The Morality of Mythical Worlds

Critical Reflections on Narrative Form

©1987-96 Finn Sivert Nielsen

When Piers Vitebsky (1993) contrasts the response to death among South Indian Sora and modern Westerners, he argues that these responses reflect alternative propositions about what knowledge is, what it is "good for". Our myths of death are akin to our myths of knowledge. Death imbues our knowledge with direction and focus: it transforms data into stories and analyses. Science is in this sense essentially a specialized narrative genre, a way of telling stories, which may be compared to other genres, of myth, literature and song. The following is an open-ended meditation on one such genre - often referred to as fantasy - as reflected in two very different examples of the genre, the first from Western, the second from Eastern Europe. It is my hope that these examples will encourage the reader to consider the inherent limitations is various literary - and scientific - projects.

In line with Vitebsky's argument, many perceptive critics (e.g. T.S. Eliot, Simone Weil or Nietzsche) have claimed that a basic measure of truth in literary narrative is its treatment of death. To evade death is to flee life, into an a-sensual and irresponsible illusion. Fantasy, as a genre, is undeniably vulnerable to criticism of this sort, as - for different reasons - is science: as François Lyotard (1979) and Teresa de Lauretis (1984) point out, the "grand narrative" of science is akin to that of the heroic quest.

In the prototypical West, in which lie the origins of both fantasy and science, knowledge is a matter of perceiving the unseen, going behind the veil of the real - of life - into the hidden realms of death; thus constituting an "Other" where no other may be. Aiming at death - as an obscure and intriguing "point" - and making it lucid and controllable by simple transformational twists of logic, is the plot of the scientific quest and the source of its vast emotional appeal. The heat of the hunt and the rapture of the captive audience at truly "great" scientific discoveries are intimately linked to the climactic thrust of scientific narrative itself. As in fantasy, there are heros and traitors in science, dragons behind secret doors, magical helpers and powers hidden in the stones. And as in fantasy, there is the temptation to control death by evading it.

This essay deals with a group of thematically related British novels, and of a Soviet novel and the film based on it. These are treated respectively in Part I and II below. The two parts were written at different times and for different purposes, and were not originally thought of as related. Later I came to see the underlying similarity that has prompted me to juxtapose them here: both narratives, though in most ways very different, are concerned with the quest of a hero to confront or annul the fact of death. I have resisted the temptation to knit the two texts into a coherent analysis, instead letting them stand more or less in their orginal form. What conclusions I draw are meant to spur the reader to further reflection, rather than propose an authoritative interpretation.



 PART I: Europe

King Arthur and Queen Victoria

The following is based almost exclusively on seven books: J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, his three-volume magnum opus The Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis' space trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Tolkien is beyond doubt the most well-known and popular(1) of the two authors - though on purely literary grounds, Lewis' books might be judged superior. Both writers present a continuous narrative: Tolkien's is set in a distant, pre-historical (according to Lewis, pre-glacial) past, when other intelligent races coexisted with men on earth: elves, dwarves, ents, orcs, trolls - and hobbits. A prominent role is played by the wizards, who came to Middle Earth from the sunken continent of Numinor (Atlantis). Lewis' story is contemporary, and may be described as a species of science fiction. The hero travels to Mars and Venus (Malacandra and Perelandra), where he is enmeshed in a moral battle, the final stages of which are fought out in post-War England. In his fight the aid of Merlin is enlisted - a sorcerer who has slept underground since the sixth century. Merlin, we learn, was a distant descendant of the wizards of Numinor.

In this way a link between the two tales is indicated (most explicitly in Lewis' preface to That Hideous Strength). But even without this reminder, there are too many connections - in plot, setting, dramatic idiom and mythical and moral implications - between the two narratives, to be overlooked by the attentive reader. The external reasons for this are obvious. Lewis and Tolkien were friends and belonged to the same intellectual circle at Oxford. Both were philologists with a consuming interest in language and medieval British culture. Both were committed Christians - a fact that is obvious in Lewis' work, less so in Tolkien's. Both were also children of the British intellectual bourgeoisie. Educated in the early years of the twentieth century, they wrote their books immediately before, after or during the Second World War. What is perhaps most striking in these accounts, from an anthropological point of view, is the lack of cultural diversity and complexity in the societies they describe. Throughout millennia and across the cosmos, a mono-culture persists, that is basically a variation over that of the cultured, British drawing-room. There is less difference between Numinor and Hobbitton, or Venus and Mars, than between even closely related empirical human cultures. By implication, what we are here dealing with is a striking insularity of thought, that assumes of itself, nevertheless, that it relevance is universal.

Even without detailed knowledge of Tolkien's and Lewis' biographies, it seems clear that both men were conservatives. Their intellectual roots go back to the Victorian age, and in the midst of the upheavals of their youth and maturity, they sought to anchor their value-system in a more distant and inaccessible (and unassailable) past - that of the Early Middle Ages: the prototype of the worlds they create is an idealized vision of Arthurian England:

"Suddenly all that Britain which had been so long familiar to him as a scholar rose up like a solid thing. He could see it all. Little dwindling cities where the light of Rome still rested - little Christian sites, Camalodunum, Kaerleon, Glastonbury - a church, a villa or two, a huddle of houses, an earthwork. And then, beginning scarcely a stone's throw beyond the gates, the wet, tangled endless woods, silted with the accumulated decay of autumns that had been dropping leaves since before Britain was an island; wolves slinking, beavers building, wide shallow marshes, dim horns and drummings, eyes in the thickets, eyes of men not only Pre-Roman but Pre-British, ancient creatures, unhappy and dispossessed, who became the elves and ogres and wood-wooses of the later tradition. But worse than the forests, the clearings. Little strongholds with unheard-of kings. Little colleges and covines of Druids. Houses whose mortar had been ritually mixed with babies' blood. [...] And now all that age, horribly dislocated, wrenched out of its place in the time series and forced to come back and go through all its motions yet again with doubled monstrosity, was flowing towards them and would, in a few minutes, receive them into itself." (Lewis 1946, pp.232-33)

This imagery, so violent and magical, pristine and corrupt, so heroic in its defeat, so distant and yet strangely relevant to our times, underlies not only Lewis' story of Merlin, where it is specifically invoked, but also his description of Malacandra and Perelandra, and Tolkien's chronicles of Middle-Earth.

However, Arthurian Britain is a contradictory model in all the tales and its dramatic functions are not immediately obvious. To some extent it is clearly an ideal: it is pre-industrial (both authors hate machines), small-scale and far less complex than the modern world. It is a society closer to nature, where the distinction between myth and reality, literature and life, magic and technology tend to blur. This aspect attracts our bookish and somewhat moralistic authors. It is an age where moral conflicts may be conceived of as far simpler and more clear-cut than today. Arthur's wars, the Quest for the Holy Grail, the losing battle of Christianity and the Light of Rome against heathen druidism and darkness, may be depicted in sharply dualistic terms, as good against evil, civilization against barbarism, white against black. But in another sense, the very qualities that fascinate Tolkien and Lewis also repel them. Indeed, the novels may with some justification be read as attempts at overcoming the attraction of the exotic and clarifying its relevance for our prosaic age. For the Early Middle Ages in England were fraught with conflict, religious syncretism and cultural anomie. They were in a certain sense a very similar epoch to our own: the Saxon invasion and the battle of London, the collapse of Victorian morality and the defeat of Arthur (the "Last Roman") seem very adequate symbolic images of each other. A similar complexity and a similar war in the face of imminent doom take place in our own age and in a simpler, more "organic", but also more dualistic society. By super-imposing Arthur's political defeat and spiritual victory on the political defeat (but moral triumph?) of the British Empire, modern men are able to see the confused battles of our times in a vivid, heraldic coloring. Chaos is turned to order. The anarchic war of all against all - a war without winners or losers - is transformed into a clear-cut, almost Manichaean struggle of Good against Evil.

Clearly, this vision has political implications - that are further strengthened by the authors' incongruous insertion of typically Victorian values into the heroic-archaic cultures they portray. Monogamy, the nuclear family, white skin, the True West and the Evil East, the imperial vision, are portrayed as universal ideals, not only throughout human history, but on other planets. However, I shall not here concern myself with the political issue.(2) My interest is rather in the moral and existential implications of mythical worlds such as these. For it is indeed striking that Tolkien's books received rather little attention when they were first published, and only in the years since the 1960's have they gained unprecedented popularity - often among young audiences who were actively opposed to Victorian politics and mores.(3) The books may thus be read as a chronicle of an elder generation's self-defence, but their wide-spread appeal cannot be explained in such terms. To understand the foundations of this appeal, we must delve deeper into the nature of Lewis' and Tolkien's mythologies.

Narrative and Mythical Necessity

In a collection of otherwise uniformly adulatory essays on Tolkien, Burton Raffel ventures the rather uncontroversial statement that The Lord of the Rings is a good story, but - nonetheless - bad literature. Raffel gives several reasons for this, mostly concerned with style. Here I shall draw attention to quite another issue. I propose a simple definition of literature: it is a form of writing which conforms (ideally) to no other logic than that of its own narrative necessity. Strict adherence to narrative necessity is what gives great literature the ability to create realities we cannot disbelieve, in which every action, every word, is there because it "could not be otherwise". Dostoevsky's creative process offers revealing illustrations of this point (Krag 1962). We are left with the impression that his characters were real people with whom he struggled, and who forced him to continue his narrative as they wished. The author was unable to use his novels to express his religious and political convictions, although he surely tried to do so: the narrative necessity of the stories themselves defeated him.

Narrative necessity is an emergent quality. It arises not out of some preconceived or external notion of what the story is about, but out of the logic governing the interaction of the elements the author introduces into it. Once Dostoevsky has conceived of Raskolnikov in the St.Petersburg of his time the plot of Crime and Punishment must follow. The plot in turn transforms Raskolnikov into a pawn of its own logic rather than an instrument in the author's hands, and the resulting story therefore attains an uncompromising realism. Indeed, by this definition all great literature is great simply because it is realistic. The author proves himself an author by abdicating control.

In contrast, what I call mythical necessity is external to the narrative. The nature and locus of this externality may differ (e.g. it may be political or traditional, individual or collective, commercial or idealistic), but the type of external imperative that interests me here may be described as a state of anomie or cultural disintegration, which on the personal level is experienced as fragmentation of the Self. This gives rise to a search for unity and wholeness, for some all-embracing system in which conflicts are integrated and disunity explained. A story subject to this type of external pressure will of course have a narrative necessity of its own - but this is subservient to an over-ruling need for totality and integration with roots outside the narrative. The plot will therefore "bind" parts of reality into itself - while at the same time emptying them of intrinsic content and transforming them into sharply contrasting bits of stained glass in the vivid, heraldic bay-window of the myth itself. For the function of myth is not to be a realistic portrayal of the story's inner necessity, but to supply a filter through which the real world may be seen in a certain - meaningful - light.

This description has no implicit prejudice in favor of either mythical nor narrative necessity. "Literature", in the sense defined above, is a comparatively recent phenomenon, originating in Western Europe and spreading from that center outward. Myth, on the other hand, is universal, and has undoubtedly existed as long as mankind itself. It is worth noting, moreover, that the power of myth is potentially very great, since myth rarely offers any alternative interpretation to that which inheres in its own external necessity. In other words, literature contains its own self-criticism, it depicts a whole reality, which the reader himself must judge. Myth is interpretation, and must therefore be criticized on the same external grounds as those from which its necessity arose.

From Bilbo Baggins to the One Ring

I shall now turn to the texts themselves, giving a summary of their content, while reflecting on some aspects of their genesis and structure. Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937, The Lord of the Rings in 1954-55. Between these dates lie vast social transformations and a personal process of maturation which could not fail to influence the author's works. In consequence "the tale grew in the telling" (I, p.viii). The Hobbit is a simple and unpretentious fairy-tale, in a tradition of long standing in English literature. It is slightly fantastic, slightly comical, full of asides to the reader and self-irony. Basically it is a "children's book for grown-ups" - like Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, C.S. Lewis' own Narnia books, or even Winnie the Pooh. Just listen to the first lines:

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat; it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. It had a perfectly round door like a porthole...." (p.13)

The last sentence places the reader, the author and the narrative where they belong: we are here, in England - we know what a porthole is, as the (pre-industrial and fiercely anti-maritime) hobbit does not. The hobbit in fact lives in a fantasy world, a world created for our amusement and diversion, rather than our education. The story is also simple. Bilbo Baggins (the owner of the hole) is surprised by Gandalf the Wizard and a bunch of more or less inept dwarves into taking part in a search for the dwarves' ancestral gold. He (the timid, silly creature) is to be their burglar. They go off, visit some gay, teasing elves in the "Last Homely House", cross the "Edge of the Wild" and the "Misty Mountains" - where they are captured by "goblins" and Bilbo finds a magic ring which makes the wearer invisible. Onward through "Mirkwood", through the Elven-king's dungeons (escaping in floating barrels), and at last to the "Lonely Mountain", where the dragon is outwitted and killed, and the dwarves get their gold back. Bilbo gradually becomes the hero of the tale, defeating horror-spiders, elven-kings and the dragon itself by his native wit and his invisibility. He returns, honored by all, with sacks full of riches... and lives happily ever after... a perfect fairy-tale, with all the traditional props: the trip "there and back again", the magic object to help him, the transformation of the stupid guy into the hero, the magic helper - Gandalf, and the magic enemy - the dragon. There is no superstructure and no pretension.

Fifteen years later, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings again opens with Mr. Baggins:

"Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return, [...] there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark." (I, p.43)

This is no longer a folk-tale. From the first lines we are plunged into mystery. Bilbo is no longer a hero - but himself a magical personage. We soon learn why. The ring he found is not simply a practical help for burglars - it is The One Ring of the Dark Lord, which He lost long ago and now seeks to regain, to enslave the Free West. Gandalf - no longer a funny old man with a pointed cap - is the Dark Lord's chief enemy. Working in secret he sends Bilbo's adopted son, Frodo, off into the Wild with the Ring. With him go a Company of Nine - representing the Free Peoples. They fight great wars, visit enchanted forests and pass through mythical mines, they are attacked by prehistoric monsters of Evil, by orcs (no longer simply "goblins"). But Frodo and his faithful servant soon go off alone, pass into the Shadow of the Evil Realm of Mordor, and cast the One Ring into the Cracks of Doom, just as the Dark Lord prepares to crush the Hosts of the West. The hobbits miraculously survive, and are loaded with honors and magical gifts. A descendent of the Numenoreans is again crowned King in the White Tower, the dwarves regain the lost Mines of Moria... but there is also Great Sorrow, for with the Passing of the One Ring, the elves lose their power... much Good is sacrificed so that Evil might be vanquished... and the elves depart over the Sea to the True West, never again to be seen in Middle Earth. Frodo and Bilbo as Ring-Bearers are carried with them into immortality and peace.

Around this story, which is far more complex than I can here describe, Tolkien weaves an intricate fabric of history, language, genealogy, racial types, geography etc. Parts of this are summarized in a thirty-page Appendix, and further material has later been published in several volumes. The explosive increase in complexity from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings may be illustrated with the maps accompanying the two books. In The Hobbit we find the scrap of mapping shown in Figure 1. The simple, banded pattern suggests a round trip through various zones, beset with a variety of magical powers, some for good, some for evil. A simplified version of the map found in The Lord of the Rings is shown in Figure 2. Several striking things have happened between the two versions. The number of names has increased dramatically, and many of these are unnecessary to the story itself. Nearly all names have been changed from their "anglicized" to their "original" form (the "Lonely Mountain" is now "Erebor", the "Great River" is "Anduin"). What used to be a fragment of a limitless landscape of pure myth, a graphical rendition of the series of "stages" or "tests" through which the hero must pass, has been transformed into a vast, three-dimensional "real world", with clearly defined boundaries. Middle-Earth, unlike Bilbo's journey, is not merely the setting for a tall tale. It is a total setting, a world-in-itself, a homeland for any myth, not any one in particular. It is as if someone had tried to integrate all the folk-tales in Grimm's collection into a single, logically consistent whole, giving all the castles of all the kings, all the lairs of all the monsters, their names and coordinates in Mercator's projection. Middle Earth is also a totality in time. The tales of Frodo and Bilbo mark the end of the "Third Age", and in additional volumes and the Appendix we find outlines of at least 10,000 years of history preceding this story. What is more, if we compare a map of Middle Earth with a modern map of Western Europe, we find an approximate, but very suggestive, fit. The point marked A on Figure 2 corresponds very well with the Western tip of Cornwall, while B lies somewhere in northern Ireland. Middle Earth is simply Great Britain, "before Britain was an island" (Lewis 1946, p.232), or "before the Ice Age"... Tolkien's world has thus grown from a quaint setting for an entertaining fairytale to a global stage in time and space, where the battle between Good and Evil is enacted. Bilbo's bumbling adventure has become the water-shed of ages - ushering in the "Fourth Age", the supremacy of faith over magic, the race of man over all other races.

Turning to Lewis' stories, we find the same growth from the colorful and peculiar to total visions of the Universe. In the first book, a run-of-the-mill Cambridge philologist is kidnaped by a maniac professor and his gold-hungry accomplice, who spirit him off to Mars (Malacandra) in a globular space-ship to leave him to the natives, who (so they think) plan to offer him as a human sacrifice to the local witch-doctor (the Oyarsa). Their goal is to open up Mars to human mineral exploitation and colonization. On Mars the scholar - Elwin Ransom - escapes and gangs up with a friendly race of gigantic, intelligent and naturally monogamous otters, who love boats, songs and poetry. He learns their language and enjoys himself thoroughly. Later he meets representatives of other intelligent races, all kind and highly moral. And when he at last appears before the Oyarsa, it turns out that he is a benign spirit of light. The religious undertones of the story are evident, but not glaringly so. Ransom observes that human ideals are here realized instinctively, that death poses no threat, that lies and conflicts do not exist - although humor and adventure do.

In the second book this picture is already changing. Ransom is now expressly called for by the Oyarsa and sent to Venus (Perelandra) with a mission to perform. He becomes the ambassador of God Himself (Maleldil), and must resist the Devil (in the guise of the mad professor with the space ship), who has come to Perelandra to tempt and corrupt the first woman (the Eve) of the planet. A great fight ensues, first with words, later with fists and nails. The Devil is defeated and Paradise is not lost on Venus - as it was on Earth. But the transition from Malacandra to Perelandra subtly strains the logic of the story itself. Ransom is no longer an unimportant person - already he has become more magical, less human. True, we learn that he was chosen for the job not for any qualities he had in himself, but because he had "learned the language" already - on Mars. But to make that come off, the language must change status. It is no longer the homely dialect of Ransom's otter friends on Malacandra, but the "Hlab-Eribol-ef-Cordi" - Old Solar - or, as we learn in the third book:

"This was the language spoken before the Fall and beyond the Moon, and the meanings were not given to the syllables by chance, or skill, or long tradition, but truly inherent in them as the shape of the great Sun is inherent in the little waterdrop. This was language herself, as she first sprang at Maleldil's bidding out of the molten quicksilver of the star called Mercury on Earth, but Viritrilbia in Deep Heaven." (1946, p.229)

Significantly, the multitude of linguistic details and speculations spread throughout the first book disappear from now on. The level of pretension no longer permits the author to cite actual utterances or grammatical trivia just for the fun of it.

So Ransom was chosen because he (accidentally) mastered the Tongue-of-Tongues. But clearly, that is not all. There is something very special about Ransom himself as well. For when he understands that he is in fact on Perelandra in God's stead, God's own voice speaks to him and says: "My name is also Ransom". (1946, p.148) Lewis seems to have forgotten that "Ransom" was described as a pseudonym in the first book...

In the third book the transformation is complete. Just as Bilbo the bumbler became Bilbo the Ring-Bearer, Ransom has become "Mr. Fisher-King" - an allusion to the Wounded King, who kept the Grail in the legend of Arthur. In fact, he is the heir of Arthur himself - the leader of the "Hidden Logres" - its secret "Pendragon". He is immortal (thanks to his sojourn on the Planet of Youth), and leads the cosmic battle of Good against the forces of Evil - personified in a gigantic research establishment secretly commanded by a disembodied Head kept alive by artificial means, through which the Devil directs activities. The chief of these is a search to recover the body of Merlin the Enchanter, who has been sleeping since Arthur's time, in order to bring about a union of modern technological Evil with the ancient Evil of the druids. But Merlin turns out to be on the side of Good, and through him Ransom defeats Evil again... after which he is sent off to the Third Heaven on Perelandra, there to live immortally with Enoch, Elijah, Arthur et al., till the Day of Judgement (in another 10,000 years), when the evil Oyarsa of Earth ("The Silent Planet") shall be cast down and the Great Dance of Heaven continue into Eternity with the participation of Earth-Humans as well.

Along with this explosive growth in astronomical and historical pretensions (as mentioned above, Merlin belonged to the Numenorean Circle, along with Gandalf), the chronicle expands philosophically and morally. Out of the Silent Planet is straight story-telling. That Hideous Strength is a treatise on ethics and metaphysics. When it is tied to Tolkien's epic, a continuous canvas spanning astronomical distances, geological ages and all the steps of hierarchy from deepest Hell to the Holy Trinity is achieved. Lewis has many insights along the way (I shall return to some of these below), but the totality of his vision is so staggeringly inhuman that the Divina Commedia and The Kingdom of God are dwarfed in comparison.

The Denial of Relativity

In a defence of Tolkien's work against a critic, C.S.Lewis attacks,

"...the complaint that the characters are all either black or white... 'How shall a man judge what to do in such times?' asks someone in Volume II [of The Lord of the Rings]. 'As he has ever judged,' comes the reply. 'Good and ill have not changed... nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among men.' (II, p.40-41) This is the basis of the whole Tolkienian world," Lewis continues. "I think some readers, seeing (and disliking) this rigid demarcation between black and white, imagine they have seen a rigid demarcation between black and white people. Looking at the squares, they assume (in defiance of the facts) that all the pieces must be making bishops' moves which confine them to one colour." (1955, p.12)

The distinction here drawn by Lewis is revealing. Tolkien's (and his own) actors are indeed free to chose between good and evil. But there is no middle ground, no neutrality, no grey (not to speak of green, gold or red).

"'Haven't you seen the real meaning of all this modern stuff about the dangers of extrapolation and bent space and the indeterminacy of the atom?'" screams the mad professor in his death-throws in Perelandra. "'They don't say so in so many words, of course, but what they're getting to, even before they die nowadays, is what all men get to when they're dead - the knowledge that reality isn't rational or consistent or anything else. In a sense you might say it wasn't there. 'Real' and 'Unreal', 'true' and 'false' - they're only on the surface. They give way the moment you press them.'" (p.169)

Against the horror of relativism Lewis and Tolkien pit their clear-cut distinctions between good and evil. Obviously, they have a point. Relativity is dangerous, and myths, by reinstating Truth and Falsehood, give men a moral anchor in the whirlwinds of chaos and change. It is important, however, to note again the difference in the method chosen by these authors and writers of literature. Dostoevsky leads his readers into chaos, and leaves it up to us to find our anchor within it. We participate in his characters' quest for Truth. We see some of them, to some degree, succeed or fail. We ourselves may learn from participating, but we are always conscious that there is no solution we can copy. Each new step must be our own. The author's conviction that he knows (Dostoevsky was also deeply Christian), is not transmitted to us. In Crime and Punishment, the "anchor" is internal to the reader. In The Lord of the Rings, Truth is external, pre-set, to choose or reject.

"Much that in a realistic work would be done by 'character delineation' is here done simply by making the character an elf, a dwarf, or a hobbit," Lewis continues. "The imagined beings have their insides on the outside; they are visible souls." (ibid., p.15)

This perceptive comment points out that myth truly inverts the functions of literature. However, it also invites us to further conclusions about mythical necessity as opposed to the necessity of literature: the characters in the myth are not individuals, but types - a dwarf is a dwarf, and this identity is more fundamental to the story than any variation between dwarves. The myth is therefore a mosaic of types. Each type is primarily itself - it can change and choose, within defined limits, but it cannot change its type. Each piece may not be a bishop - but it is still a piece in the author's game. For this reason, the myth contains no development, no trial and error. There is an on-off decision between good and evil (though even that is excluded for some types - elves are incorruptible, orcs irredeemable), but there is no shading, no change in color. The myth, and the elements out of which it is composed, are pure essences, prototypes, moral principles rather than moral dilemmas, answers rather than questions. The purpose of the myth is not to teach through participation and empathy, but to revitalize reality by sharpening its contrasts, enhancing light and shade. As Lewis puts it:

"If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it." (ibid., p.16)

The exact same words were repeated by a friend of mine in Russia - an admirer of Tolkien - who had discovered this independently.

But there remains a danger of hubris in this highlighting of essences. We live in a world which is expanding extremely rapidly, and it is incontestable that the proportions of good and evil in any arbitrarily chosen segment of reality are not only highly variable over time but often impossible to determine. The modern world may need myth, but this in itself is hardly enough to justify any and every mythical structure.

The Death of Magic

A striking characteristic of both Lewis' and Tolkien's epics is their simultaneous fascination with "pure essences" and their rejection of them. The Lord of the Rings is in fact explicitly the story of the end of the age of magic. The One Ring, when destroyed, releases the magical power of the elves from fear of domination but in the same breath nullifies that power. Then the Fourth Age commences - the age of men. Soon, we know, the elves will depart over the sea, dwarves, hobbits and other non-human races will die out, retreat or become invisible.

"'It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail in their promise.' 'Yet seldom do they fail in their seed,' said Legolas. 'And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.' 'And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,' said the Dwarf. 'To that the Elves know not the answer,' said Legolas." (III, p.182)

Two prototypes - dwarf and elf - here debate the nature of Man. They find his deeds inconstant and relative, but lasting, i.e. real, and therefore inscrutable to them. Passages such as this clearly point out that Man cannot hope to live in a world of essences.

The same point is made with even greater clarity in Lewis' narrative: again the theme is man, in relation to the "elder races" - not dwarves or elves this time, but the ancient inhabitants of Malacandra. They shall sink and disappear, for since the Lord took on human form, no other sentient race can exist outside of Heaven itself, but Man. Even the great, angelic wardens of the planets, the Oyarsas, will abdicate. After the Devil departed from Perelandra, the Oyarsa of Venus handed over her crown to the triumphant (human) Adam and Eve. In That Hideous Strength the consequences of this act are pointed out: only by direct intervention from Heaven can Evil be defeated. But no living human can harbor the Heavenly forces within him- or herself. Only an ancient master, who has already been "violated" by dabbling in magic, may be permitted to be the vessel of direct, supernatural intervention. This is why Merlin - the old enchanter - is essential to the plot:

"'Have you ever noticed,' said Dimble, 'that the universe, and every little bit of the universe, is always hardening and narrowing and coming to a point? [...] At a given point in [...] history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren't quite so sharp; and that there's going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even for momentous. Good is always getting better, and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing.'" (1946, p.283)

There seems to be a contradiction built into this argument. On the one hand we have just noted that the "time of pure essences" was before, that the age of man has come, and with it the age of relativity. Now we hear the opposite: Black and White are getting blacker and whiter - there is no longer room for shades of grey. What is in fact the case, however, is that the world of many types, of many races, of distinct and purified, but essentially equal colors, is being reduced to a clear-cut distinction of only two opposites - Good and Evil. This is why magic - once neutral - is now no longer permitted.

But in the experience of the reader, this is not a historical transition, but a transition in his or her state of mind: in the myth, many colors are permitted in order to highlight and enhance the surrounding world. When you pass out of the myth, however, you can no longer treat the colored contrasts as real. Now you are in a world where there is nothing but fatal choice - a real world, where every choice may be, and in fact is, a matter of life and death.

What we end up with is therefore merely an abstract description of myth itself - of any myth. Myth is a state of "altered" or "enhanced" reality. You must get into it by believing, but you must also get out of it - by returning to the "age of men", by "prohibiting magic". The mythical immortality of the elves must be superseded by the real mortality of human kind. From a world of fixed types you return to a world of variability, cold coffee at breakfast, and (always fatal) choice. The essential question is therefore not if the myths we are discussing portray essences and later release us from them. This is the nature of myth, its definition. Instead we must ask: How do these myths release us to reality? What do they teach us about the nature of the "perilous" and "fatal" choice?

The Denial of Allegory

I have always wondered why both Lewis and Tolkien supply introductions to their books where they vehemently deny the charge that their stories are allegorical:

"I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect is presence [...]," Tolkien writes in his foreword to The Lord of the Rings. "I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory': but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author." (I, p.xi)

I find this passage very interesting. "Applicability" (i.e. the reader's free association) is Tolkien's ideal. This involves placing the moral standard inside the tale, leaving the reader free to choose sides, interpret, understand. "Allegory" - which he detests - presupposes an outside moral authority, a given understanding and interpretation. This definition of "allegory" corresponds to my own description of "myth"; "applicability" is identical to my definition of "literature". I believe that this touches on the basic moral inconsistency of the mythical worlds of Tolkien and Lewis. By denying "allegory" and insisting on the reader's freedom of choice, they are in fact denying their own responsibility as myth-makers. For there is no choice - for the reader - in these stories. No one can seriously sympathize with the motives or acts of The Dark Lord or The Devil. No one can disapprove of the Elves or Maleldil. Compare this to The Brothers Karamazov: Ivan is the "bad guy"? - but you certainly understand and sympathize with him. In fact, he comes out more real (and so, more understandable?) than the arch-good-guy himself - Alyosha.

Tolkien and Lewis are myth-makers - every bit of their stories demonstrate this. They therefore pose as external authorities, dictating the range of interpretation open to the reader. There is nothing wrong in this role - but it must be freely admitted, and the responsibility taken seriously by the author. But what these men have created are myths which pose as literature. The result is a contradictory, and perhaps not altogether wholesome synthesis. We are left to understand that we ought to feel free, but we are robbed of any real choice. The meaning of this rather abstract statement may be clarified in the following manner:

Both literature and myth entrap us in their necessities - internal or external. Both also release us at the story's end. But since the nature of the necessity we are constrained by is very different in the two cases, the nature of our release also differs. A myth (e.g. a folk-tale) gives release by completing the "round trip" - bringing us "there and back again", from normality into the abnormal and mystical back to normality: it denies itself in order to free us. This means that myth cannot maintain any lasting ties with reality. It does not represent things "out there", but casts a sharp, momentary light on them, which is later turned off. It is of use to us, not as a light to see by under normal circumstances, but as a light to remember, a vividness which is not real, not overt, but secret, "behind" the real. Literature does not "return to itself" in this way, it accomplishes a movement of change. It never leaves normality, but describes it, explores its permutations, and releases us when the exploration is ended. Because myth is circular in structure, it may in principle continue indefinitely - therefore it must release us by denying itself. Literature, on the other hand, is a linear statement. It ends when the statement is completed - therefore it often ends in death.

Obviously there are many middle roads. One Hundred Years of Solitude disguises a linear statement as an endless circle. Release is nonetheless accomplished, because to continue the circle of pain voluntarily would be madness. The Name of the Rose lifts us into a world outside history and time, filling us with "might-have-beens" and "what-ifs", but releases us by destruction, by brutally levelling the mythical edifice to the ground - annulling it. After this, history (real history) would have been identical, whether or not this story was true.(4) We have returned to earth.

In the works of Tolkien and Lewis release is denied us. Since the authors assume that the reader is free, they never deny their myth. True, Tolkien returns us to the "Age of Men" and Lewis prohibits magic. But the legend continues. These are myths which do not let go of themselves, admit that they are unreal. Hence the endless elaboration of the "system", the superhuman effort to continue, to envelop all time and space. Hence also the dangerous lack of clear-cut demarcation from reality. Lewis' story is a "tall tale" overflowing into a treatise on morals. But are his morals real or fictitious? No distinction is made. This leads to one of two - equally inadmissible - conclusions: either reality itself is supernatural, the essences are actually present in dead earnest in every bit of life. Or life itself, the real, fatal choice in the face of death, may be treated as fantasy: the world is a book.

The contradictions of these tales viewed as literature are indicated by the fact that in spite of the global cataclysms described, none of the essential persons, no-one you learn to love, ever dies. This is what one expects from myth and folk-tales. It is perfectly admissible as long as the yarns are indeed "tall tales" and fairy stories. In The Hobbit or Out of the Silent Planet it is indeed necessary. (But in fact, in both of these stories important personages do die - the elder dwarf Thorin, and Ransom's friend Hyoy.) Bilbo is really too much of a comic hero to face death. We are released from him simply because we know that he, like the helpless, "first generation" Ransom, is not, and cannot possibly be, real.

But later, when the tales expand to include the entire universe, when real moral issues are addressed but never argued through - death becomes a necessity. Frodo should die - that he does not shows that the author himself is not willing to die, to release his tale and release us. As myth, the tale fails because it fails to kill itself. As literature it fails because the hero is never killed - although this of course is only a symptom, not the essence of the matter. The real problem is that Tolkien does not take Frodo seriously enough to kill him. This reduces his story to a warm, cozy fire-side Limbo of indefinite duration and indefinite relevance to our lives. This is where we return to the nature of the external necessity of these myths. As I said in the beginning of this essay, the stories are myths because their necessity resides in the author's and our own need to integrate a fragmented Self, rather than in the narrative itself. But the never-ending, ever-expanding nature of the stories teaches us not to integrate the Self, but to escape from it. The solution lies in continuous expansion of the fantasy, in drawing into its fuzziness the entire universe. There is no release, because the stories never end - no victory because there is no real defeat - no life, because there is no death.

It is significant that the most poignant passage in the entire Lord of the Rings is a story of death, hidden in the Appendix - as a "part of the tale of Aragorn and Arwen". Aragorn was a mortal man who married the immortal elven-maiden Arwen. Her choice was to relinquish immortality for the sake of love. At his death, she is overcome by bitterness and despair:

"But I say to you, King of the Númenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. [Numinor was destroyed because its Kings sought to capture immortality from the elves by force.] As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive." (III, p.427-28)

Aragorn and Arwen, having pursued their careers as papier-mâché figures throughout the last 1,200 pages, here at last, in the course of a nine-page fragment of literature - come to life.



PART II: Russia

There can be no creation without loss, every cycle must end, we must leave the Holy behind before we return to the Profane. No Self or Meaning can be found, no goals set or achieved, except through acceptance of the "gift of death" - the cessation of the physical body.

The reader is now invited to consider the contrast between the stories discussed above and a different constellation of narratives. Lewis' and Tolkien's novels belong to a local, culture-specific discourse, and may perhaps be read as "origin myths" of British and, by extension, classical European society. Their heros embark on a quest to save the central values of that society, and they succeed, but at a cost: death never becomes real; no knowledge is therefore attained. The stories treated below are Russian, and their moral orientation reflects Russia's historical position as a distant and underprivileged periphery of such classical European centers as England or France. Like the books we have just discussed, the story of the Stalker, as recounted by the great Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky, is an origin myth of a heroic quest, but the journey here is interminable, it has no resolution except in death.

Bilbo, Frodo, and Ransom represent the pragmatic advance of bourgeois propriety, normality, and rationality against the dark, secteric, "medieval" forces of irrational absolutism and magic. These matter-of-fact, quaintly humorous imperialists are the bourgeoisie's apical ancestors, their founding fathers and saviours. Even closer to home, we may regard them as personifications of the rational, scientific spirit of inquiry. In contrast, Tarkovsky's Stalker inhabits the outermost reaches of society, humanity, and the rational world. He is a-normal, a-typical, poised on the brink. The peripheral social position of the Stalker contrasts with the central position of Frodo, Bilbo or Ransom, just as the marginality of Russia contrasts with the centrality of England. The former hero is a criminal and a holy fool (yuródivy); the latter are respectable citizens. The hobbits believe in common sense, the Stalker in transcendence. The world-view of the Bagginses ascends to universality with the dawn of the "age of men"; while the Stalker's understanding remains the secret knowledge of an oppressed minority.

In the Soviet Union of the 1970s and early 80s, Andrei Tarkovsky was one of that rare species among Russian intellectuals: the public figure who manages to speak the truth (právda) without being silenced as a "traitor" (predátel', izménnik). Tarkovsky's acceptance was perhaps not as unconditional as Juri Lyubimov's, nor as universal as Vladimir Vysotski's; nevertheless, he was one of the very few who never "took sides" or apportioned blame for the tragedies of his culture. He was accepted, and even grudgingly supported, by the régime (vlásti). He was admired by dissidents for the sensitive beauty and consistent subversiveness of his films. To Russians, such mediators are "sufferers", stradál'tsy, who receive on their own body the fate (sud'bá, dólya, úchast') of their people.(5) It is such a sufferer we meet in the hero of Tarkovsky's film.

When I first saw the movie, I felt that Tarkovsky had completed a cycle. And indeed, his last two films speak to a different audience and of a different world: in Nostalgia and Sacrifice it is Tarkovsky the emigré we meet, the exile, the Russian-in-the-West, who, as Vysotski puts it, is as useful to himself and his countrymen as "skis in a Russian bath-house". These films speak about the West, albeit from a Russian perspective. But in Stalker Tarkovsky is still a Russian speaking about Russia, and his primary audience are other Russians. We must remind ourselves too that for most Russians until the days of perestroika, Stalker was for all practical purposes Tarkovsky's last film, his "last will and testament", and its significance is increased by this circumstance. The importance of the latter fact first struck me during a visit to Russia just after Tarkovsky's permanent exile had become known. "It's probably best for him that way," a woman friend of mine commented. "But how could he do it? He must have known how we all waited for his next film, as for a light in the darkness. Now we'll never see any of his movies again." "For my country I no longer exist," says one of the persons in Nostalgia, Tarkovsky's Italian film. "They have cancelled me out, forced me to feel that I am nothing but a dream, a handfull of air... This is what torments me, this non-existence, this feeling of being a prisoner abandoned to silence and rejection."

Stark simplicity is the most striking aspect of Stalker. We sense that the film-maker has attempted to distil a purified essense into this film, a concentrate. Each image and word lingers and haunts us. Tension builds slowly, but the imagery is subtly and intensely suggestive. When I saw it with a friend back in 1982, he swore afterwards that he had seen things on the screen that demonstrably were not there (or at least I have never seen them). It is hard to speak sensibly about such an intensely visual narrative. Tarkovsky himself could see no point in discussing his films: "...maybe there would be some sense in it if I myself had something important to say [about them]," he laconically remarks in one interview. "But since I make films, I try to say everything in them."

The story of the Stalker is about a place, the "Zone", where the common-sense laws of society and nature have been abolished since it was visited by extraterrestrials. Before the visitation, the Zone was inhabited by people, there were factories, roads, and houses there. These artefacts of civilization still remain, but the people have fled, and the whole area is cordoned off by the army. The Stalker is a guide, who leads fortune-hunters and adventurers into the Zone, picking his way past barbed wire fences, dodging searchlights and heavily armed guards. But once he is in the Zone, where nothing human can touch him, the real dangers start. "The zone," as we hear in the film, "is a system of traps, where everything is constantly changing". Every step may be fatal. We never see the danger, but we feel it. The Stalker moves through this landscape with the intuitive certainty of a sleepwalker, avoiding invisible pitfalls and shadowy threats, constantly testing, probing, listening and responding to his environment. In the movie, he has contracted with two men, a scientist and an author, to take them to a place deep in the Zone, where it is rumored that one's innermost wish will be fulfilled. The two men are afraid. They talk loudly, rationalize their fear, and quarrel, without ever really seeing their surroundings. The Stalker sees, but what he sees we can only guess at. Maybe only the unbearable, merciless silence that drove people away from here. Maybe the beauty of all abandoned places, all places that have been given up by humanity as useless or dangerous and left to revert to nature. Left to itself, the Zone has become itself: uncompromizing, unfathomable, silent, whole.

The company reaches the secret place, where pretense can no longer be kept up. The visitors are brought face to face with themselves. Their deepest wish, they realize, is what they can never admit. Only with the greatest humility and honesty would it be possible to speak that wish aloud. They turn back emptyhanded. But perhaps the Stalker, who expected nothing, has found what he sought.

Tarkovsky's film is based on a novel by the Russian science fiction authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Film and novel, though very different, have the setting in common: a place - the Zone, and a man - the Stalker. But while the film centers on a single trip to the Zone, the novel describes in detail the Stalker's life-story and the social milieu that he, and his fellow Stalkers, inhabit. The Zone in the film is a dreamlike place, where danger is invisible and only sensed. In the book, danger is tangible and real, the Zone is full of extraterrestrial death-traps, which the Stalkers refer to with such names as "Mosquito Skulls" and "Witch Frost" - and down another shot of vodka. Tarkovsky's Stalker is a suffering seeker and mystic, too pure for the real world. In the book, the Stalker is a hardened criminal, who, if asked, would tell you that the Zone is his means of livelihood, neither more nor less. He enters the Zone under cover of night to hunt for artefacts left by the aliens, and sells them them to smugglers, who resell them to various shady weapons manufacturers and secret services. He is hard, masculine, bitter. He has seen too many of his friends killed - by traps in the Zone, by machine-gun fire, by nervous tension and drunkenness. Nevertheless, in some way he is also attracted by the danger. But it is only at his last extremity that he admits that he, in spite of everything, also loves it, and that, like the Stalker in the film, he finds a quality in the Zone that cannot be found elsewhere.

Tarkovsky thus adapted the book freely, but left its central point untouched. His film immerses itself in a single point on the swarming canvas of the novel. It shows a moment in the Stalker's life in cross-section, as the Stalker himself, in an unguarded moment, secretly experiences the encounter with the Zone - not as he appears to the outside world, which is how the book almost always portrays him. In this sense, the book and the film are complementary parts of a whole: indeed, Tarkovsky assumed, quite naturally, that his (Soviet) audience would have read the (extremely popular) book.

The meaning of the book's title - Picnic by the Roadside - only becomes apparent at a fairly late point in the story, when one of the novel's persons, Nunán, tries to get a famous scientist, Valentín, to explain what exactly the Zone is. Why did the aliens come, and what did they want from us? Why did they leave us with the Zone, and its mysterious terrors? Will they be back? Valentin evades these questions as long as possible, but after a few drinks softens up:

"'Imagine a picnic...' [said Valentin].
Nunan shuddered.
'What did you say?'
'A picnic. Imagine a forest, a country road, a field. A car turns off the road onto the field, and unloads young men with bottles, baskets of food, girls, transistor radios, film cameras... They light a fire, pitch their tent and play music. Next morning they leave. The terrified animals, birds, and insects, who have watched these procedings from the side, venture out from their hiding places. And what do they see? On the grass, motor oil and gasoline have leaked from the car, used sparkplugs and dirty filters lie strewn around. Here is a pile of old rags, there two burned-out lightbulbs. Someone has lost a wrench. Peat from an unknown marsh, fallen from the fenders... anyway - you get the picture - hot coals from the fire, apple-cores, chocolate wrappers, tin cans, empty bottles, somebody's handkerchief, a jackknife, old, dirty newspapers, loose change, withered flowers from another field...'
'I see,' said Nunan. 'A picnic by the roadside.'
'Exactly. A picnic by the side of some cosmic road. And you ask me if they're ever coming back?'
'Give me a cigarette,' said Nunan. 'That wasn't quite how I imagined it.'" (pp.106-7)

The Zone is the unknown, or even more strongly: the Unknowable. It is a nameless thing, which we can never understand or imagine the meaning of - which we stand powerless in front of. "'You mean they didn't even notice us?'," Nunan exclaims. They came and went, and left us with... With what? The Zone? Their intentions were neither good nor bad. The Zone has no meaning, it is simply there.

Through the years I have read quite a lot of science fiction by both Western and Soviet authors, and I have been particularly impressed by one difference. In typical Western examples of the genre the future may be described as heaven or hell, utopia or dystopia, but in most cases, it is at least comprehensible. As in Tolkien's and Lewis' chronicles, even the most fantastically alien cultures and species are amenable to our moral judgement, and we are able (at least in principle) to communicate with them. In Soviet science fiction, communication is rarely taken for granted. All the future has to offer, to judge from these often heavily symbolic accounts, is misunderstanding, communication breakdown, linguistic corruption. What lies ahead is seen neither with optimism, nor, strictly speaking, with pessimism. The preoccupation is with our powerlessness in confronting the unknown.

The Zone is an image of this kind. It is reality stripped naked, and, in its nakedness, incomprehensible to the mind. It is even meaningless to ask why it is there at all, since we never can know the answer. "'The most important fact - or perhaps the only fact - that we have learned from the Zone,'" says another scientist in the book, "'is that it exists'". But it is precisely this impenetrability, the fact that it simply exists and we cannot know anything about it, that turns the Zone into a meaningful challenge for human beings. Its pristine, unprecedented quality burns away illusion and falsehood - because it exists, unconditionally. We can try to escape or deny it. But in the end it always kills us. For the Stalker there is only one way to go. He confronts it with his body. "'Human beings do not need knowledge,'" concludes Valentin. "'They need understanding - and knowledge is completely unnecessary for this.'" The Stalker enters the Zone to become as naked and meaningless as it, and out of this nothingness, this absolute honesty, he forces understanding to grow - in spite of, rather than because of, what he himself and the world expect.

The story might thus seem to be pure metaphor, an allegory of humanity's search for truth in a world that gives no truth freely - a quest for a Ding für Mich in a world of unknowable Dinge an Sich. But the film is not abstract and universal: it was produced by a Russian, as a message to Russia, and it is only through an understanding of this particular and concrete intention that its more universal meaning may be discerned. Just as Tarkovsky could presuppose, in his audience, a knowledge of the Strugatskye brothers' novel, he could presuppose a wider range of shared experiential and sensory understandings of Soviet society. In particular, and this is of course of vital importance in a film, he could assume that his viewers would have a shared pool of visual understandings and associations, deriving from the Soviet reality in which they all lived.

Back in 1983, while I was doing fieldwork in Leningrad, I went to visit my friend Vitya.(6) "Come along, I'll show you the place I work," he said. From the trolley we found our way into the vast factory area: a city within the city. The gates were guarded, and admittance strictly forbidden for outsiders, but Vitya knew the guards, and they let him through without checking him, while I flashed his ID. Past the barriers, we threaded our way through the chaotic industrial landscape. We followed a short-cut through an old warehouse that had collapsed three or four years earlier. Heavy beams and deformed sheets of corrugated iron that had fallen from the roof littered the floor of the great building or hung suspended from the walls high above us. Shapeless, rusty machinery jutted from the wreckage. One of the outer walls had collapsed, and through the gaping wound, over a pile of fallen bricks, a neat little path meandered into the building, through the disorder inside, and out through a rusty gate that had fallen from its hinges. We met workers on their way home, seemingly unperturbed by the terrifying majesty of their surroundings.

We turned into an alley-way, passing open doors, from which clouds of chemical fog billowed forth with the deafening roar of heavy machinery. In towards the production halls streached narrow corridors, dark red from rust, lighted by a single lightbulb, and deep ruts were worn in the floor by the countless vehicles that had passed this way since 1905, when the building was erected. We passed uninhabited spaces, where mountains of valuable raw materials lay rusting and rotting. "Sválka," I heard Vitya mutter to himself. "What a junkyard. And to think that people work here!" Suddenly he turned towards me: "No, that's not it; it's the Zone - zóna. People live their entire life in the middle of a Tarkovsky film, and don't even notice it!" I am positive that at this moment Vitya saw. For an instant he was the Stalker, and his unbelievable factory - inhuman and perilous, but still in some wierd way beautiful - was the Zone.

There is nothing unique or circumstantial about this experience. In the Soviet Union I constantly came across such places, indeed, at times it seemed as if they were everywhere. The Soviet Union itself resembled an immense Zone, with its closed borders, its cold, rejecting surfaces, and the unbelievable intensity of the Dostoevski-like world beneath its facades. If there is magic in Tarkovsky's movies, this is not because they are unrealistic: the same magic was physically and socially present everywhere in the Soviet Union (see Nielsen 1987). Tarkovsky belongs to a long tradition of Russian realists.

The issue of Tarkovsky's realism is not academic; it is the only way to make sense of the fact that so many of my Russian friends disliked his movies, and found them "impersonal" and "cold". In the factory I visited with Vitya, with its inhuman work conditions and its wierd, "impersonal" beauty, I learned to appreciate some of their reasons for this. "Stalker" is simply a little too realistic for comfort. On the factory floor, in the overcrowded appartments, in Leningrad's foggy, surrealistic streets, through all of the Soviet Union's violent and equally surrealistic history, there is a real struggle going on, with real casualties and real human suffering. The confrontation between dream and reality, between culture and nature, between the vast plans of Peter the Great and Stalin and the human cogs in their machinery, has cost too much suffering and death to be easily dismissed. If, in the film, all this is swathed in exalted, silent beauty, it should not surprise us that many react to it as merciless and cold. There is a graveyard in Leningrad, which is one of the most magical places I have ever seen. The graves here go back to way before the Revolution, and since many of the dead have lost their entire family in the city's short but bloody history, there are countless graves that no-one ever visits or takes care of. As Vitya's factory or Tarkovsky's Zone, this is a piece of culture that people have wrested from the marshlands, and which nature is now reclaiming. During my fieldwork in Leningrad, the graveyard became a symbol of Russia and everything Russian for me. But most of the people I knew disliked or even feared it. They said it was inhabited by criminals and evil spirits. They could do without this eyesore in the middle of town, this blatant reminder of human impotence. Why should they confront Zones and extraterrestrial visitors, when they had enough problems managing to meet the simplest needs of life: finding food in the stores, taking care of their children, obtaining a place to live, an acceptable job?

In the West, this background element of realism is lost from the film. The surfeit of chaos, the omnipresence of the Zone, are the exact opposite of what we see around us throughout most of the "respectable" Western world. Our visual experience is dominated by order, efficiency, polished facades, and polite, inpenetrable smiles. "Stalker", for the middle-class Westerner, describes a purely mythical reality, a dream - for many perhaps even a wishful dream. It may threaten us, but only in a diffuse and metaphorical way, not as a fact of physical, everyday life. To appreciate this we might consider Tarkovsky's last movie, "Sacrifice", which was nowhere near as popular as "Stalker" in the West. This is a film about the West, and the reason why so many rejected it may well have been that it is too realistic for us. The tiny, well-ordered hideout on the Swedish island of Gotland is silent, inhumanly silent, like the Zone, but also civilized and neutral, insulated from the world; while the warheads roar to and fro above it. Is this not a mockery of life in the West? And the self-effacing sacrifice of the hero, that reverses history and returns the world to humanity: it is hard to imagine a solution to the world's problems that is less in harmony with our businesslike, narcissistic culture. These images are more easily accepted in Russia, where they are alien, just as the imagery of "Stalker" was more easily accepted in the West.

As "Sacrifice" challenges the West, so "Stalker" challenges the Russians. It asserts that it is possible to retain one's sense of dignity and self-worth, to find beauty, even among the ruins of history, in the chaos that undermines our lives and threatens to end them. Behind the gray world of gray queues and grayer bureaucrats, of waiting in overfilled trains and appartments, of stubborn patience and endurance, lies another, richer world, whose meaning we ourselves must find.

In the Soviet Union, Tarkovsky's film was never as popular as the novel it was based on. The book is more heroic and tragic. People recognized their own struggle for existence more directly in its hero: the cynical, hardened, semi-alcoholic; than in the film's silent mystic. But, as we have seen, the book and film are complementary: they depict alternative roads into chaos, and alternative strategies of mastering it. We may enter the Zone as religious seekers, as in the film, or as warriors and soldiers of fortune, as in the book. This last attitude, with its inherent violence, has often been described in modern Soviet literature, and, with the dissolution of the Soviet system, it has become an increasingly acute reality for most people. In the pre-Gorbachev era, its clearest spokesman was perhaps the singer, poet, and actor Vladimir Vysotski. In one of his songs, a motorcyclist races towards the horizon, passing through deathtraps and gunfire, haunted by apparitions; not for the money or the honor, we are assured; but for the sake of a vague "bet", to see "if you can move the horizon". He wins the race, but as he reaches his goal, his breaks fail, and he shoots into nothingness, beyond the horizon, and beyond the world.

There is a mystic in the warrior and a warrior in the mystic. In the book as in the film, the Stalker has a little daughter, Martína, whom he loves above all else, but who was paralyzed from birth, because she is the daughter of a man who has spent too much time in the Zone. In both the book and the film, the Stalker finally reaches the secret, innermost place in the Zone, the "Golden Orb" as the book calls it, where your innermost wish is fulfilled. In the book he arrives sick, embittered, having lost everything - with only one wish, which he kills a man to accomplish: he wants to make his daughter well. But, standing in front of the "Golden Orb" he finds that he has only one wish left: "Give happiness freely to all - and don't let anyone go away disappointed."

The mystic at the heart of the warrior is naked, laughable, absurd. He tries to overtake the horizon. He wants to make everyone happy, without taking anything for himself. He is the holy fool, the yuródivy - Dostoevski's Idiot: a soul so pure that he does not understand the evil of the world, and is finally destroyed by it. Traditionally,

"... the yurodivy has the gift to see and hear what others know nothing about. But he tells the world about his insight in an intentionally paradoxical way, in code. He plays the fool, while actually being a persistent exposer of evil and injustice. The yurodivy is an anarchist and an individualist..., but he sets strict limitations, rules, and taboos for himself... For [the] modern yurodivye the world lay in ruins and the attempt to build a new society was - at least for the time being - an obvious failure. They were naked people on a naked earth. The lofty values of the past had been discredited. New ideals, they felt, could be affirmed only 'in reverse'. They would have to be conveyed through a screen of mockery, sarcasm, and foolishness." (Volkov 1978, pp.xxv-xxvi)

The warrior only survives in the Zone if he is a mystic, a yuródivy, as naked and innocent as the Zone itself. Only the pure at heart can confront chaos and live, discover understanding in meaninglessness. In Russia, where the Zone is omnipresent, the Stalker is an image of the life everyone leads: forced to find a meaning in a world that is torn loose from the morality and conventions of the collective, he inhabits the silent spaces of the Zone, and must seek a similar silence in himself. But there are precedents for this too, which Tarkovsky could also assume that his viewers were conscious of: the Russian Orthodox mystics referred to this exact movement as "guarding the heart", protecting the soul, to find stillness within it.


Rather Than a Conclusion

The year 1987 was when both of the texts that are rendered above as Part I and Part II were composed. It was the year I defended my Magister artium thesis and concluded a decade of research on "quests for meaning in a Soviet metropolis" (Nielsen 1987). It was a year for summing up and appraising the situation. What did my experiences in Russia mean?

I had felt a violent contrast between my experiences in Russia (where I did fieldwork), and in middle-class Europe (on the outskirts of which I grew up). This, I realized, was the unspoken theme of my dissertation as well: not Russia "in itself", but Russia "in me". An existential myth underlies my analytical involvement, and parts of that myth are expressed in the essay above. The Morality of Mythical Worlds thus, among other things, reflects on the morality of anthropological fieldwork - of those fantasy worlds of cross-cultural communication that we presume are not our own experiences but those of an "Other". Russia was a particularly fertile locus of such fantasies. From the days of my first encounters with Russians, Russia and "the West" seemed similar enough to make comparisons with my own background immediately meaningful, but still different enough to raise unexpected questions. Thus, in the introduction to my monograph, I discuss "the image of Russia [as] suspended between East and West", and conclude that

"... when people speak of their culture in such terms, 'Europe' and 'Asia' are clearly symbols. But they are not 'mere metaphor' - they are statements about a concrete reality. As symbols they are part of Russian identity. As historical realities they have contributed to the genesis of this identity, and retain 'true' information about the situation in which it arose. So if the symbolism of Russian identity is 'enigmatic', this is because Russians, in fact, live in an 'enigmatic' world." (1987, p.xxv)

The Russian "enigma" is constantly referred to both by Westerners and by Russians themselves. The question my thesis addressed, and to which I proposed only very partial and perhaps naive answers, was why Russia is so often described as "enigmatic"; what does this entail existentially and sociologically? Part of my conclusion lies in a conception of Russia as one of Europe's "primary peripheries" (Wallerstein 1974), and of the crisis of identity and ideology that arises from this condition - when one sees oneself, and is - both European and non-European. It is clear enough that in Part I of the present essay we find ourselves close to the heart of Europe, while Part II abandons us in one of Europe's squalid and uncivilized peripheries. The Russians actually live in Mordor - they lead a life there, which is as meaningful and rich as any life in Hobitton. My encounter with Russia thus in many respects challenged my childhood and upbringing, full of fantasies of Winnie the Pooh, Swallows and Amazons and The Wizard of Oz. The complacency of this myth, which promises a life close to the stable center of things, jarred dramatically with the uneasy fantasies of life in the periphery.

This was not simply culture shock. It was a shock at the very particular encounter between every particular of myself and of the people and situations I met in the field. And ours was not simply a clash of "peripery and center". I was not simply European. I grew up in Norway, which, though it has increasingly aspired to membershp in Europe, has a long and defiant history as a periphery.

In Russia I felt not only distance and difference, but a very specific and personally grounded familiarity - Tarkovsky's visual esthetics were in some sense deeply significant to me, as if I had always known them. The essay above - by juxtaposing two independent descriptions, of Russia and the West - asks why such an attraction was experienced. By 1987, I was already developing some ideas about this question, and speculating on ways that I might operationalize them. Later, this work became the basis of my second large (and unfinished) research project, a comparative study of the Soviet Union and the United States, based on fieldwork in San Francisco and Saint Petersburg. Still later, my question led me to abandon academic inquiry and search for less substantial and more uncertain answers elsewhere.


1. The Lord of the Rings is rated as the second-most popular novel of all time (next after Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities), with more than 150 million copies sold. (Wikipedia:

2. The most cogent critique I have found of the political implications of The Lord of the Rings is a recent novel, by the Russian paleontologist Kirill Yeskov, published online in English translation as The Last Ringbearer (see for a review and download links for both the Russian original and the English translation). The novel recounts the story of the War of the Ring from the perspective of its losers - Mordor and the orcs - and takes as its point of departure that the winners of the war have purposefully falsified the hisorical record. Mordor is here portrayed as a budding industrial society, the orcs (Orocuens) as desert nomads, and the war (instigated by Galdalf) as driven by Realpolitik. Rather in line with this interpretation, the novel, which has achieved some fame and been translated into several languages, has not yet been published commerically in English, due to fears of litigation from the Tolkien estate.

3. A recent edition of "The Hobbit" lists the following publishing history: 1937-1951 (first edition, no reprints), 1951-1979 (second edition, 18 reprints), 1975-1979 (paperback, 5 reprints), 1979-1981 (third edition, 2 reprints), 1981-1987 (fourth edition, 20 reprints).

4. It is interesting to note that in the motion-picture version of this novel, the hero emerges from the burning library with an armful of manuscripts he has rescued. Unfortunately for Umberto Eco, death was too heavy for his Hollywood sponsors.

5. I have discussed these attitudes in greater detail elsewhere (Nielsen 1984, Nielsen 1987).

6. A somewhat different version of this story is recounted in Nielsen 1987.