Monday, August 15, 2005

Frodo Baggins: Embarrassing Failure?

I was browsing through Internet Infidels, in the Biblical Criticism and History section, under the thread "A Question for Vorkosigan Regarding Mark". Vorkosigan (who is none other than Michael Turton from The Sword) thinks the gospel of Mark is a second-century novel, and in passing makes an interesting remark about the criterion of embarrassment:

"If Mark were not the source of a religion that insists Jesus was real, what about it would convince you that we were dealing with real history somewhere in it? It can't be embarrassment, for that is only applicable when you have decided a tale is history -- I mean, no one believes that the Lord of the Rings is history because Frodo failed at the end, embarrassingly."

But the example of Frodo Baggins doesn't support Turton's case. Frodo does not fail embarrassingly. In the view of the author, he fails appropriately. Frodo had no more chance of willfully destroying the Ring than Aragorn did of winning a military victory against Sauron. Tolkien's heroes are tragic failures because they are intentionally not salvific figures, not allegories for any part of the Christian myth -- which for the author was absolute truth. They are pagan heroes, noble, heroic, but ultimately hopeless against the power of evil.

Frodo's failure may have been embarassing to Frodo (on which see here), but not to others -- and certainly not to the author of the story, which is what matters in using embarassment as a criterion.

Of course, Tolkien knew he was writing fiction, and there's no history in Lord of the Rings anyway. A criterion of embarassment would be used in this case not to determine whether or not "Frodo actually failed", but that given his failure in the context of a mythic pre-history which Tolkien intended to point towards Christianity without encompassing it, was he a pagan or Christian hero? The answer should be obvious. He was a pagan hero, a heroic but hopeless failure, and that's how Tolkien wanted him. I've written much on this subject here.

Unlike Turton, I don't think the gospel writers were writing novels. They were taking embellished and evolving historical traditions, and reshaping them to suit theological agendas. We don't decide the gospels are rooted in history by applying a criterion like embarrassment in advance. The criterion is useful on the understanding that the evangelists believed they were writing about things which actually happened.


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