaving away at a manuscript that might have an altruistic element (the edification of humanity!) we are being selfless to a certain extent (although in reality the act of writing is probably a blending of the -less and the -ish!). On the page, the Avatarian and Atavistic Impulses can manifest in the form of characters – we can personify them.

It could be argued that all characters are aspects of the author’s personality (for where else do they come from? who else is writing it?). The Hero and Villain of a tale could be seen as the Higher and Lower Self of the author, although this is perhaps a crude analysis and things are often more nuanced than that. Villains often ‘act out’ our Super-Egos (over-confident, slick, successful, sexually magnetic, etc); and Heroes can often be dysfunctional and even amoral. Martin Amis said that ‘novels come from the base of the spine’ – echoing Nabokov’s ‘tell-tale tingle down the spine’162 – in the way that they explore powerful primal issues around security and identity. They can be an instinctual response to the world, almost beyond cognition – hence the mystery around the creative process, and where authors get their ideas from. Often, we can’t say for certain – until afterwards. The first draft is often written ‘in the dark’ – in the process of unknowing, of seeking, or being ‘driven’ – and the second with the ‘lights on’. The ‘scary thing in the shadows’ disturbs our status quo and forces us to give it voice, and then we ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ (or the stench of blood) and go in all guns blazing. First, Grendel; then Beowulf.

Of Beowulf, the bards sang:

And many men stated that south or north,

Over all the world, or between the seas,

Or under the heaven, no hero was greater.’163

When we summon the Hero we are, in a way, evoking our better qualities – our unrealised potential – and giving them a form. There is often an element of wish-fulfilment, of power-fantasy (think of James Bond; Sherlock Holmes; Jason Bourne, etc). The Hero can carry for us all the things we wish we could do or be if only… By writing, we literally tap into these and give them dramatic form; and in the process, we inhabit these qualities. By channelling the archetype, for a while we become it. And this is part of the visceral (as well as intellectual) thrill of writing which is rarely discussed. The adrenalin rush of writing can be intoxicating and … addictive. ‘I feel gripped by something stronger than my will,’ is how Alice W. Flaherty describes it.164

That is why, I believe, writing is the ‘best of me’ (as I tap into my Higher Self) and also when I often feel most fully alive (it can be exhilarating). When I am firing on all cylinders, the writer is a turbo-charged version of myself – I feel like I am stepping into my power and being most fully myself. I am living up to my own potential.

And so by becoming writers, we become in effect, the Hero of our own story. We are no longer the passive recipient of another’s narrative. We have seized control of our own and writing our destiny into being.

Whether we accomplish it is another matter.

The way is littered with perils and pitfalls – not least that of Ego the Giant, who lumbers onto our path and threatens to overshadow the whole proceedings unless he is handled with care.

Next we will look at the Art of Bragging and how that feckless lunk, Ego, can be put to good use.

DESIRING DRAGONS - COMPASS BOOKS FRONT COVER

Extract from ‘The Writer’s Quest’ Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Desiring Dragons: creativity, imagination and the writer’s quest, Compass Books, 2014

 

This is the End (again)

This is the End (again): the New Apocalyptic Sublime

Kevan Manwaring

The destruction of Vulcan? No, The Great Day of his Wrath, by John Martin, c. 1853The destruction of Vulcan? No, The Great Day of his Wrath, by John Martin, c. 1853

The destruction of Vulcan? No, The Great Day of his Wrath, by John Martin, c. 1853

From the scenes of planetary cataclysm in the latest Star Trek revamp to the Coppola’s napalm-reeking Apocalypse Now, Hollywood has revelled in the aesthetic of beautiful destruction. And with the long-delayed released of Cormac Mccarthy’s wrist-slitter The Road finally hitting the screens later this year, the latest in a string of post 9/11 gloomfests, Doomsday never seems more popular. The media whips up fear about the New Bad: another pandemic to push ink. Yet concerns about plagues and famines, about geopolitical and religious tensions are nothing new. A spin-off of the Romantic art movement became known as the Apocalyptic Sublime, and in the dramatic paintings of Biblical catastrophe by John Martin we see precursors of today’s big screen Armageddons. Put on your Kilgore shades and don your darkest clothes as we wander through cinema’s gallery of the end of the world.

JJ Abrams 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise dwells lovingly on intergalactic carnage – notably the ‘controversial’ destruction of Spock’s home planet Vulcan, although a planet named after a Roman god of fire was perhaps doomed, like the unlucky member of the away team in the red shirt: you just know they’re going to get it. But the apocalyptic aesthetic the special FX maestros were conjuring up on the big screen with state of the art technology – the planet’s surface breaking up in cataclysmic upheaval – is in fact nothing new.

The Apocalyptic Sublime, a sub-genre of the Romantic art movement academic Morton D Palely defined in his eponymous book (Yale 1986) emerged out of the Romantic Movement, directly as a result of political and religious tensions and scare-mongering that took place throughout the period stretching from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Communist Manifesto of 1848. Between these paradigm-shift poles, when old certainties were being challenged, art began to mirror both the zeitgeist of Terror and the ever-deepening wonder of the universe.

The sense of the sublime (the “exalted”, the “awe-inspiring”) was increasingly used to bridge the gap between the limited human faculties of understanding and the unimaginable infinity of the physical universe’ [Introducing Romanticism, p19]

Man was being overwhelmed by the infinite complexity of nature. Poets like John Keats decided to accept the limit of human consciousness, in what he called negative capability, but to scientists of the day, such fathomless enquiry gave them night terrors. The light of reason only served to illuminate the extent of the endless darkness. Sir Humphrey Davy, scientist, expressed this frustration:

Though we can perceive, develop, and even produce by means of our instruments of experiment, an almost infinite variety of minute phaenomena,yet we are incapable of determining general laws by which they are governed; and in attempting to define them, we are lost in obscure though sublime imaginings concerning unknown agencies.

‘Obscure though sublime imaginings concerning unknown agencies…’ This seems to sum up much of the art of the Apocalyptic Sublime – from the painting of the 18th Century to the cinema of the Twenty First. A sense that not only are ‘there more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in most people’s philosophies’, but forces, vast and inconceivable, could sweep us away at any moment. Since the invention of the A-Bomb this has been a reality. The events of September 11th 2001 presented the world with a living image of the Lightning-struck Tower from the tarot. Nothing was certain, nothing was sacred, nowhere was safe.

Romantic artists, notably John Martin (1789-1854), captured dramatic scenes of the end of the world in his large paintings. Romantic writers also dwelled on this e.g. Mary Shelley’s lesser known sci-fi novel, The Last Man (1826). This trope, the last man on earth, offers cinematic opportunities for eerily abandoned urban centres. There is something both chilling and sublimely beautiful about such empty vistas – after fears of baby boom-fuelled fears of over-population, the image of a post-Malthusian world is strangely comforting. Richard Matheson’s 1954 sci-fi novel I Am Legend was first made into The Last Man on Earth (1964) with Vincent Price; then The Omega Man with gun-toting, Charlton Heston in 1971, before being remade in the big budget Will Smith vehicle in 2007, which created, at huge expense, the memorable image of the ‘concrete jungle’ of New York reclaimed by nature – escaped gazelles and lions gambolling gamely along the overgrown avenues, pursued by man the predator, who himself has become ‘food’ to CGI-zombies.

Scenes of urban devastation in films, (eg Saving Private Ryan; The Pianist) echo the Romantic penchant for ruins. Painters loved them. Poets loitered around in them. They symbolised something about the impermanence of life, the folly of man’s vaulting ambition. This was captured most memorably by Shelley in his poem ‘Ozymandias’, inspired by the temples dedicated to Ramses II he had beheld: ‘I met a traveller from an antique land/Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,/Half sunk, a shattered visage lies…’ This foregrounding of scale, to emphasise insignificance – life on an ungovernable scale – is captured also in the nightmarish city-scapes of Piranesi, whose hellish visions of dungeon-like metropolises were brought to life on the silver screen in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927); Things to Come (1936), and on to Blade Runner, Brazil, Minority Report, etc. Gormenghastian edifices which baffle the human inside an endless maze. Films with giant starships (2001: a space odyssey; Alien; Event Horizon; Sunshine) offer the same aesthetic in space. The human animal trapped within an artificial world. In an increasingly urbanised and over-populated world, this became increasingly the reality for many.

The 1970s saw a whole swathe of gloomy Sci-Fi movies mirroring contemporary concerns about over-population, pollution, congestion, etc: Soylent Green, Silent Running, The Cars that Ate Paris, Mad Max, THX1138. The world had ‘gone wrong’ somehow. Environmental issues were starting to drip-feed into popular culture, although it would be a decade or more before such concerns were seen as more than the fears of a few green Lefties and the chronic fantasies of sci-fi writers.

Ridley Scott’s first film The Duelists (1977) captured memorably the stark aesthetic of Europe rendered by the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Scott’s later films, especially Blade Runner (1982) brought the Apocalyptic Sublime into the cyberpunk era. The opening shot of the tech-noir classic, of a smog-darkened Los Angeles, illuminated by spouts of infernal flame seemed chilling when first it was seen on the big screen, yet a decade later similar images of burning oil wells were being beamed back from the first Gulf War.

Flame seems to be a common image of apocalypse, perhaps not surprising after two millennia of hellfire and brimstone. What preachers brought to life by the power of the spoken word, churches and abbeys did through imagery. Aesthetically, cinema – with its moving stained glass, rows of seats and hushed reverence – provides the modern experience of the medieval cathedral and the nearest many of us get to a collective religious experience. The effect can be terrifying and awe-inspiring. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1978) itself a reimagining of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, cited as being the first modern novel of the Twentieth Century, began the main narrative of the film in a plume of napalm to the lugubrious incantations of Jim Morrison.

The apocalyptic warnings of the 1950s, a culture having atomic kittens, seem to have come true, but in a way unforeseen by Beatnik Cassandras. The classic British doom-movie, Val Guest’s intensely atmospheric 1961 film, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, appears, in hindsight, to be the most on the money, and was eerily echoed in real newspaper headlines when both the Stern Report came out (‘The Day That Changed the Climate’, The Independent, 31 October 2006) and then the IPCC report (‘Final Warning’, front page of The Independent, 3 February 2007):  life mirroring art mirroring life – because the film is set and filmed in actual Fleet Street offices… In it, the Earth is jolted eleven degrees off-kilter by Russian and American nuclear testing – ‘Cold War’ brinkmanship ironically causing the planet to heat up. Now we are told the world is only six degrees away from devastation – and the thermometer is rising.

Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain, 1940-1942

Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain, 1940-1942

‘Europe After The Rain’ by Max Ernst  (1942)

Flood is equally likely to bring about apocalypse. Richard Jeffries, prescient Victorian post-apocalyptic parable, After London, or Wild England (1885) depicts a future primitive scenario of a flooded England reduced to a feudal Mediaeval state, where animals have turned feral and roam the overgrown landscape. Later artists continued this tradition into the Twentieth Century; such as Max Ernst’s Europe After the Rains, which Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) emulated, albeit in a far from subtle way…The poster of that old fashioned ‘disaster’ movie, masquerading as an eco-fable, was of an inundated Statue of Liberty. Ever since the classic ending of the original adaptation of Monkey Planet, The Planet of the Apes (Schaffner 1968) with spaceman/caveman Charlton Heston striking the sand in despair at the Ozymandian Statue of Liberty, half-buried in the sand, has this icon of American been used as a visual metaphor for ‘democracy’ (read Western Civilisation/humanity) under siege, as in the post-humous Kubrick project AI (Spielberg 2001). Here, it was preserved in the ice. In Cloverfield, the whole head was blasted across the screens, landing in front of a shell-shocked twenty-somethings. In the adaptation of The Road, it is a beached oil tanker, like a great white whale, which provides a stark short-hand for apocalypse, the Moby Dick of Peak Oil which man, Ahab-like has hunted down to the bitter end, at the cost of everything he holds dear. His doom, it seems, is to be tied to it as it goes under. In this vision of a burnt America, (the cause of the catastrophe is not elucidated in the book – as though Mccarthy is saying ‘take your pick’), ‘The fragility of everything is revealed at last.’

The late, great, master doomster JG Ballard used his own childhood experiences in the decaying splendour of the Post-colonial Far East to shape his dystopian vision of the future in his quartet of environmental disaster novels, The Wind from Nowhere (1961); The Drowned World (1962); The Drought (1965); The Crystal World (1966). His later novels explored a similar aesthetic of entropy and ennui. So far, only his memoirs, Empire of the Sun and his ‘auto-erotica’ cult novel Crash have been translated significantly onto the big screen – by Spielberg and Cronenberg respectively. It would be good to see a version of The Drowned World, but perhaps life has overtaken art.

In another instance of art mirroring life, it has just been announced that Will Smith will star in a dramatisation of the notorious 2007 Flood of New Orleans, which scandalised America, playing real-life Katrina hero John Keller. Spike Lee has already chartered this in sober indignation in his documentary on the event, When the Levees Broke (2006), which used news-reel footage and interviews with witnesses.

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin 1852

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin 1852

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin 1852

Donnie Darko’s (Kelly 2001) quirky Eighties-esque rites-of-passage worked far better than the OTT over-hyped Blair Witch on cocaine, Cloverfield (Reeves 2008). And let’s mercifully forget the uber-expensive flop of Southland Tales (Kelly 2006) – a ‘difficult second album’ scenario for the Darko director, written in $200 million. The studio have decided to go back to their original cash cow, with a sequel, S. Darko (Fisher 2009).

One could argue that these mega-budget movies, and the industry that supports them, is actually contributing to the eco-apocalypse. One of the reasons Daniel Day Lewis was reputedly said tohave given for declining the role of Aragorn in Peter Jackon’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is because of the environmental impact of such cinematic behemoth. He instead chose to deconstruct the environmental agenda in the low-budget Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005) directed by his partner, Rebeca Miller Arthur Miller’s daughter. And in There Will be Blood (2007) based on Sinclair Lewis’ 1920s novel Oil!, he played the oil magnate turned monster, Daniel Plainview. Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic film provided visuals of a burning oil well, echoing the burning of the oil fields in the first Gulf War, which in itself seemed to be referencing Blade Runner…The second in Godfrey Reggio’s art-house Qatsi trilogy Powaqqatsi (1988), from the Hopi, ‘parasitic way of life’, dwelled hypnotically in such scenes.

Of course with the charnel pyres of Foot and Mouth, floods, and the traumatic events of 9/11 played at the time continuously across the world, we had a very real example of the Apocalyptic Sublime – so much so, that for a while Hollywood went (even) softer than usual, (Chicago winning Best Picture in early 2003). Since then it has learnt to cash in on the doom and gloom zeitgeist with films like Right At Your Door (Gorak 2006).

Plagues, pandemics, zombie-inducing viruses, are always good cinematic standbys. In The Andromeda Strain (Wise 1971) a group of scientists investigate a deadly new alien virus before it can spread. This now seems a cosily sedate affair compared to the hyper-kinetic offerings by Boyle and Garland who, in 28 Days Later (2002) cranked up the gore to 11, imagining a Great Britain decimated by a ‘rage virus’, and left to fester and fend for itself. The sequel, 28 Weeks Later (Fresnadillo 2007) shows the Isle of Dogs being carpet-bombed by US occupying forces, alerted to Code Red, in a nod and wink to Coppola’s vision of hell and the very real footage of the Gulf Wars.

Ever since Fat Boy dropped on Hiroshima, the mushroom-cloud of the A-Bomb has become to symbolise a very real apocalypse. A-Bomb beasts became stock-in-trade of low-grade drive-in schlock of the 50s and 60s. Japanese movies especially revelled in noisy battles between garish mutants, men in suits and dodgy models duking it out above mini-cities, Godzilla looming largest of all.  Yet from the 80s onwards, the reality of the Cold War started to appear on the screen in a more ‘realistic’ way. James Cameron, in Terminator 2: Judgement Day featured a famous ‘nuke’ scene emulated in endless substandard films, all starring Nicolas Cage it seems: Next, etc and in Zac Snyder’s Watchmen movie this year.

The Road (2009) starring Viggo Mortensen (dir: John Hillcoat) The Proposition director’s take on Cormac McCarthy’s uber-bleak novel of the same name is still awaiting release – now scheduled for Jan 2010 – was postponed so as not to dampen the feel-good factor in Obama’s America – but also eerily mirrored by the devastating Queensland fires in Australia earlier this year.

Roland Emmerich continues his super-sized assault on planet Earth with his next uber-doom fest 2012, inspired by the Mayan Prophecy – the new source of apocalyptic fever (think Y2K with astronomy…). Yet Emmerich’s big screen armageddons, however spectacular, are ultimately unsatisfying – full of sturm-und-drang, signifying nothing.

The end of the world has always been big business. Expect a whole swathe of Mayan apocalypse movies. Mel Gibson has already got in on the act with his kinetic Apocalypto (2006). Even dear old Auntie has shown her black stockings – with the so-so ‘re-imagining’ of Terry Nation’s Survivors and with another remake of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids ‘heavy plant crossing’ its way onto the small screen in 2010.

Earlier this year, unlucky cinema audiences endured the ill-judged remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (Derrickson 2008). It seems Hollywood is caught in its own event horizon, remaking its own remakes, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

It seems the Apocalyptic Sublime is in danger of becoming Apocalyptic Ridiculous. Maybe The League of Gentleman’s big screen disaster, Apocalypse, was closer to the truth. The world won’t end with a bang, it seems, but with a snigger.

But sometimes, the effect can be deadly serious.

The harrowing near-future Britain of Children of Men (Cuarón 2006), based upon PD James novel, depicting a bleak world of mass infertility, ends with a Viagric dose of Christian imagery. Escaping dystopia, refugee camp UK, the black Madonna and child await salvation, Biblically adrift in a small boat, thanks to the sacrifice of the cynical protagonist played by Clive Owen, Theo, an unlikely, but believable reluctant Messiah figure, who dies to save the gurgling bundle that is the future of humanity. Their leap of faith pays off, as the Human Project boat, the Tomorrow, appears out of the Cloud of Unknowing. This device, the sudden unexpected ‘happy ending’, Catholic writer JRR Tolkien termed the Eucatastrophe.

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings – notably The Return of the King (Jackson 2004), with its la grande morte climactic plot orgasm at Mount Doom – brought the Apocalyptic Sublime back to the big screen and took it to another level. Here the true poetry and pathos of the apocalypse was finally realised. ‘I am glad to be with you here, Sam, here at the end of all things,’ Frodo says as lava oozes around them. But the eagles come to save the day, plucking the diminutive heroes to safety. The darkest of circumstances are redeemed by an act of grace – which in Tolkien’s Catholic imagination, is Divine.

This is illustrated in Vincent Ward’s visionary posthumous fantasy, What Dreams May Come (1998) (Academy Award winner for Best Special FX). The Robin Williams character has to descend, Orpheus-like, into the lowest part of hell to win back his late wife, who has been consigned there after committing suicide. When it seems all hope is lost, the eucatastrophe occurs, and as the Annabella Sciorra character declares: ‘Sometimes … when you lose, you win.’

Visions of the afterlife – of heaven and hell, paradise and purgatory – have provided movie-makers with inspiration and challenges for decades. There has been early visions of the works of Dante, Milton, the Bible… Although seldom has the technology and vision of those involved been able to do justice to the worlds conjured up by pen and paint, with a handful of exceptions. The sublime staircase sequence in What Dreams May Come was alluding to the famous ‘stairway to heaven’ scene in A Matter of Life and Death (Powell, Pressburger, 1946). In an earlier film, The Navigator: a medieval odyssey (1988), Ward had medieval pilgrims from Northumbria stumble upon an Antipodean Celestial City in the 20th Century, Auckland, NZ. The black comedy In Bruges (McDonagh 2008) despite its down-to-earth tone and bloody violence, ends with a sublime recreation of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. It is hard to depict heaven without it seeming anaemic or unintentional comic. No doubt Peter Jackson’s version of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (released December 2009) will take up the challenge with his usual directorial aplomb.

It seems the Apocalyptic Sublime is not going away. In modern cinema it is there to remind us of the frailty of civilisation, the wonder of the world, the folly of humanity … or to sell popcorn.

In Wise’s original, and infinitely superior sci-fi parable The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the ‘good alien’, Klaatu’s warns humanity:  “Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration…the decision is yours.”

Whether these cinematic visions of doom inspire us to act, change our ways or just change channels, the choice is ours.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) observed that:

When danger and pain press too nearly, they are incapable of any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be and they are delightful, as we every day experience.

Heath and Boreham conclude: ‘Obscurity, vastness and irregularity, whether in mountainous landscapes, Gothic architecture, “romantic” literature or the new structures of industrialisation, gave the individual a “sublime” sense of his own limited capacity, hence his own mortality, and at the same time a vicarious frisson of delight in observing the source of danger from a safe distance.’

From the safe distance of the cinema auditorium modern audiences will (for the foreseeable future at least) continue to watch the end of the world for years to come.

Selected References

Palely, Morton D, The Apocalyptic Sublime, (Yale 1986)

Heath & Boreham, Introducing Romanticism, Icon 2002

Old Hobbits die hard

4th January 2009

Yesterday I decided to hold a birthday party of ‘special magnificence’ in honour of JRR Tolkien, born on Jan 3rd 1892. I invited a select group of ‘elf-friends’ around to join me in raising a glass to the Gandalf of Fantasy, and to test-read my new radio play based upon the Inklings called ‘The Rabbit Room’. This is the only way to gauge whether something works or not – with a live reading. David Metcalfe played ‘Tollers’ (Lewis’ nickname for Tolkien); Anthony Nanson played ‘Jack’ (CS Lewis), Mika Lassander played Owen Barfield and Svanur Gisli Thorkelsson Charles Williams. David’s partner, artist Ione Parkin, was VO – the voice of the Rabbit Room, Anna Dougherty was the BBC announcer, and Maarit – Mika’s wife – the landlord and the Minister of Health (or Elf, as I punned). It was thrilling to hear the play come alive after slaving away on it in solitude since November. To write it I immersed myself in Inklings arcana – and tinkered with it obsessively over the holidays, finishing it just in time for the party, which provided an appropriate deadline.

After providing a vegetarian feast for my guests – piles of good plain English fare, which both Bilbo and Tolkien would have liked – I read out an extract from the opening chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring – about Bilbo’s eleventy first birthday party and disappearing act. For this, I asked my guests to take off their shoes and socks, so we could all be Hobbits together! Bare-footed and waist-coated, I read out the text in a suitably merry fashion. We toasted JRR, and then we attended to the main after dinner entertainment. I assigned roles, handed out scripts and we begun. It took a hundred minutes (perhaps it should have been 111) but it was a cold reading and slower than it would be when rehearsed. Some sections really flowed, others were perhaps inevitably murdered, and some evidently need work – but it was wonderful to hear it out loud. I was filled with feelings of loving warmth for such a lovely fellowship. Truly friendship is one of the most important things of life. Without it, a man is impoverished. But last night I felt ‘wealthy’ from having such beautiful talented souls as my friends.

Tolkien extolled the virtues of simple pleasures (‘fire and lamp and meat and bread, and then to bed, and then to bed’) and Lewis wrote about friendship as one of the Four Loves – and I whole-heartedly agree: there is very little better than gathering around the hearth with good friends, sharing good food, drink and conversation. The home is a sacred thing, and true fellowship is divine – a meeting of hearts, souls and minds – is a piece of heaven on Earth.

Afterwards, there was useful feedback from the group (Svanur is a playwright and director; Anthony fellow creative writing teacher; David fellow performer in Firesprings; Mika religious students research student; Maarit child psychologist and Anna an Oxford English graduate). Tolkien I think would’ve liked hearing the Anglo-Saxon, Finnish and Icelandic spoken that evening in my living room (his three favourite languages, except his own invented ones!) – although he might have corrected some of us on pronunciation (but not the native speakers, of course).

The hour was getting late and David and Ione departed – to relieve their babysitter from her duties. We tucked into some late Xmas pud, and then Anthony shared a sample of Tolkien’s ‘manifesto’ poem – Mythopoeia. There followed a suitably Inklings-ish discussion on a number of subjects (art, politics, popular culture) before the alcohol and awen ran out. Around midnight folk departed, except Anthony who crashed over – saving the drive back to Stroud for the morning. He agreed that we had well and truly celebrated the unique anniversary. I was pleased to have ‘premiered’ my play on Tolkien’s birthday – my way of honouring such a huge inspiration to many. The world is richer for his contribution. His vast imagination and unparalled elven-skill has provided a gateway for us all.

Long may his name and the fellowship live on!

Anthony as 'Jack' - Tolkien's 111th

Anthony as 'Jack' - Tolkien Birthday Party