J. W. Barlament
Ringlorn: The Longing for the Grandeur of the Past
John Koenig’s “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” has been serving up the Internet slews of new, completely self-made words, since 2009. Most never made the leap beyond the website. A few, such as sonder, opia, and anemoia, are quickly becoming accepted additions to the English language. One, introduced just earlier this year, seems to me to capture perfectly the state of many — maybe even most — people today. This, of course, is Ringlorn, defined by Koenig as —
“the wish that the modern world felt as epic as the one depicted in old stories and folktales — a place of tragedy and transcendence, of oaths and omens and fates, where everyday life felt like a quest for glory … rather than an open-ended parlor game where all the rules are made up and the points don’t matter”.
On the surface, it might just sound like the kind of pointless historical fantasizing you’d expect from nerds or Nazis. But there’s something deeper here than just the fictionalization of the past and the yearning of bored office workers for the glory of a blood-soaked sword. It’s not a secret that history wasn’t always as exciting as Arthurian legends and religious epics made it to be. Everybody knows the past was dirty, difficult, and oftentimes unspeakably brutal. But what’s just as widely known is that there was a tangible sense of wonder and mystique in the past that we today are forced by circumstance to miss out on.
Ringlorn isn’t necessarily just the medieval warrior fantasies of suburban teenage boys. It’s a genuine and heartfelt want for the magic of the world to come back.
One must beg the essential question, then; why exactly, after fighting so hard to build the modern world, do so many people now yearn for the old? Just what about today is so toxic to contentment? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that, for the discontented, the past had options. People are in large part unhappy now for a laundry list of cultural, historical, and socioeconomic reasons, but what multiplies it all is the lack of an escape route. There’s nothing for our discontented to do and nowhere to go.
The global dominance of overpowered, unaccountable, militaristic nation-states and the readiness of any information or experience imaginable online have all combined to rob the adventurous of real adventure. There are no legendary cities or kingdoms to venture toward with naught but an old map and word-of-mouth. There are no undiscovered lands to uncover on the open seas. There are no mythic beasts, no magic books, no sacred artifacts; nothing left for the natural-born wanderers and wonderers of the world to search for while the rest of us sit contented in the day-to-day.
In short, once upon a time, there was a world-ingrained release valve for the restless amongst us. But aren’t we all at least a little restless these days? Aren’t we all just searching, if not for epic quests, then at least for something other than the soul-sucking drudgery of modern life, crushed under the weight of surveillance states and corporatist dystopias?
This is not the same phenomenon that drives our personal nostalgia. Historical nostalgia is a different beast entirely; one we all know can pose a danger, but one that can just as easily teach us a lesson. We, as a species, have decided that ease and creature comforts are worth the loss of freedom and adventure they entail. Technology has developed to the point where some of us now have the means to live in almost total isolation from danger. The challenges that defined and fell us for hundreds of thousands of years have been conquered. We’ve won the game of nature. But, as I think most people would agree, we won so thoroughly we broke the game, all while the poorest of us continue to fight their ancestors’ same battles, and with none of those ancestors’ starry-eyed wonder, to support the more fortunate.
The world we live in now is small. The magic is gone. The excitement is limited. The everyday isn’t as natural, beautiful, playful, or mysterious as it used to be. We don’t have to, nor even can we, return to the way things were. Nonetheless, we must recognize what we’ve lost, and from there, we must find new ways to keep alive the wonder of the world that once kept the fire of the human soul alight.