Les Miserables, Lord of the Rings … and Torah?
Last year, the Maccabeats, best known for the most popular mainstream Chanukah song since Adam Sandler, released their Passover music to Les Miserables:
It fits all too well, but this shouldn’t be surprising when the basis for each is the same source. For that matter, it’s been done before … Dudu Fischer combines “Who am I?” from Les Miserables with Kol Nidre (from Yom Kippur). I can’t find a link to it, but his Hebrew Les Miserables is pretty good.
It seems apparent that Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables, knew his bible well. One could also chalk this up to having a commonality of Jung’s archetypes, but if you believe that the Torah is the instruction book from the Creator, then certainly it’s all going back to this source. In a nutshell, the story of the Torah and so much of western literature is the story of starting out “free”, being cast down, and then earning your freedom and growing into something more than you were. Take a look at these lines:
Les Miserables (the musical):
Before you chain me up like a slave again
Listen to me! There is something I must do.
This woman leaves behind a suffering child.
There is none but me who can intercede,
In Mercy’s name, three days are all I need.
Then I’ll return, I pledge my word.
Then I’ll return…
You must think me mad!
I’ve hunted you across the years
A man like you can never change
A man such as you.
Peruse Chapter 8 of Shemos [Exodus] and a few chapters back and forward and it’s like reading the conversation between Moshe [Moses] and Pharoah complete with a three day journey to the desert to “serve time” not to Pharoah/Javert and the state, but to a power of Moshe/Val Jean’s own choosing … ” Let us go [for] a three day journey in the desert and sacrifice to the Lord, our God, as He will say to us.” (Shemos 8:27). In both cases, I’ve never found an answer the fully satisfies me – why ask for three days when you know you’re not going to be granted it? I suppose it shows the reasonableness of the merciful one (Moses / Val Jean) and the unreasonableness of the unyielding one (Pharoah / Javert), which only plays into the hand of the one willing to bend. It is the rigid one who is broken in both cases, in the Torah by watching his land destroyed, son killed, and army drowned … in Les Miserables by watching his land destroyed, and being left to live with his own defeat.
Now that the link is shown, take it a bit further …
Moshe’s life: a) can’t live at home (will be killed if found); b) matures under the care of Pharoah’s daughter, Basya; c) tastes freedom and rises up against Egyptian power and forced to flee; d) returns to face Pharoah; e) leads people to freedom.
Val Jean’s life: a) can’t live at home (no food); b) matures in jail until the care of the state, as represented by Javert and shown kindness by the priest; c) tastes freedom and rises up against the state, forced to flee; returns to face Pharoah; e) leads Cosette to freedom from the cycle of servitude.
We could go into more details, but I would posit that Moshe –> Val Jean, Pharoah and Egypt –> Javert and France, the Jewish people –> Cosette and even the French revolution sort of matches up with the 10 makkos. It’s a tragedy leading to freedom which teaches the ultimate power and trust in the good. Though the army wins in Les Miserables because, well, the French revolution didn’t have the miracles of the exodus and Hugo wrote it while in exile for 19 years (e.g. “19 years a slave of the law” for those who know the line in the musical).
In Dudu Fischer’s version of kol nidre, at about “c” in the above list, he links “Who am I?” directly into Kol Nidre and confessing our wrongs to G_d and owning to the truth. This is, in fact, the focus of “Who am I?” Admit to who you are and speak the truth so you can move forward and grow to even higher heights, despite the pain of admitting to do so. One could read the entirety of Les Miserables as the metaphysical struggle in one’s mind, but there’s only so long I want to make the article. 🙂 Still, what a great teacher of one of the aspects of the Pesach [Passover] holiday.
Lord of The Rings and Torah
According to this source J.R.R. Tolkien was asked by the nazis whether he was Jewish. The nazis were considering a ban on the book from England and had quite a knowledge of Judaism. His response included the line, “I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.” It seems he is quite familiar with Judaism, himself. The story line, similar to Star Wars, the Matrix, the new Star Trek movies, and so many other works of science fiction follows the story of man, in general, and resonates with us in the western world. (For example, having once taken a course in Indian subcontinent literature, it can be summed up as, “bad stuff happens to us and ends worse”, and what I’ve read of Chinese literature or something like, “I’m trapped on a box and can’t get out so I will kill myself honorably”.)
Back to the Lord of the Rings series … it goes something like this: a) kingdom of man prospering; b) kingdom goes to war with evil kingdom which destroys it 3000 years ago; c) king exiled, wait for descendant of the king to reclaim the throne; d) numerous warring races in the meanwhile fight it out for power, sometimes with long period of peace … all look down upon man for having fallen; e) all because man became corrupted by power (the rings) which led man to be evil; f) righteous man reclaims thrown and brings in prosperity.
This is a clear take-off on the Temples, destruction thereof, and waiting for the moschiach [messiah], a descendant of Dovid [David] to reclaim the throne. a) First temple period with rule of King Dovid and Solomon and others (actually, the Temple was built after Dovid’s death), b) kingdom destroyed by Persians 2500 years ago and then Romans 2000 years ago; c) Jews are exiled and wait for a descendant of Dovid to return to power; d) numerous countries and kingdoms fit it out in the meanwhile, often with long periods of peace, but all look down upon the down trodden Jewish nation; e) man was corrupted by the power given … towards idolatry, sexual immorality, and so forth. The ring represents power to do good or be overtaken by evil, and the simple Hobbit who is humble with no desire for power is not controlled by such things.
The symbolism goes even further … I haven’t read the books into 20 years or seen much of the movies in 10, but here’s some other comparisons:
– the king had the chance to destroy the ring … throw it into the fire and it was over. He did not. King Solomon had the chance to destroy Amalek, the nation of evil in the world (e.g. Mordor). He failed in that task and so the evil remained to cause trouble until today.
– gollum is Cayin [cain] who kills Hevel [Abel] to get the ring … overcome by his own desires for power and acceptance.
– The eye of Sauron is watching. From Pirkei Avos, Jewish ethical teachings – “Contemplate three things, and you will not come to the hands of transgression: Know what is above you: a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds being inscribed in a book.” That is, if you constantly remember that you’re “being watched” by the “eye” of the Creator you would never do anything wrong. Coincidence or not, Tolkien seems to make this fairly literal.
– The black riders – they cannot go in living waters. They are former humans who have become so corrupted. In Judaism, a mikveh, living waters purifies you. The bodies of water would make them pure so they can’t enter or they’d lose their … evilness.
Still Other Western Literature References to the Torah
I’m not sure whether this is just what resonates with the western world, people aren’t as creative as they think, or it’s purposeful (it’s probably a mix) but it’s seen all over.
In the new “Outer LImits” it’s clearly written by people familiar with their bible. In “The Camp” humans are held captive by robots as prisoners of war. The humans have their workload increased, and various other iterations straight from the Torah. When I first saw this, I had no idea I was watching a biblical story. After the escape, a sequel episode called “Promised Land” has those who disobey and complain live was better back in the camp eat the first food they find, only to die of poison very similar to the biblical episode. In yet another episode, a Supreme Court judge in the future is held hostage until he admits to hiring a conjurer to raise his dead daughter … this is the story told in sefer Shmuel [Samuel] regarding the witch of Endor. (This, uncoincidentally, is the name of the witch in “Bewitched.”)
In the new Cosmos series, filled with excellent production quality on various cosmology and scientific theories, they are unable to get away from Biblical narratives. Tyson, the narrator, describes evolution as a “tree of life” and makes some very obvious logic flaws only made by fundamentalists such as, “trees and humans have almost the same DNA. … this is undeniable proof that one evolved from the other.” People who speak in absolutes are always wrong (paradox intended) and certainly there’s at least one other possibility … but suffice to say, in a work about scientific theory, the theory follows the progression in Bereshis [Genesis] itself, and those explaining it are referencing it. We didn’t see the theory come out of China or India for a reason. To put it another way / quote Rabbi Shlomo Singer, no one spends their life trying to show the moon isn’t made out of cheese, but people spend their lives trying to show there is no Creator. Apparently, there’s not as sure as they claim or they wouldn’t be dedicating their lives to disproving something so silly.
I have hard that much of Sigmund Freud’s theories come out of biblical relationships, though I am not familiar enough with works to know. I did find this interesting link which is suggestive that it did at least influence his thinking, and therefore, modern psychology.
Feel free to add your own references in the comments that you think I should have included.
Battlestar Gallactica is a sure dead ringer for the Jews in the Wilderness/exile trying to reach the Promised Land/return to Israel.
I thought the Dwarfs’ quest to return to Erebor in “The Hobbit” also had a similar theme.
Rabbi Gil Student once posted this link to an interview with Tolkkien about this subject.