Saturday, December 24, 2011

Cymbal #39:: The Shapes You See In Smoke

It was almost dawn when he put his tools down. Rising from his bench, he shivered in the cold of the morning, for the fire in the grate was all but embers. He swept the scraps and curls of discarded wood and leather into the fire and banked it with a stone to die slowly. Then, he tucked the figurines he had carved into his tunic and wrapped a thick cloak of rough wool about himself. Shutting the door behind him, he had to repress a sudden desire to go back inside and sleep till the morning was ripe, when he would have to tend to the goats.

The steep stone path led along the cliff to the citadel. He walked up it, his stride lengthening gradually as the cramp in his thighs faded. The frosted grass which had stiffened in the frost cracked and crunched under his boots.

From the west, the sun rose out of the sea like a hand full of gold opening, spreading its wealth carelessly across a table. The fishing boats would head out soon, he thought, for there to be fish in the market by midday. Soon the town would bustle with its citizens, buying, selling, striving, laying claim to their shares of wealth and profit. Grain from the farms, fruit from the orchards, wood from the forests, and occasionally, goats from his pastures.

Florence and the Machine - The Chain - 2010

At the citadel, he passed the Hall of Audience and Hostel of the Guards, both of which lay in the lee of the Palace. Where he was going, neither kings nor soldiers called for attention. Hewn out of the very rock of the citadel was a small white building with no windows and a shallow dome. From the ocular hole in the dome rose the slightest hint of smoke. This was the Temple of Confessions.

He stepped through the low door, and as always, the priestess awaited him in her throne of olive wood. He bowed before her, and she rose from her seat and stepped forward toward him and the brazier which stood in the centre of the temple. The warm blaze was reflected on the metallic sheen of her veil.

“You come to me again, goatherd?”

“Indeed, priestess. I was burdened at night, with dreams.”

“Show them to me.”

He reached into his tunic and pulled out the three figurines. The first was of a child, a young boy, with eyes of blue stone like those of the son he remembered. The second was of a horse with wings, saddled and harnessed with leather. The third was a knot with neither a beginning nor an end, a thing for cutting but not for untying.

The priestess weighed them in her hand. He noticed that her fingers were gnarled and leathery and dull, her nails like the shells from the sea. She anointed the figurines with oil and pastes of red, green and yellow, and then consigned them to the flames in the brazier. With a stick, she poked at the fire to stir it up. The flame crackled and from the bowl of iron came a smell of far-off places, of pine needles and bare rock, of the dry air of the deserts.

Fleetwood Mac - Go Your Own Way - 1976

She stirred it again, crouched over the fire, her back to him

“You have brought me your dreams. They were crude and ugly and common.  Now they have been made perfect. Go.”

He stepped out of the Temple, into the morning, the streets full of strangers, the sun high in the sky. A thick smoke streamed from its dome, a smoke so heavy that it struggled to rise.

He walked down from the citadel. It was time for the goats to be taken to their pastures.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Cymbal #38:: Lesser Muses

Tonight, out on the lash, I was given to recall a boy I knew once, who considered himself a poet. I should be less harsh. He was not the world’s best poet, but there are worse born everyday.

When he was younger and more impressionable, the poet wrote a long poem for a girl he hardly knew. It gave him great freedom, for it emptied him of the girl, and all that he thought he could be to that girl. 
Leaving his poem as a placeholder, he carried on, his heart light, because what human love could have matched the crystalline beauty he had left in tribute? Why would he leave lesser organic smears where he had once poured himself into something which shone like the small stars, a token which, it seemed to him, would do him credit by outlasting him?

I consider the question then of what illusions muses wreck on those who are the best among us, the highest, the artists who burn to give every grey and fleshy dream of ours a tongue.

Van Morrison - Beside You - 1968

Angry, I want to argue - Go to sleep, poet; your muse is not worth your while. She comes greasy and impure, mordant and full of bile. Every swipe of her tongue betrays her. Every turn of her head shows her eyes cold and calculating. Beauty is strewn by the gods across the earth like seed for pigeons. It is picked up by those who deserve it least, and treasured the most by those who have the least of it.

But, maybe that is the miracle of art- that it can immortalize spoilt teenage brats, squalling infants, falling tyrants; that it can distill them all into something eternal and empyrean. Then, it is essential that you not sleep. Stay drunk, poet, so that you can lie about every halfwit girl you meet, so that you can spin a yarn about every two-bit crook on the street, every deceiver, every stumbling laughing child. Stay enchanted, stay gullible. The truth is too poor and the lie too necessary.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Cymbal #37:: The Strange Dream of Sir David Attenborough

[Since I cannot speak honestly about Siamese Dream, or the creation myth of Soma, I thought I’d ask a friend to share his thoughts]

Now that I am an old man, I don’t go to all the places I used to. I work from my house and from the studio and travel when I must. It would be unfair for me to feel any bitterness about this fact; I’ve seen more in my life than most, and more than I had ever dreamed of as a child. I would be churlish to complain.

But no man is truly the master of his own dreams, and sometimes I have a vision and when I awake in the morning, it does not disappear. When I marmalade my toast in the morning, it rises before me blue and green, and suddenly I can taste salt and I put my knife down carefully, because I am not confident of my ability to hold it steady.

The terrestrial face of the earth rises from the seabed in layers. From your green valleys down to your golden beaches, this is merely the thinnest layer of linoleum incised with a craft knife.

Come with me to where our world is thinnest, where the sunbathers lie about under sun umbrellas, smears of protoplasm on the sand. Let us walk into the water; there is something I want to show you.
For hundreds of feet, the water goes gently from waist deep to neck deep and there are small waves. The water closes over my head. I pull my mask on and blow out my snorkel. I gesture for the video crew to follow, and swim forward. The water gets deeper and darker, and coral beds color the ocean floor, washed in the fractured sunlight. Millions of tiny mouths open and close, and inhale millions of morsels of food, each of which were looking for even smaller food. These are the secret gardens of the forever hungry- there is never enough food to go around. From a cave in the coral, the face of an eel appears, its sneer sinister, its eyes small and darting.  Schools of angular blue and yellow fish graze, vacant and meaningless like pretty girls. They too will fall to predators like vacant pretty girls. A nurse shark noses across the brain coral like a nightmare.

Like a drunk man in a maze, I swim through the enchanted garden and then, I swim past the edge of the continental shelf and fall off the edge of the world.

The Smashing Pumpkins - Soma - 1993

For an endless moment I am paralyzed with fear. The tectonic plate of the continent falls away to the true floor, thousands of feet below. In the darkness lies the entire unknown ocean, where monsters hide, huge scaly beasts which are all mouth and tail. Here I do not belong, I am not safe or protected. I am only food, silhouetted against the sunlight on the surface like a scrawl of black ink.

This is the music of the depths, the songs of unknown monsters from the depths, the choirpit of the ocean. It rises spiraling from the dark below, its cold tentacles brushing against my thighs, its breath mineral on my lips. It is more real than I am. In this embrace, I can no longer tell who is the monster and what is the prey.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Cymbal #36 :: In Pacem

Rumours of the demise of R.E.M. have been greatly exaggerated. Michael Stipe is not dead. Neither is Peter Buck. The tour bus did not go off a cliff. Everyone is actually all right.

Don't get me wrong; I'm in mourning too. At the funeral, everyone is in black, fingers palely clutching on to life's rich pageant. But the casket is empty. Who has died?

Could it be you?

R.E.M. - Nightswimming - 1992

People have started going home in their cars. You're the last one in the pool, and the lights are still on, an electric surf rounding you. Plastic glasses, empty, half-empty, line the edge unevenly. The house is big and white and all its doors are open. It leaks music. You really have had a little too much to drink and the city is very far away. 

By the edge, she squats on her haunches, the fingers of her hands knotted together loosely. She has the eyes of an angel, and crooked twisted mouth like a clown. Her dress is white with lime green stripes. Everything about her is covered in the electric blue and yellow wash from the pool lights. Come inside, she says, and walks away. You get out, towel off, and put on a t-shirt. As you go up the red sandstone path, her footsteps are wet on them, shining in the garden lights; with a high arch, the thinnest of lines connecting the marks of her toes and her heels. They are the perfect parentheses.

R.E.M. - Bang and Blame - 1995

It's summer in the mountains. You drive with the windows down, the sun browning the forearm that sits on the door. The leaves on the trees cast their shadows onto the dashboard. K is asleep in the backseat. V is deep in a bag of peanuts, and there is salt on his fingers and on his trousers.

When you're pitching the tent, you realize that you don't have the mallet for the tent pegs. You don't want to use the car jack because it could bend the pegs out of shape. So, you use K's hardback copy of Anna Karenina instead to bang the pegs into the tufts of virgin grass. It works perfectly and you are thankful that K is so ambitious in his reading, and that Count Vronsky's misdemeanours are so many. The cover of Anna Karenina is dented and punished, but you think, Tolstoy's been through worse.

R.E.M. - Fall on Me - 1986

The coffee is swill. The company is worse. Your tie is tight around your neck and your feet hurt in their shoes. You can never tell whether it's day or night in here. But you know why you do this, right? You do this for the people who depend on you, all the people who put their rope around the piton you hammered in. You do this so that one day, when they have to hammer in their own pitons, they're high enough up the face that it takes them somewhere. In the next life, you think, in the next life, I won't need to be a good son, a good father, a good provider. In the next life, I will be Orpheus of the lyre, I will wear sandals, and that will be enough.

So, ask yourself, could it be you who has died? When you look in the mirror, is there any assurance that those memories are yours? Maybe the only things holding you together are the constants, like R.E.M. existing, not just as eternal ghosts on tape, but as a thing to touch and to hold. Maybe, when one of those comes loose, or more than one, the continuity of your life breaks, and pieces of you flake off.

No, no, I'm sorry. That's absurd. I take it back. It would be really cruel if that were true.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Cymbal #35:: Repentance

Evil comes to all of us. Petty evil, shrinking in its gown, preceded by its defenses. Reasons of state, fictions of law, the bogeyman of subjectivity. Like crafty accountants, we write these sins off; this one deductible, that one set-off against some plausible good. We even abuse the terms of the moral universe - sin is associated more firmly now with chocolate than murder in the common vocabulary.

They are peccadilloes in the grand scheme of things, misdemeanors, breaches of trust, victimless crimes, more indiscipline than evil. It's tempting to imagine that we are good people, that we are mislead. And if we were mislead, surely we are entitled to raise our hands and plead innocence?

In 1957, the Soviet Union put the first living being in space. She came from no home, and she went where there will never be homes. Laika was a mongrel, picked off the streets of Moscow, put into a tin can, and shot into space. First amongst all of Earth's creatures, Laika saw her planet turning before her eyes like an orange. She made four orbits, and on the fourth day, she died of overheating when the temperature controls failed. 

For almost forty years, the Soviets lied about Laika's death. They claimed she had been euthanized painlessly with poisoned food. Even the Soviets, who denied millions of people every conceivable right and liberty, could not fairly justify sending a dog to die in space. But they did it.

Mecano - Laika - 1989

Now, I'm no expert on Spanish pop or the theory of tragedy, but this surely can't be a fitting response. 

History will judge us for Laika. And we know it. Even before the jets ignited, the scientists on the launchpad knew they were taking on a moral burden both substantial and indescribable. They gave her names, they took her home, they took pictures. Forty years later, they still felt the need to admit that she broiled to death. Since that day, Laika has given her name to bands and TV studios. They have statues of her at Star City.

Kylesa - Distance Closing In - 2010

But why this much guilt? Why is there so much more guilt than for all the rabbits that the cosmetics companies have killed, or the frogs dissected by biologists, or for that matter, every scrap of lamb you have ever eaten? Street dogs die everyday. Probability indicates that she would have died sooner on the streets of Moscow than in the space program.

The most pernicious class of sins are those not based on dogma or desire, but on expediency. These are sins we commit because they are cheap, because we could avoid risk or expense. They are considered sins; sins of moral economy. When humanity was invited on its greatest adventure yet, the first steps were taken by a street dog. From the seed of that pusillanimity springs the tree of guilt, the hand enclosing on your throat. However much is accomplished in space is built on the sacrifice of Laika.

Ryan Bingham - The Weary Kind - 2009

Tonight, do yourself a favor. When you take your last drink or cup of tea, step out and look up at the night sky and see what I see, the endless universe expanding infinitely, like the mind of God the administrator. Think of the ghost of Laika, orbiting Earth in kaleidoscope circles. We are only redeemed by how much love we give back to the world, how far we venture when we are uncertain, how we treat boundaries. 

Be good. If you can't be good, at least be kind.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Cymbal #34:: The Chinese Philosopher Conundrum

The honeyed trope goes as follows:

Once, the celebrated Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi dreamt in a silvered dream that he was a butterfly. He floated into the wind and drifted with it. He beat his  wings and fought against it. He settled on a multitude of sweet flowers and, putting forth his questing proboscis, was rewarded with their nectar. Drunk on the soma of the flowers, he rested...

...and awoke, Zhuangzi, the celebrated philosopher. He rubbed his eyes, scratched his head. Between his fingers he tested the tensility of his silken robe, the polish on the wooden floor, the alarming shortness of his tongue. He stepped out of his chamber and into the pavilion. At the heart of the gravel and benches, drifting above the pond full of carp, was the plum tree. On its furthest branch, a butterfly rested, its wings shut like parentheses.

Built to Spill - Carry the Zero - 2006

From that day on, until the end of his long and celebrated life, Zhuangzi was unsure of his life, which seemed tenuous and predicated on mysteries. He was never sure whether he was Zhuangzi, who had dreamt that he was a butterfly, or whether he was  a butterfly, who was resting on a branch, dreaming he was Zhuangzi.

If David Hume were to walk through his pavilion at dusk, the elegant, bewigged Scotsman, and to take a pinch of snuff below the drifting plum tree, it could pass that Zhuangzi would motion him aside, and call him to the corner.

"Beware, Mr Hume", he might say, since all these things are possible, "that you do not disturb the butterfly."
Hume, frowning at the inscrutable mores of the orientals, might reply, "Why, pray, must we so be so solicitous of the convenience of this single butterfly?"
"It is entirely possible, Sir, that if this butterfly were to awake, we would disappear."
David Hume, who ideally would have preferred to have consented to such an arrangement, might dispute it thus:
"Preposterous, Sir! Surely this is impossible, for your mind is capable of conceiving of such a thing as a butterfly, whereas no part of the butterfly could conceive of you and I."

Zhuangzi peered at him closely. "Forgive me. You must be very wise indeed, Sir, to know so intimately the dreams of butterflies".

Monday, April 11, 2011

Cymbal #33: A Cry for Domestic Help

Neil Young is kidding. This is not actually the most intense song ever recorded about domestic help. No one needs a maid this badly. Well, I can think of some single male friends of mine, who speak this passionately about having someone come in and empty out the ashtrays, slay the vermin, find bedsheets and remove the melted cheese from the rice cooker. In my estimation, the point is moot, because a maid would would be far out of her depth; what is actually needed is a crack squad of exorcists, fumigators and arsonists.

Neil Young - A Man Needs a Maid - 1971

But, because we know he's kidding, it is incumbent also to ask what he really means. Why is he so lonely, in this ocean of swelling strings? Why is his heart breaking when women he has never met swim across the dotted screen?

In fact, he's not kidding.

On some nights, when your head is not full of poisons or fictions, and you step out of your house and walk down the street, the familiar terrifies you. How many of these people do you know? How many of the names on these houses do you remember? What kind of dog barks behind the white gate? If you were to turn around, right now, is it possible there is somebody right behind you- someone who might do you harm?

You don't turn around. You never do. You could not bear to know you're right.

Maybe love is a kind of domestic help. A guarantee that, at least in the nutshell of your own home, the only other sentient being does not want to put a kitchen knife in your back. A sense of safety when you put your headphones on and close your eyes. Someone else checking that the doors are locked, the gas is off. In the spiraling dark, one more fixed point; enough to draw a line.

Maybe you're lying to yourself, like Neil Young is. Maybe the fear is not that you might die tonight and not have left behind a single coherent thing. Maybe the fear that keeps you lonely is that you might live till you are very, very old, but because you were worried about dying young, you screwed everything up. No one wants to live with an eternity of regrets. 

Your candle is burning and the clock is ticking. In your lonely house, the silence is unbearable. You must bet now, but a bony hand holds the dice.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

From - Illegitimati Non Carborundum

Illegitimati Non Carborundum

by Satyajit Sarna | March 03, 2011

[The Damned Utd; David Peace; 2006]
[The Damned Utd; David Peace; 2006]

Derby County's championship winning team 1968-69. The players are [L-R from top row]: Frank Wignall, Jim Walker, Alan Durban, Les Green, John Robson, Roy McFarland, Ron Webster, John McGovern, John O'Hare, Dave Mackay [captain, with the trophy], Kevin Hector, Willie Carlin, Alan Hinton.
Image above is from ~Duncan~'s photostream on Flickr.
Creative Commons License

At the end of Tottenham Hotspur’s historic victory over AC Milan at the San Siro, Gennaro Gattuso participated in some thought-provoking palaeontology. After an uninspired performance, he finally lost his rag with Spurs Assistant Manager Joe Jordan, grabbed him by the throat and headbutted him. He subsequently claimed that he was heckled and abused by the sixty-year-old “speaking Scottish” from the sidelines. More interesting to me were the instant responses from Spurs Manager Harry Redknapp, who claimed he was protecting Gattuso from Jordan, and ITV commentator Graeme Souness. Souness said, “He's a little dog at best … I just wish Joe Jordan had ten minutes on his own with him in a room now. In fact, five minutes is all it would take.”

Taking into account even the inexplicable childish biases of British commentators, the idea of a sixty-year-old man, “well hard” as he might look, beating down a professional athlete in his prime has an air of unreality to it. Why would anyone make a claim like that? Who was Joe Jordan, that the “Bulldog of Milan” wouldn’t last five minutes in a room with him? Looking into the history of English football is a little like shining a flashlight into a recently excavated cave and discovering clear evidence of cannibalism in human history.

David Peace’s The Damned Utd finds Joe Jordan in the dressing room and out on the pitch for Leeds United. Jordan, hilariously nicknamed ‘Jaws’ for his utter lack of front teeth, was just one of the many hard men who were part of the Leeds United team that dominated England for a decade under Don Revie. Some would have called them consummate professionals. Others called them cynical cheating bastards with a bent towards injuring their fellows and a history of bribing referees. Leeds were epically violent, a squad full of players like Billy Bremner or Johnny Giles, who never hesitated to put the boot in. The pick of the bunch was probably Norman Hunter – once, when he was told Norman Hunter had gone home with a broken leg, trainer Les Crocker asked “Whose is it?” Leeds were Champions, but they were feared, not loved. But winning erases a great deal of history, and Leeds are still known as the only otherwinning team to wear an all-white strip.

But The Damned Utd is not really about dirty Leeds. The book is about Brian Clough, the legendary, straight talking, media-icon, hard-drinking Manager, and his ill-starred forty-four day spell as Manager ofLeeds. Brian Clough dragged Derby County Football Club from the bottom of the Second Division to the very top of the First Division in just five years. In today’s terms, the equivalent would be takingScunthorpe United to the top of the Premier League, past ChelseaLiverpoolArsenal, and the two Manchester clubs. But then, everything that goes up must come down, and when Derby slumped the next season, the manic ego of Cloughie was to blame.

In a parallel story arc, after Clough is forced out of Derby, he takes the Leeds job – Don Revie has taken the opportunity to manage England. From the minute he steps in to Elland Road, from his first meeting with the players, the enterprise is damned. “The first thing you can do for me” he tells the veteran internationals, “is to chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest fucking dustbin you can find, because you’ve never won any of them fairly.” Clough’s distaste forLeeds’ cheating and physicality sounds modern and delicate, till you realise how dirty football really was. “Irishman,” he tells Johnny Giles, “God gave you intelligence, skill, agility and the best passing ability in the game. These are qualities which have helped make you a very wealthy young man. What God did not give you was them six studs to wrap around someone else’s knee.”

The locker room is always a black box to us, and we can only wonder what happened there in case of a second-half turnaround. David Peace takes us inside, and it is nothing as I imagined. I’ve always visualised it as a place where a spectacled gentleman works on a blackboard while physios give well-behaved players well-earned rubdowns. What shocks is the violence and profanity of the world under the tiers of seats. I don’t just mean the language; the air itself is profane, charged with hate and desire, suffused with sweat and pain spray. It’s shockingly obvious, but the adult professional athlete is almost a different species, a class of humans given the keys to the world for their physical superiority – why would we think they wouldn’t be gladiators? In the players’ lounge after practice, they walk in “in their denim and leather, with their gold chains and their wet hair, teasing and touching, picking and pinching, a gang of apes after a fuck, their heads as low as their knees in their easy chairs”. The menace is palpable, roiling like a quiet part of A Clockwork Orange. These are not gentlemen sportsmen. They are animals kept for the delight of the working class on overcast Sunday afternoons. If they bleed for it, so much the better.

A statue of Brian Clough at Nottingham.
Image above is from ian.plumb's photostream on Flickr.
Creative Commons License

For the forty-four days Brian Clough was manager at Leeds, he rarely went home, putting up in a “modern luxury hotel”, where he could go slowly insane from the insecurity of working against the players, against the fans, against the board, against the staff, against the proverbial tea lady even. It didn’t hurt that he fancied a drink before he did anything. Every night was a haze in the company of strangers, until there were no more strangers, and then “the barman takes my arms, the waiter takes my legs, but no one takes me home”. Clough believes in alcohol, and in little else. He repeats ad nauseum that he does not believe in God or in luck, but only in Clough, and evidently only in the good folks at the liquor store, till he ends up, “face fucking down on the floor” once again. Clough fights battles in his head against his doubt and fear. The difference is that at Derby, those battles were won, and atLeeds, the hatred and doubt and fear broke loose and devoured him. There are terrifying nihilistic monsters loose in the labyrinth of his imagination, vengeful half-prayers, and half-heard mutterings in dark corridors. In the darkness of the northern night, there are no stars, and the constant reminder that before Christianity and before Rome, there were a people who lived here, and their magic remains.

The Damned Utd is a document from the past of football. And like looking into the crypt and seeing the shards of brainpans, I want to deny it. This is not my football. My football is not a pig’s breakfast of a pitch under a gray and bloated sky. It is not a two-footed studs-up challenge from behind which takes with it the ball, tendons, and half a foot of mud. It is not a “man’s” game that stinks of Scotch and cigarettes. It is not two banks of four and ten men behind the ball and taking two minutes over a throw-in with a towel.

No. I believe in something else. I believe in a perfect spongy green pitch. I believe in mathematical passing and cunning dribbling and beautiful finishing. I believe in touches of fantasy and improbable control in the sunlight, with laughter and delight pouring down from all sides, like a never-ending friendly at the Maracana. For me to believe in the football of Don Revie’s Leeds, I would have to have been fromLeeds. The modern globalised game requires football to be art because in far-off countries, we have the choice of changing the channel and choosing not to identify with any set of eleven men for ninety minutes. There is a reason that AC Milan sells shirts in South Korea but Stoke City FC do not, despite the very real possibility that, on a given day, I would bet on Stoke beating Milan at home.

It is a tremendously emancipating thought for every distant football fan who wishes he lived a little closer to that stadium that his allegiance is an aesthetic one, that if what he sees displeases him, he is perfectly justified in turning it off. There is no reason to watch a joyless, goalless draw between two cellar-dwellers, or two morons knocking skulls. Life is ugly enough.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

From - Tolkien's Morgoth and Laplace's Demon

Tolkien's Morgoth and Laplace's Demon

by Satyajit Sarna | February 17, 2011

Image above from Wikimedia Commons here.
Image (but not the rest of this work) published under:
Creative Commons License

There are no dead problems in philosophy, but some definitely kick harder. One of the most intractable is a thought experiment called Laplace’s Demon. The proposition is simple – that an incredibly potent intellect, capable of knowing of every particle, every force, every element in existence, and all of their past movements, and capable of analysing all of this, could predict, from this moment on, every single occurrence till the end of the universe. To Laplace’s demon, nothing comes as a surprise; everything in the future is a direct result of the past - a mechanism set in motion at the beginning of time, which will run till the end of time. We are particles and forces, our thoughts are electrons pinging through immense neural caverns, and our muscular movements the opening and closing of chemical gates. At the human level, the implication is that free will is an illusion resulting from ignorance.

J.R.R. Tolkien may never have characterised the question of free will in so mechanical and heartless a manner as Laplace’s Demon was. The old professor was a famously devout Catholic, and his faith shone through in his writings, tingeing the whole universe he created with a sad mysticism. Entire books have been written about Tolkien and Christianity, and by real scholars and people far more qualified than I; so, I do not wish to delve too deeply in that question. I only wish to propose that free will was, to Tolkien, a religious consideration, and we ought to treat it as such.

The trick with Tolkien is to approach him on his own ground – an endless green Oxford lawn - and ruminate with him, at length and in depth, to marinate yourself in the big questions. The Silmarillion is,arguably, the biggest book that an author whose name we know has ever written. Its scope beggars everything else I have read that goes by the poor name of fiction. The more widely read Lord of the Rings is merely an interesting footnote at the end of the cosmic spectacle.

The Silmarillion - Tolkien’s creation myth for Middle-earth - was published posthumously after Christopher, his son, edited and collated it. The earliest parts of it date back to Tolkien’s teenage years, and large tracts of it were written immediately after the First World War, after Tolkien returned fromSomme, where he served as a signals officer. The youth and energy of Europe, and the progress and development of the positivist nineteenth century had burnt itself out in the flaming trenches of the War. With the creation of Middle-earth, Tolkien shut his eyes and set the clock back to the beginning of time.

Our problem springs from the first three pages itself. Follow this closely. Eru, or Illúvatar, (the creator) forms the Ainur (the holy spirits), and directs them like a conductor to create a great music. But Melkor, the most powerful of the Ainur, does not play the music that Illúvatar dictates. He plays a music of his own in which the importance of his part is exaggerated, which clashes with the music of the rest of the Ainur. Illúvatar puts a halt to the first piece of music and starts a new piece, a more powerful one with a new beauty. However, once again, Melkor introduces his own elements into it and once more the result is cacophony, for Melkor cannot be drowned out. The third time, Illúvatar starts a new theme, but while the first two were triumphant and powerful, the third is soft and melancholy. Instead of competing against Melkor’s notes, it incorporates them and uses them as a counterpoint, overwhelming them. Then Illúvatar shows them a vision of the creation they have undertaken – “Behold your music!” The last composition of the Ainur had created a world: Arda, beautiful and living and growing, a product of their thoughts, including those of Melkor. In that very first scene, in the very process of creation, lies the seed of all narrative.

Melkor looks at the world, and he sees only his creation, and deems himself the master of Arda. Before the coming of the children of Illúvatar – elves and men – he battles with the Ainur, who have taken up the dominion of Arda and are known as the Vala, and forever sets his hand against them, undoing and corrupting their work, and putting his malice to work.

Of course, Melkor is Tolkien’s Lucifer. Like the Morning Star, he is the best and strongest of his kind. As Lucifer was the first amongst the angels, so was Melkor preeminent amongst the Ainur. In the words of Milton, Lucifer thought it “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven”, and so it is that Melkor would rather be lord of dark and fell realms than live in the golden hall of Valinor and take his place in line. And as Lucifer became known as Satan, so too does Melkor take the name of Morgoth.

In the Koran, Iblis was a jinn and a devoted servant of Allah, so exalted that even though he was a jinn, his stature was that of an angel. His sin was to refuse to bow before Adam, the creation of Allah, while all of the angels complied. When asked why he did not bow, his answer to Allah was that he had been created out of the smokeless fire, while Adam was made out of clay, and he will bow only before Allah. In contrast with the angels, who were not capable of disobedience, Iblis had the exercise of his will, and for that, he was doomed to hell, and given respite until the day of judgement, Qiyamah. But it is on that day that he becomes known as Shaitan.

When Illúvatar creates elves, the lesser companions of the Valar, he makes them beautiful and immortal and pure. He grants that they be the most beautiful of all his Children and that, unless slain, they will perish only with the end of the world. In contrast, mortality is the lot of men. They will live for a while and then they will die. Therefore, they are known as Guests or Strangers.

However, mortality is a “gift” because, hand in hand with it, Illúvatar also grants “that the hearts of men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein… but they should have a virtue to shape their lives, amid the powers and the chances of the world, beyond the music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else”. So it is that Illúvatar gives the freedom of will to men.

Melkor aka Morgoth, is Tolkien’s Lucifer. Man creates in the image of Melkor – unique, unguided, free to choose values, even to make horrific mistakes and to harm himself and his own kin.
Image above from Wikimedia Commons here.
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Free will is also inherently linked in The Silmarillion to the concept of creation. Aulë, one of the Vala, creates the dwarves in secret, under a mountain; when Iluvatar questions him, he apologises and expects that he will have to destroy them, for he has usurped the power of Illúvatar. However, Illúvatar is pleased and breathes life into them. But Aulë did not usurp or imitate the power of Illúvatar; what he did was whittle a few dolls to play with. Melkor’s usurpation of power was a greater thing. It was the action of a demiurge, the fashioning of a world and playing with the power of Creation. The term is one that we take from the Greeks via the Gnostics – the demiurge is an artisan spirit, a creator of the material universe; one who is both created and yet can create anew.

The power of creation is key to the central story arc of The Silmarillion. The greatest craftsman of the elves is Fëanor, who embodies the spirit of fire. Fëanor, to my mind, has some spark of the demiurgic power; after all, none of the Vala could match his workmanship. He creates the three Silmarils, jewels in which the light of Arda is encapsulated. The Valar bless the jewels, and everyone treasures them.

Naturally, Morgoth - who has been allowed the freedom of Valinor on the grounds of good behaviour - filches the Silmarils. Fëanor is furious at the lack of understanding and powerlessness of the Vala. He swears the Oath of Fëanor – “which none shall break and none should take, by the name even of Illúvatar, calling the everlasting dark upon them if they kept it not” - which binds him and his sons to chase the Silmarils and reassert their possession of what was theirs, regardless of who may take or keep it from them, be they Vala or elve or man. The Oath of Fëanor is so strong and dire a thing that Fëanor and the other Noldor, his clansmen, are exiled from Valinor; and from there, the beautiful jewels occasion tales of terror and greatness and treachery.

If a being is omnipotent and omniscient, how could he have created anything or anyone involuntarily? Does God test the faith of man, all the while knowing the answer? Remember, when Illúvatar directs the music of the Ainur, and Melkor raises his vain and discordant theme, Illúvatar subsumes his notes into a greater swirling piece and states – “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its innermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined”. Of all the deus ex machina in Tolkien’s work – the Eagles spring to mind – Melkor is the greatest, a challenge and barrier to all men, elves, or Vala. Is it not possible that God created Satan andAllah created Iblis to challenge the faith of man, all the while knowing the answer?

The philosophical tool that yokes Laplace’s Demon is almost anti-philosophical in nature. Simply, they call it Pragmatism. So what if to the omniscient mind, there can be no divergence from the given path? It is no concern of ours. Man has no choice but to act as if he is free. We are free - first, because we believe ourselves to be, and second, because we cannot imagine otherwise; we cannot comprehend ourselves to be bound. We have no choice but to proceed with the belief of free will.

To return our argument to the context of The Silmarillion, Melkor had a hand in the shaping of man. Illúvatar made the Eldar pure, and in the holy sanctum of Valinor, but Melkor reared men in conflicted Arda. Elves are part and parcel of the work of the clockmaker, and they do not create in the deeper sense. Their creations are organic, their shape is lovely and holy and based on the world around them, and completely predictable. Man creates in the image of Melkor – unique, unguided, free to choose values, even to make horrific mistakes and to harm himself and his own kin. This is an echo of the demiurgic power. Consider, for example, the atom bomb - the ultimate remaking of matter and the ultimate deviant act.

In the Akallabêth, when the maddened kings of Númenór sail across the ocean to seek Valinor, against the order of nature and the dictates of the Vala, they exercise their free will, driven by their dream of reaching paradise. Every higher action of ours is bent towards gaining, or if you so believe – regaining, a state of grace. The explorer in the Age of Discovery, hacking his way through the Amazon rainforest had the discovery of Eden on his mind. The long-distance runner brings his body and mind to the brink of breakdown, as does the drug user or the heavy drinker, because beyond the veil of reality, they see something else - a movement behind a screen. Some people are just wired to behave that way, as if they are climbing back up from the Fall.

Tolkien was raised in the shadow of Birmingham’s Edgbaston Waterworks, which to him were Blake’s “dark satanic mills”. He recoiled from the ugliness of the creations of industrial England, and the Luddite streak in him was strong enough to envision: the forges of Isengard and the torture chambers of Mordor, where Orcs were made from kidnapped elves; and, in its most prosaic form, the Scouring of the Shire.

J.R.R. 'Beren' Tolkien and Edith 'Luthien' Tolkien
Images above from Wikimedia Commons here and here.

The Silmarillion is Tolkien’s missile at heaven, his anguish at the fallen world he was born into, filled with impersonal industrialised warfare, the loss of community, and the suppression and subordination of nature to man’s desires. So he creates a world apart from that given to him, fills it with his stories, and invites others to live in it. This too, is a heretical action; a rebellion against the world, and the God who he believed had created it. Tolkien was, like Fëanor, a demiurge and he gave himself a world to live in. The engravings on the graves of Tolkien and his wife even bear the names Beren and Lúthien alongside their given names.

As we are forced to believe we are free, we are demiurges too. We have the ability to bring into the world creations unfettered by the world we are given, divergent from the laws of nature and even against the will of our own creator, because God freed us by making us mortal. Because we must die, we have equity in the concept of freedom of will. Because the flail of death is always on our backs, we are free to make the world in our own image, and not merely be bound to its ways. We can only seek true meaning in one way, and that is by creating in our own image, by bringing new things into the world. Creation and rebellion are our rights, and the closest to Godhood we can come in our own short lives.

For better or worse, we may all be Melkors. But we need not become Morgoths.

Note: Nothing in this piece should be taken to imply disrespect of anyone’s beliefs. If any is caused, it is deeply regretted. I use terms and meanings loosely, but hopefully, not so loosely as to be incorrect.