An Evil Art

Mythopoeia is a term J.R.R. Tolkien used to define subcreation – creating an alternative world for literary purposes. What I want to look at is the idea of subcreation; that those who aspire to creation can only make echoes (good) or mockeries (evil) of truth, and that good subcreation is the way mortal honor God.

I started thinking about this while reading Orson Scott Card’s Tales of Alvin Maker. The basic idea is, a story set in frontier America but in an alternative world where magic is real. (This leads to all of history being different; for example, the Restoration never took place, and a Stuart kingdom in exile, called the Crown Colonies, was established in Virginia, with its capital at Camelot. Card does a lot of interesting things with the magic, as well; for example, he takes the four elements and has water be the evil one [insofar as any element can be evil].)

The series is helpfully quite explicit about the nature of its world (moral and physical). It’s pretty well done, but there are at least three points in which it seems clearly false to me:

  • “greater than even good v. evil is Making vs. Unmaking” (paraphrased from Seventh Son, the first in the series)
  • the Red Man (i.e. Native American) is in touch with the land and the Greensong in a way the White Man cannot be
  • the cardinal sin is doing something for your own benefit as opposed to for the benefit of {others|all}

There would be nothing wrong with them merely being not true; it’s not true that magic is real, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write a story in which it is. But they seem also impossible to be true. Having them be true is not like making magic real, it is like saying up is down or that 1+1=3. It’s perverse.

And yet the world Card constructs is pretty convincing. It’s possible to become completely immersed in it. You can start to believe what is said about the Unmaker, or the relations between the Red Man and the White Man, or especially Alvin’s version of morality.

So I’m left kind of ambivalent about the series. It’s well done, but it seems (in some aspects at least) contrary to all that is right and good. And art is supposed to promote truth. What am I to think of it? It would seem in some senses to be a mockery of truth, and thus evil, not to be admired.

Yet it seems very well done. And it has a lot of goodness in it. The philosophy may be nonsense in some parts, but it isn’t completely false. The characters are actually admirable (I don’t like Alvin nearly as much as Peggy, though – they’ve both taken oaths to act morally, but Alvin’s oath says he must never use his power to help himself, whereas Peggy has vowed never to lie). So I don’t want to completely reject it.

And even if I did have to reject its philosophy entirely; does that mean the work itself could not be admired? Can I not look at H.P. Lovecraft’s Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and, while viewing it as completely false, also see the genius that lies within it? Perhaps it is best to view Lovecraft as a tragic figure, and his works as mockeries of truth… but even they are not completely mockeries, I think, if only because of their aesthetic value and not because of the truth of any philosophy espoused by them.

The situation reminds of what I’ve observed of atheists and their relation to Eä (the least-known name for Tolkien’s creation, but more accurate than calling it Middle-earth). Tolkien is not ambiguous – there is one God in his world, Eru Illuvatar, and greater and lesser angels, and there is a Devil, Morgoth. So what do people who don’t believe in God think when they read the Silmarilion? There are assuredly many such people who liked the book.

Do they look on it as just a piece of literature with no philosophical implications, a piece of mythology detached from religion? Perhaps. But it clearly does have philosophical implications, and you have to have some reaction to them while reading. And if you disagree with them – if they seem completely insane – that don’t you have to view it as a mockery of the truth?

I suppose the situation is different for atheists, who say that it is extremely improbable that there is a God, but not that there is definitely no God, to read a religious work, than for theists, who, when reading an atheistic work (like that of H. P. Lovecraft – another author whom I enjoy reading, but whom I view as a tragic figure, one who could have seen the truth but chose not to), are confronted with a set of beliefs which seems by definition impossible, self-contradictory. Atheists don’t have to worry about mocking the truth because they see no truth to be mocked. Or something like that.

I really have to read Leaf by Niggle.

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