Wednesday, 24 December 2008

The Great Days Are Passed

I've been re-watching Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. One of the aspects of the story that Jackson underlines so clearly is it's setting during the decline of Middle Earth. The films are littered with telling images - the elves in procession to the Grey Havens, the ruins of Moriah, the Fellowship looking in awe in the giant statues of the sons of Elendil.

The first movie begins with the tale of the Last Alliance of Men and Elves, where Isildur cuts the ring finger from Sauron's hand and appropriates the ring for himself. Elves and men together face their foe in open battle and win. In the Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, such a battle is impossible. Men and elves are too weak for anything but a skirmish. Nor is Sauron what he used to be. Perhaps literally disembodied, he sits in Barad Dur directing his fractious minions from afar, unaware of the hobbits carrying the ring right through his own country. Our heroes may be victorious, the power of Sauron overthrown, but this only hastens the end of the great days - Gandalf no longer works his magic, the last of the elves depart, even the men of Numenor continue their decline after their last flowering in the person of Aragorn. This pervasive sadness is part of the emotional power of the story. There can be no easy victory, no magical restoration of what evil has destroyed. The story has no "get out of jail free" card.

In creating Middle Earth Tolkein was inspired by mythology from around the world, so it can hardly be a surpise that this theme arises repeatedly in mythology. The Greeks had their heroic age, when gods and humans lived together and intermarried. The Britons had their own heroic age, appropriated by the Anglo-Saxons, in which Arthur and his company of knights kept order and spread the values of chivalry. Australian Aboriginal myths (of which Tolkein probably knew nothing) feature powerful ancestor figures who shape the earth and create different species of animal, bird and fish. This theme is echoed in much 20th century fantasy - in Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books, in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain, and in a host of lesser imitators.

Even the Book of Genesis has its powerful ancestor figures. Humans start out in paradise, living in innocence, and then falling, but their power doesn't disappear all at once after the fall, it wanes slowly. The first list of ancestors, found in Chapter 5, includes men who lived for over 900 years. The second list, the ancestors of Abram found in Chapter 11, starts with a man who lived for 500 years and finshes with Abram's father Terah living to the age of 205. The patriarchs themselves are attributed slightly shorter lives - Abraham lived to be over 170, while Isaac lived to 180. When Jacob appeared before Pharoah he was asked how old he was, and replied, "The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and difficult..."!

In our scientific age, what is striking is the contrast between these tales, and what we know about the lifespans of our ancestors from the archeological record. Analysis of remains shows us that our ancestors had much shorter lifespans than we do. They had less protection from disease and famine. As a result, infant mortality and death in childbirth were frequent, plagues killed large numbers, and even healthy adults could easily be struck down in their prime. They lived hard lives of manual labour and illness and as a result were probably weaker than we are.

How do we square these two visions of the past? Were the writers of myths simply wrong, deluded by their ignorance? This is how the modernists of the 19th century would have seen it. Unfortunately we don't have the luxury of such a black and white world view. The creators and tellers of the myths were not trying to create scientific history, they were trying to say something about the way they lived. No doubt plenty of people know more about it than me but I like to look at it this way.

We live in a world of sorrow and failure. We are surrounded by death, suffering and evil. Our deaths are not glorious, they are sordid and painful. Our lives are not glorious either, they are hum-drum, steeped in suffering and frustration. Yet we have a sense that this is not how it should be, that life holds the possibility of greater things.

We can project this desire onto the future - we hope for heaven, for Christ's return, for the millennium. But we can also project it onto the past. Our ancestors were great, lived long lives, did heroic deeds and died glorious deaths - or like the elves or Enoch, lived forever. The current state of the world is a corruption of what it should be, brought about by evil, by our own failings or the failings of our forebears.

Implicit in this world view is the possibility that it could be like that again. Perhaps, like Tolkein, we do not believe that is possible for us. Evil has done its work too well. But perhaps, just perhaps, there can be a late flowering, an Aragorn can arise, a hobbit can join the ranks of the great. And perhaps there is a future age, or another place, where all these glories can live again. In the meantime, the stories, the magic, the power, leave behind a residue which we can still use - a set of possibilities for us to aspire to in this life, a guiding light to help us rise above our squalid present.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Cricket and Terrorism

Being a huge cricket fan, I've been following the story of the England cricket team's response to the Mumbai terrorist attacks via Of course I'm fascinated by the batting and bowling stuff but it's also interesting to see how people react under pressure.

As soon as the attacks happened, the England team flew home from India. This is fairly logical - Mumbai was their next stop and in fact their gear had already been sent on ahead of them to one of the hotels at the centre of the attacks. I believe it's still there.

There followed a debate about whether the team would return for the test series, demands for a "presidential" level of security, talk of some players not touring no matter what, and so on.  It went without saying that the test scheduled for Mumbai would be moved to another city. As of now it seems a full strength team is heading back to a training base in Abu Dhabi, with the commencement of the Test series likely but still dependent on security checks. The fact that about 8 backup players have been named seems to suggest that some players are still wavering.

Now wind back to England, 7 July 2005. Australia and England were playing a one-day match in the leadup to the Ashes and I tuned in the the SBS coverage one evening to see not cricket but coverage of the terrorist attacks in London which killed 56 people, injured hundreds and paralysed the London transport system.

The cricket, however, had not been cancelled - the broadcasters just thought the terrorist attack was more important. Admittedly the game was a couple of hundred miles away in Leeds, but only three days later, with the cleanup still going on, the two teams moved to London where they stayed for two weeks, despite another less serious attack on July 21 right in the middle of the Lords test.

You might think that Australia's cricketers are less nervous than England's, but this is the same Australian team that has refused to tour Pakistan a number of times in recent years because of security concerns. The Australians, along with the South Africans, English and New Zealanders, were branded "nervous Nellies" by both Indian and Pakistani authorities when they scuttled the 2008 Champions Trophy set to take place in Pakistan because of political instability there.

This makes me think that something else is at work. Should I call it racism? Perhaps that's too strong, but certainly Australian cricketers feel safe in England, (despite the fact that the London terrorists were English residents, as opposed to the Mumbai terrorists who snuck in from Pakistan), and the English feel the same way about Australia. You'd have to think that they feel comfortable there not because they have less chance of being bombed but because they feel at home in the culture. They speak the same language, they obey the same rules of decorum, they use the same body language, they have the same sense of personal space. On the other hand, Anglo cricketers feel constantly harried on the Indian sub-continent. The population is so much denser, people are so much louder, and they crowd around and insist on contact with the players in a away that seems belligerent and threatening to Anglos. Because of this, it doesn't take much extra to push them to a point where they feel unsafe.

In actual fact no international cricket team has yet been the subject of a terrorist attack. Instead it's been ordinary people going about their low-key daily business - riding the train to work, attending a family wedding, having a family holiday, going shopping...

Meanwhile the Indian cricket team is threatening to cancel a forthcoming tour of Pakistan. Because of safety concerns? No, because Indians are mad as hell with Pakistan over the fact that the Mumbai attackers were Pakistanis. Of course their organsiation is illegal in Pakistan, and none of the Pakistan cricket team is known to belong to it (most are devout members of a pacifist branch of Islam) but after all a Pakistani is a Pakistani. Us Anglos don't have any sort of monopoly on racism.