I can remember as a child falling into line with Disney’s black and white formulas. Jiminy Cricket’s “Give a little whistle” was a cheery invite to safety holding hands crossing the street, whereas the Fox’s “An Actor’s Life for Me” sounded ominous and full of forbidden pleasures that could lead to my sprouting donkey ears!
Yet somehow such simplistic dualism, a world cleanly divided into good and evil, abruptly ceased to comfort my young mind.
Some time ago, while walking my baby in the morning, I took a moment to reflect, why is it I am so downright suspicious and critical of Disney? If I could do a little self-psychoanalysis, what would I find?
So I played therapist, and realized where my break with Disney happened. It occurred when I was nine years old, on the day I was abandoned in a children’s shelter. As a creative kid who constantly referenced stories as a guide in life, I resorted to the mythos of Disney to populate the unknown world I was about to enter. I distinctly remember the images of the ragged, soulful-eyed orphans I generated in that final car ride, good children with whom I would bond together against a cruel world. We would have adventures together. He comforted me, Disney did, for the very last time in my life.
With my abandonment, the shaky floor of middle class values that I had been raised in splintered and collapsed, and I fell into a subterranean world that had nothing to do with Disneyesque belonging. The values Disney had inculcated in me were naïve in the face of the education I was slated to receive at the hands of the criminal class.
As I grew up during my adolescence in shelters, group homes, and foster homes, Disney’s art came to reflect the Great Lie: sanitized middle class values that secretly operated prisons and sweatshops over on the other side of the railroad tracks.
I don’t think I ever forgave Disney. What good is a mythos if it offers no survival value?
It was Tolkien’s work that came in some years later to fill the void left by Disney — for Tolkien’s mythos confronted our struggle to survive in the cosmos in a way that made sense of its spiritual dimension.
What is the essential difference, then, between Disney and Tolkien?
Basically, if the mythos of Tolkien is wild, Disney is domestic and tame.
What children, and serious minded-adults, want to hear are reminders of the wilderness, the great living cosmos filled with powers, terrors and joys lying far beyond the ken of humanity, within whose larger ecology we must struggle to locate ourselves and find our purpose. It is a realm where an angel, as the poet Rilke describes it, “will deign to destroy you.” A growing mind, and a mature psychology, needs to go occasionally astray in a wild spiritual topography, and Tolkien fulfills this function amazingly well.
Disney, on the other hand, is xenophobic — he fears foreign contamination, anthropomorphizes Nature, and whitewashes culture. All representations of mythology’s bad- assed wilderness are reduced to personifications of the family drama. Witches are inflated bad step-mothers, dwarves are cute childhood companions, dangerous sorceresses are larger than life cruel aunties, shamanic animal and plant allies are glorified pets, elves are not terrible and beautiful like the Eldar, but have little wings and wands and sit in daisy cups or are fat and wear aprons. Safe, tame, and domestic.*
“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau once said, and Disney’s products censor that wild vitality. As Joseph Campbell points out, mythology gives us a map for entering the unknown and wresting value out of it. If our prevalent, functioning Disney mythology does no more than to suggest that our hero’s journey ends at heterosexual marriage and domestic bliss, who is going to take on the great tasks now awaiting doing? Is not the Disney mythos keeping us in an arrested development?
If Disney offers a counterfeit bourgeoisie paradise, Tolkien’s work offers redemption from the values of that world by reawakening us to indigenous ways of knowing, to an animistic sense of wonder and participation in a vital, non-human centered cosmic order.
Early in their friendship, Tolkien shook C.S. Lewis free from the confines of his scientific rationalism into an animistic perception of the cosmos, explaining how our ancestors experienced the sacred as immanent in, not transcendent to, creation:
You look at trees and called them “trees,” and probably you do not think twice about the word. You call a star a “star,” and think nothing more of it. But you must remember that these words, “tree,” “star,” were (in their original forms) names given to these objects by people with very different views from yours. To you, a tree is simply a vegetable organism, and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving along a mathematical course. But the first men to talk of “trees” and “stars” saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music. They saw the sky as a jeweled tent, and the earth as the womb whence all living things have come. To them, the whole of creation was “myth-woven and elf patterned”
“If God is mythopoeic,” Tolkien concluded, “man must become mythopathic.”
This vision of animistic participation in the cosmos is the rarely acknowledged phenomenological cornerstone of all Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth. But more than a literary device, for Tolkien this experience of enchantment is an essential ingredient to human existence. He called it “Faery,” and toward the end of his life he attempted to more precisely formulate it.
Here is what Tolkien wrote:
Faery represents at its weakest a breaking out (at least in mind) from the iron ring of the familiar—a constant awareness of the world beyond these rings. More strongly it represents love: a love and respect for all things, “inanimate” and “animate,” and an unpossessive love of them as “other.” This “love” will produce both ruth and delight. Things seen in its light will be respected, and they will also appear delightful, beautiful, wonderful, even glorious. Faery might be said to represent Imagination (without definition because taking in all the definitions of this word): esthetic, exploratory and receptive; and artistic; inventive, dynamic (sub)creative. This compound—of awareness of a limitless world outside our domestic parish; a love (in ruth and admiration) for the things in it; and the desire for wonder, marvels, both perceived and conceived—this “Faery” is as necessary for the health and complete functioning of the Human as is sunlight for physical life.
As Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger comments, “No great leap of imagination is needed in order to see that Tolkien was speaking from experience and that Faery was as necessary for his own spiritual health and complete functioning as sunlight for his physical life.”
Not only is it necessary for spiritual health, it is a requisite of accurate perception of ourselves and the world. For Tolkien, when we “appropriate” our experience and the things of the world, once we’ve “locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them,” the cosmos becomes, well, trite. The cure is Recovery of a clear view: “Seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them — as things apart from ourselves… so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity — from possessiveness.”
Recovery through creative fantasy, “may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like caged birds…and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.”
The recovery of deep wonder is the gift that Tolkien gave us, and I thank him for it.
*Perhaps this sentiment is shared with Tolkien himself, who declared a “heartfelt loathing” for the American’s animations. “I recognize [Walt Disney’s] talent,” he said, “but it has always seemed to me hopelessly corrupted. Though in most of the ‘pictures’ proceeding from his studios there are admirable or charming passages, the effect of all of them to me is disgusting. Some have given me nausea.”