Tuesday, December 23, 2003

What the SCA misses 

When in college I had a grand time in the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval recreation club. Calligraphy, fighting and fencing, cooking, and above all singing and storytelling made for a wonderful hobby. Travelling across the Midwest once a month or more for daylong events culminating in massive feasts breaks the insularity of college, too. But the more I learned about history, the more I came to realize that the SCA is missing the heart of the matter. The arts and sciences are done well; rediscovering skills and reproducing material culture is a noble aim; but there's a sort of grotesqueness about the SCA culture in which these rediscovered arts are lived. The grandest feast or most magical "bardic circle" is invariably marred by modern references deliberately thrown in for comic effect.

Some might say this is just human weakness not playing the game to its full, but I think there's more to it than that. For most people I've met, the SCA is about the subculture it builds: a widespread "family", a new group identity built out of powerful stories and songs, magnificent ceremony and royalty, complete with politics and dashed hopes. All this is little different than any other club offers, except perhaps more fully realized. But two things eventually sour the taste of the SCA, I think. First, it builds this subculture by desiring the subculture itself. No romance is happy when the couple is desiring romance instead of each other. A graduate student who loves academic life but not his subject will be miserable. Similarly, when the focus of a social organization becomes social life itself, it starts to fester. The shared goal of the SCA--studying and re-creating the Middle Ages--always runs the danger of being eclipsed by the friendships and community it produces; and if this happens, that very community, like a plant taken out of the sunlight, begins to wither.

But the second problem with SCA culture is deeper. What makes the Middle Ages, what attracts us modern Americans to them, is not just the physical culture (however more beautiful than ours their clothing and buildings may have been). We could just as easily go to the Far East or ancient Mesopotamia, if our only goal was to revive lost skills and experience something "foreign". No, the "magic" of the Middle Ages lies in its thought. It is Roland tossing his sword in battle, it is a knight on his knees before a lady, it is Lavrans Björgulfsson presiding over a Christmas feast in his hall that capture our imagination and make us long for something pure, something honest and upright, something fully human that only the Middle Ages seem to offer.

The SCA does well to try to capture those scenes, but by and large it misses the point. Why did Roland laugh in battle? Why would a man who wields so much power put his sword at the service of someone so physically weak? Why did Christmas revelers feel in the dead of winter a joy unbounded by fear of death or starvation?

As usual, G.K. Chesterton put it best; in The Return of Don Quixote England has become much like the SCA, but one woman, talking to her friend near a former abbey, begins to see:
Why have all our toppling fancies about kings and knights come with a crash; why is all our Round Table ruined? Because we never began at the beginning. Because we never went back to the Thing itself. The Thing that produced everything else; the love of the Thing where it really lives. On this spot long ago two hundred men lived and loved it.

[I]f we want the flower of chivalry, we must go right away back to the root of chivalry. We must go back if we find it in a thorny place people call theology. We must think differently about death and free will and loneliness and the last appeal. It's just the same with the popular things we can turn into fashionable things; folk-dances and pageants and calling everything a Guild. Our fathers did these things by the thousand; quite common people; not cranks. We are always asking how they did it. What we've got to ask is why they did it.... Rosamund, this is why they did it. Something lived here. Something they loved. Some of them loved it so much.... Oh don't you and I know what is the only test? They wanted to be alone with it. (pp.285, 286)

Everything we love aesthetically about the Middle Ages flowed from the love of Christ. It flowed from the prayers of the hundreds of thousands who streamed into monasteries and convents, locking themselves up in a bower with the One they loved. It flowed from the love for Our Lady that saw women no longer as property but as mirrors of God's love to be served. It flowed from a political philosophy that made a king the father and servant of his people, not merely their master and owner. Like all good things, the joy of the Middle Ages can only exist when man returns God's love. And on those rare occasions when the Faith enters the SCA, even if disguised...even the neo-pagans cannot but feel the earth shake with the true King's footsteps.

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Monday, December 22, 2003

Philip Jenkins was anticipated 

"The Church militant on earth may be reduced to a handful of adherents, not many more than would fill an arena or local jail. The Christians of Europe may be reduced to a little band with no power to influence social development for a long period.... Until Catholic missionaries, from China or South America or Africa, return to preach the faith of our fathers to the lost barbarian tribes who are living amongst the ruins of ancient Europe."
   --Sigrid Undset, Stages on the Road, p. 265.

And this could well be said of the United States too, though any speculation about the future is uncertain. It does seem that the Church in the U.S. has turned a corner, and She will be stronger and more faithful in coming years; yet fidelity is no guarantee of numbers, still less of social influence. The power of the few--the professors, the entertainers, the sellers--to control the many is mighty and the illusion of democracy is well-maintained.

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Thursday, December 18, 2003

The Return of the King 

I saw The Return of the King last night. A few of my initial thoughts:

It is as visually magnificent as one could hope for. The view from Meduseld, Minas Tirith upon Mindolluin, the Black Ships landing at the Harlond, the muster of Rohan, the mumakil--all these scenes are conveyed with a true artist's brush. And the beacon-fires racing from Mindolluin to Edoras are a spell of enchantment that for a brief moment call you into in a world limited by the speed of a horse, where the swiftness of the signal-fires is a wonder of great worth.

That said, for all its grandeur of scenery, the film felt quite cramped for time. So much takes place in The Return of the King, including several scenes from Fellowship or Two Towers that the filmmakers chose to postpone, that even major cuts--the Scouring of the Shire, the arrival of the Dunedain, the Druadan Forest all failed to appear--could not make the three hours seem less rushed. This was most noticeable after the Battle of the Pelennor, when a week's march to the Black Gate and Frodo and Sam's journey across Gorgoroth seemed to happen in an afternoon.

And there lies another weakness of the film: it loses sense of time and place. There were valiant attempts to keep that sense. They wisely chose to put Osgiliath and the walls of Mordor within sight of Minas Tirith, and maps inobtrusively yet helpfully caught long seconds of screen time once or twice. Yet after explicitly hearing that Gondor is three days' ride from Edoras, we see Denethor wondering the same day the beacons are lit why Theoden has not come. Aragorn had just warned Theoden that the time was short, but the horses fled from the Paths of the Dead and he, Legolas, and Gimli entered them on foot; one wonders how the long leagues beyond in the south were covered. And most disconcerting to me was the absence of the Dawnless Day; little could substitute for that shadow of gloom and the glimmer of rising hope when the wind changed.

Most of the characters came off better in this film, I deem. Pippin and Merry become far more than comic relief, and even Gimli gets the short end of the stick less often. Aragorn, doomed by the screenwriters to pass through so much brooding introspection first, finally grows into his kingship. Faramir too, having passed the test of the Ring, now acts with the nobility we expect. We see well how the Ring has changed Frodo, even when it is gone, so that his heart will never be at peace in Middle-Earth.

The disappointing character of the film was Denethor. If the silent nobility and might deeds of Aragorn and Faramir needed to be augmented by "character development" for the screen, it is hard to understand why the subtle greatness and madness of Denethor was flattened out. The man who walked and slept in mail lest age make his body soft here becomes almost a glutton; the watchful Steward who made firm his defenses (though took no offensive action), calling upon Rohan, sending the women and children to safety, laying in stores for a siege, and desiring the Ring to save his City here becomes neglectful, refusing to take action at all, save for sending Faramir off to his near-death. Madness with greatness is dramatically powerful; madness without greatness is merely grotesque.

The dialogue in this film, more than in the other two, showed a sorry divide between Tolkien's own prose and the lines newly written. Too few of the short phrases put in characters' mouths rose above ordinary Hollywood fare; the words of Aragorn at his crowning, "Let us rebuild this world in peace," discouragingly so. Yet even recast and abridged, the power of the Professor's own words sings, as in Theoden's verses to the Riders--"A sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!"

And though many little flaws, of the sort that the extended editions have healed, remain--we see none of the aftermath of Merry's wound, nor the tale of Faramir and Eowyn, nor Aragorn and Eomer meeting and embracing "though all the hosts of Mordor lie between"--nevertheless many heart-stirring scenes remain: the army of the West surrounded by the hosts of Mordor; Eowyn removing her helmet; Sam taking Frodo upon his back. Sam and Rosie's wedding; Eldarion playing in Aragorn's arms; and little Elanor running to her father.

These films, shaped by moderns of matter wrought by a Catholic, have always been a spiritual experience for me. I still recall falling into deep prayer during the battle scenes at the opening night of Fellowship. In this third picture, the most moving and prayerful moment came as Aragorn rallied his men before the Black Gate, challenging and uniting them as "Men of the West." In an age when Western culture is under attack day by day, from without but even more from within, when "dead white men" are shunned and mocked, this movie dares to risk those snobbish criticisms and (even if unwittingly) call Tolkien's own audience, the English-speaking West, to remember and defend its heritage, a heritage not only human but divine. Gondor was indeed a human culture, shaped and lived by men, but they were the Men from the Sea, the Numenoreans given great gifts by the Valar who taught and enlightened the men of Middle-Earth, who lived in the shadow of the Enemy. Even so the West today, Europe and her children, unworthy and weak as we are, have amidst our tongues and arts and ales the greatest Gift of Iluvatar. "Europe is the Faith and the Faith is Europe," Hilaire Belloc once wrote to much misunderstanding. Of course not all the Church is or ought to be European; but all the world ought to serve Christ, and for nineteen hundred years it is Europe, West and East, which has been entrusted with His Name to be spread to all the nations. Our weaknesses and failures, especially this last century, are great, and the downfall of Westernesse is a lesson for us. Perhaps, as Philip Jenkins argues, the West will one day soon go the way of Syria and Antioch, until Berlin, Paris, and Westminster are sees in partibus infidelium. But for those with ears to hear, however unintentionally, this film is a horn-call and trumpet-blast to say with Aragorn, "But that day is not today."

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