Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Harry Potter and the Qualified Recantation

For as a surfeit of the sweetest things
The deepest loathing to the stomach brings,
Or as the heresies that men do leave
Are hated most of those they did deceive,
So thou, my surfeit and my heresy,
Of all be hated, but the most of me.

When I was eight, Miss Beale, old and grumpy with white curly hair, taught me how to write stories, good and clear, which would earn me house points.

"Good stories," she articulated, slowly and clearly, "Must have lots of unusual, vivid describing words, including adjectives, which come before naming-words, and adverbs, which come after doing-words."

I wrote this down slowly, carefully and neatly on the plain, white pages of my square, red exercise book which was on top of my brown, wooden desk.

"Good stories," she accentuated, "Must be written in complete sentences. They should be made up of proper words. You must never use any slang expressions."

I looked out of the window. The sky was blue, the grass was green. At least a hundred children were playing quickly and happily on the elephant-free playing field.

"If there is direct speech," she opined, "You must use expressions like 'he asked', 'he explained', 'he shouted'."

Twenty years later, when I was a grown-up, tall and stout with brown hair, I read a number of books by people who made their living writing stories.

"Only use adjectives as a last resort", they said, "And don't use any adverbs at all. Use the kind of language that you would use in real life, even if it is not grammatically correct. Don't be afraid to say 'said' over and over again. Don't tell the reader how to feel. Don't say that a monster is 'frightening': describe it in such a way that the reader will think 'Gosh! How frightening.' The best rule that any writer can follow is 'show, don't tell.' "

I think that children like the Harry Potter books because they are written in the style in which bad teachers tell conformist children constitutes "good writing". Eight-year-olds read J.K Rowling and think "I could do that too." And they are very probably right.


"Harry led them all back into the kitchen where, laughing and chattering, they settled on chairs, sat themselves upon Aunt Petunia's gleaming work-surfaces or leaned up against her spotless appliances: Ron, long and lanky; Hermione, her bushy hair tied back in a long plait; Fred and George, grinning identically; Bill, badly scarred and long-haired; Mr Weasley, kind-faced, balding, his spectacles a little awry; Mad-Eye, battle worn, one legged, his bright blue magical eye whizzing in its socket; Tonks, whose short hair was her favourite shade of bright pink; Lupin, greyer and more lined; Fleur, slender and beautiful, with her long, silvery blonde hair; Kinglsey, bald, black, broad-shouldered; Hagrid, with his wild hair and beard, standing hunchbacked to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling; and Mundungus Fletcher, small, dirty and hang-dog with his droopy, basset hound's eyes and matted hair. Harry's heart seemed to expand and glow at the sight: he felt incredibly fond of all of them, even Mundungus, whom he had tried to strangle the last time they had met."

This may be the single worst paragraph ever committed to paper by a published author. The first sentence is far too long. It gets caught up in a monotonous and repetitive formula: "This character, with this attribute and this attribute, doing this thing: that character, with that attribute and that attribute, doing that thing." Children's books are often read out loud: you might think that the Best Loved Children's Author of All Time would road test her typing and find out if it is possible to get your tongue around her sentences. (I have been told by people with kids that there is no safe way of pronouncing "Harry-ron-and-hermione.")

Most of us see the world in terms of very specific tags and trade names. We don't see "a glass of bitter ale" but "a pint"; we don't use "the vacuum cleaner", we use "the hoover" or "the dyson". So why say "the appliances" rather than "the fridge" or "work surfaces" rather than "Formica top"?

To this vague language, Rowling applies teacher-pleasing describing-words like "gleaming" and "spotless". Is it physically possible to clean a "work-surface" so much that it gleams? Rowling is trying to tell us – as opposed to show us that far too many people have crowded into a small kitchen, and that they are disregarding Petunia Dursely's fussy cleanliness. A writer would have picked out some details which conveyed this comic situation: "The room smelt of pine and chlorine."; "Harry smiled when Hagrid plonked his big bum on the newly polished dining table." Rowling prefers to use the language of washing-powder adverts.

This tic runs right through the series: Dudley is taken to "burger bars" rather than to "McDonalds"; he has a "computer console" rather than a "Playstation 2". There are a certain number of arse jokes and toilet jokes, but Rowling is very reluctant to use the word arse (or even "bum") and imagines that children say "bath-room" (rather than "loo" or "bog") even when there are no adults present. In the movie, Ron is occasionally allowed to say "bloody", but in the books, the most he ever does is "use swearwords." In the latest volume, one of the adults gets to say "bastard" and "bitch" but the children limit themselves to "Merlin's underpants!" and "Merlin's baggy Y-fronts!" This is presumably an example of the series becoming darker and more adult as it progresses.

The kitchen paragraph re-introduces us to a short-list of eight potential casualties. If you have lovingly committed the first million words of the saga to memory, you already know who Mr. Weasley is. If you haven't, then a list of distinguishing features is not much use to you. I haven't really given Harry Potter much thought since I tossed Harry Potter and the Half-Baked Prince aside in disgust: so I freely admit that I had forgotten who "Fleur" was: it didn't help very much to be told that she was the slender, beautiful one. And for goodness sake – don't tell us that the girl is beautiful: describe her so that we think "How beautiful!" Possibly, Rowling thinks that we seeing the world through Harry's eyes, and it is he who is saying that Fleur is beautiful. But a 17-year-old wouldn't use that word about a girl: he'd be more likely to think that she was cute or fit or hot or horny or pretty or nice-looking.

When you are reunited with old friends, your heart does not "seem to expand and glow". I am not even sure what a glowwy expandy heart would feel like. A writer might have described actual human emotions based on her actual human experience: "Harry felt as if he had just finished some intense physical exercise". She might have shown us what Harry felt by showing us what he is doing: "He started to giggle uncontrollably at the weakest of jokes." Or she might have just told us how he felt in plain language: "Harry was very pleased to see them all again." Rowling simply mouths a boy-band lyric: a set of words which have no actual meaning behind them.

Ursula Le Guin's fantasy world is driven by language: everything has a True Name and a wizard must understand words before he can control the world. Tolkien's world is driven by music: it was sung into existence before time began, and historical events are less important than the songs in which they will be remembered. J.K Rowling's world is driven by hair-cuts. Before he regenerated into Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter's main personality trait was his untidy hair. The one thing that we have to know about each member of the Order of the Phoenix is whether they have bushy hair, long-hair, short-hair, long silvery blonde hair, wild hair or matted hair. Disappointingly, Rowling doesn't tell us the colour of their eyes, or how many Charisma Points they've got.


"But Andrew, these books are intended for children. It's not fair to judge them by the standards of an adult critic."

Here is a passage of writing from a book that was intended for children:

"I do not know what it rightly is to faint, but I do know that for the next little while the whole world swam away from before me in a whirling mist; Silver and the birds, and the tall Spy-glass hilltop, going round and round and topsy-turvy before my eyes, and all manner of bells ringing and distant voices shouting in my ear.

When I came again to myself the monster had pulled himself together, his crutch under his arm, his hat upon his head. Just before him Tom lay motionless upon the sward; but the murderer minded him not a whit, cleansing his blood-stained knife the while upon a wisp of grass."

Note the clarity of the viewpoint. There is no question that we are listening to a slightly older Jim Hawkins recollecting what happened the first time he saw John Silver kill a man. Notice that he is using the kind of language that a teenage lad might use. Note that the details are drawn from Stevenson's observation of the world, not theatrical conventions or stock phrases. Note the skill with which we are first told what it felt like to Jim; and then given a vivid picture of what Jim saw, based on a telling detail which shows us what kind of a man Silver is. The only adjectives are the ones which convey actual information: "tall hilltop", "motionless body".

Here is a passage from a book that was intended for quite young children:

"The wind had dropped, and the snow, tired of rushing round in circles trying to catch itself up, now fluttered gently down until it found a place on which to rest, and sometimes the place was Pooh's nose and sometimes it wasn't, and in a little while Piglet was wearing a white muffler round his neck and feeling more snowy behind the ears than he had ever felt before."

You may think that A.A Milne didn't really understand children, but he certainly understood words. He has taken the trouble to actually describe the snow-storm, not with clichés, adjectives or stock expressions but with a clever little metaphor that the kids are going to have to think about for a second or two. The whimsical personification of the snow cleverly tells us both what it looks like and what it feels like. Snow flakes do dart around unpredictably; you aren't sure when one of them is going to land on your face.

Finally, here is an excerpt from one of the key texts in the Western Canon. I don't know if it was intended for children, but I first read it when I was in Miss Beale's class:

"And a few minutes later, Peter Parker forgets the taunts of his classmates as he is transported to another worldthe fascinating world of atomic science!

But, as the experiment begins, no-one notices a tiny spider, descending from the ceiling on an almost invisible strand of web a spider whom fate has given a starring, if brief, role to play in the drama we call life!

Accidentally absorbing a fantastic amount of radioactivity, the dying insect, in sudden shock, bites the nearest living thing at the split second before life ebbs from its radioactive body!"

This is not nearly such good writing as Stevenson or Milne: it is functional, journalistic prose, intended (arguably redundantly) to describe the illustrations which accompany it! But it states clearly what is happening, without wasting any words! It is written in the kind of language an ordinary person might use! The slightly breathless, present tense sentences create a sense of urgency! It is somewhat over-written ("life ebbs from its body" rather than "it dies") but there are no stock phrases and few un-necessary adjectives! Like Rowling, Lee makes the mistake of telling us that science is fascinating, rather than showing us that Peter Parker is fascinated by it – but on the other hand, "fascinating" is a word that a science nerd might well use!

Miss Beale undoubtedly thought that reading books was intrinsically merit-worthy and reading comics was intrinsically wicked, so it's worth noting that Lee uses longer words than Rowling: I imagine the text of Spider-Man is of a higher reading age than that of Harry Potter! Comic books were printed on very cheap paper, and this meant that full-stops tended not to come out: so the letterers put exclamation marks at the end of sentences! And yes, I know that spiders aren't insects!


"But Andrew children love these books. Shouldn't you be applauding the fact that Rowling is getting children to read, rather than picking holes in her choice of words?"

Up to a point, Lord Voldemort.

Whatever you may have read in the Daily Mail, the yoof of today are not in any danger of becoming illiterate. They read text messages and My Space and blogs and e-mails. What they do not necessarily do is read many novels.

Does this matter? Miss Beale would probably have said that it was a Good Thing to read Good Books because they improve your grammar and expand your vocabulary – which is, being interpreted, they enabled you to fulfil your destiny as a useful little economic unit that doesn't make spelling mistakes in its CV. A spoonful of Quidditch makes the lexicon go down. Any long compendium of text would do the job just as well: The Times would be much more use than Treasure Island.

I do actually think that novels are more valuable, or at any rate, differently valuable, than newspapers or movies. But only on one condition: they have to be the kind of novels which have novel-like qualities. That means "psychologically believable characterisation, description which describes, and a plot which is more complex or subtle than fits into 90 minutes of cinema." If what you are reading really is "some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language" then you have probably gained something from reading it. If it isn't, then you haven't. Harry Potter isn't.

Some people think that it doesn't matter what the younglings are reading, provided they are developing the habit of picking up books. Give the kids a shot of Harry Potter (the first hit is free) and before long they'll be full blown James Joyce addicts. Transformers leads to The Seventh Seal and The Da Vinci Code leads to Documents of the Christian Church as surely as the Northern Line leads to High Barnet. Is there actually any evidence for this?


"You are missing the point here. Granted, for the sake of argument, that as a prose stylist. Jeffrey Archer and Dan Brown could both beat J.K Rowling in a 'write your way out of a wet paper bag' competition: kids still like the Harry Potter books because they are good stories. So it's as stories you should be judging them."

I'd better come right out and say it, then.

I enjoyed the first three Harry Potter books very much indeed. If I am exasperated with J.K Rowling, it's because she has drained all the fun out of the series in the later volumes.

I remember the first time I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. I was on a train to Reading. It passed the time. I enjoyed the silly word play (Diagon Alley, spellotape, the Mirror of Erised). I liked the dotty details about the magical curriculum and the inventive descriptions of the actual lessons. I thought that Quidditch was an impressively bonkers idea. I thought that Draco Malfoy was an eminently dislikeable villain, and that Prof. Dumbledore – much zanier in the early books – was a splendid comic creation. ("What happened down in the dungeons is a complete secret. So naturally, the whole school knows.") I liked the idea of a world where the oil paintings talk back at you, where the chocolate frogs hop away before you can eat them, and where trains leave from non-existent stations.

I thought that Rowling had cleverly dusted off the old and slightly reactionary genre of the school story and given us permission to enjoy it again. I thought that it was a witty conceit to set such a story in a world which functions, like Alice in Wonderland, according to a kind of dream-like illogical logic. That's very much how the adult world can appear to a child. (That was Lewis Caroll's point as well, obviously.) Snape asks Harry questions that he knows perfectly well that Harry can't possibly answer. Harry is sometimes late for lessons because one of the staircases in the school moved while he wasn't looking. The Headmaster makes strict and sometimes rather arbitrary rules but is just as likely to praise Harry as punish him when he breaks them. That's how school feels to a child. "I don't know how this works, I can't avoid getting into trouble because I simply don't know what these irrational adult-things expect of me." When I was eight, it was obvious that the class bully was a member of a secret order bent on world domination and that Miss Beale was a wicked witch in disguise. At Hogwarts, that's actually true.

Hogwarts includes everything which is theoretically fun about boarding school, but excludes everything that can make it traumatic. Harry gets to be with his friends 24 hours a day; he stays in a big exciting house, with lots of grounds to explore. He has a considerable degree of independence: how many children have their own personal grown-up free territory like the Gryffindor common room? On the other hand, he has a reasonable amount of privacy: he shares a room with his best mate and sleeps in a four poster bed. (The only bathroom we actually see the inside of appears to be a full sized swimming pool: we rather pointedly aren't told what the first year's showers are like.) School dinners are delicious and you can eat as much as you like. There is very little bullying. The first time Harry is in trouble, he anachronistically wonders if he is going to get the cane, but in fact, detention turns out to mean "going on a thrilling adventure with Hagrid" or, at worst "doing some comically boring chores". Most of the time, if you are naughty you simply lose house points. There isn't any P.E: so far as I can tell, Quidditch – conceived as a combination of American football and Formula 1 racing – is only played by those kids who positively want to try out for the team. There is some kissing (sorry, snogging) in the later books but the problems of adolescence, let alone the logistics of a co-ed boarding school are omitted (or more accurately, repressed.) Harry can't, by definition, miss his parents, because he doesn't have any: by another piece of looking-glass logic, the only time he feels homesick is during the holidays.

All this is an awful lot of fun. The problem sets in around volume 4, when Rowling ceases to treat Hogwarts as a literary device and starts treating it as if it was a real educational establishment. The whimsical "Billy Bunter with a magic wand" adventures become subordinate to a painfully derivative fantasy quest story in which Harry is the Chosen One who can defeat the Dark Lord. This creates massive inconsistencies in tone. In the fifth volume, evil Blairite Dolores Umbridge starts to physically torture misbehaving pupils. Are we to read this as comic violence or react to it as a realistic depiction of quite serious child abuse? If the latter, are we entitled to ask whether there are social workers or schools inspectors in the wizarding world? If Harry is now the Hero With a Thousand Faces are we really supposed to care (or imagine that he cares) about his wizarding exams or who wins the Quidditch tournament?

Each of the seven Harry Potter books contains two different stories. One story typically concerns some dramatic event from the past. It's often something which will impact on Harry's life and call into question something he believes in: maybe his father wasn't quite the saint he thought him to be; or perhaps Dumbledore secretly fathered a love child with Mary Magdalene. The second story describes how Harry-ron-and-hermione collect a series of clues – fragments of old letters, anecdotes narrated by other characters, and un-convincing plot devices like Tom Riddle's sentient diary and the magic pot that contains the headmaster's memories. Eventually, they have enough MacGuffins to re-construct the back story, at which point Prof. Dumbledore pops up and shows them how it all fits together.

Now, in books 1 and 2, the focus was entirely on the front-story: that is "the adventure of a new-bug at a funny school". We only cared about the identity of the Heir of Slytherin and the location of the Philosopher's Stone in so far as they provided a pretext for Harry to leave the dorm after lights out, sneak into the girls' toilets (sorry, bathrooms) and generally have a thrilling but slightly naughty time. Even Lord Voldemort is primarily a plot device: a bit of doublethink which allows Harry to be excused and even sometimes rewarded for breaking the school rules. ("The dog ate my homework" and "I have a medical condition which means I have to eat chocolates during maths" don't work nearly so well as "I had to do it because otherwise the Dark Lord would have covered all the lands of Middle-Earth in a second darkness.")

In the third and best of the books, the front story and the back story were about equally important. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a thrilling school story about an escaped murderer possibly hiding out in the school grounds; but when Harry learns the convict's identity, he also discovers some genuinely interesting things about his parents and the origins of Lord Voldemort.

From volume 4 onwards, the focus increasingly shifts to the back-story. It feels as if the story which Rowling wants to tell is not the one about Harry-ron-and-hermione, but the one about Harry's parents and their contemporaries. Harry is simply the lens through which James Potter, Lilly Evans, Tom Riddle and the rest come into focus. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the school story has atrophied completely. We learn about the childhood and early career of Prof. Dumbledore. We find out why he was content to remain a school-teacher instead of taking on some job that would have been more appropriate to his talents – Minister for Magic, emissary of the Valar or Anglican Deity. (This is not very interesting.) It is revealed (for the sixteenth or seventeenth time) whether Prof. Snape is a dark wizard pretending to be a good wizard; a good wizard pretending to be a dark wizard; or a dark wizard pretending to be a good wizard pretending to be a dark wizard pretending to be a good wizard. (This is actually rather well done.) Harry-ron-and-hermione's function in all this is to traipse around the countryside collecting two different sets of plot coupons – the "horocruxes" which contain parts of the Dark Lord's soul, and the interesting but largely irrelevant "deathly hallows". J.K is so wrapped up in herself that she can't see why we might think that "A Harry Potter book which is mostly not set at Hogwarts School" is a slightly odd notion.
So, instead of following any conventional narrative structure, the books are built like computer games. Deathly Hallows reads (seriously) like the novelization of a third person quest adventure. Characters decide which location to explore; they visit each room in that location in turn; they pick up clues or solve a puzzle; they sift out which clues are relevant to their quest, what is a red herring, and what is a pointer to some sub-plot or side-quest. When they meet another character, the main thing is to work out what question they need to ask it in order that it will recite the next section of the back story. Harry is linked telepathically to Voldemort; and the occasional flashes where he sees the world through the Dark Lord's eyes feel an awful lot like cut-scenes.

I wonder if this is the key to the books' popularity? Give children or thick adults Treasure Island or Tom Sawyer and they will say "Where are the missions? Where are the puzzles? Where is the underground trap-filled labyrinth? Who is the end of level boss?" Give them Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and they will feel right at home. It's the only form of narrative structure these people understand.

At the beginning of chapter 10, Harry-ron-and-hermione are hiding out at Grimmauld Place (geddit?) former headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. While the others are asleep, Harry decides to explore the place. First, he goes into his old room:

"The wardrobe door stood open, and the bedclothes had been ripped back. Harry remembered the over turned troll leg downstairs."

J.K helpfully explains that this is a Clue, and goes through its possible meanings:

"Somebody had searched the house since the Order had left. Snape? Or perhaps Mundungus."

Harry then goes to the room which Sirius Black, his godfather, had used as a boy. (Wizards have godfathers, celebrate Christmas, name hospitals after saints and put quotes from the Bible on their grave stones, but they don't have churches, vicars or Christenings and their weddings and funerals are secular affairs. But hey, it's only a kid's book, right?) It is described at some length: we are told what posters Sirius used to have on his bedroom wall; and then we are told what this implies about his personality. ("He seemed to have gone out of his way to annoy his parents".) Harry searches the room and, among many unimportant items, he finds this level's Important Clue: a single page of a letter which his mother wrote to Sirius shortly before she died. The fragment finishes with the words "it seems incredible that Dumbledore...". J.K helpfully points out that this is another Clue, but that some more information will be necessary in order to decode it:

"That Dumbledore what? But there were any number of things that would seem incredible about Dumbledore..."

In another vintage piece of comic over-writing, she tells us that a letter from his dead mother is of some importance to Harry:

"Harry's extremities seemed to have gone numb. He stood quite still holding the miraculous paper in his nerveless fingers while inside him a kind of quiet eruption sent joy and grief thundering in equal measure through his veins..."

Once he has calmed down, Harry searches the room again, and finds an old photo; this doesn't effect his extremities nearly so much because he already has pictures of his family. After discussing the new Clues with Ron-and-hermione, he decides to check the remaining unexplored room which has "Do not enter without the express permission of Regulus Arcturus Black" written on the door. They already have in their inventory an amulet with R.A.B on it, so they quickly spot that this is also a Clue; however, when they search the room, they can't find anything of any use. A few pages later, they encounter Kreacher (geddit?) the House Elf, and, by asking him the correct questions, get him to narrate a section of back story concerning Regulus Black.

Harry is not interacting with characters or the world: he is walking a around a pre-programmed "scene of the crime", being fed information and activating plot devices. If this was a classical detective story or indeed a halfway decent computer game, the significance of the clues would not be spelled out. We would be told that Sherlock Holmes had found an old letter, a photo, and an amulet and be implicitly challenged to work out the back-story for ourselves. What would happen, I wonder, if you went through the book and deleted all the passages in which J.K says: "Harry found a clue. Harry thought about the clue. Harry wondered what the clue meant. Harry went and asked Hermione about the clue. Ron said 'Blimey mate it's a clue'."? Do you think that you would end up with a much tighter, punchier, shorter book, like, for example, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone?

This is why fans of the series are so obsessed with spoilers. No-one pretends that they are waiting for the new book for the sheer fun of reading about what hi-jinks Harry and the gang will get up to this term. The only reason for reading it is to discover which new pages from her notebook J.K Rowling is going to release into the public domain. Once you know that information, there's no actual need to read the book.

Any sense of tension or suspense you may experience – and I can't deny that I kept turning the pages over – is created by the publicity campaign, not by the book itself. Since Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling's publishers have performed an Equus style striptease act – coyly mentioning that if you read this volume will show you something that you've never seen before, and that you really ought to queue up outside Borders at midnight on Friday in order to be one of the first five or six million people to know what it is. The flyleaf to Order of the Phoenix described Prof. Dumbledore saying to Harry "Please sit down. I am going to tell you everything." So we plow our way through 765 pages because we are mildly interested to find out what the big revelation is going to be. (Nothing very interesting or surprising, and a good deal less than "everything".)

Before volumes 4, 5 and 6 we were warned that "A major character is going to be killed off", which made the books seem more like Big Brother than adventure stories: not "How will our hero escape..." but "Someone is going to be evicted from the series? Read the next 500 pages and you might find out who." This approach gave the final scenes of Deathly Hallows a quite spurious urgency. When Harry confronts Darth Vader, we couldn't help thinking that he was in genuine danger – not because Rowling was typing the scene in a particularly dramatic way, but because the publisher's hook for this volume was "Perhaps the person who gets killed off this time may be Harry Potter himself." The actual battle, by the way, is so convoluted that only a child could possibly understand it. Harry is not, in fact, required to defeat Voldemort neither naked nor clothed, neither riding nor on foot, wearing a hat which is not a hat, and eating a cheeseburger that is not a cheeseburger, but it would have been much simpler and more believable if he had.

I don't blame adults for reading this kind of thing. Adults use books to send themselves to sleep after a stressful day at the office. They don't expect them to make much sense. They probably don't pay much attention to them. If you paid attention to Jeffrey Archer or Dan Brown or Barbara Cartland your heart would probably glow and expand and all your extremities would drop off. Some of them may even want a fix of dragons and centaurs and magic swords and feel that they can get away with reading Harry Potter without Peter Bradshaw and John Humphrys calling their virility into question.

But something has gone very wrong with a world in which children would rather read about a school-shaped theme-park than Greyfriars or Linbury Court or Malory Towers or //please insert name of contemporary school story here//. It's a pity if their first meetings with dragons and unicorns are in this mushed-up watered-down baby-food form. Oh, maybe after finishing Harry Potter they'll go looking for more dragon-books and stumble on A Wizard of Earthsea or The Sword in the Stone. But isn't it equally likely that 1.3 million words of knock-off reproduction fantasy will leave them never wanting to see another dragon ever again? And is that why the Harry Potter series seems to be approved of by the kinds of grown-ups who openly sneer at Tolkien readers? Do they secretly hope that J.K Rowling is a kind of spiritual vaccination that will cure the kids of imagination for the rest of their lives?

Hi. I'm Andrew Rilstone. 

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Friday, August 03, 2007


"Yes, I am well aware that the he/she/it interpretation of Shem,Ham and Iapheth only works in English. I think that English is God's language, which is why, in my view, it is prevailing everywhere in the world. I think that the romance languages (French, Italian and Spanish) are "of the adversary": he/she/it, which is why "he" and "she" tend to sound phonetically similar and the nouns all have gender connotations."

Dave Sim, Collected Letters p512

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Lord of the Rings

So shall it be. Dear-bought those songs shall be accounted, and yet shall be well-bought. For the price could be no other.

At risk of completely squandering my credentials as a Tolkien geek: the Drury Lane production of Lord of the Rings is absolutely sensational.

The programme makes fascinating reading. One Andrew Breeze was responsible for "Shelob language translation into 12th century Middle Welsh". The "Hobbit nonsense lyrics" were "reviewed" by Tom Shippey. Someone called David Bell acted as "Balrog origami adviser". Well, if there's one thing you need advice on in a production of this kind, it's certainly your Balrog origami.

It's a pretty silly idea. Take a thousand-page book, with dozens of major characters, several centuries worth of back-story, masses of exposition and two major battles, and turn it into a three hour musical. But none of that stopped Les Miserables from becoming one of the most successful musicals of all time. Not that Lez Miz had any 4th century Middle-Welsh spiders. But it did have a number of good tunes. There isn't one single good tune in the whole of Lord of the Rings which is a bit of a drawback for a musical.

Take Act III. Act III begins with Aragorn (Jerome Pradon) addressing his troops before the big battle. They're hopelessly outnumbered, but he'd very much like everyone to follow him to the gates of Mordor and get slaughtered, although if anyone chooses to stay at home he won't think any the less of them. One might have expected the theater to be shaking to some rousing crowd-pleaser along the lines of "Do You Hear The The People Sing?" But no: Aragorn speaks the lines. He speaks them very well, and the orchestra plays inspiring music in the background, but it's still an odd way to open an act. Even odder is the ending, in which Frodo's departure for the Undying Lands is represented by, er, the voice of a narrator saying "And so, Frodo departed for the Undying Lands," as opposed to, say, a song.

This is not to say that there aren't any songs. A few of them are based on poetry from the book: Gimli pauses in Moria to sing a song which mentions Durin; Bilbo (Terrence Frisch) sings a few lines of what might be "The Road Goes Ever On", and Frodo's party-piece in Bree has certainly got moons and cats in it. But the Ents march off to Isengard without showing the slightest inclination to sing "We go, we go, we go to war!" and, bizarrely, Aragorn's men recite "Praise them with great praise!" to the victorious Hobbits as opposed to, well, singing it.

Three sets of people seem to be responsible for the score: I'm guessing that the Finnish folk group (Värttinä) provided the rustic airs for the Hobbits and Ents; Bollywood composer A. R. Rahman presumably contributed the exotic music for Rivendell and Lothlorien; and musical director Christopher Nightingale can probably take the blame for the instantly forgettable "pop" numbers. When the Fellowship leave Rivendell, Arwen sings a song to the effect that she's going to miss Aragorn and hopes he'll come home relatively soon, ideally after having defeated the forces of darkness. Quite harmless, but one really felt that it had been left in the script under a note saying "placeholder for show-stopping romantic ballad."

The one semi-good musical moment comes when Sam (Peter Howe) and Frodo (James Loye) are in Cirith Ungol wondering if they'll be remembered in stories after they are dead. This crucial scene becomes an actually rather touching trio between the Hobbits and Gollum. If I tried very hard, I might even manage to call some of the melody to mind.

That said, none of the songs are actually offensive, several are pleasant, and the background music (which is more or less continuous) is quite atmospheric. But really, this isn't a musical. The producers are bandying around expressions like "total theater". I would be more inclined to say "theatrical interpretation of Lord of the Rings, using dance, mime, acrobatics, physical theater and modern ballet, puppetry, film, flying elves, Balrog origami, oh, and also some songs." Looked at on those terms, it works really very well indeed.

First of all, it's a fantastically good-natured show. When you take your seat, a group of Hobbits are already on stage. Rather fat, twee Hobbits: the kind of Hobbits you might imagine having Irish accents. They are chasing fireflies around the stage, and out into the auditorium; encouraging kids in the audience to join in. Just before the curtain goes up, they release all the flies, and burst into a very energetic folk-dance. If I were the sort of person who was inclined to say that sort of thing, I would say that this was an attempt to translate into theatrical terms the Preface to Lord of the Rings. It establishes the status quo, it tells you what kind of creatures Hobbits are and it sets up a contrast between normal Hobbit life and the dark and frightening adventure which is going to follow. More importantly, it makes the audience complicit in the theatrical illusion from the word "go". It puts us in a good mood; it makes the show start with a round of applause. We are on the show's side before we have even got as far as Bilbo's birthday party. By the time we get to the second interval, when orcs run round the auditorium and jump out at unsuspecting members of the audience, we're pretty much eating out of the producer's hand. And having been showered with rose petals during the curtain call we feel that it would be positively bad manners not to come out thinking that we've had a terrific evening.

In fact, what this show feels most like is a pantomime: the grandest and bestest pantomime you ever saw. No-one yells out "She's behind you" when the giant spider creeps up on Frodo, but I don't honestly think anyone would have minded if they had.

It looks absolutely terrific. When Bilbo first puts on the Ring, he disappears before our very eyes. (I can only assume that they literally Did It With Mirrors.) The show is certainly spectacular, but it's spectacle of an engagingly old-fashioned kind. This isn't some Las Vegas extravaganza with animatronic horses and a live dragon. The Black Riders are actors holding what look to be paper horse's heads in front of them. Shelob is worked by men with sticks. The Balrog is a gigantic puppet -- very possibly made out of folded paper -- backed up by smoke, lights, sound effects and a wind machine blowing ash into the audience.

It would have been possible, given the amount of money being thrown at the show, to construct photo-realistic sets to compete with Peter Jackson: but where would have been the fun in that? The show engages your imagination with a specifically theatrical kind of illusion, and much of what happens on the stage follows a specifically theatrical logic. When Frodo puts on the Ring in the Prancing Pony, we see Sauron's Eye, projected onto the back drop. We see the Black Riders; they recognize Frodo; they converge on him and one of them stabs him. They are driven off by Aragorn, who announces that Frodo must be taken to Rivendell before he fades into the spirit world. Do we say that "They've skipped 50 pages of narrative and somehow gone from Bree to Weathertop"? Or do we say "They've changed the plot, and decided that the Witch King stabbed Frodo in the tavern rather than on the hill"? Tolkien's historical and geographic logic has been laid aside and replaced by stage logic. Two occasions when Frodo foolishly puts on the Ring and attracts Sauron's attention have been impressionistically combined into a single incident. This shortens the action, of course, and probably makes things easier to follow if you haven't read the book. But the segue from "Hobbits having a knees-up in the pub" to "Frodo mortally wounded" is a splendid coup de theater in its own right. The journey from Bree to Rivendell is similarly an abstract and symbolic piece of physical theater in which the four Hobbits and Strider navigate a revolving stage, weaving in an out of Black Riders and Orcs who are dancing around them.

So yes, this is a massively condensed version of Lord of the Rings. There's no Faramir or Eowyn; no Palantir; no Oliphaunt; no Dead Marshes; no Paths of the Dead; no Minas Tirith; no Corsairs; no Lord of the Nazgul – not even any rabbit stew! But it manages to retain a lot of arguably important details which weren't in the movies: Sam's box of magic earth; Galadriel's Ring; Bilbo's valiant offer to take the Ring to Mount Doom. Even Tom Bombadil gets name-checked!

In fact, the writers, Shaun Mckenna and Matthew Warchus "get" Lord of the Rings in a way that Peter Jackson simply didn't. Over and over again, they zoom in on what is important in the story and then – disregarding details of geography and time-line – find clever and witty ways to present it to the audience. We are never told that there are nine rings for mortal men, seven for the dwarves, or five lords a-leaping. The Black Riders are never identified as "ring wraiths". On the other hand, great importance is attached to the fact that Lothlorien depends on the power of Galadriel's Ring and that, once the One Ring is destroyed, Lothlorien will come to an end. It only gradually dawns on Frodo that the elves he saw in the Shire were leaving Middle Earth and the realization that the end of the One Ring means the end of the Elves is what tempts him to hold on to the Ring at the very end. We understand Galadriel's desire to take the One Ring in a way that we simply don't in the cinema version.

And yes, the show even leaves in a version of the Scouring of the Shire: it ends with paper flowers blooming all over the stage as Sam uses the elvish soil to repair the damage done by Saruman. Galadriel says that although the elves are leaving Middle-earth, this means that Lothlorien will in some sense survive. This coming together of Elvishness and Hobbitishness (completely omitted from the movie) is arguably the whole point of the story.

I must admit that I wiggled a bit when Boromir turned out to be an Anglo-Saxon looking warrior, who needs the Ring to rouse his father ("The Steward of the Lands of Men") from a spell laid on him by Saruman. In the event, Aragorn breaks the spell by revealing that he is the descendant of "The Great King"; and therefore true ruler of "The Lands of Men". He leads them in one final last stand against the forces of darkness (backed up by some "really surprisingly friendly trees") before going off to the gates of Mordor to distract the Dark Lord's attention away from Frodo. So, Boromir is a Rohirrim and Denethor is Theoden and Pelannor Fields is completely missed out? Not really: it's just a question of the whole "epic" sub-plot being condensed into a single thread, just enough to show how the events in the wider world impact on Frodo's quest. As a representation of Tolkien's imaginary world it makes about as much sense as saying that Henry VIII led the Welsh against the Spanish Armada. As a piece of theater, I thought it was inspired.

The cast are universally strong, although there is a sense they've been picked for their acting, dancing and tumbling rather than for their singing. The star of the show is undoubtedly Michael Therriault's Gollum. He never stops moving, standing upright when the Smeagol side is dominant and crawling across the stage when he is Gollum. I don't think he supplants Peter Woodthorp as the definitive Gollum, but I preferred him to Andy Serkis. Malcolm's Storry's Gandalf is rather more peppery than we might expect, greeting Frodo in Rivendell with an angry "You put on the Ring!" but this makes the final scenes, when he says the Hobbits can now sort out the Shire without any help from him all the more poignant. Saruman (Brian Protheroe) looks and sounds almost identical to Gandalf – another important point about the story which this production "gets". Given that Denethor and Theoden are all but omitted from the story, Merry and Pippin don't have that much to do, and are rather reduced to comic relief. I could have done without Pippin's yokel accent or the slightly laboured running gag about him being scared of forests.

A total pedant might say that it would have been a good idea for the cast to agree in advance about the pronunciation of "Gollum" and "Earendil". I thought that there was slightly too much use of areal ballet: the Elves in particular seemed to spend most of their lives dangling from the ceiling, which made them feel a little too much like the Victorian Peter Pan fairies which Tolkien abominated.

Really, this is the best dramatic interpretation of Lord of the Rings to date. It's far more intelligent than either Jackson's movies or the cartoon, and much more creative in its use of the material than the old Radio 4 plays. I think that the Professor would have hated the liberties that are taken with the "facts" of "history"; and I think that he might have found the Elves a bit too, well, fey, but I think he would have thoroughly approved of the use of stage trickery to engage, rather than to replace, the audience's imagination. McKenna and Warchus have produced something really very special. May the hairs on their feet never fall out!

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of Do Balrogs Have Wings?, which contains all my essays on Lewis and Tolkien, including some previously unpublished.

Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

RIP Tony Blair, as PM, at any rate.

Here richly, with ridiculous display

The Politician's corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged
I wept. For I had longed to see him hanged.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

I thought I had better say it before someone else does

There's is an awkward clash on the TV schedules tonight. On one channel at 7PM there's a programme about an evil meglomaniac who gets himself elected prime minister for his own nefarious purposes, while at the same time on the other side it's "Doctor Who".

normal service will be resumed as soon as possible

my modem exploded during the thunderstorms

while probably no-one else has said this in the entire history of the universe, Talktalk customer support were extremely helpful and efficient...

Friday, June 15, 2007

In case you didn't hear it, this week's "Clue" included not one but two of the rudest (and cleverest) jokes ever exhibited on the BBC.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

If Hilary Clinton were to become president of the U.S.A, Dave Sim's head would explode.

Surely, for that reason alone, it is worth doing.

Monday, June 11, 2007

"And I was like 'something, something, something', innit?"

Overheard in college library.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Nice Things (4)

1: Wagner, Gotterdamerung, Act III Scene 2 "Brunnhilde, heilige Braut"/funeral march

2: Wagner, Die Walkure, Act III Scene 1 "Fort denn eile, nach Osten gerwandt..."

3: Bob Dylan,"When the Ship Comes In."

4: Lennon-McCartney "I Am the Walrus."

5: Woody Guthrie: "Grand Coulee Dam"

6: Loesser, "Luck Be A Lady"

7: Boublil/Schoenbeg "Javert's Suicide"

8: Mike Batt "Remember You're a Womble."

Record: Wagner, Gotterdamerung

Book: The Silmarillion

Luxury: Teapot, tea, kettle, cow. Tea making facilities

Daily Express reader in "a bit right wing" shock

Unless it is a very complex piece of foreshadowing for the next Doctor Who story but one, I suppose.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Nice Things (3)

I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue is back on Radio 4. (If that link doesn't lead to the current episode, then you can usually find an old one here.)

Can you believe that Humphrey Lyttleton is 86? (I believe that, if you care about such things, which I admit I don't, he pretty much functions as a walking history of jazz.) I realize that we long ago came to accept Desert Island Discs without Roy Plumley and we have even come around to the idea of world without Alistair Cooke, but I fear that sooner or later Humph is going to...retire....whereapon the ravens will fly away from the Tower of London, the licence fee will be abolished, and England like Numenor will sink beneath the waves.

Blah blah blah, improvisational comedy; blah, blah, blah, last vestige of music hall tradition; blah, blah, blah, both precursor and descendant of Monty Python and The Goodies; blah blah blah, very rude jokes.

I used to know the technical word for the grammatical construction where you say "precursor and descendant of" where strictly one ought to say "precursor to and descendant of". I want it to be "sylepsis", but that's believing you are the only person in the whole world. It's not a useful word, I admit, but I was pleased when I discovered it existed, and now I have lost it, like Pooh and his honey and the cheese. I digress.

Very rude jokes.

Define "Countryside".
"The act of killing Piers Morgan."

But mostly very silly jokes.

Complete the following well known phrase or expression:

"It takes two to..."
"...to be the Archbishop of Cape Town". "

As mad as a March..."
"....on Baghdad."

From time to time, Gordon starts to worry about what it means to be English. If he listened to Clue, he would know the answer. (Which raises the question: if he doesn't listen to Clue, what business does he have running the country? Neil Kinnock was a big fan.)

There is a blue plaque to Willie Rushton on Mornington Crescent tube station.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Spider-Man 3

Spider-Man is an odd character. Little kids wear Spider-Man tee-shirts and play with Spider-Man toys, but you could hardly imagine a less kid-friendly hero. The comic book is full of angst and misery: Peter Parker's family and friends keep getting murdered, the world thinks he's a baddie – being a Spider-Man has pretty much ruined his life. The movies are just as depressing -- although director Sam Raimi did bottle-out and give Spider-Man 2 a happy ending.

The most depressing thing about Spider-Man 3 is how familiar it all feels. The last time we saw them Peter Parker (Tobey McGuire) and his frequently-kidnapped girl friend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) had settled their difficulties and fallen in love -- but someone has pushed the 're-set' button on their relationship. So we have to go through the angst and slush all over again: another scene in a theatre; another break-up in a restaurant, and, once again, M.J running from Peter into the arms of his best mate Harry Osborne (James Franco). This is even more angsty than usual because Harry is moonlighting as the villainous Green Goblin, a role left vacant by his father since the first movie. There are also scenes in which Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) dispenses wise advise, scenes in which newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K Simmons) loses his cool -- all pretty much encores of the first two films. Marvel Comics has been churning out arachnid adventures on a monthly basis for 40 years, but it seems that, after only three movies, Spider-Man has got tired.

Peter Parker has discovered a snazzy new black spider suit, which turns out to be a parasitic E.T which needs human host. While he is wearing the new suit, he behaves in depressingly un-heroic ways: kissing new girlfriends in front of M.J, mercilessly killing bad guys and, worst of all, doing nerdy dances in night-clubs. But the film can't decide whether it's a morality play about choosing between your dark side and your ... err.... red and blue side, or whether it is a simple horror story in which the hero is possessed by an evil space alien. In the end, Spider-Man doesn't come back to the light because he makes the right moral choice, but simply because he finds a comic-book cop-out which lets him rip the costume off. It then forms a symbiotic relationship with a rival news photographer (Topher Grace) creating a new villain, Venom, who Spider-Man defeats in a big fight. The greatest battle is within? Not really.

The third villain, Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), feels like an afterthought. The first two movies gave their bad-guys extensive back-stories -- this one takes it for granted that when escaped convicts wander into nuclear experiments, they turn into a walking, talking piles of sand. Sandman had a hand in killing Peter Parker's uncle, but on the plus side he only turned to crime because of his terminally ill daughter. This feels like a good idea for a story, rather than a properly developed element in the film.

The multi-villain action sequences are as spectacular as you'd expect; and everyone acts a lot, even in the embarrassing slushy bits. But it doesn't have the moral conviction or the emotional heart of the earlier films.

How depressing.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

5: Well, that just about wraps it up for Dawkins

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown
           Bob Dylan

When Dawkins talks about 'religion', I think he means simply 'belief in "God" ': the opinion that the universe and everything in it including us was designed and created by a superhuman and supernatural intelligence. Confucianism and Buddhism are not to be regarded as religions because they don't include a 'God'. It's a a perfectly good definition; but it leaves us wanting some other word for all the stories, rituals, ceremonies, ethical teachings, taboos, songs and coffee mornings that account for the majority of what goes on in church.
I suggest that we use the word cultus to refer to religion in this wider sense. 'Cult' sounds too sinister and 'quidquid Latine dictum sit, altum sonatur.'
Now, you can believe in a supernatural designer without participating in cultus and you can participate in cultus without believing in a designer. You might think that the universe was designed but not feel the slightest inclination to talk to the person who designed it; you might pray to a supernatural being without thinking that he or she designed the universe. Communism has a collection of songs, stories, rituals, heroes, holy days, holy places, a holy book and even holy relics. (So does the Tolkien Society, come to that.) You could reasonably describe communism as a form of cultus; but not as a religion, because it rather emphatically doesn't believe in 'God'.
Once you've spotted this distinction, a lot of Dawkins' hobby-horses begin to look decidedly wobbly. He gets extremely and repeatedly annoyed about the phrase 'Christian child'–how, he invects, can a child possibly know whether or not he's a Christian? And isn't foisting the term on him a form of intellectual child-abuse? (Clue: No.) Dawkins is pretending that he thinks that the phrase 'Christian child' refers to a child's religion–his or her opinion about the existence or lack of existence of a supernatural designer. In fact it almost certainly refers to the cultus in which the child participates. When you ask if a child is Catholic or Jewish you are asking, very innocently, which rituals he feels comfortable with–whether he looks forward to Christmas or Hannukah, whether he says 'Hail Mary Full of Grace!' or 'Hear Oh Israel! The Lord Thy God is One!' when he wakes up, whether feeding him flesh on Friday or pig-flesh on any day would be likely to upset him.
Dawkins also got awfully cross in the newspapers because some guy who played a monster in Doctor Who remarked that he would find it comforting to believe in God. Dawkins fulminated that whether it was comforting or not doesn't make any difference: all that matters is whether it is true and the minute someone showed him some proof he'd change his mind blah-de-blah. But clearly, Peter Kay had meant 'It would be a comfort to me to participate in a cultus,': Dawkins pretended that he thought he meant 'It would be a comfort to me to be convinced of the existence of a superhuman designer.'
Towards the end of the God Delusion, Dawkins reproduces A.A Milne's poem 'Binker' in full. Binker was one of Christopher Robin's 'imaginary friends'. Binker and Christopher Robin go everywhere together, but only Christopher Robin can see him. Many children imagine that they have such friends, and Dawkins is interested in the possibility that they are 'a higher illusion, in a different category from ordinary childhood make believe' and that 'at least some of these normal children who have imaginary friends really do believe they exist, and, in some cases, see them as clear and vivid hallucinations.'
As ever, Dawkins reading of the poem isn't especially sensitive. A.A Milne's 'Binker' isn't something that Christopher Robin really believes in, but a playful fib which he tells the grown-ups. He's no different from Pooh and Piglet in that respect.
So I have to say to people when they offer me a sweet
'Oh Binker wants a chocolate, so could you give me two?'
Then I have to eat it for him cos his teeth are rather new.

'What's twice eleven?' said I to Pooh,
('Twice what?' said Pooh to me.)
'I think it ought to be twenty-two.'
'Just what I think myself,' said Pooh....

Dawkins muses that perhaps people who believe in God have retained their imaginary friends into adult life; or at any rate, that the 'God' phenomenon and the 'Binker' phenomenon could be related.
I'm a lot less offended by this idea than Dawkins presumably intends me to be. When he says that I believe in an invisible man in the sky or a creationist micro-manager, I find myself hurling the book across the coffee shop and saying 'What you are talking about has nothing to do with the God of my religion. Why don't you go and talk to some Christians, you insufferably silly little man.' But when he gets to the description of the 'imaginary friend' I have to admit that I said 'Yes. Danged if it isn't a bit like that.'
In the unlikely event of any of Dawkins' groupies reading this far, I'm sure they will rub their knuckles together with glee and say 'Famous god-blothering bogger admits Jesus is a large purple rabbit called Harvey.' I don't, of course. But I concede that 'God is a bit like Binker' is a much more useful statement than 'God is a sky-fairy.'
At the very least, the idea could provide a frame of reference that would allow atheists and normal people to communicate with each other. If I said 'I have to wear this hat, because otherwise my imaginary friend will be very, very sad,' you might think me slightly eccentric (OK, extremely eccentric) but you'd hardly get angry about it. But if I said that the name of my imaginary friend was 'Allah' and not 'Binker' after all, then some people wouldn't just get angry: they'd actually demand parliamentary legislation to ban hats. (Not all hats: just the kinds of hats that Binker likes.) If Binker gave me good advise–if he told me to give money to a good cause, or have a proper rest once a week, you'd probably smile and say 'Good old Binker!' But if Binker told me to do something silly–draw on the wall with my crayons, say, or invade Iraq, you would be more likely to say 'Well, I don't think you can have heard Binker properly'.
Are atheists simply funny people who 'can't see Binker'? Or is it that they can see him, but interpret him differently? Perhaps atheistssay 'I think Binker is a product of my own mind' whereas theists say 'No, I think Binker comes from outside of me,' and add 'We think he's somehow related to the Great Douglas who wrote the universe.' (Well, most of them would. There are people who talk to Binker, who think it's important to talk to Binker, but who think that Binker is something that comes from inside themselves. This approach is particularly popular among serious pagans like Alan Moore. There are also people who say 'Maybe Binker comes from inside me, and maybe he comes from the outside. I don't know and I don't think it matters.' These are known as 'Anglicans'.) I don't see any reason why the friendless minority can't indulgently make space for imaginary bales of hay for Binker's reindeer; while the the rest of us politely explain what Binker thinks to the funny people who can't see him. Most of the time, we'd probably get on reasonably well.
Dawkins says that the phenomenon of the imaginary friend brings him about as close as he can get to understanding what it would be like to have a religion. But I submit that this isn't true.
Consider. On page 117 he quotes an interview with Douglas Adams in which Adams says he was converted from vague agnosticism to atheism as a result of reading The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins exclaims:
Douglas, I miss you. You are my cleverest, wittiest, tallest and possibly only convert. I hope this book might have made you laugh–though not as much as you made me.
It is, to say the least, suspicious that this is how the poster-boy for militant atheism deals with bereavement. This is unmistakably a prayer: a ritual invocation to an imperceptible being who cannot possibly exist in the empirical universe. I am not (N-O-T) suggesting that Dawkins 'really' believes in life after death or 'really' thinks that Douglas Adams can hear him. He's performing a ritual–playing a lets-pretend game of Douglas still being alive; dealing with the fact that there is no longer a Douglas in the world by talking to the picture of Douglas in his memory. But that's awfully like what people do when they participate in cultus.
So, Professor: believing in God (the God of the Christian cultus, not necessarily the creationist micro-manager) is a bit like having a Binker; which you can identify with, just a little. It's also a bit like talking to your dead best mate, something which you admit to doing. Do we have anything else in common?
Well, there's the matter of religious–that is to say, cultic–art. Dawkins is rather confused on this issue. In the introduction to the book he quotes John Lennon's Imagine and pretends that he thinks that the song is calling for the abolition of cultus in general. (Whenever anyone asked him John Lennon said that the song was a denunciation of denominationalism and sectarianism–not personal faith.) Dawkins asks us to Imagine all the Bad Things which would go away if there was no heaven and no religion too-oo.
Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheading of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it...
Slow down. The Taliban were religious, in the sense that in their opinion, a being called Allah really exists. They were also a cultus in that they believed that you should pray five times a day, study the Koran, fast during Ramadan and so on. It is a matter of record that they had the ancient statues at Bamyan destroyed. But Professor, who put up the statues? Buddhist monks, that's who. Possibly the monks were not religious, in the sense that they didn't necessarily believe in a designer-God but they were certainly part of a cultus and they had lots and lots of supernatural beliefs which you would think were Bad Things. So what you should have said is 'Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues. Imagine no ancient statues for the Taliban to blow up.' This is absolutely emblematic of your confused attitude. When a religious organisation does something which annoys you, you take it for granted that it was Caused By Religion. But when a religious organisation does something which you quite like you don't think that 'religion' had anything to do with it. You hardly spot that there was any religion involved at all.
(The bit about the abuse of women in some Islamic societies is worth pondering, too. Is Dawkins saying that if there were no 'religion' (i.e. if no-one believed in a Designer) then:
  1. There would be no clothing taboos and everyone would walk around naked.

  2. There would still be clothing taboos, but they wouldn't be enforced by law: people might look at you in a funny way if you did walk around naked, but no-one would arrest you.

  3. There would be clothing taboos, and they would be enforcible by law, but they would apply equally to men and women. The situation which prevails in the UK at the present time, where men are allowed to publicly remove their vests but women can be arrested for publicly removing their bras arise because people think the world was created by a supernatural designer.

  4. There would be gender specific clothing taboos, but the legal penalty for breaking them would never involve inflicting physical pain. The situation which prevailed in England up to 1948, where the offence of indecent exposure (which can be committed by a man but not by a woman) was punishable by whipping arose because the people of the time believed that the universe was created by a supernatural designer.

All of this sounds like nonsense; and not very much less like nonsense if you assume he means that Saudi modesty laws are the product of the Moslim cultus and not from the belief in Allah alone. It looks to me as if, without thinking, he has taken the clothing taboos in modern England for granted and assumed that when Johnny Foreigner has different standards of modesty he's going against the natural order of things, presumably as a result of some queer native superstition.)
When he was on Desert Island Discs, Dawkins selected an excerpt from Bach's St Matthew Passion as one of his favourite records. He pretends not to understand why normal people thought this was a bit odd.
The interviewer asked me how I could choose religious music without being religious. You might as well say, how can you enjoy Wuthering Heights when you know perfectly well that Cathy and Heathcliff never really existed.
This is another blustering non sequitur. Emily Bronte believed that Heathcliff was a fictional character and presented her book as a work of fiction. Bach believed Jesus was a real person, and presented his Passion as a retelling of and meditation on events that he thought really happened. Bronte wrote a story which she hoped would surprise and excite and delight her readers; Bach composed a piece of music which he hoped would bring his listeners closer to God. The question of whether a work is presented as fiction or non-fiction as a profound effect on the way we read it. Would Robinson Crusoe be the same book it were discovered to be the real diary of a real castaway? Would you even bother to read The Diary of Anne Frank if it turned out to be a work of fiction? No, the fact that Bach believed Jesus to be a real person doesn't mean that his music can only be enjoyed by people who think the same. There would be nothing at all surprising about someone saying 'The story of Jesus dying and rising again is a beautiful story and I love to listen to it, but unlike Bach, I don't think that it is really true.' People say things of the same kind every day. I myself don't believe in Time was incarnate in a person called Krishna but I might put the Indian language Maharbarata on the short list of Greatest TV Shows Not Featuring a Police Box. But Dawkins doesn't think that the story of the passion of the Christ is a beautiful story. He thinks it is 'sadomasochistic', 'barking mad', 'viciously unpleasant', 'tortuously nasty' and incidentally, that the people who disseminate it are worse than child molesters. What is going on when someone says that a musical celebration of a perverted, insane, vicious, unpleasant, nasty story is the one of eight things he couldn't manage without on a desert island? Dawkins pretends that he thinks that Sue Lawley thinks that it's odd that someone who doesn't believe in Jesus would want to listen to songs about Jesus. I'm sure she doesn't think anything nearly so silly. What she probably thinks is odd is that someone who finds a particular story horrible should want to listen to it over and over again. It's a bit like a noted black man who's campaigned all his life for racial equality saying that Birth of a Nation is his favourite movie. It's possible, of course: maybe he admires the camera work, or finds that it helps him understand how racists think. But he wouldn't come over all wounded if Ms. Lawley asked him why.
Dawkins wants us to think that the 'God' element in cultic art is really incidental. In the past artists had to look for patrons and the church was rich: so naturally, they produced religious art. If the patrons had been different, the art would have been different too. This is another example of Dawkins' 'Heads I win, tails you lose' argument. Religious artists like Bach or Michelangelo were sublime despite the fact that they dealt with religious subjects. If they'd dealt with secular ones, they might have been even better. ('What a shame that we are deprived of Haydan's "Evolution Oratorio."') But a secular artist like Shakespeare was sublime because he was secular; it is 'chilling' to imagine Will with a Church commission because we would have lost his great plays and got something worse in return.
(Of course, it's sheer bloody nonsense to see Shakespeare as purely a secular writer. Merchant of Venice is partly about the difference between Jewish theological conceptions of Law and Christian theological conceptions of Grace; Macbeth is partly about Calvinistic pre-destination; King Lear is partly concerned with the fate of the just pagan and what 'goodness' means in a pre-Christian world; Hamlet is very much about where the dead go now that purgatory has been abolished. Perhaps Dawkins needs to have his consciousness raised by–well, thinking, basically.)
Does Dawkins think that the words are simply irrelevant to Christian music? That if you took the words he wants on his desert island:
Purify yourself, my heart,
I myself will bury Jesus.
For he shall henceforth evermore
sweetly take his rest in me.
World, get out, let Jesus in!

and replaced them with, say:
But it may be asked, what ought we to do,
If it could be proved that one species of kangaroo
Had been produced
By a long course
Of modification, from a bear?

–it wouldn't really make any difference? That Bach isn't using music to convey his emotional response to a sacred story but merely making a pleasing sound. If I thought Dawkins thought that, I would write him off as an alien, or (seriously) conclude that he was mentally ill.
But in truth methinks that Dawkins doth protesteth too much. When he says he thinks that the idea that Jesus died for the world (which is a longer way of spelling 'Christianity') is crazy and kinky he doesn't really mean it–any more than he means that my-friend-the-Bishop-of-Oxford is some kind of spiritual kiddy-fiddler. When he hears the story of the Passion told by a really great artist, he finds it just as moving as the rest of the human race. Bach's music expresses the Christian doctrine of the atonement better than Anselm's theological doctrine of penal substitution. Bach speaks to Dawkins heart better than Anselm speaks to his head. I am not (n-o-t) saying that Dawkins is 'really' a Christian because he is deeply moved by a work of art about Jesus dying for Sin. But he evidently doesn't hate the story nearly as much as he'd like us to think.
Dawkins thinks that religion and morality can both be explained in Darwinian terms. Things we think of as 'moral' often have a clear survival value: we feel that we should take care of our children because it's to our genetic advantage to do so. Other kinds of behaviour may have no survival value in themselves, but be the result of what he calls 'misfiring'. Small monkeys which unquestioningly believe big monkeys when they say 'There are crocodiles in that pool' are more likely to survive than ones which question their elders and conduct experiments. But this might leave them with a genetic predisposition to believe their elders unquestioningly when they talk about God or Patriotism or some other lie. (Dawkins doesn't think this is true, necessarily, but he thinks that it is the kind of thing which might be.)
Much of what we think of as 'moral' behaviour may also be the result of this kind of 'misfiring'. Dawkins uses the example of an infertile couple adopting someone else's child. The desire for a child can be easily explained as a mechanism for passing on our genes, even though in the particular case of adoption, it's being used to preserve someone else's. Or, because you are 'programmed' to help the carrier of your genes, you would willingly die to save your child's life, but this has the knock-on effect of you being prepared to die to save the life of someone else's child. And now comes the bombshell:
We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated to us and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile and otherwise unable to reproduce). Both are misfiring, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes. Do not, for one moment, think of such Darwinizing as demeaning or reductive of the noble emotions of compassion and generosity. Nor of sexual desire...
So: I have the urge to do certain things: adopt an orphan child; help a suffering person; talk to Binker. Some of those urges, like loving my neighbour, are 'blessed, precious and noble' and I should pay attention to them. Others, like talking to Binker, are malign and I need Richard Dawkins to cure me of them.
But, but, but, but, but.... Where did the concepts of sanctity, value and nobility come from?
Well, they evolved: either the belief in nobility has a survival value in itself, or else it is a misfiring of something which does. So apparently, Richard Dawkins has evolved a second-order feeling that tells him that his urge to be kind is noble, but his urge to propagate religion is ignoble. Cool: but suppose I have a second-order feeling that tells me that David Livingstone's urge to go and bring Christianity to Africa was very noble indeed. So how do we judge between my sense of what is noble and Dawkins'? So far as I can see, we appeal to third order feelings: my feeling that feelings about religion are noble are invalid; but my feeling that feelings about altruism are noble are valid. But those third order feelings either have survival value or are Darwinian mis-firings. And when my feelings about feelings about feelings are different from Dawkins' feelings about feelings about feelings we presumably appeal to feelings about feelings about feelings about feelings?
Dawkins hasn't understood this. It doesn't occur to him that it's a problem. He happily says that kindness and altruism are noble and precious because–well, so far as I can see because they are. Because Binker told him so?
Or again: when Binker tells me to make huge statues of him, that's good. But when Binker tells me to pull the statues down that's bad. But how do we know the difference? Did Richard's Binker tell him that the Buddhist Binker was right and the Taliban Binker was wrong? Why trust his Binker any more than any one else's–especially when he whole argument is that you shouldn't pay any attention to any Binker at all?
Yet Dawkins clearly has an absolute conviction that some kinds of behaviour ought to be approved of, and some kinds of behaviour ought not to be. How else can he accuse Catholics of being worse than child molesters or complain that the God of the Bible keeps doing horrible things?
We have a man who is deeply moved by artistic expressions of religious ideas; who believes that the taboos of his nation 'just are' to be obeyed; who thinks that there is a standard called 'nobility' against which we can validly judge our urges; who makes ritual invocations to the dead; who understands what it might be like to have an 'imaginary friend', and who doesn't think that to have such a friend would necessarily be ignoble. In a rather confused way, he even thinks that the collection of stories in the Bible are worth reading and worth passing on.
But Professor: invocations, spiritual guardians, belief in morals and taboos, aesthetic responses to spiritual stories–that is very much the kind of thing which cultus is all about. None of them have any necessary connection with a superhuman and supernatural person who created and designed the universe and everything in it including us, although they often do in practice. Your proof, and I never doubted that it was a good proof, that we can explain why bananas are good to eat without recourse to a banana-designer impacts hardly at all on my urge to pray, to read the Bible or to have copies of the church fathers on my shelf that I'm really going to get around to one of these days. This is why your book is so full of misunderstandings and non-sequiturs. You are trying to prove the non-existence of the wrong God.
So: there is no quarrel and me, Richard and the Archbishop of Canterbury can all go off together and have tea (real or pretend) with Binker and the Fairies? Of course not. Theists say 'It feels to us that there are things that we really should do and things that we really shouldn't do. It feels to us that the great religious stories have special significance. It feels right to make invocations to our dead friends. We feel that we are in contact with a spiritual companion–call him Binker if you want–or else we wish that we were, or else we value the experiences that were written down by people who were, or thought that they were. We think that these feelings come from outside us. We think that they probably come from a Douglas or from something-else-call-it-GOD-for-the-moment who's outside of any universe we can measure. We think that Binker and Douglas are in some way the same and some of think that Douglas once became a person and lived a human life. This is why we sometimes talk as if there are three Douglases and sometimes as if there were only one. But we don't think that feelings are the only things which matter or that 'God' is just a sort of a mood. People who think they have been in touch with something-else-call-it-GOD-for-the-moment or have talked to Binker have tried to make maps and they've built up a fairly good picture, although it has some grey areas in it. But the map isn't the territory: we don't think that call-it-GOD-for-the-moment has a beard, any more than we think that there are green and yellow stripes on the circle line.'
And the sane, good natured atheists–the majority, I expect: Douglas Adams was one–will reply: 'Some of us have some of those feelings to. Some of us respect them. Some of us may even sometimes be happy to come to your churches and enjoy the feelings and see if you are really as good at calling up Binker as you say you are. But we don't think that the feelings have got a source; certainly not a source outside of the empirical universe. We don't. We just don't.'
And we'll reply: 'So we both have the same subjective experience of what it's like to be inside of one of these mind-things, but we interpret that experience in different ways. And that's OK. But please don't think that once you've told us how bananas evolved, we're going to start interpreting subjective experiences of God in a different way. Whatever else the argument is about it, it's not about that."


Roald Dahl claims that as a young child he lost his faith in the church as a result of being beaten by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Considered as a syllogism, this is not very convincing:
The argument from the Most Rev. Geoffrey Fisher
There exists at least one cruel Christian.
Therefore, God does not exist.

However, it's emotional force is very convincing indeed: 'If that was how one of God's top salesmen behaved, I thought there must be something very wrong with the whole thing.'
Dawkins pretends that he thinks that some Christians believe in:
The Argument from Admired Religious Scientists
Some scientists, especially in the olden days, believed in God
Therefore God exists.

I think what has actually happened is that atheists have put forward :
The Argument From Science
No scientist believes in God.
Therefore, belief in science is incompatible with the belief in God.
Therefore God does not exist

and Christians have responded by saying
At least one scientist believes in God.
Therefore, science is not incompatible with the belief in God
Therefore, God may or may not exist.

If there is to be a dialogue between theists and non-theists–and I think that there should be, long, in depth, robust argument, far into the night, with much wagging of fingers and stroking of beards–then the non-theists need a better spokesman. Otherwise, Christians will be tempted to adopt:
The argument from despised religious scientists
If there were no God, then the cleverest people would be atheists.
Here is a book about atheism.
The person who wrote it is rather silly.
If the best spokesman atheists can come up with is rather silly, then perhaps there are not many clever atheists.
So perhaps the cleverest people are not atheists after all.
Therefore, perhaps God exists.

The argument from contrariness
If I believe in God, it will irritate Richard Dawkins.
Richard Dawkins deserves to be irritated.
Therefore, God exists.

Or perhaps, at it's simplest:
The argument from Onanism
Richard Dawkins is a tosser.
Therefore, God exists.

He's a blockhead who wants a proof of what he can't percieve
And he's a fool who tries to make such a blockhead believe
William Blake

Thursday, May 10, 2007

'I am a liar' admits lying liar

"Then came the utterly unanticipated and dramatic - September 11th 2001 and the death of 3,000 or more on the streets of New York.

I decided we should stand shoulder to shoulder with our oldest ally. I did so out of belief.

So Afghanistan and then Iraq - the latter, bitterly controversial.

Removing Saddam and his sons from power, as with removing the Taleban, was over with relative ease."

Thought for today

Pozzo: I don't seem to be able....to depart.
Estragon: Such is life.

Waiting for Godot