Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Life imitates art: Big birds and little men

Recently, the science-related headlines seem to be plucked from our favorite fictional titles. Whether it's the discovery of new planets and solar systems, Martian oceans and caverns, giant penguin bones, or hobbit-like fossils, the mind reels at the echoes with our favorite stories and fables. It's ripe material for me to speculate on the nature of myth and the power of the human imagination.

The news story du jour is of an ancient bird species called Argentavis magnificens that 6 million years ago glided over the pampas of present-day Argentina. Weighing over 150 pounds with a 23-foot wingspan, it's fun to imagine the great birds wheeling through the sky in search of prey (see Ancient American bird was glider from BBC News). It also puts all of us Lord of The Rings geeks into a reverie recalling the giant eagles J.R.R. Tolkien described coming to his heroes' rescue.

This comes on the heels of the discovery of the remains of a hobbit-like hominid that lived in Indonesia as recently as 18,000 years ago. Homo floresiensis was described as small, big-footed, and inhabiting caves, and the story put all hobbit-o-philes into a hopeful tizzy that their favorite fictional creatures might have a basis in fact. There is a new book on the discovery that is reviewed at American Scientist Online (see Choosing One's Relatives); and if you think I'm exaggerating how seriously some take such news, in my online wanderings to research this post I found out about a book called Quest for Middle Earth that treats Tolkien as history (see the press release Is the Lord of the Rings Real History?).

So, what's going on here? Are these discoveries really proving that Tolkien was writing about real-world events? Was there a Middle Earth inhabited by supernatural elves, orcs, hobbits and wizards? Did the author's creative subconscious tap into a lost history of our world that informed his mythical account? Did Frodo Baggins exist? Of course not, but asking such questions illustrates an important point. It's in the realm of myth that these stories have their true power, and trying to re-interpret them within the context of science actually diminishes them to the point of absurdity.

The story Tolkien created in the Lord of The Rings series has captured the imaginations of generations of readers, leaving a lasting impression. There are important cultural lessons in its fictive universe, warning us of the corrupting influence of greed and the dangerous grip of the lust for power. Written as the implications of Industrialization began to manifest themselves more clearly, and describing the Faustian bargain of apparent social progress coming at the expense of our natural environment and spiritual well-being, the novels can be seen as an urgent call to action on many levels. Tolkien's story has the power of truth on a cultural and moral level, but that doesn't mean it is a scientific account of physical reality.

If you couldn't tell, my rambling post is meant to reveal parallels to the current controversy over Intelligent Design. Creationists get very angry with folks who describe the Bible as myth, as if that depiction relegates it to insignificance. These literalists like to argue that Genesis is a historical record of the Earth's creation, proving our planet to be a mere 6,000 years old. In the face of the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, such claims actually undermine the Bible's relevance. The real power of the Garden of Eden story is as metaphor, and all of its readers should appreciate the artfulness of its imagery, which emotionally and spiritually captures the moment humanity gained consciousness.

As much as devotees may want to believe in a real hobbits and talking serpents, the characters of both Tolkien and Genesis only make sense within the bounds of our imagination. It's fun to mix fable with fact, literature with science, but each has its own separate and critically important role.
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