Monday, January 3, 2011

The Problem with Tradition

Today, a video game got me thinking about tradition.

My wife bought me "Aragorn's Quest" for Christmas, so I have been playing that for the past few days. My little son -- six -- got interested. Now he's playing it.

He got interested, similarly, in "The Hobbit" video game that I played about a year ago. Today, he started asking me about The Lord of the Rings on which, of course, the "Aragorn's Quest" game is based. Before he played "The Hobbit," we had read the book together, so I had no problem. But we haven't ventured into The Lord of the Rings, yet, so I started having that English teacher feeling -- that "you-should-read-the-book-first" feeling. I felt guilty. After all, the traditional way is to read the book first. Right? Not necessarily. I had to remind myself of this.

What is The Lord of the Rings, after all? It is an epic tale, steeped in ancient epic tradition, full of epic conventions like the (Aragorn's) journey into the underworld; vast settings; heroic quests, etc. Tolkien once said that he wrote the work to create a mythology for England -- one of truly British origin, unlike the Mallory renditions of King Arthur's tales, with their Welsh origins tainted by the kissing of Norman butts. So, if The Lord of the Rings is an epic, perhaps the really traditional way for my kids to experience it is by playing these games before they read it.

See, in the ancient world, the Greek audience, for example, knew the tales of The Iliad and The Odyssey and Oedipus Rex before the bard in the central hall ever set fingers to harp strings or before the actors stepped out onto the orchestra. It was never a question of experiencing the story as it unfolded. It had been experienced by everyone in the room as a staple of their culture -- told by parents, grandparents, etc. -- in much the same way our modern kids know "The Three Bears" today and still delight in hearing it rendered by a good storyteller and even in anticipating the big events in the plot. ("And I'll huff and I'll puff . . .")

Like my kids, having gotten parts of the story of Tolkien's epic through video games and Daddy's bed time stories (which I have also been torn about, at times, for similar reasons), the ancient epic audience would have delighted in experiencing the whole tale woven together by a master storyteller the way my kids may enjoy reading The Lord of the Rings for themselves someday.

In the end, my earlier misgivings, based on "tradition" were really unfounded. I think it is strange the way we do that. Am I really that shallow that I see a new-fangled contraption, like the video game, and immediately assume it is not "traditional"? A story is a story and our recent habit of keeping a story secret until it is revealed on the page is just that: recent.

How far do we need to go back to find tradition? Or do we need to be careful about how far we go back? Is it traditional for men to have short or long hair? Do ladies or men wear wigs? It all depends on the era. If you go back to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, men wear wigs, silk leggings and makeup. So, perhaps metrosexuality is steeped in tradition, no matter how ridiculous I may find it.

In the end, perhaps we need to stop making the "tradition argument" and just call it like it is: what we like and don't like. Tradition, it seems, is a fortress made on a sandy foundation.

In the end, I still like to read the book before I see the movie, but I think it is sort of cool that my kids will get excited when they recognize the mysterious stranger in the tavern at Bree as, for the first time, they read the book that taught me to love literature so much.


  1. Mr. Matt with another good subject matter, I have to say I never really thought of tradition in depth, like the way you just did. I do agree with you in the fact that it does depend on the era, I mean could you imagine if tradition was kept through all the years prior to now there would be no advancement in civilization. Everything would most likely be at a stand still. But I also do believe that tradition is also a good thing just like what you are trying to do with your sons, good fun family tradition is always a nice thing to have.

  2. True, Phil -- it is all about balance. And you make a good point about progress: civilization can't go forward without breaking out of the mold sometimes! Thanks for the comment.

  3. Mr. Matt,
    Strong work, however, after reading your article and Phil's comment, I cant help but think that tradition serves a strong purpose in the advancement of society. Hear me out. There would be nothing to rebel against without rules. In the same way, there would be no way to break tradition without it. Without society forcing traditions down our throats we couldn't break it. Tradition provides us with a chance to be individuals. We can independently choose to follow traditions, or we can independently choose to break them. At my new years party old lang syne was not sung. We did watch the ball drop and drink sparkling cider, but we quickly went back to playing Cranium, and later Castle Panic (two great board games if you enjoy playing such games).
    It entertains me when I see people complain about "the system," or "the man" or any other non specific noun that usually begins with "the." These things are normal. There is definitive proof that rules, are in fact, meant to be broken. The important thing is breaking them for the right reason. Obviously there are few moments when killing is justified, but rules like you have to play notes in the proper key, or you have to color in the lines, or you cant operate on the heart, dont have to be, and have not been followed because they didn't have sufficient rationale to back them up.
    Tradition can be a good thing. It can connect families, communities, countries, but they are not meant to be followed blindly. By doing that we only hurt ourselves. Traditions can be a good thing even when they're not followed. They can go to show people how far we've come, and where we can go.
    Don't feel bad for following tradition, as long as you choose to do it after thinking things through. There's nothing wrong with that. And don't feel special because you're breaking tradition only so you can be different. Instead, find out the kind of person you want to be; be the person you choose to be, and follow the traditions you want to follow because of just that. It's what you *want* to do.

  4. Good points, but the question still remains: What is tradition?

  5. That's true that still is the question what is tradition? Just like most things people are gonna have there own perspective on things like this. Which also brings up a point, is can the evolution of man be considered breaking tradition? Can the changing of your surroundings be considered breaking tradition? I have to say I don't believe so. I believe that some change to better mankind should not be considered breaking a tradition. I think true "tradition" are the small traditions you have with your family and friends not something to be used to control a mass amount of people.

  6. By the way, Phil -- I like your site. Nice work. Keep up with it!

  7. Thanks Mr. Matt I'm still trying to think what I would like to do with it

  8. No rules -- do what you want with it. Blogging is one area in which there are not yet any "traditions" to worry about.

  9. Ooo that was a slick move there putting in your blog subject into helpful words. Yeah I know there are no rules to it I just need to find a starting subject

  10. Hey Mr. Matt took your advice, and wrote whatever I wanted too, when you get a chance check it out it would be greatly appreciated

  11. A tradition's what you want it to be. Until you don't want it to be anymore. Maybe that's the elf in us, for "Do not go to the elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes." Haha

  12. Major points for the reference, Kim! Good to have you reading!