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Professor connects Tolkien, Homer

John Cameron | Wednesday, September 12, 2012

While J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy may be dear to fans young and old, philosophy professor David O’Connor said Tuesday he believes the trilogy is meant to reflect on a darker side of nostalgia at the core of human nature.

In the second installment of Tolkien 2012, the Center for Ethics and Culture’s 10th annual Catholic Literature Series, O’Connor offered a talk titled “Tolkien and Nostalgia,” in which he framed his approach to Tolkien’s great work as a re-imagining of some of the themes of Homer’s “Odyssey.”

“I would like to approach J.R.R. as a Catholic author from the perspective of approaching him as a pagan author,” O’Connor said. “I have in mind especially ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as a modern epic, an epic in the tradition which for us has at its foundation Homer and his ‘Odyssey.’

For O’Connor, both Homer and Tolkien’s epics revolve around the central quest to return home. Much like Frodo’s perilous wanderings to Mordor away from the Shire, Odysseus was delayed and entrapped by a number of foes and tempters, O’Connor said.

“The descent into hiding, into darkness is an enactment of a time of death, a time when Odysseus is dead to the world … it’s an inability to go home, to have no homecoming,” he said.

Especially relevant to the theme of nostalgia and the detachment from home are the two caves in which Odysseus gets stranded, O’Connor said. The two caves of Polyphemus and Calypso represent the two extremes of human nature that can draw heroes away from their ultimate goal of returning home.

“The problem when you’re in Polyphemus’s savage world is that you forget how to get home … you lose your mindfulness of what it means to live a human life,” he said. “In Calypso’s, you lose your mindfulness of homecoming because you are mindful of nothing but sensual ease.”

Frodo’s fellowship falls into perils not unlike those Odysseus’s men faced, which sought to make them forget home.

“When the travelers enter the realm of Lothlórien, they lose sense of time,” he said. “That timelessness is something they need to shake off to go on with their quest.”

In Tolkien’s story, Frodo’s entourage comes in danger of falling into the elvish conception of nostalgia, a failure to move forward or progress, he said.

“The elves suffer from a negative side of nostalgia,” he said. “They’re willing to live in memories, not productive or creative. We can be addicted to nostalgia as a mere participation in the past rather than a path to push forward into the future.”

Nostalgia accounts for much of the internal change in Frodo over the course of his journey, O’Connor said.

“Frodo cannot go home to the Shire in part because of the pain he’s reminded of,” he said. “But he can’t go home because he no longer has the heart for the condition of humanity. He’s been infected by a kind of nostalgia.”

O’Connor said connections can be drawn from the Homeric theme of a return from a dark or dangerous place to Tolkien’s more modern epic.

“Some would say that Homer was nostalgic, that in ‘The Odyssey,’ he insisted on a happy ending … so too ‘The Lord of the Rings’ has a happy ending,” he said.

Tolkien’s happy endings take on a more imperfect or human element than many tales, O’Connor said, drawing a symbolic meaning from Frodo’s maiming injury in the final pages of the epic.

“The ending isn’t all happy,” he said. “The pain that is required to get to the happiness does not disappear,” he said. “Frodo has nine fingers, they don’t grow back. … His brokenness is an emblem of the price we pay for an epic with a happy ending.”