January 2013


Been there… epic journey takes in all 201 countries, and a lot of sofas – Home News – UK – The Independent.

 

He is my hero!

A very fine reflection on Tolkien and the fantasy genre…

This article is from the January 3 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit http://smh.com.au/digitaledition.

Andrew Moody

Hobbits , notes J.R.R. Tolkien at the start of their eponymous story, are easily forgotten, largely overlooked , and have little or no magic about them.

Or not. In the 75 years since he penned those words, The Hobbit has sold more than 100 million copies. In its opening weekend, Peter Jackson’s first instalment of the movie version broke records around the world. Clearly there is something a little magical about hobbits after all.

The interesting question, however, is what that magic is. Why should an English boffin’s fairytale of elves, wizards and dragons continue to command such devotion? What craving does it satisfy?

To its literary critics, The Hobbit’s success is simply a sign of widespread immaturity. The story, with its faux mediaeval cadences and reactionary archetypes is mere escapism – intellectual comfort-food for the politically disengaged. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, modernists and progressives muttered in protest as this ‘‘ juvenile trash’ ’ (to quote Edmund Wilson) waxed in popularity and repeatedly won popular votes for most important book and author. A prominent expatriate Australian lamented that Tolkien’s ascendancy was a nightmare come true, and heralded a general flight from reality.

Less dismissive evaluations have tended to major on broader social contexts. Despair in the wake of the world wars and grief over modernity’s failures are frequently offered as explanations for both the book and its reception. From this angle, Tolkien’s works are seen as both a turning away from contemporary evils and as romantic elegy to a (real or imagined) lost world where humans lived in proximity to nature, objects were made by hand, and battles, if necessary , could be fought with honour.

The two assessments, of course, are not mutually exclusive – the second seeks to explain while the first merely judges.

In any case, the social-historical perspective is insufficient. If the appeal of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were simply a matter of hankering for old times, then surely any historical drama would serve. Why this story? And what part do the supernatural and fantastical elements play in it?

Without doubt, these are questions to which many true answers may be given: Laura Miller’s recent insights concerning the way both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis bring together the homely and wild come to mind; as do Tom Shippey’s observations concerning the importance of Tolkien’s expertise in language.

But we might also do well to pay attention to Tolkien’s own thoughts on what he was doing. In an important essay, On Fairy-Stories , where Tolkien himself seeks to define and defend the fantasy genre, we find him unashamed to allow that it is both escapist and backward-looking . The impulse to escape, he argues, is indeed an appropriate response to the ugliness of the Industrial Age: but it also answers a sense of loss that goes deeper than that. Fairy stories and fantasy speak to the condition of humans separated from God and from other parts of the created order.

Elves and talking animals console humans in their self-wrought alienation from heavenly realms. Fairy stories reassure us that morality will be rewarded and promise-keeping will be vindicated. Magic interrupts the sad patterns and necessities of mortal life with a joyful glimmer that there may still be an intervention from beyond this world – a happy ending, or ‘‘ eucatastrophe’’ , as he dubbed it.

None of this means that Tolkien’s work is simply a cypher for his Catholic convictions; he made his distaste for such allegorising clear. But he does believe that all successful fairytales respond to the human predicament as it is described in Christian doctrine. Indeed he will go so far as to argue that the story of Jesus Christ ‘‘ embraces all the essence of fairy stories’’ .

With the concrete historical coming of Christ, the aspiration of the fantasy writer is raised to fulfilment. In the words of C.S. Lewis (who Tolkien converted to Christianity by this very argument ) Christianity is the ‘‘ true myth’ ’ that answers the longing expressed in every successful fairytale and fantasy.

Whether we judge his opinion right or wrong, this is an approach that is capable of taking fantasy literature and its fans seriously. We love The Hobbit, not because we are immature, or because we are sentimental. We love it because it reflects and refracts the deepest – the most real – joys, sadnesses and hopes of being human.

Andrew Moody is a Melbourne writer and lecturer in theology.

Copyright © 2013 The Sydney Morning Herald

This article is from the December 20 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit http://smh.com.au/digitaledition.

Elizabeth Farrelly

God , says my favourite theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar, is the point at which truth, beauty and justice merge. I like that, very much.

Quite apart from the ethical appeal, and the tantalising hint of Platonism (which Balthasar rejects), these things are therapy. If you’re feeling mopey, they’re guaranteed pick-me-ups – telling truth, seeing beauty or kicking ass – which is a form of administering justice, right?

So it’s weird that the contemporary church seems hell-bent , as it were, on dumping the lot of them. Worse than weird. Dangerous, since the need for muscular spiritual leadership was never more urgent.

Democracy, which seemed in its youth to gaze across landscapes of boundless optimism, is now shrunk to the pocket handkerchief between incompetence and corruption: fumey motorways on one side, dodgy land deals on the other.

In such a circumstance you might expect the church to pause and reup , replenishing its stocks of truth, beauty and justice as enticements.

But no, far from it. Child abuse, protectionism, corporatism, misogyny , homophobia, and churches that feel like liquor barns. Truth, beauty, justice? Pah! Who needs ’em ?

So Christmas, well adrift from its origins, is now less an answer to commerce and politics than, at best, a respite from them. At worst, a perpetuation.

But say you did want some church this Christmas. Say you craved solace, a sense of old time and a lungful of goodness to keep you swimming upright through the festive season.

In Sydney, you’d have a choice between a church whose hierarchy has actively cloaked paedophiles for decades and still cannot come clean, much less apologise, and one that sees beauty as an impediment to godliness and makes women and gays second-class congregants.

Ask yourself, as you light your midnight candle, how is this OK?

In Britain, the retirement this month of the sweetly sandalled Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is seen by many, including him, as the failure of his long push to allow the church to have women bishops and gay priests.

Here, we don’t even permit women priests.

I’m surprised this is legal, given that the law bans “discrimination against another person on the ground of sex . . . [or] on the ground of homosexuality” . But I am advised, by those who understand that the law cannot be expected to mean what it says, that it’s like getting bigbreasted women to work in topless restaurants. There are loopholes for those in need.

There was that flutter of controversy , earlier in the year, over the Sydney Anglicans’ new marriage vows – the pretence that ‘‘ submit’ ’ implied some advance on ‘‘ obey’’ .

Excuse me? In a world where the girls regularly – and again this week – wipe the floor with the boys academically , say what?

Certainly feminism brings unresolved issues – in finding a gender power-balance that works in both the bedroom and the world, and in not simply licensing women as aggressive, hard-drinking , fastdriving faux men.

But resolution must come through engagement, not repression . And come it must, because the issues are bigger than just us or just marriage. Just women. Just priests.

The issues are huge. After 2000 years we’ve seen what the leadership of white Christian males can deliver. Penicillin. Space stations. Iphones.

But also, and increasingly, climate change. Extreme weather. Food shortages. Extinctions. Financial and glacial meltdown.

Cardinal George Pell accuses the Greens of being “thoroughly anti-Christian” . He says non-Christians are “frightened of the future” having “nothing beyond the constructs they confect to cover the abyss” .

The abyss of paedophilia? The constructs of denial? It makes you wonder.

Archbishop Peter Jensen argues for – nay, imposes – his doctrine whereby women and gays, in church or at home, are mere helpers.

This is not in Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles. It’s elective. He calls it ‘‘ headship’’ . Others would call it prehistoric . Misogynist. Homophobic.

Women should submit to men, Jensen says, as men should submit to the church.

Which makes it plain just how close in spirit this fundamentalist Christianity is to sharia, with its similar ‘‘ god-given’ ’ (but man-written ) hierarchy.

But the weird thing is, Jesus was such a girl.

The headship doctrine claims gospel roots, and maybe that’s right. I’m in no position to exchange biblical quotations – except maybe this: ‘‘ By their fruits shall ye know them.’’

A true fundamentalist would surely emulate Jesus’s behaviour, as much as his words. And the behaviours that distinguished Jesus, against a male world, the qualities that distinguish the New Testament from the Old, were fundamentally female.

Ever submissive, meek and humble , Jesus consistently turns the other cheek, sides with the underdog , washes the feet of the disciples. These were the supposedly feminine qualities, as enunciated in Lear’s tragic: “Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman.’’ Jesus, in short, played the woman.

To me, as a child, this behavioural drag made Jesus rather dull. Such a goody-goody , he seemed, with none of the swashbuckling heroics, the pride and passion, the glory and revenge that I wanted in a story.

Yet of course that very humility was heroic, making Jesus subversive, and therefore dangerous. A man behaving like a woman? Crucify him.

Maybe that’s why the church needed the ‘‘ headship’ ’ doctrine, so Jesus could be seen as a servant to God, but not to humans. Certainly not to women.

Yet it is perfectly plain that the mindset we must cultivate to survive the coming century is strongly female-flavoured – less grabby and aggressive, more humble and communal ; better sharing, more selfabnegation . More ‘‘ family hold back’’ , as my nana would say.

We don’t need women being more like men. We need men to be more womanish.

If, as the world heads into its precarious future, the church wants a leadership role, it must enlist all three of the therapeutic virtues. It must stand rigorously and fearlessly for truth, whatever the political cost, supporting the whistleblowers from abused children to Julian Assange.

It must make its spaces, its music, liturgy, vestments and the entire sacrament as hauntingly lovely and as sensual as possible, engaging time past and time future – the whole person.

And the church must learn to value women’s mix of ancient Gaiatype wisdom and maths supersmarts . It must let women speak as priests. Anything else looks like fear.

Copyright © 2013 The Sydney Morning Herald

This article is from the December 31 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit http://smh.com.au/digitaledition.

Ben Doherty

SOUTH ASIA CORRESPONDENT

DELHI: She has been dubbed ‘‘ Amanat’’ , a treasure kept in trust, ‘‘ Damini’’ , for a Bollywood movie heroine, and ‘‘ Nirbhaya’’ , fearless. But the signs at protests across the country have given her another sobriquet: ‘‘ India’s Daughter’’ . In her anonymity, without a name, a village, a caste, she has belonged to the whole nation.

Two weeks after she was attacked on a bus by six men, beaten with an iron rod and gang raped for nearly an hour, the 23-year-old woman – her name still a closely guarded secret – was cremated early on Sunday morning.

The Hindu cremation service was performed in the outer Delhi suburb of Dwarka before family members and a small number of friends. ‘‘ I came because I really loved this girl. She was the brightest of all the girls in our neighbourhood,’’ Meena Rai, a friend and neighbour , told reporters.

She was to be married in February . ‘‘ They had made all the wedding preparations and had planned a wedding party in Delhi,’’ Ms Rai said.

Much of central Delhi remains on lockdown for fear of violent protests.

The anger of the first days after the woman’s attack has given way to a period of national mourning. The furious protesters have been replaced by students walking in neat lines in complete silence.

A woman is raped in India every 22 minutes according to crime statistics, but this attack has exercised the country and, in particular its capital, like none before it.

At a protest in Jantar Mantar, in central Delhi, a student, Vijaya, told Fairfax Media this victim represented all Indian women.

‘‘ This could be any one of us. Every woman in Delhi knows what it is liked to be grabbed or for someone to say something filthy to us. This happens every day; we are not safe ever.’’

Urbanisation has brought Old India, a deeply conservative, patriarchal rural society – still half of all Indian families live on small farms – into conflict with modern cities’ ideas about women, their right to education , to work and a prominent place in society.

India has had a woman prime minister, and one of the most powerful people in the country today is Sonia Gandhi.

But sons are still valued above daughters in India. Girl foetuses are aborted and infant girls allowed to die. Boys are fed better and sent to school, while girls often go hungry and are kept at home. Such attitudes may take generations to change.

The six men alleged to have committed the attack against this woman have all been arrested. Most are from rural villages, where rape is seen less as a crime than a risk girls run growing up. A common solution is to bully the girl into marrying her attacker.

But this case may be the one where India, finally, says no.

The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has opened a commission of inquiry into the safety of women and tougher penalties for rapists have been promised by government ministers.

But the most significant change has come in the consciousness of the public and in that of India’s institutions.

Dozens of other attacks on women, usually barely reported, if at all, have become front-page news. Police forces, so often seen as part of the problem, are promising swifter, more sensitive action, in cases of sexual assault.

And there is pressure for India’s justice system, sometimes so slow-moving as to be almost irrelevant, to be fasttracked for sex cases.

India has had its ‘‘ I am Spartacus’ ’ moments before, displays of a remarkable solidarity across a country of more than 1 billion people of disparate wealth and circumstance.

A year ago the country was unified behind a retired truck driver named Kisan Baburao Hazare, known as Anna Hazare, who led massively popular hunger strikes against India’s endemic corruption.

Twelve months on, Hazare’s protests are forgotten, but the corruption lives on.

Protesters in Delhi are demanding and hoping their campaign against sexual violence will be different.

‘‘ There has to be change,’’ Darshan Gupta said at Munirka, near where the woman boarded the bus a fortnight ago. ‘‘ Too many people are angry, the government , the police, the people in power, they have to listen now.’’

About 120 people from Sydney’s Indian-Australian community gathered at Parramatta Park on Sunday afternoon and signed a petition calling for India’s government to pass stronger laws to protect women and marking a moment’s silence.

One of the organisers, Manbir Kohli, suggested those in attendance boycott travelling to India until it could ensure their safety.

His 18-year-old daughter Naina, who grew up in Australia, said law changes had to be accompanied by cultural change. ‘‘ There’s all these [Hindu] goddesses but if we seriously can’t respect what we’ve got in front of us … what’s the point?’’

with AFP, Leesha McKenny

Copyright © 2013 The Sydney Morning Herald