Gandalf and the Russians

I’ve taken so much from my grandfather. 

Gandalf, we call him, from a name that stuck when a toddling version of my older brother mispronounced “Grampy.” It’s a moniker that suits him quite well. He is the sort of man who would challenge each of his grandchildren at the age of about six or seven to perfectly recite Rudyard Kipling’s “If” poem (on what it means to be a man), and at the age of around eleven to ace The Map Test, an exam dreaded by all of and failed by a great number of his college students. I won’t go into detail, but trust me, it was very difficult.

 Dostoevsky. I wish I could have found the silhouetted version of him that hangs on Gandalf's wall

Dostoevsky. I wish I could have found the silhouetted version of him that hangs on Gandalf's wall

His passion is Russia. A former professor and published scholar of Russian history, he has always been a serious intellectual in the Russian tradition, and not for any sense of genetic obligation or heritage (we are mostly German American by descent), but seemingly only due to a deep appreciation for it. His collection of work demonstrates a true gift for empathy and cultural understanding that most Western* historians fall far short of when chronicling the Motherland and its people (and I’m sure he would have many corrections for me after reading this post). Gandalf keeps a simple and somewhat menacing black and white silhouette portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky on his wall, and at one point he authored a series of Russian style fables.

For those unfamiliar, Russian fables are very different from Western ones. They don’t adhere to the same sort of happy endings that most of us grew up with. The bad guys often don’t lose and the heroes almost always suffer great misfortunes. These tales depict a world much more gruesome and passionate, with much darker themes, perhaps as a reflection of a culture that has weathered so much great hardship itself. One of his fables, about a group of sinister and godlike cowboys called The Black Hats, disturbed me so much as a child that I had nightmares for a while. It was only recently in life that I began to appreciate the beauty and strength in these fables’ oft-encountered message that, basically, very bad things will always continue to happen, and it is our responsibility as human beings to remain strong and honorable, and to find beauty in the face of it all, with no hope of a fairy tale ending.

Dostoevsky, too, is a prime example of the passion in Russian literature. His characters have such depth, volatility, and unpredictability that they remain in the reader’s mind long after setting the book down for the night. Trying to guess how one character might interact with another is almost an exercise in futility. They are pulled along like rag dolls by such strong forces of love, honor, madness, despair, or even apathy, that they can read to a Western audience as maudlin or exaggerated. If you ask me, however, these characters can more aptly described as heightened, hypersensitive versions of the ones to which we are accustomed. They are much more highly attuned and susceptible to the emotional side of the human condition than your average Brit or American character, I would argue, and perhaps the same holds true for the real people of Russia with respect to those of the Western world. These are generalizations, of course, and only my opinions, but I have observed it to be so in many different situations with many different people.

This intensity is not just contained in Russia's literary art forms, either. It’s hard to find music more fervently impassioned than that of Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, and no easy feat to find painters more graphic, vivid, and explosive than Kandinsky or Chagall.

 Update: I went home to visit Gandalf and snapped a picture of his Dostoevsky. I also made him read this blog. He only found a couple grammatical errors, and approved overall.

Update: I went home to visit Gandalf and snapped a picture of his Dostoevsky. I also made him read this blog. He only found a couple grammatical errors, and approved overall.

Personally, I adore Russian sensibilities, for even with all their depth and fury, somehow they yet maintain a world of stark simplicity, much like the old Dostoevsky portrait on my grandfather’s wall. They have found their way into and have added great meaning to the story of Virgil, and I owe that to good old Gandalf, the man who once taught my little brother a lifetime’s-worth of humility with nothing more than an impeccably timed and executed thwap to the head with a wooden kitchen spoon.

 

 

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*Note/plea:  For the sake of my argument, and because I’m admittedly no Russian scholar and it’s not really the point here, let’s agree not to quibble over whether Russia should truly be defined as a Western culture or an Eastern culture.