Over on Brian Phillips’ blog, Run of Play, Supriya Nair contributed an essay titled “Stepchild of Time,” positing the thesis that “Maybe Pelé is blessed with the fate of all origin myths, to be simultaneously ubiquitous and unrecognisable. Because he is the figurehead of a certain view of football. … He stands at the fount of all our conceptions of football heroism; perhaps only a stepchild of time can do that.”
While all of the essays during Pelé Week have been supremely interesting — as is Run of Play generally — this one struck a particular note with me, not least because Nair manages to compare Pelé to Tom Bombadil (of all things).
Tom Bombadil is a contentious figure at the heart of the canon. He appears to us as a random, singing, omnipotent figure, a giver of gifts and an utterer of doggerel; he gives us tantalising hints of his powers, but remains an affable cypher from start to finish. Is he a deus ex machina, pulled out by the authorities at the start of the adventure to armtwist us into believing in their power? Is he a blip of probability in a predetermined world; the end of imagination, or its wildest flight of fancy? Why is he called Iarwain ben-Adar, oldest and fatherless?
Thinking in terms of origin myths — Gareth Simpson notes that “[b]efore Pelé, no one used the phrase jogo bonito or samba football to describe the Brazilian national team. Pelé was the head author of those myths, the creator of that particular brand, fashioning the lasting image of Brazilian football out of the ashes of 1950.” — the Tom Bombadil comparison seems apt.
Nair refers to Bombadil as a deus ex machina, but Tolkien has his own particular derivative of that technique. He called his version the eucatastrophe in an essay called “On Fairy-Stories”:
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially escapist, nor fugitive. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.
Both techniques serve to pull the protagonist — in Pelé’s case, football writ large — out of some sort of bind or peril through a uniquely fortuitous series of events. The deus ex machina, though, is otherworldly, something irrevocably separate from the real world, from whatever narrative framework we’ve established. The eucatastrophe, in contrast, “is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives … that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made.” In other words, the eucastrophe makes sense in a larger narrative context. As far as the Pelé comparison goes, it would suggest that he’s a man just like me.
Tom Bombadil may be an example of deus ex machina. If Pelé, too, is a god from the machine, then he’s just that — an impossible myth, a demigod who, by all rights, shouldn’t be allowed to exist, who violates the natural footballing order. And Kári Tulinius might agree that there’s something to this theory, that there is a different chain of being that creates, once every generation, a new footballing Tom Bombadil. After Pelé, that machine made Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona and George Best and Zinedine Zidane and, just maybe, Leo Messi.
On the other hand, if Tom Bombadil is an example of eucatastrophe, then Pelé’s just a guy who happened to be really good at soccer, who played at Santos, and who FIFA appropriated to their own ends, a view proposed by Richard Whittal. Which isn’t to say that Pelé-as-a-man can’t be as romantic or romanticized as the other interpretations of the Pelé myth. There’s something proletariat about Pelé, and Brazil in general, that I find appealing, something classically Romantic about poverty and its genius that flies in the face of the socio-economic models of football that don’t account for how awful England were this summer. Don’t forget that the essence of eucastrophe is joy, samba football’s chief export.
Which of these views — not that they’re mutually exclusive, nor that they’re the only ones available — is more accurate, I’m not football-literate enough to say. But I think the distance between deus ex machina and eucatastrophe cuts to the heart of how cultures create and maintain myths — especially this one about a man named Edison Arantes do Nascimento.