[Boromir said] “And now we must enter the Golden Wood, you say. But of that perilous land we have heard in Gondor, and it is said that few come out who once go in; and of that few none have escaped unscathed.”
“Say not unscathed, but if you say unchanged, then maybe you will speak the truth,” said Aragorn.
Introduction: The Perilous Journey
Aragorn’s comment points to an understanding deeply woven in the human experience of that which we call “Beauty.” There is something “perilous” about beauty and we are aware at some deep level of intuition or, better yet, at some vague awareness of a moral reality or “calling” that Beauty has within it the power to “change” us at some profound and ontological level of our existence. To follow a “trail’ that leads to “the Golden Wood” where one will knowingly encounter Beauty is one that requires courage and calls forth the essence of our character and reveals its flaws and weaknesses. It is here that we begin to acknowledge, again at some level, that Beauty contains within it the potential of great power and great goodness.
The claims implicit and explicit in the previous paragraph are, in fact, very controversial in our day. Within the philosophical conversation of the past two hundred years there are many voices that have sought to separate the notions of beauty, goodness, and power. This has been attempted through a variety of arguments. Some have sought to assert that beauty is solely a human construct driven by what gives pleasure and by what satisfies a socially constructed consensus of what constitutes “artistic taste.” Others have argued that beauty makes no moral claims upon those who encounter it. In addition, the effort to assert that beauty and goodness are related is itself a victim of an ideologically defined set of assumptions that are themselves violently coercive and repressive. Others have argued that goodness, if there be such a reality, is not capable of power but that the good is essentially weak, “sheep-like,” envious, and perverse. The net effect of these discussions is that the traditional or classical consensus concerning the inter-relationship of beauty, goodness, and power has been fractured and splintered to such an extent that a totally subjective understanding of value and aesthetics has become the most common position among thinking people. Beauty, it is then asserted, is always and only “in the eye of the beholder” and all assertions, drawn from classical traditions, of an objective and intentional interrelation between beauty, goodness, and power are untenable and foolish.
A response to the severing of beauty, goodness, and power can be made in a variety of ways. This study will begin with a phenomenological analysis of art and beauty in terms of play, symbol, and festival as developed by Hans-Georg Gadamer. Gadamer’s discussion will provide a context in which elements of the interpretative field can be understood. Second, the paper will examine the way in which J. R. R. Tolkien develops his understanding of beauty through the description and events of the Company’s visit to Lorthlorien in The Fellowship of the Ring. This examination will utilize the analysis of Gadamer as a point of departure in the effort to understand the power of beauty and the beauty of power. In the concluding section of this paper I will return to the issue sounded above and seek to weave the various elements of this study together to demonstrate that, in fact, Tolkien’s vision is of a richer and more nuanced rendering of the nature of beauty. Art and the experience of beauty serve as a reminder that beauty, goodness, and power are inextricably related and can serve as limited, and historically conditioned, incarnate “icons” of the “beauty of the infinite.”
Gadamer: Hermeneutic of Beauty
Hans-Georg Gadamer has attempted to argue that beauty is, in fact, not only relevant but can serve as “sign,” whose interpretation and understanding serves as a “bridge between the ideal and the real.” The encounter with and interpretation of Beauty serves as an essential element of a hermeneutical process through which the “work of art transforms our fleeting experience into the stable and lasting form of an independent and internally coherent creation.”
Gadamer argues that art, and the beauty one experiences in and through art, can be understood in light of three concepts: play, symbol, and festival or celebration. First, Gadamer argues that the phenomenon of play can provide hermeneutical insight into the importance of art. In Truth and Method Gadamer argues that play is an important metaphor through which the process of understanding becomes clearer. He employs the German word, Spiel. This word means “play” as in the phrase, “one plays a game” (Man spielt ein Spiel.) The same term is also used, as in English, as a synonym for “drama.” Gadamer is intentionally “playing” off of both meanings in this analysis. The analysis of the “mode of play” reveals several characteristics of play that directly relate to the understanding process and, as such, to the appropriation of both art and beauty.