Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Elves, Dwarves, Angels

There is something difficult about capturing goodness in a group of beings. Even Tolkien relied greatly on contrasting goodness with easier-to-depict evil. It never quite works, though. Angels, those great warrior spirits, have deteriorated into babies and pixies in the poplar imagination. I once tried to give a better approximation in a children's sermon by asking them to imagine if lightning had a voice.

The LOTR movie Gimli is a bit unsatisfying. He is too obviously comic. Dwarves are serious, serious as stone. Yet in The Hobbit, Tolkien had already committed to drawing them as a bit ridiculous, in that first song about breaking plates. He attempts to show this with the centuries-old laughing elves as well. It never quite rang true. It seemed a stretch.

Intellectually, I accept that elves could be as he describes, with age giving them gravity but constant art and craftsmanship giving them a lightness of spirit. But their songs weren't funny. Someone else's humor, seen from the outside, never does seems all that compelling. Peter Jackson solved this by highlighting the gravity of the elves and the humor of the dwarves - the reverse of the Tolkien emphasis - but it's hard to fault him on this. Going the opposite way would perhaps be even less believable.

The realm of Faerie contains many things, including humor and tragedy we can only partly enter into. In our era, one almost has to revolt entirely against the Disney "little people" of various sorts, all too cute and buffoonish. Gimli rides a bit too close to Disney for my taste. Yet once one has put a humanoid up for view, its grotesqueries will strike us as either comic or evil; perhaps it is an inborn response. Monsters without some human attributes swollen wildly out of proportion are mere dangers, eliciting the same fear as a swamp or a cliff, but no levels of fear. It may be that the monsters in the story are humanish because they represent the parts of humanity (or ourselves) we dislike and wish to banish or overcome.

I have no advice on how to depict angels or elves better. If ten thousand years of artists and storytellers can't capture the idea of "good, but dangerous," I am unlikely to hit upon the solution.

Lewis tried it with a lion, and that captured a great deal that is missing from the Good Monsters of our stories.


Boxty said...

Were the elves and dwarves meant to be seen as spirit beings or as different races? To me, they seemed to be like ancient Chinese or Persian dynasties versus the human barbarians from the west.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Reading the appendices should clear that up for you.

elc said...

Hi--first time commenter. I have enjoyed your Tolkien posts in particular, AVI.

Gimli was a bit silly (and coarse!) in the Jackson movies, but it always seemed to me as though he knew just when to ease tensions and raise spirits with a bit of ribaldry. He came nowhere near the nobility that book-Gimli attained, though.

Somebody I was reading once upon a time--it may have been the John Gardner who wrote On Moral Fiction ---made the case that a writer's characters can never demonstrate more "goodness" (wisdom, compassion, warmth, charity, courage, capacity for love, and so on) than the writer himself possesses. It's easy to draw on the baser part of yourself when writing or acting a villain, but a hero can be no better than you are.

The best (or worst) example is Sauron, so lacking in imagination/empathy that it never even occurred to him that anyone would want to put an end to the precious Ring forever. After all, nobody he knew voted for Nixon.

On the other hand, I have been appalled at what some writers have put forth as "good" characters. An example that comes to mind is whatever that dreadful woman's name was in Atwood's Handmaid's Tale. Another writer might have allowed her heroine to grow enough either to put an end to the situation herself or to persuade the villain to do so, thereby redeeming himself. Instead, Atwood's "heroine" solves her problem, and the world's, by running off with a hot guy named Nick. I believe this was considered a feminist novel.

elc said...

If I seemed to have conflated Tolkien with Sauron, I didn't mean to. To depict goodness you need an empathetic imagination.

Sauron was utterly lacking in that capacity, but Tolkien himself had it in spades. He presented a full spectrum of goodness and redemption, all the way from Faramir to Radagast to Sam to the Dead Men of Dunharrow.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

elc, initials noted. We also have an ELC who comments (View From The Core, sidebar).

elc said...

Oh, I've seen that ELC, and he/she isn't me. I'll try to come up something a bit more dissimilar. This is a new Google account and I'm still finding my way around. Thanks.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

no, no, it will force readers to be alert. Always a good thing.