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Re: [mythsoc] Anyone want to read and / or comment on my new 7 page intro to MA thesis on T?

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  • Jason Fisher
    ... Yes, absolutely. :)
    Message 1 of 3 , Oct 30, 2006
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      > Subject: [mythsoc] Anyone want to read and / or
      > comment on my new 7 page intro to MA thesis on T?

      Yes, absolutely. :)
    • Walter Padgett
      OK. Here goes. Section 1 – Introduction The present inquiry into the relations of myth and ideology, and the relevance of the set of concepts arising from
      Message 2 of 3 , Oct 30, 2006
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        OK. Here goes.

        Section 1 – Introduction
        The present inquiry into the relations of myth and ideology, and the
        relevance of the set of concepts arising from such an inquiry to the
        significance of J. R. R. Tolkien's scholarly and literary oeuvre
        originated in the very infancy of my own intellectual birth.
        Tolkien's first popular work of literature, The Hobbit, was required
        reading in my twelfth-grade high school English class. Our classroom
        viewing of the animated movie adaptation, which was first released in
        1978 and which employed the entrancing voice of John Huston as
        Gandalf, was a remarkable event. As post-adolescents about to
        graduate from the security of high school life and embark on a journey
        into the world of responsibility, the idea of spending two days of our
        college-prep English class watching a cartoon surely seemed a bit
        juvenile to us. But, as I remember, a silence uncharacteristic of
        self-absorbed seventeen-year-olds permeated as the rapt attention we
        gave to Tolkien's story unfolding on the screen folded us together in
        a synchronously meaningful experience. Perhaps the journey of the
        hobbit-hero questing out of his comfortable home into a wide and
        dangerous world provided a metaphor for our own sense of adventure,
        whether we desired adventure or not.
        I cannot speak for all of the members of that class, still less for
        all readers of Tolkien's works or viewers of the movies his literary
        works have inspired and generated, but a review of the cultural
        response to those works readily bears witness to the emergence of an
        intensely inspirational experience for readers of them, on many
        levels, the scholarly and academic no less than the popular. By the
        time I first participated in those classroom discussions of The
        Hobbit, my fascination with Tolkien's novels had already been well
        cultivated. Like many other true Tolkien aficionados, I began reading
        and re-reading The Lord of the Rings on a regular basis, annually,
        usually around Christmas.
        I loved it. It meant everything to me. As a specific example, I
        think my growing acquaintance with Tolkien began teaching me what it
        means to heroically face human weakness as a domestically comfortable
        yet quietly desperate modern by relating the soul-transforming
        experience of Frodo's sacrifice and struggle to surrender the
        all-empowering ring to destruction. Perhaps more importantly, Tolkien
        communicated his sensibilities about the nature of friendship and
        truly selfless service in the example of Sam's loving relationship to
        Frodo, his master.
        It was not without much hesitancy and circumspection that I undertook
        the task of reading The Silmarillion, Tolkien's background history of
        the imaginary world he created as a setting for the events that occur
        in his most popular books. Since The Silmarillion is full of
        unfamiliar names and words from the languages Tolkien invented, its
        difficulty usually alienates all but the most passionate enthusiasts
        of his writing. But I read The Silmarillion over and over again until
        I became completely familiar with it, and I continued to regularly
        re-read it into my late thirties.
        By the time I became an undergraduate at Denison University, I had
        related just about all of the value-orienting experiences in my life
        to some aspect of the lessons Tolkien teaches us– lessons about what
        it means to be a small and rather unimportant human being in a big
        wide world full of greatness. Studying Philosophy there in the
        undergraduate mode was, for me, an identity-building process of
        developing a personal philosophy. I became at first most interested
        in answers to the fundamental questions posed by the French
        existentialists, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The ensuing
        rigorous critical examination of my own beliefs about the existence of
        God turned to the most basic identifications of what is, ontologically
        speaking, and what is not.
        Introducing in his Myth of Sisyphyus "the philosophy of the absurd,
        which is named after the general notion aroused by man's confrontation
        with the 'inhuman', and which holds that our lives are meaningless and
        have no values other than those we create," Camus asks, "given such a
        futile world, what is the alternative to suicide?" (Camus wiki). If
        this question, as Camus argues, must be the intellectual's very first
        philosophical question, his or her answer to this question amounts to
        nothing less than that individual's expression of the meaning of life.
        Yet how could one encapsulate in a single answer to this question all
        the ideas, values and sensibilities which come into play in the
        determination of an ever-changing and dynamic worldview? Intellectual
        growth can be painful, and intellectual identity often emerges only
        after the conflict of resolving the contradictions within which one
        lives has ceased. It is within this context that the influence of
        Tolkien's writings can be viewed as significant to the central
        concerns of this paper. For my ideas about these values and
        sensibilities were deeply influenced by my reading of The Lord of the
        Rings, and the depth of my ontological perspective on the personal
        importance of every human experience began to grow as I became more
        familiar with the larger historical context of the events chronicled
        in The Lord of the Rings which Tolkien provided in The Silmarillion.
        Deducing here, one might conclude that the very capacity, in my case,
        for what the poet William Blake considered the all-important
        experience of imaginative sympathy became realized through the efforts
        of Tolkien's myth-making.
        In the preparation of my culminating research paper during my last
        year as an undergraduate at Denison, I found that ideology subjects
        the individual to an illusory system of ideas that determine a
        fundamental framework for understanding reality, and that these
        systems of ideas arise out of the conditions determined by
        historically competing interests in a society's economy and culture.
        Academically, I had used the theoretical propositions of thinkers like
        Karl Marx, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault, to formulate an
        explanation of how the human individual understands and responds to
        the reality of the human condition– economic man struggling to justify
        his self-image within seamless webs of power. But I had not really
        left much room for the human in my explanation of this concept of
        reality because I had ignored the rather potent personal influence a
        writer, or perhaps even the structure of a work of literature, can
        have on the development and affirmation of individual values.
        As a post-graduate, I wanted to explore how Tolkien's The Silmarillion
        informed my sense of values. Somehow, whenever the question of values
        rose up in my burgeoning intellect I always referenced in a general
        way my recollections of Tolkien's world, as if my moral sensibilities
        about right and wrong somehow resided there. I have sought to explain
        this experience according to a conception of ideology, thinking that
        Tolkien's myth somehow "interpellated" a set of ideas in my mind which
        were used to structure my sense of reality. In this context, my
        concern about how ideology determines our values and goals eventually
        merged with a growing realization that most of my existential values,
        as well as many of my own philosophical and theological sensibilities,
        could be traced to the influence of Tolkien's literary works. What
        makes this inquiry worthwhile is the fact that I am not alone. The
        cultural phenomenon manifesting around Tolkien's works has been
        well-documented in both scholarly and popular discourse.
        Thinking of Tolkien's influence on the development of values that give
        life meaning for the culture of his readers makes more sense after a
        brief consideration of the function of myth. In Myth and Meaning,
        Myth and Order, Stephen Ausband states that "Myths are tales which
        demonstrate the order that a man or a society perceives in natural
        phenomena. It is the role of mythology to make the world coherent and
        meaningful by demonstrating or imposing order on it" (Ausband 2).
        I do not mean to argue that my total sense of reality is made coherent
        and meaningful because Tolkien's mythology has imposed a sense of
        order upon my mental perceptions of the world. I have never felt that
        I was "programmed" by Tolkien. But it is my contention that because
        of my deep interest in and knowledge of Tolkien's literary creations,
        my perceptions of the world have somehow been infused with a peculiar
        sensibility which relates directly to what I have learned from my
        reading of Tolkien's writings, regardless of his authorial intentions.
        There is nothing too astonishing in this observation. "[L]iterature
        necessarily posits values," Daphne Patai explains clearly in Myth and
        Ideology in Brazilian Fiction, "of which the writer may or may not be
        explicitly aware," and like her "I wanted to discover what these are
        and how they are communicated to the reader" (Patai 1).
        I can say, for example, (and really mean it) that my personal sense of
        identity is profoundly informed by an ontological understanding of
        man's relation to God, others and the outside world which derives from
        Tolkien's theological and philosophical sensibilities, laid out in his
        cosmology at the beginning of The Silmarillion. And when you are
        talking about literature positing values, that is really something
        significant.
        My thesis is that Tolkien's writings perpetuate mythological themes
        that impose order, both in terms of the communication of moral or
        ethical values to their reader, and also in terms of giving meaning to
        the complex natural and psychological phenomena made sensible by those
        mythological themes, structuring the ideological mindset of his
        readers in a collective way, resulting in the existence of a common
        understanding and worldview among participants in the cultural
        phenomenon connected to Tolkien's works.
        Since this claim rests on a set of concepts that emerge from the
        present inquiry into the relations of myth and ideology, these terms
        need to be critically analyzed and assessed. Many of the concepts
        with which this thesis is concerned have arisen in the "formal" study
        of literature throughout the last century, "wherein scholars try to
        study at close range the actual form literature takes and how it
        works" (Davis 19). The editors of a current educational text on this
        subject, Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer, provide an overview of
        some of the basic issues in literary studies and literary theory that
        give rise to the immediate concerns about the status of myth and
        ideology. Since "literary criticism defines its objects of study [as]
        literature and culture," ground for the present inquiry into the
        nature of the Tolkien phenomenon can be established through a
        selective appraisal of myth and ideology within the discourse of
        critical scholarship represented in Davis and Schleifer's analysis.
        Scholars and critics who have written chiefly from a central concern
        about Tolkien's works make many more interesting and relevant
        observations about the significance of Tolkien's literary endowment,
        especially in terms of its evocation of the mythic. Books and
        articles selected from among their contributions to the growing body
        of Tolkien scholarship offer a number of valuable insights into the
        structure of Tolkien's works, the mythological sources of his stories,
        the relation of his invented languages to his mythology, and perhaps
        most importantly, the influence of Tolkien's strongly held religious
        convictions on the works as a mythology.
        To clarify my pursuit in order to delineate more specific criteria to
        bound for my purpose evaluations of relevance in the body of
        scholarship and criticism surrounding Tolkien's works,
        [I need to analyze the conclusions of my thesis better before
        concluding this introductory section.]
        This part should also address the "explanation of the methodology"
        area of concern. Although, to my way of thinking, it only amounts to
        something like "critical analysis of existing scholarship on the
        subject," I can state my review of published works of criticism and
        scholarship on Tolkien's work, studies on myth and ideology as
        separate concepts, and other works that deal with them comparatively.
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