03 January 2019

Happy birthday to Tollers; happy landing to Yutu

Today is doubly worth celebrating for lovers of myth, as the 127th birthday of the great English Saxonist, philologue and fantasy novelist John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, author of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and as the date on which the People’s Republic of China landed a lunar rover named Yutu 玉兔 on the far side of the moon.

Firstly: a few well-deserved and completely-inadequate words of appreciation for Tolkien, the great master of his genre, on his birthday.

Beloved by the masses for his Lord of the Rings trilogy; beloved by greens for his environmental politics, by Catholics for his Catholicism, by distributists for his hobbitly ideals, by conlangs for—okay, you get the idea; Tolkien was also an ardent admirer of the poetic language of Old England, and indeed also of the wild virtues that belonged properly to this newly-Christened people. Tolkien’s interest in and preference for the pre-Norman Teutonic culture of that time was, of course, in no way motivated by racialism or by white supremacism. A South African who loathed and denounced apartheid, he had harsh words indeed for the species of ‘ruddy little ignoramus’ which would make such hateful use of his life’s work and interests.

Instead, Tolkien was drawn to several aspects of Old English life at once. He appreciated the pre-Christian mythology for its ‘nobility and heroism’; but I suspect (given the place in his lore for hobbits) that he also appreciated a mythical system that would not overlook as holy the seemingly-small and seemingly-insignificant: ‘in the flower as it grows, in the animal as it moves’. On the other hand, however, he also appreciated the ‘early sanctified and Christianised’ culture that took its place, which blossomed under the tutelage of Benedictine spirituality, and felt intuitively that there was a distinct thread connecting the two together.

What seems to have been obvious to Tolkien’s imaginative philological and literary eye is something I’m still struggling with myself. Like Tolkien, I have few illusions about history being anything other than a long defeat, but even in such defeats there is such a thing as strategy. I don’t think it would have been lost on Tolkien that the society he admired blossomed in the long shadow left by the fall of Western Rome, or that it was structured specifically to weather the conditions wrought by that fall. Indeed, the stories he garnered the most popularity for telling, were all set against precisely such an epic tragœdy, and they were aimed at getting us to see the little ‘bright spots’ in the darkness within which nobility, heroism, and even homelier forms of goodness and decency could shine brilliantly.

One thing, however, that Tolkien seems to have done better than any other author – better than Joseph Campbell, better even than that old socialist William Morris for whom both he and I share such a deep and abiding affection – was that he successfully got modern people to think seriously about myth. He touched his readers at a place in their hearts where they could be made to understand certain truths about themselves and about their world. And he exercised that ability in order to evoke a sense of wonder that could then be turned to the philosophical. And that brings me to my next appreciation.

One knows not what Tolkien would have made of putting rovers on the Moon, though he was certainly dissatisfied enough with the technological horrors that the Second World War produced that he might yet have viewed it with a jaundiced eye. I do think that there are certain aspects of China, both in its pre-modern and in its present-day formation, which Tolkien might appreciate. There are a number of others that he would almost certainly abhor as redolent of Saruman’s hubris.

Be that as it may. The Chinese government has just landed – for the first time in human history – an exploratory rover on the far side of the moon, controlled via a satellite currently orbiting the LaGrange point L2. In addition to the other forms of scientific research being done, the Chinese probe is also experimenting with the possibility of lunar agriculture, which is a rather exciting development (and I tend to think that this predilection for agriculture would be one of the qualities Tolkien would admire). By any measure, this feat of Chinese space exploration is a boon to the scientific and technological communities.

But there is another, humanistic side to consider. The early NASA missions during the Space Race of the 1950’s and 1960’s were all named after various Attic and Roman gods: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo; however, the modern missions have names that are far more prosaic. It seems at first glance that the Chinese lunar missions are following a very similar pattern. The lunar lander is called Chang’e, the rover Yutu, and the control satellite Queqiao – all being immediate references to Buddhist and traditional Chinese mythology. Such names would never have flown, so to speak, in Mao’s day – smatching as they do of the Old Society and its ‘feudal superstitions’. However, modern China is a very different place. The people are rapidly rediscovering religion; the government and its projects have to keep pace. Whenever such cultural shifts are mentioned, it seems, cynicism always seems to be the order of the day regarding Chinese motivations. But I’m personally a bit more sanguine than most Western commentators are about the People’s Republic’s ability to weather and withstand the now decades-old crisis of meaning – China’s government is far more robust and skilful in such matters than Anglophone media will ever be ready to admit, and its people never quite so easily duped as they seem to imagine.

It is still an interesting shift to notice: not just in rhetoric, but in substance. The sky as seen from Chinese soil is getting clearer even as Chinese rockets have powered through it, and it is now ringing with the sound of half-forgotten voices. Don’t see that with the jaded eyes of cynicism or the spoilt ones of positivism, but with the eyes of myth – you may see something you weren’t expecting. One heartfelt toast to Tolkien, and another to the Rabbit in the Moon!

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