Listening to Dreyfus’s Heidegger lectures has gotten me looking around a bit among the “iTunes U” selections. It’s interesting to me that these are separated from podcasts generally when there is often little difference between the two types of selections, and that podcasts sanctioned by universities can still absolutely blow, particularly if they’re just unedited recordings with the slow pace of an actual class, with people you can’t hear asking questions and discussions of administrative matters and all that.
These latter complaints do not, however, apply to Cory Olsen’s output as “The Tolkien Professor.” Cory is a J.R.R. Tolkien geek with nice academic chops in medieval literature to back him up, and (to me) offers a nice blend of feeling like you’re learning something and feeling entertained.
He’s created a couple of different podcasts. The initial one, the only one created specifically and solely as a podcast, is meant to go in detail through all of Tolkien’s works, though so far after a couple of years he’s only partway through the Hobbit. He’s also more recently posted audio of the actual Tolkien classes he teaches at Washington College; I’ve listened to a few of these and found them pretty entertaining.
The immediate point I wanted to make here is re. his introductory lecture to the main podcast, which discusses how to read Tolkien, largely through discussion of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” which is currently in print in the collection The Monsters and the Critics.In this essay, Tolkien counters criticism that fantasy is escapist by making two points (and note that this is just me saying what I internalized from listening to Olsen several days ago on this, not from reading the actual essay):
First, that the creation an author engages in is “secondary creation,” i.e. we’re in a world created by God, and we are ourselves created by God, so if we then create a secondary world for people to come visit, we’re not in fact creating an escape from the primary world, but glorifying and mirroring it.
Second and consequently, “escaping” the primary world, i.e. the mundane aspects of things that bog us down into a stupor with their regularity and predictability which makes us stop even really perceiving them, is not a bad thing, but is in fact an affirmation of life. To put matters less secularly, transcending ordinary reality into someone’s heartfelt, i.e. spiritual, creation is in itself spiritually uplifting.
As one would expect, this vision of fiction (all fiction, not just fantastic fiction) as creating “secondary worlds” lends itself to trying to elaborate a self-consistent and rich world: one that is in some way honest and true, even as it’s pure fiction. This is exactly what Tolkien is famous for.
So is it philosophy? Well, not directly. Olsen is an English literature guy, though he quotes Boethius and Augustine. His Hobbit lectures are mostly about close reading of the text itself and the insights about characters and the world that this engenders. Tolkien’s work has philosophical ideas behind it, but these are for the most part, it seems, inherited from the Middle Ages, and Olsen in fact characterizes Tolkien studies as a great way to introduce oneself to the way people thought in the Middle Ages (as Tolkien read and was enamored of that). Like Heidegger, Tolkien reacted to modernism (i.e. World War I) with a reactionary, provincial world-view that glorifies the simple, pre-technological life and the old-fashioned virtues that go with it. So for me, these lectures are serving to warm me up for eventually reading Augustine and the like for this podcast (Montaigne is helping in that respect too).
Ultimately, as a literature or history of ideas study, the lectures present some philosophical ideas so you can look at and understand them, but doesn’t dissect and criticize them. Olsen in discussing the Silmarillion engages the very point I brought up in a past post about death being a “gift” for us mortals. He says that according to Tolkien, it is a gift, but also a punishment, in the sense that all punishments that a good parent gives to his or her kids are gifts. In several similar cases he discusses the mysteries of free will and predestination: e.g. men in Tolkien are somehow “more free” than elves and others, even though all of them have free will and even though God is ultimately acting through all of us, using us as His instrument. I find contemplating these kinds of ideas aesthetically, as literary products, much more satisfying than seriously considering them as possible candidates for belief, and this inability on my part to take such “divine mysteries” seriously has always been a great stumbling block in my getting much enjoyment out of medieval or really any religious philosophy.