March 2016

A Song for Else.  By Christopher J. Zehnder. Savage Mountain Press. 302 pages. $15.

The year is 1505 and the place is Germany. Society is highly stratified, and one’s destiny is largely determined at birth. The Protestant Reformation is on the horizon, and societal unrest begins to spread across Europe, where lives are cut short by widespread want and unmitigated disease. The page-turning pace of A Song for Else, the first book of a trilogy and gothic in every sense of the word, efficiently and eloquently delivers the chronic physical struggles and innumerable endemic horrors of daily life. Most people endure a hand-to-mouth existence with nothing, absolutely nothing, put by.

Protagonist Lorenz List, a German peasant boy, encounters Bruder Thaddeus, a preacher condemned by civil and religious authorities. Thaddeus dwells in the woods where some villagers are believed to worship ancient wooden idols. He preaches against corrupt clergy, asking why people “bow and scrape before mere men — nay, leeches, sucking the life blood of God’s children? They say they stand between you and God, as if children need servants to speak for them to their Father!” Thaddeus declares that “priest and prince, pope and emperor” are against the people. He accuses Lorenz of studying Latin in order to learn the oppressors’ laws.

The repugnant local priest, Gottfried, has fathered six children with his housekeeper in this dark and dour world, and he offers a stark contrast to Thaddeus. Gottfried, however, engineers an exit strategy for Lorenz — for a fee — by easing a path for the boy to study under Doctor Paulus in Weissenbrücke. Paulus, a priest, had lived in Florence and Rome, and Lorenz’s Latin studies open “the great, wide, antique world of Aeneas and Caesar, of Roma aeterna and its imperial sway.” He loves the Latin writers: “Sometimes, it seemed, Lorenz’s passion for the pagans — Virgil, Cicero, Ovid, and Horace — eclipsed his nascent ardor for the tabernacles of God.” Paulus urges the love of wisdom, which is, “after the love of God, the noblest of all desires.” He also conveys to Lorenz “the sense that a new age had dawned.” Religious and political institutions are on the cusp of a most difficult dawn, of impending upheaval.

In a milieu of academic barriers and non-existent safety nets, Urban Auer, a friend of Paulus, offers Lorenz an opportunity for further studies in Nürnberg, which the boy gratefully seizes. Lorenz’s roots cannot be completely concealed in Nürnberg, and he is often mocked by other students. He and a friend consider the priest, Gottlob Frei, who rails against religious minutiae and scrupulosity: “Did Christ descend from Olympus to institute hair splitting? Did he come to abolish the law of the Jews only to impose the law of the schoolmen?” Frei believes that Church leaders have forgotten “God’s love that seeks to unite men in peace and harmony.” He would “tell the pope himself to hold off on more definitions of dogma — we have too many already! They destroy peace!” Lorenz worries about possible blowback from papal excesses — especially efforts to increase Church real estate and treasure — observing that “the pope feeds his army with German gold.”

Lorenz meets Urban Auer’s daughter, Beatrice, and calls her Else to hide his love for her from his patron, her father. The forlorn Lorenz, “born in an obscure hamlet of the hinterlands, would soon matriculate to the great university of Erfurt.” But could a farmer’s son ever be admitted to the Auers’ world?

A blending of pagan and Christian practice is made manifest when Lorenz performs a sort of ceremonial self-baptism under a full moon in a forest harboring “a world close to the heart of the Folk.” After all, he is “of the Folk,” whose traditions from pagan times persist. Lorenz knows his peril, “for he knew what lurked there at night.” At the water’s edge, a west wind comes up, a cloud shrouds the moon, and rain ensues, but he is “held to the spot by a horror that was close akin to ecstasy.” He pours water over his head in a ceremonial manner. Many pagan traditions over time were incorporated into Christianity; springs and wells revered as having therapeutic powers in antiquity became Christianized holy wells. But here divergent religious sensibilities contend within Lorenz for mastery. He and Beatrice come together in the forest, “his world, the realm of his kind, the Folk.” She is his Else, and she “had followed him into his realm.” The forest and its murky waters harbor mixed theological flora, indeed.

Back in Erfurt at a tavern, Lorenz takes part in discussions concerning the nature of God and the role of the Church. One man asserts that God cannot be known: “We can only hope he is as Scripture portrays him.” Another declares that such a concept is not hope, and the first man agrees: “It really is nigh to despair, is it not?” Lorenz writes to Beatrice of the pagans — Virgil, Catullus, Ovid — and of the Occamists, Thomists, and Scotists. Sankt Johannes’ Eve (June 23, feast of St. John the Baptist) is celebrated with bonfires, another instance of primeval pagan activities and symbols attached to Christian festivities. A straw man is burned on a hilltop, and Lorenz considers sacrificial traditions and why “we have to sacrifice what is beautiful, to assure a harvest and a well-fed belly?” Interestingly, a heretic is burned at the stake, and Lorenz himself must sacrifice Beatrice to her forced marriage to another.

As he straddles two worlds — rural peasant and urban intellectual — Lorenz assesses his predicament and, unaware of the religious, geopolitical catastrophe on the horizon, makes a momentous decision. There is no tidy, satisfying wrap-up for readers, as Zehnder, a master of suspense, leaves Lorenz at a lonely spiritual crossroads. Such a portentous conclusion heightens anticipation for the next volume.

- Mary McWay Seaman



Tolkien Among the Moderns.  Edited by Ralph C. Wood. University of Notre Dame Press. 272 pages. $32.

Tolkien Among the Moderns is a collection of essays by nine academics who aim to connect J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision with the concerns of modern and postmodern writers. Each contribution is simultaneously sophisticated and readable, yet two stand out insofar as they hint at the great irony of 21st-century Tolkien­mania. Far from being a proponent of democracy and progress, the author of The Lord of the Rings was a Tory monarchist who deemed hierarchy a good thing, yearned to see the Catholic faith re-established as England’s state religion, and identified one of his noblest characters — the ranger-king Aragorn — with a globe-trotting partisan of Spanish General Francisco Franco’s National Movement. Hence, it is striking to see Tolkien’s work more popular than ever in a West that grows more rigidly leftist and politically correct with each passing day. Like it or not, Tolkien was a reactionary radical, and only by acknowledging his radicalism can we understand his work.

In his essay “Tolkien and Post­modernism,” Ralph Wood notes that Tolkien’s radicalism caused him to have at least one thing in common with the anarchic postmodernist: both reject the disingenuous pretensions of modernism. Free the individual from local authority and oppressive tradition, so the promise of modernism goes, and enlightened self-interest will lead to a rational utopia. Yet, as critics from Fried­rich Nietzsche to Wendell Berry have observed, the cult of enlightened self-interest is itself a tradition — and a depersonalizing and dehumanizing one at that. As Wood puts it, “One of the most deleterious effects of modernism has been the eclipse of particular languages and cultures” by “forms of speech and social order that rely on unhistorical abstractions, on unnarrated concepts, on words unrooted in either time or place.”

Tolkien recognized this in part because his apocalyptic experiences in the First World War had soured him on the various “Enlightenment-inspired attempts to transcend tradition-grounded locality for the sake of allegedly universal values.” Even setting aside the spiritual harm wrought by cultural homogenization and mass society, the 20th century saw far more people brutally massacred and tortured in the name of vague, emotive god-terms like democracy and progress than were slain during all the Crusades put together.

Lest the reader misunderstand him, Wood rightly emphasizes that the devoutly Catholic Tolkien rejected not only modernism but postmodernism too. Good and evil are not one thing among elves and dwarves and another among men, Aragorn points out. Tolkien’s heroes exemplify the classic Aristotelian position, which teaches that there is indeed timeless truth and that persons come to understand said truth by encountering it in a particular culture, history, and tradition. A striking contrast to the detached and sophisticated wizard Saruman may be seen in the ultimately wiser hobbit Samwise Gamgee, who has learned decency, loyalty, and justice by working alongside his “old gaffer” as a member of a rooted community.

In “Philosophic Poet: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Modern Response to an Ancient Quarrel,” Germaine Paulo Walsh also touches on the relationship between universals and particulars. Each of the various peoples populating Tolkien’s world is marked by unique characteristics and status, Walsh reflects, yet each people is connected to the others: “According to Tolkien’s poetic vision, there is hierarchy and distinction between the members of these different races, but all are alike in dignity because all have been given a share in the divine creativity.” This vision resembles the one promoted by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Summi Pontificatus (“On the Unity of Human Society,” 1939), in which he blesses “the particular characteristics which each people, with jealous and intelligible pride, cherishes and retains as a precious heritage,” even as he also reminds the faithful everywhere of “the duties incumbent on men from their unity of origin and common destiny.”

Juxtaposing the narratives in Tolkien’s Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings with the critique levelled against poetry in Plato’s Republic, Walsh considers the moral and spiritual significance of art. By its emphasis on worldly details, Plato famously argued, poetry can have a corrupting effect, for the poet is wont to present colorful, sensational, titillating events that distract his listeners from the eternal things. At its worst, poetry may even glamorize chaos and evil.

A storyteller and poet himself, Tolkien was keenly sensitive to the danger of skewing his readers’ consciences, and he always kept in mind the responsibility this danger implies. As he subscribes to the Platonic-Augustinian principle that evil is a privation of being, Tolkien “takes great care in his depiction of bad characters, so that they do not attract but repel,” and he “convincingly associates evil with misery.”

For those familiar with Lord of the Rings, the association of evil with misery will first evoke the image of Gollum, the former hobbit degraded and mutated by the seductive power of Sauron’s ring. Upon reflection, however, even the mightiest forces of Mordor can likewise be described in terms of privation, as the descent into evil leads to a loss of reality. In the end, all of Sauron’s minions are revealed to be mere shadows, Walsh explains, and fearsome though he may be, Sauron himself is impotent: He wields no creative power but can only pervert what already is, as when he breeds twisted, misshapen orc-slaves from ethereally beautiful elves. All told, it is safe to say that Tolkien would have little use for those popular writers today who glorify the spirit of rebellion or who present vampires as heroes.

The contributors to this volume have impressive academic backgrounds and training, and it shows. Tolkien fans who seek casual reading may not be looking for, say, a consideration of the One Ring in light of the Zarathustrian doctrine of eternal recurrence (“Tolkien or Nietzsche”), for an unpacking of philosopher Iris Murdoch’s distinction between fantasy and imagination (“The Consolations of Fantasy”), or for a comparison of Frodo Baggins to Don Quixote (“Unlikely Knights, Improbable Heroes: Inverse, Antimodernist Paradigms in Tolkien and Cervantes”). Yet those who delight in diligent philosophical and literary scholarship will find Tolkien Among the Moderns as enjoyable as it is educational.

- Jerry Salyer





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