David R. Loy and Linda Goodhew’s “The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons” is subtitled “Buddhist Themes in Modern Fantasy,” which is a more accurate description of what the book is about. Though Loy and Goodhew have clearly enjoyed the fantastic works they examine, their primary focus is less on the works as such than on the Buddhist lessons the works might impart.
This is not to say, however, that readers less interested in Buddhism than in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Ende, Philip Pullman, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Hayao Miyazaki will be disappointed. The authors’ analyses of these artists’ creations are skillfully enough done that readers will be eager to move on from Loy and Goodhew’s considerations of the art to the art itself. To give rise to such an impulse is one of the noblest things criticism can do.
“This book,” the authors explain, “is about . . . Buddhist stories: not about stories to be found in Buddhism, but about the ‘Buddhism’ to be found in some modern stories . . . about the Dharma — the basic teachings of Buddhism — as presented in some classics of contemporary fantasy.” It is, therefore, one of the few books that belongs on the same shelf as R.H. Blyth’s “Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics.” Both books endeavor in part to find Zen in the work of authors who were in many cases not Buddhist at all.
Tolkien, for example, was a devout Catholic and, as Loy and Goodhew note, his “fantasy world is built on a radical and quite un-Buddhist dualism between unredeemable evil (Sauron, Saruman) and uncompromising goodness (Gandalf, Frodo).” He created, though, a modern myth, and, as the authors point out, “myths have a way of growing beyond their creator’s intentions.”
Tolkien might have been surprised to learn, for example, that “in Buddhist terms, [Frodo and Sam] become bodhisattvas,” but when one considers, with Loy and Goodhew, that Frodo does not choose to have his adventure, but rather that the journey he embarks upon in order to destroy the ring is inescapable, one sees that the authors’ argument is plausible.
As wedded to dualism as “The Lord of the Rings” is, the selflessness of Frodo’s response to the needs of the world can be read as an example of how one acts when one understands that one is not “other” than the world. Frodo and Sam, having let go of the dualism that separates self from world, become exemplars of socially engaged Buddhism. Readers may have thought they picked up Tolkien solely for the sense of wonder his work can inspire, but even as they are entertained they can learn, from Frodo and Sam, a lesson about how to be in a world often less than wonderful.
Myths, both modern and ancient, have often reflected and even glorified an aspect of the world that is one of its most horrendous features: violence. Miyazaki, Loy and Goodhew argue, has found a way in his films to celebrate not violence, but peacemaking, and has done so “symbolically and in a convincing way.”
Miyazaki is the only artist considered whose cultural background suggests he may actually be a Buddhist, but religion, Buddhist or otherwise, plays little overt role in his work. Rather, Loy and Goodhew explain, “his deepest spiritual concerns are assimilated into the plots as central themes,” and these themes are never simple. His films avoid, for example, the sort of dualities that provide the conflicts that drive so many narratives.
Instead, there may be, as in “Nausicaa” and “Princess Mononoke,” not two forces (usually good and evil) in competition, but three, and none of the three will be unambiguously bad. In “Princess Mononoke,” the authors argue, as in “Nausicaa,” that “most of the main characters do (or try to do) bad things not because their nature is evil but because they are complicated: sometimes because they are greedy or otherwise selfish, sometimes just because they are defending their own group.”
The Buddhist lesson that readers might learn from these films — whether Miyazaki means to teach it or not — is that “the . . . challenge is not physically destroying evil but transforming the roots of evil into their positive counterparts: generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom.” Loy and Goodhew are happy to note that “the extraordinary commercial success of [Miyazaki's] films in Japan means they provide a viable alternative to the ‘lowest common denominator’ that marketplace commodification tends to encourage.” As Miyazaki’s films have been successful abroad, one dares to hope his view of the world is reaching people outside of Japan.
Even most non-Buddhists will find it hard to argue with the “generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom” that are the ultimate point of each of the Buddhist lessons Loy and Goodhew locate in these fantasies. As with any critical performance worth reading, though, one does encounter things with which to quibble. Those of us who are not convinced that “generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom” must necessarily be linked with spirituality will find Philip Pullman’s secular and humanistic vision in his “Dark Materials” more congenial than Loy and Goodhew, who worry that Pullman may be “throwing the spiritual baby out along with the dogmatic authoritarian bath water of monotheism.”
That disposing of the spiritual baby may be the right move is not a lesson they choose to highlight. As it is not their brief to find secular, materialist lessons in the works they are explicating, this omission is neither surprising nor, in the end, damaging. In showing us how the Middle Path runs through Middle Earth and other fantasies, Loy and Goodhew succeed admirably at what they set out to do.