Tolkien’s Crusaders

When J.R.R. Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings in the mid fifties, it was broadly assumed–at least by some–that his fantasy trilogy, much of which was written during World War II, was meant as an allegory for the war itself.  Here Gondor stands for Britain, Rohan for the U.S., Mordor and company for the axis powers, etc.  It makes sense, from a certain point of view, but the speculation irritated Tolkien intensely, to the point that, in an introduction added to later editions, he explicitly debunked it, explaining, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its forms,” and noting that, if it were properly an allegory, Sauron would be enslaved, not destroyed, and Isengard would wind up creating its own ring, setting off a lengthy period of hostilities with Gondor.  Or some such.

I’m willing to take Professor Tolkien’s word that no conscious allegory was intended.  Still, there are intriguing historical parallels, which I think are worth examining.  One of the critical errors made by the “allegorizers” (for lack of a more graceful term) was to seek out links to modern history, when the author was a medievalist, and his magnum opus takes place in a world which is not just technologically, but spiritually, medieval. Continue reading

The Holes in the Boat

Ancient Athens, at the height of its power, commanded an empire of millions, covering most of the Eastern Mediterranean.  Nominally, they were the foremost city of an alliance, but in practice, they dominated and extracted tribute from settlements in the Cyclades, Ionia on the west coast of Asia Minor, Italy, Sicily, Cyprus, and various points on the north coast of Africa.  They even had a couple of colonies in Spain.  This whole maritime empire was held together by the trireme, a 120-foot warship alternately propelled by sails or three banks of rowers, with a vicious battering ram on its tip.  I’ve mentioned the trireme before, in my Darkened Ages post.  It was a mighty weapon, but it had its limitations; it was strictly a coastal vessel, which had to make landfall every night to restock with food and water.  Also, very expensive.  At its aforementioned height, Athens could only build three or four triremes per year.  Usually this was done by selecting one of the city’s richest citizens for the “honor” of funding it, in the form of a charitable endowment called a liturgy (lit. “work for the people”; also an apt term for our religious service, but one wonders exactly how the term got transferred!).

Anyway, suppose you were to go to one of Athens’s busiest shipyards and tell them that, at some point in the past, a man and his three sons, possibly assisted by their wives, had built a ship three times the length of a trireme, and far wider–a boat the size of a modern American football field.  That these men had then loaded down said ship with massive amounts of heavy cargo–live animals, and plenty of fodder–and kept it afloat through forty days of nonstop storm conditions, plus an indeterminate period of calm afterwards. Continue reading

The Darkened Ages

“You see this boat, children?  Do you know who used to row boats like that?  Slaves.  All slaves.  They were chained to their oars, and they were whipped to make them work, and if the ship sank they went down with it.  Isn’t that horrible?”

I manage to hold back my sigh and grimace.  In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t much matter if these sixth-graders swallow a grossly incorrect tidbit of information about ancient history.  Certainly it would be both foolish and wrong to interrupt her in front of the class and undermine her authority by explaining that she’s thinking of Turkish galleys from nearly two thousand years later than the Greek trireme she is pointing to.  I wait until the end of class, while the students are chattering, to go up and quietly tell her that those rowers, far from being slaves, were the core voting bloc of the world’s first democracy.  That rowing a trireme was highly skilled labor, and they took pride in it, and the fact that their work was turning their little city-state into an empire.  That their importance in both war and peace had won them the franchise; that we vote today because they rowed back then.  That they did go down with the ship a lot–but it didn’t stop them from signing up in droves, because the back-breaking work made them the thriving middle class of the Greek world.  She nods and thanks me; I don’t know how much she’s taken in.  By and by, the end-of-day bell rings. Continue reading

In, not Of

I read somewhere–I can’t recall where exactly, to my regret–that there are two opposed forces within Christianity, constantly tugging it in two different directions.  They might go by many names: conventional and unconventional, worldly and unworldly, fleshly and ascetic, or what-have-you.  In Orthodoxy, they are roughly represented by the hierarchy and the monastics, respectively, though neither has a strict monopoly; there are “unworldly” elements within the first, and sedate, passive, and conventional elements in the second.  And this duality, this push-and-pull division, is not unique to Christianity.  There are austere Hindu ascetics and serene village Brahmins, Buddhist Lamas and Buddhist family altars.

Only one of the two forces can be dominant in a given area, in a given faith, at one time.  A balance between the two is possible–and desirable–but not likely to occur, or to be stable when and if it does.  We’re always drifting in one direction or the other, and back again, overreacting to an excess before we overreact to our overreaction. Continue reading