How to Recognise the Stars

How do? I had a poem shortlisted in this year’s Live Canon poetry competition. As in previous years, the shortlisted poems were performed by LC’s actors. Leon Scott memorised mine and it was filmed a few days later. He really brings it to life, performing it with great openness, heart, and soul.

The poem is printed in the competition anthology, which you can buy on Amazon or order from Live Canon directly.

The meaning of Tolkien’s one ring

Possessiveness is a recurring theme in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. At the beginning, Bilbo is attached to his quiet way of life. His daily trials are no more strenuous than avoiding the Sackville-Bagginses and no more rewarding than a pint of ale and a hearty repast. He has a quotidian existence and Gandalf’s invitation to re-order his life in the shape of a quest is a troubling challenge.

We learn that this bother with Smaug is the upshot of greed: the greed of Thorin Oakenshield’s father and grandfather, and their coveting of the arkenstone. Later, when they seize Smaug’s stronghold, their lust for gold has the potential to bring all to ruin were it not for a clever burglar. A burglar is someone who relieves the burden of possession. Bilbo relieved Gollum of the ring, though after too many years for the darkness-dweller to adjust to the burden of not having it. Gollum might not possess the ring, but the ring still possesses him. In Jungian terms, Gollum is Bilbo’s shadow: the repressed part of himself that he cannot consciously acknowledge but will come face to face with through his quest. Gollum is wild and violent; he also takes Bilbo’s anti-social, obsessive tendencies to an extreme. Like Bilbo, he enjoys small comforts and games – but of a darker shade. Smaug, too, is shadow. He represents more than the dwarves’ uninterrogated greed. He is an usurping serpent in the heart of the mountain and the human heart. His possessiveness of gold is witness to his colossal covetousness of his own self, his massive ego. He loathes nothing more than a thief who might relieve him of his burden and has no greater blindspot than flattery.

When Frodo comes to bear the ring we see exactly how a possession may possess its owner. Like Bilbo, Frodo begins to echo Gollum’s speech: my own, mine. We learn that the ring, though forged, cannot be unmade except in special circumstances. It’s this idea of the ring as a discrete object, whole, existing objectively and immutably as fact, that forms part of its attractiveness (contrast with the Buddhist concept of emptiness). It represents something absolute, apart from other objects, and so able to satisfy dark longings for power and security that all other possessions have failed to quench. The hobbits’ relative resistance to the one ring has its root in their humility; the allure of the ring is the support it lends to the assumption at the root of possessiveness: that there is an enduring ego that gains security through possession. It literally prolongs the life of its bearer, but in doing so unites them with the shadow of their nature. Ultimately, Tolkien dissolves the deadlock between possessor and possession as the ring melts in the belly of Mt. Doom.

Shikantaza in Yoda’s cave

What’s in there?

Only what you take with you.

It occurred to me that entering the haunted cave on planet Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back is like shikantaza meditation, which translates literally as ‘just sitting’. They both seem to be situations in which you cannot avoid facing yourself. The challenge is to bring your attention to whatever is present with you in the moment without getting caught up in a habitual reaction, such as decapitating your delusion with a laser sword. After this experience, Luke learns that the fear he felt in the cave was only projected onto Vader, really it was deep inside himself. The deeper connection between these characters is also hinted at. A skilful scene.

The Grand Budapest Hotel as allegory [spoilers]

I’d recommend watching Wes Anderson’s new film before reading on.

I’ve only seen it once but I think The Grand Budapest Hotel is an allegory for the first half of the 20th Century and the fall of the British Empire.

A hotel makes a good a metaphor for the world: people are checking in and out all the time. Its owner is mysteriously absent. He sends a representative, Kovacs, but we learn that the hotel is effectively run by the concierge, M. Gustave, who in this theory represents the British Empire. Zero Moustafa, the orphaned lobby boy, stands for the USA. The first time the train stops in the barley field represents WWI; the second time, WWII, after which the inheritance of global hegemony passes decisively to Zero, i.e. the USA.

There are a few clues that support my interpretation:

  1. Agatha, who has a ‘birthmark shaped like Mexico’ on her cheek, suggests that people can stand for nations in the logic of the film. The young Zero is connected to her.
  2. The scene towards the end when everyone comes out of their hotel room to start shooting at each other.
  3. M. Gustave is described as an anachronism whose time had already passed. Fiennes’ character associates with old Europe, reads romantic poetry and is perhaps quintessentially ‘British’ to an American audience.

That’s my theory, anyway.