Sunday, 17 March 2019

Noel Appleby - the average, archetypal hobbit

Two of my favourite scenes from the movie version of Lord of the Rings involve the actor Noel Appleby (credited as Everard Proudfoot) playing an un-named hobbit whose archetypal character frames the action of the film between the arrival of Gandalf and the return of the four hero hobbits after the quest.

Watch from 3:40:


This is really excellent directing and acting; because these little scenes carry a great deal of weight.

Due to the story cuts involved in making the screenplay - these brief visual statements were needed to illustrate what the average hobbit thought about wizards, magic and the like at the beginning.

And, at the end, Mr Appleby had to show - quickly and effectively - that life in The Shire had not been at all affected by the War of the Ring. (In the movie version, not the book). And that Frodo, Pippin, Merry and Sam were regarded as just a bunch of prodigals returned; whose clothes and manners all-too-obviously showed our Everyman hobbit that the 'heroes' had developed much too high an opinion of themselves.

As Tolkien himself said - and embodied in the text - most hobbits would be pretty uninteresting to live among. Sam was the closest of the four adventurers to the average type; but his character was raised and ennobled by his fascination with elves and wonders - and his aspiration for 'higher things'.

Take that away - and you get Everard of the Proudfoots... or should I say Proud-feet?

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Secret cult of the White Hand (Tolkien-themed surreal-satire)

A simple household candle... or is it?

Few have yet noticed the sinister resurgence of those who revere the name of Saruman.

I became aware of the problem some years ago when a shiny black pillar was erected near to my place of work, and I realised it was a coded reference (a 'dog whistle' as it were) to the Tower of Orthanc. All easily deniable, of course - indeed the pillar was topped by a signpost - yet the dark sympathies were obvious to the sensitive eye, trained by years of being the unacknowledged victim of microaggressions.

We all know that Saruman was the Worst Person Ever; but to hear these cultists, he was a man 'ahead of his time', with 'some good ideas'. 'At least he was aiming in the right direction', they will say - pleading that the man was 'misunderstood'.

That, at least, is as far as they will go in public; but in private it's another matter. There is, indeed a covert Neo-Orthanc party; meeting in shady corners of the internet and seedy corners of our universities. Here, in what they imagine to be 'private', some of the more extremist (or perhaps just more honest?) will exchange their real feelings about their hero.

For these fanatics, Saruman's only 'fault' was that he happened to be on the losing side; and was defeated by an unsavoury colation of tree giants and reactionaries. But so far as his visionary politics goes? Well, that they believe was wholly A Good Thing.

They will cite his advanced ideas on destroying the 'Nordic' races, such as the Rider of Rohan, and replacing them with his mixed Master Race of the Urak Hai - who blended (according to these misguided but dangerous cultists) 'the best' qualities of Dunlander Men and Orcs. Hence the symbolism of the severed White Hand and the cloak of 'many colours'...

If you have been unaware of all this, then I am sorry to disturb your peace of mind; but it is necessary to know what is going-on if we are to resist, and hopefully, defeat it.

Once you realise, you will see the signs everywhere, crudely disguised - not only (albeit most explicitly) white-ish hands in various positions and poses; but black shiny long things, things with shifting colours, endless visual references to their hero's hat (pointy triangular things), or his soothing seductive voice (soothing, seductive things)...

The reason I raise this is that me and some mates have started to organise riots and beatings of people we suppose to be in some way connected with the Neo-Orthanc tendency. We have a cool name - Antisar - and there seems to be no shortage of money to pay for our costumes, bike lock batons and coach rides to city centres.

Some foreign guy with a funny accent always foots the bill and is very encouraging - although the single red eye in the centre of his head is disconcerting until you get used to it.

Don't worry about getting into trouble: we all wear masks or headscarves (I told you it was cool!) and nobody ever makes us take them off.

Nor will you be ignored; the mass media are always there before we are, and they are always on our side and can relied upon to conceal any (rare) instances when brothers or sisters get over-enthusiastic or indiscriminate in a good cause.

Remember: when it comes to Neo-Orthancs, they are everywhere and they are evil; and anyone who hates them is therefore, by definition, Good.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Fantasy is a literary genre

From about fortyfive years of experience, since I read Lord of the Rings (LotR), I agree with Tolkien's opinion (offered in On Fairy Stories) that fantasy is essentially a literary form.

After I read LotR, I tried to repeat or extend the experience by seeking in other art forms. At that time, there was not much material (that I could access, anyway) but I eagerly looked at such posters and pictures I could discover - including those by Tolkien himself.

But I found almost all of them unsatisfactory; and of those I did like (such as the work of Pauline Baynes) I would not say that they added to my experience of the books, or increased its depth - it was more a matter of taking the edge off my hunger. Tolkien's own pictures are often very good, but not in the sense of amplifying what he had done in the books. None of them looked like the real places (or people).

I have always found the musical side unsatisfactory too. My search began with medieval and folk music; and while I did develop a taste for these forms, I could never find anything which I felt fitted into the world of LotR - nothing that could have been perfomed in that world. Since then this has not changed. I never find that any musical setting genuinely fits the world of the book. Although I really enjoy Howard Shore's music from the movies (and own CDs of both the soundtrack and orchestral suite) - this is quite separate from my experience of the books. Certainly I cannot imagine Shore's music actually being sung or played in Middle Earth. The same applies to the way that songs are performed in audiobooks, and audio dramatisations adapting the novels; they may be good, but never 'fit'.

As for the matter of visual dramatic adaptation itself - again it is different. When Middle Earth is visually depicted in a movie or drama, the primary and specific fantasy element is closed-off rather than deepened. The LotR movies are about as good as movies can be - but there is a great gulf between fantasy in movies, and literary fantasy.

Literary fantasy is capable of much greater depth and active-power than movies - because reading a fantasy is (potentially) a collaboration, while watching an movie is (mostly) a passive and immersive experience. Now, clearly many people read novels as substitute movies; and want to be 'drawn in' and pulled along'; they call a desirable novel a 'page turner' and are desperate to reach the end and know what happened.

But the best novels, and the best fantasy, is much more than that; which is why we always want to re-read the best work, and engage with it/ think about it rather than 'lose ourselves' in it. I am, of course, aware that there are many/ most people who never re-read - but there are many/ most people who simply 'consume' LotR; and at most have fantasies 'about' it, or 'based-on' it - rather than getting from it the special quality that fantasy offers. And there are people who have that kind of 'exploitative' relationship to all books.

The kind of ideal, active engagement I am talking of is almost sure to be personal and idiosyncratic; it can't be manufactured, and it must be based on a spontaneous affinity between the reader and the work (and its author). There are likely to be only a few books that evoke this kind of reading, for most readers - and the great bulk of our reading is on a lower level, and for lower motives.

But if we do have this relationship with a book - and I suppose it would be the ideal kind of relationship which both author and reader seek - then we perceive the basic unsatisfactoriness of other art forms, when it comes to the genre of fantasy.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Charles Williams and the avoidance of Glastonbury

I am currently reading a book called The Avalonians by Patrick Benham (2nd edition 2006); which is about the people involved in the spiritual re-awakening of Glastonbury in the late 19th, early 20th century.

On particular series of events kept reminding me of Charles Williams's novel, War in Heaven (written 1926, published 1930) - which is about the Holy Grail (spelled Graal) turning-up in England and being pursued by various characters.

I shall try to summarise what happened in real life. In 1898 an English doctor, John Goodchild, bought a strange glass cup in Italy, and was guided by visionary experiences to conceal it in a well in a field Glastonbury. His hope was that it would be found by three maidens and would initiate a rebirth of the feminine aspect of Christianity.

in 1906, the cup was indeed discovered following a vision revealing its whereabouts experienced by Wellesley Tudor Pole. He sent two maidens (two sisters surnamed Allen) to seek it, they found it - and the cup ended up in Clifton, Bristol where it was venerated by a number of people, in a brief, priestess-led, Christian sect.

Tudor Pole regarded the cup as having been possessed by Jesus, and as a kind of physical version of the spiritual grail. He tried to get the cup evaluated and dated by various experts; and in 1907 the matter was taken in hand by Archdeacon Wilberforce (reminding me of the Archdeacon protagonist in War in Heaven), who invited all kinds of nobles and intellectuals to his house to view the cup and try to ascertain its provenance - the cup was later passed around several experts (also including mediums and occultists) with rather contradictory and inconclusive results.

This was supposed to happen in secrecy, and the process was by invitation only; but one of the participants seems to have 'gone to the newspapers' (specifically the Daily Express) and stories claiming some version of  'the Holy Grail has been found in Glastonbury' were investigated and splashed all over the English press in the summer of 1907.

At this time Charles Williams was 20 years old, working in the Methodist Book Room in London, commuting from his home in St Albans; where there was a large scale historical pageant at which he got to know his future wife Florence. Did Williams hear this press coverage of the (or at least 'a') Holy Grail being discovered in Glastonbury, and apparently taken seriously by some contemporary experts (plus some mystics) as being suitably ancient? And did he put some press-derived version of this story into memory, to be adapted and reused some nine years later when composing the early version of War in Heaven?

This led me to notice a further striking thing, an all-but omission from Charles William's published work on the Grail, and indeed on historical Christianity; which is that he seems to have no interest in Glastonbury.

This omission seems striking to me, since the many both Christian and Arthurian legends and histories that twine so luxuriantly around Glastonbury seem - on the face of it - to be exactly the kind of thing that would fascinate Charles Williams. The 'myth' that Joseph of Arimathea brought the Grail to Glastonbury was very well known; and at times many people regarded it as the resting place of Arthur and Guenevere.

Furthermore Williams seems not to have had interest in (or contact with) the Christian esotericists who were during Williams's life associated with the place (e.g. Wellesley Tudor Pole, Dion Fortune, and composer Rutland Boughton who wrote an opera The Birth of Arthur).

In short, Williams's neglect or avoidance of the subject of Glastonbury strikes me as More Than A Coincidence - but I have no explanation for it.

Any suggestions?


Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Galadriel and Eowyn Tolkien's exceptional women, and why they 'work' for him (but seldom for other authors)

There are two 'dominant' women characters in Lord of the Rings, Galadriel and Eowyn. Three generations of readers testify to the fact that they 'work' narratively - and in this respect they stand-apart from the many thousands of dominant women characters that have become such a tiresome cliche in recent decades (in fiction, on TV, at the movies - and in 'news' stories) who strike the reader as contrived, incoherent, preachy - mostly just plain Unconvincing.

Aside from Tolkien's far greater skill, the main reason why Galadriel and Eowyn work and so many others fail is that G & E are both presented as exceptional.

Galadriel is second only to Elrond as the most dominating person among the free people's of Earth; and she even has a kind of priority over Elrond in being older, having been born in Valinor - and therefore having the greatest personal 'magical' power (and from being his mother-in-law!).

However, Galadriel is presented as exceptional. Within the Lord of the Rings this exceptional nature is implied by her being the only women of the White Council, and among a handful of the most beautiful women of all time. Further, in the Unfinished Tales and Silmarillion it is emphasised that she was even more exceptional; in being a woman of 'Amazonian' stature and strength - similar in combat ability to all but the very greatest elf warriors.

But Tolkien never asserts that this makes Galadriel typical of 'women' - on the contrary she is an unique phenomenon, and marked out as such from birth. She is the female complement to Feanor - both High Elves who attained god-like stature due to their attributes.

By contrast, modern authors generally imply or actually assert that exceptional women such as Galadriel are numerous - either in actuality or in potential; or would be numerous, if not oppressed; or should be normal if women were properly motivated - by which they mean pursuing success in the public realm rather than in the family context.

Galadriel is indeed married to Celeborn, and had a daughter. This merits analysis. Celeborn is officially the ruler of Lothlorien (one of only two large elf kingdoms, the other being Mirkwood) - and described (in LotR) as the greatest of the elves of middle earth; because he is a Sindarin elf, born in middle earth - but as such of lesser wisdom and authority than the High Elves. He is a member of the White Council, along with other Sindar such as Thranduil of Mirkwood (who he outranks in age and experience, and because of his wife), and Cirdan the shipwright - but while Galadriel defers to Celeborn in public, she is clearly a personage of greater stature than her husband.

Anyway, Galadriel is married and a mother - and the greatest female power in history; and there is no other like her among the Children of Illuvatar.

What about Eowyn? She is a warrior, who does the great feat of slaying the Nazgul's flying beast; then (after Merry has made her sword effectual) the Witch King and Chief of the Nine; one of the greatest heroic feats in the entire history of Middle Earth. Clearly, an exceptional woman - and she is an ordinary mortal Man, and her success is in the realm of pure fighting, which is a masculine domain.

However, it is neither implied nor claimed that Eowyn is the match of the male Riders of Rohan in strength or swordcraft - as she could not have been; and her great feat was not the product of her being a great warrior, but the product of amazing courage fortified by her love for Theoden; a feat perfomed to protect her uncle and adoptive father.

Courage, yes indeed; but also a desperate, reck-less disregard of her own life. Because - like many and probably most real-life exceptional women, women of genius - Eowyn is (until she loves Faramir) somewhat crazy. So she is Not presented as a 'role model' or template for how 'women in general' ought-to live - indeed when healed in body and spirit; Eowyn quite explicitly abandons her life as shield maiden, and man-in-disguise.

So, what can we learn? In Tolkien as in real life, there are exceptional women of high attainment in the public realm - and also that such women are exceptional, they are rare. Furthermore, when they are mortal Men (not semi-divine elves), such women are often somewhat crazy, extremely odd - and recognised as such.

So there are real warrior queens, like the English national heroine Boudica (Boadicea); and like Boudica they are often damaged, crazed persons. There are also rare and exceptional women who are truly great political leaders - like Queen Elizabeth I - but she was also an extremely strange person, and by no means a model for women-in-general.

There are many women genuises, especially in literature; but again they are rare and (almost always) somewhat crazy, in one way or another.

(Don't take my word; try for yourself - First make a list of the best-ever women literary authors - novelists, essayists and poets (there aren't any great women playwrights); and then evaluate them biographically for craziness, chaos, weirdness, extreme eccentricity etc.)

So Tolkien's ability to include powerful and exceptional women who accomplish greatly in traditional realms of masculine attainment - and to do so absolutely convincingly in narrative terms; is simply that Tolkien knows such women exist, but he never tries to pretend that they are anything but exceptional.

Tolkien does not try to pretend that such women ever have been, are, could be, or should be, anything other than very uncommon.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

The problem of professional fantasy writers - the author-editor system

The greatest fantasy fiction has been written by 'amateur' authors such as Kenneth Grahame, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien; and therefore the fact that the fantasy publishing genre has grown to become a significant money-making activity has set a ceiling on quality, even as it has massively amplified the quality.

Admittedly that quality ceiling among professional authors is a high one; yet it does exclude the truly great work. The exception which proves this rule is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, the only first-rate work of fantasy in recent decades - and one that was written by a first time author over a period of a decade.

Harry Potter may also be regarded as first rate at its best, albeit the quality is uneven and the series sags in the middle; and JK Rowling became professional, famous and wealthy during the writing. I do not think it is known for sure how much of the superb last volume (Deathly Hallows) was composed early in the gestation of the series - but even if DH was mostly conceptualised from the start, actually producing it under such unprecedented intensity of publicity and expectation was an astonishing achievement.

There are some obvious reasons why professional fantasy does not scale the highest heights. One is the volume of production needed to make a living as a writer: the continuous pressure of time. Another is that there is never very much work of the first rank, so that when a genre expands it almost inevitably does so by the increase in somewhat lower quality work.

But a significant fact is the publication system of author-editor collaboration - which the fantasy genre inherited from science fiction (and, I think, other high volume genres - and magazines such as the New Yorker). The author prepares a first draft, which he then 'turns-over to a professional editor, who then works on the text with the author; detecting errors, pointing-out weaknesses and omissions, making suggestions about structure - often at a very fine level of detail. This process may be repeated several times.

This author-editor system acts as a quality control mechanism and also increases 'efficiency' by allowing the author to concentrate on what he does best - which is seldom the kind of detailed and prolonged critical examination of his own creative work.

By contrast, the old system had no editor (although sometimes the author's agent would perfom some of the activities of a modern editor) - the author interacted with the publisher directly, and the 'quality control' was done by the author (and whatever method the author chose) and was official only at the level of the typesetting and proof-reading (where, for example, spelling was checked, and sometimes altered to the publishers standard form).

Grahame's Wind in the Willows is inconsistent to the level of gross incoherence - a modern editor would never have allowed such a hodge-podge to be published; yet the book is unsurpassed in children's literature. CS Lewis's fictions were mostly second draft and published unchanged. The Narnia Chronicles are riddled with errors - but that does not stop them from being first rate. Tolkien did his own editing for Lord of the Rings, which he hated doing - and greatly damaged his efficiency; but he did a superb job with his own work, and of course he produced one of the great books of all time.

As a strong generalisation; to be a professional author, a writer must be efficient. But mandatory efficiency is the enemy of human accomplishment at the very highest level.

Quantity comes at the cost of quality - but in a complex fashion. The lowest quality is filtered-out, average quality may rise, and the limit on quality is detectable only by the exclusion of genius.

Any system that increases efficiency will prevent first-rate accomplishment. It is as simple as that; and confirmation can be found in most areas of creative human endeavour - including science, medicine, teaching and scholarship.

Note: However, music may be an exception - at least up to the advent of Romanticism. Most of the greatest classical composers up to Beethoven were professionals, were highly productive - and they were efficient. I'm not sure why - but music often is an exception to other rules of creativity; perhaps because it depends so much upon sheer technical skill.  

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Review of the Audiobook Narnia Chronicles (2002)

I have recently been listening to the (unabridged) Audiobook version of the Narnia Chronicles, from 2002. Each book has a different narrator: LW&W - Michael York; Prince Caspian - Lynn Redgrave; Dawn Treader - Derek Jacobi; Silver Chair - Jeremy Northam; Horse and his Boy - Alex Jennings; Magician's Nephew - Kenneth Branagh; Last Battle - Patrick Stewart.

Overall, I rate them as an excellent series; and a very valuable way to experience the Narnia books. Indeed, I would say that I enjoyed listening to these audiobooks (all at least twice, some more often) more than any other experience of the Narnia world - I got even-more out of the listening experience than I did from actually reading the books myself.

Having said this, and emphasising that all are at-least good; the quality of narration is a bit uneven. In particular, I liked least Michael York's reading of the first volume; which is unfortunate given that this is the most likely starting point.

Favourite was probably Kenneth Branagh's Magician's Nephew, from which I realised that this volume was much better than I had realised before; and Alex Jenning's Horse and his Boy, which was a sheer joy from start to finish, exceeding the expectation I had had from this least known but most 'perfect' of the Narnian stories. Jeremy Northam has prepared meticulously and lets the story of the Silver Chair speak for itself. I would also commend Patrick Stewart for the versatility of his Last Battle; spanning the full range from utter despair to Heavenly joy.

It is interesting to me that I did not especially like the Narnia books as a child; and - apart from LW&W I think I only read Silver Chair... or some of it. I tried to re-read them about 20 years ago, before I was a Christian, but didn't get very far... Somehow, they just didn't 'grab' me (and certainly nothing like I experienced from reading The Hobbit). Even after I was smitten with Tolkien-mania as a teen, and then later still became fascinated by the Inklings, I had to rather force myself through Narnia...

It was Brian Sibley's BBC dramatised version - which I bought in a boxed set in a bookshop sale on CD, and which the family listened-to during car journeys around a deceade ago - that really opened-up the Narnia stories for me (for which, many thanks!)

Since then, I just appreciate them more and more; get ever more from them with each experience, and from reading scholarship and criticism of the series - and would now regard the the Narnia Chronicles as one of my absolute favourites... a Desert Island book. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Romantic Religion by RJ Reilly (1971/ 2006)

Romantic Religion: A Study of Owen Barfield, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams and J. R. R. Tolkien by RJ Reilly (1971/ 2006)

Over the past couple of years I have come to regard Romantic Religion by RJ Reilly as one of the very best books I have read - I am now on my third slow, detailed read-through.

The book is probably the earliest (1971) serious study of the ideas of The Inklings - and its central chapters focus on Owen Barfield, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams and J. R. R. Tolkien. As such, and despite its narrowish selectivity; RR remains far-and-away the deepest and best explanation/ analysis/ advocacy of the underlying (implicit) significance of this literary, philosophical and theological group of friends.

The title Romantic Religion encapsulates the thesis; although in fact it would be more accurate if the title were Romantic Christianity, since that is The religion at issue here; and one that could not be substituted by any other.

The method is to define Romanticism, mainly by means of its historical lineage; and then (in the first main section) to use Barfield as the philosopher who best understood Romanticism and its unique significance and necessity. Lewis, Williams and Tolkien are then considered separately in terms of how they exemplify, and how diverge from, the framework of Barfield.

This time reading; I have become convinced that Romantic Christianity is the best term for what I personally believe, and regard as the essential future of Western Man - and especially English Man! I shall probably be referring to myself, in shorthand, as a Romantic Christian from now onward.

Of course Romantic (and Romanticism) are mostly, in the cultural mainstream of the past century and more, rather widely differently understood from the Inklings (and especially Barfield) mode. Indeed, 'romantic' is usually a pejorative or pitying term, signifying escapist, wish-fulfilling unrealism.

Nonetheless, Romantic remains the best term, for both its historical and etymological accuracy - and because many of the common ideas of 'Romantic' are entirely appropriate and correct from a Barfieldian-Inklings perspective: for example, a focus on love, creativity, fantasy and imagination, nature, ecstatic emotion, inspiration and intuition.

All of these seem to me desirable, as well as necessary; so long as they are rooted in Christianity. Indeed, it was-and-is the subtraction of Christianity from Romanticism, as early as Byron and Shelley, that led to the degeneration of the historical Romantic movement: degeneration into hedonism, Leftist politics and the sexual revolution.

No doubt I shall quote from Romantic Religion in the future; but anyone who shares my conviction on these matters, and who is prepared to make the effort to engage with such a book, would need to read RR; if not entirely, then at least extensively.

Note: I find it significant that such an outstanding piece of intellectual and critical work, by such an deeply intelligent and rigorous scholar, should originally have been done as a PhD thesis at Michigan State University (a long way from the Ivy League); by an academic who was teaching rather than research orientated (he spent his career at the University of Detroit); and it was issued by an obscure publisher: The University of Georgia Press. This confirms a pattern I have often observed with genuinely high quality and original work in the late 20th century - it comes from the cultural periphery, not the centre. Or rather - what is officially the centre is actually trivial, derivative or corrupting - almost wholly, and vice versa. The reasons will be obvious to regular readers of this blog.  

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Hobbits and Wombles

After reading The Hobbit in the early 1970s I suffered a kind of craving for more of the same; or, since (after finishing Lord of the Rings) that was not possible; then for something similar.

In A look behind the Lord of the Rings (1969), Lin Carter made reference to the Minnipins novels (The Gammage Cup and the Whisper of Glocken) by Carol Kendall - and I managed to find the two books about these rather Hobbit-like people; which I greatly enjoyed (and have re-read many times - including aloud to my children).

Other Hobbit-like stories came from the Wombles which were in a series of books by Elizabeth Beresford, and some delightful BBC stop-animation puppet features broadcast from 1973-5; commencing shortly after I was gripped by Hobbit-mania.

The Wombles are rounded and comfort-loving, furry all-over (not just their feet), live underground - and, in a sense, represent how Hobbits might have adapted to living hidden in the modern world; since they live by scavenging whatever is lost or abandoned on Wimbledon Common in London; and improvising from it everything that they need.

For a few years, Britain was gripped by an obsession with Wombles; including a Wombles pop-group (comprising grown men in hypertrophied costumes miming to recordings) that released a series of initially OK but progressively worse-and-worse songs about Wombles. In sum; Wombles were overexposed and hyped to the point that everyone was thoroughly fed-up with them, and glad to see the back of them.

Nonetheless, the original book and the TV series were charming, cozy, entertaining and Hobbit-like.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

How fast could CS Lewis read? A guest post from Kevin McCall

Note: This was originally published at Superversive Inklings

It is well known that C.S. Lewis was an extremely fast reader. Richard Ladborough, in his essay “In Cambridge” in the book C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table writes: “It is now common knowledge that his [Lewis’s] memory was prodigious and that he seemed to have read everything.”

 In his essay “Jack on Holiday” in the same book, George Sayer says, “But when the coffee or tea had been cleared away (I think he preferred tea), he liked to settle down to an hour or two of silent reading. He would choose a book from my shelves, usually a novel, and often one that he had read before, for he held the view that the qualities of a good book could not be appreciated at the first reading. … He read very fast and if the book were a humorous one (he pronounced that word with an h) often chucked or laughed aloud.”

In his essay “C.S. Lewis: Supervisor” collected in C.S. Lewis Remembered, Alastair Fowler compares his own reading to Lewis’s: “Reading habits, of course, were different in the fifties; I used then to read ten hours a day. Lewis, who read far faster, read with surer grasp, and read whatever commitments allowed – read even at mealtimes – read prodigiously.” Lewis also completed an English degree at Oxford (with First Class Honours) within one year rather than the typical three years.

Not only was Lewis a fast reader, he also had an extraordinary memory for the details of what he had read. Douglas Gresham writes in his foreward to A Grief Observed “Helen Joy Gresham (née Davidman), the ‘H.’ referred to in this book, was perhaps the only woman whom Jack ever met who was his intellectual equal and also as well-read and widely educated as he was himself. They shared another common factor: they were both possessed of total recall. Jack never forgot anything he had read, and neither did she.”

Alastair Fowler also recalls Lewis’s powerful memory: “The flow of Lewis’s writing and speaking had much to do with this remarkable memory. Memory feats were common enough in Oxford then, especially among classicists. Edgar Lobel the papyrologist and fungiphage, to mention one, modestly denied having Homer by heart – but added, ‘Mind you, if you said a verse I dare say I could give you the next one.’ Lewis could have claimed much the same of Paradise Lost.”

It is natural to ask, how fast could Lewis read? Also, how did Lewis read? Was he an efficient skimmer who knew which words to skip or did he have some nearly superhuman ability to take in huge volumes of text? A letter written to C.S. Lewis’s brother Warren Lewis on May 10, 1921 provides a way to calculate Lewis’s reading speed. Here is the relevant passage: “Which reminds me, did you ever read Daudet’s ‘L’Immortel’? It is a novel about the Academie Francaise: if you like sheer cool premeditated insolence you should order this by the next mail – tho’ perhaps I should warn you that it is only a couple of hours reading, and you may like books that last, on the world’s end.”

Copying the Project Gutenberg English translation of L’Immortel into a word document shows that the book contains 69,265 words. Rounding to 70,000 and dividing by 120 minutes indicates that Lewis read 583 1/3 words per minute (Wpm). If we assume a single-spaced page is approximately 500 words, Lewis could read 70 pages per hour. (Though if Lewis was reading the book in French, his English reading speed is likely faster).

Ronald Carver’s 1985 paper in Reading Research Quarterly, “How good are some of the world’s best readers?” provides some clues to answer the second question. Carver selected 16 readers on the basis of their excellent reading ability: four college students who made high scores on a test of vocabulary and reading comprehension, four accomplished speed readers, four professionals whose jobs required large amounts of reading (“a writer for the New Yorker magazine,” “a copy editor for a major metropolitan newspaper who had been recommended by managing editor as one of the best of the 12 copy editors they employed,” “the former head of a major medical school who had served as editor of a nationally known medical journal,” “a history professor at a major university who also wrote book reviews for newspapers”), and four people who had achieved very high scores on various tests (a member of Mensa who had been successful on the same tests given to the college students, a perfect scorer on the SAT, a perfect scorer on the GRE, and a test taker who had scored above 700 on the GMAT). Carver gave tests of reading comprehension, vocabulary, and intelligence (Raven Advanced Progressive Matrices). Most importantly, Carver tested subjects’ ability to write summaries of various 6,000 word passages and to recall important details from these same passages when given time to read the passage corresponding to reading speeds of 24,000 Wpm, 6,000 Wpm, 1,500 Wpm, and 375 Wpm.

Carver found that while many of the research participants could write good summaries while only spending a short amount of time with the passages, their ability to recall details fell precipitously as time given to read passages decreased. He concluded that none of the readers showed the ability to recall and comprehend details taken from the entire passage above while reading at speeds above 300-600 Wpm. Beyond 600 Wpm, the speed readers were really skimming, not reading.

Carver describes reading and skimming as follows: “What is ordinarily called reading involves an attempt to comprehend the thoughts the author intended to communicate on a sentence-by-sentence basis … When skimming, the individual does not attempt to comprehend the complete thought expressed in each sentence. Instead, the individual is simply trying to extract as much general information as possible about the passage by sampling only isolated words and phrases.”

C.S. Lewis’s calculated reading speed of 583 1/3 Wpm is at the very top of the range described by Carver, suggesting that Lewis really was reading rather than skimming. Lewis’s ability to recall details with great accuracy provides further support for this view. In addition to Lewis’s rapid reading and excellent memory, he also had profound insight into what he had read and skill in describing it. Alastair Fowler wrote: “For he talked like an angel. My idea of how angels might talk derives from Lewis. His prose is brilliant, amusing, intimate, cogent; but his talk was of a superior order. It combined fluent, informal progression with the most articulate syntax, as if, somehow, it was a text remembered – and remembered perfectly”

Since Carver only tested 16 people, it is certainly possible that an extraordinary reader slipped through his selection process. Among individual readers, the best overall performance was achieved perfect scorer on the GRE, called TEST-GRE by Carver. Carver writes, “Of the 16 superior readers tested, TEST-GRE seems easily to qualify as the best reader in terms of being able to comprehend the most while reading the fastest. There is evidence that she or he could read eighth-grade material at around 500 Wpm.” But, TEST-GRE was randomly selected from among over 200,000 people who had made a perfect score within recent years, so this person could just as easily not have been selected. Similarly, there could have been an even better reader with a perfect score on the GRE who was not selected.

Carver also makes an interesting comment on the fourth best overall scorer, a speed reader selected on the basis of a reported ability to read 81,000 words per minute, “From the Raven Test, and from the scores on the two book tests at 1,500 Wpm, it appears that SPEED-81,000 is an exceptionally intelligent person who ordinarily skims at very fast rates. However, there were no data which replicated the 81,000 Wpm reported when she or he completed the speed-reading course given by the Reading Foundation of California.”

Can we find an upper bound on claims of extremely fast reading? In fact, the well-known savant Kim Peek provides such an upper bound. Peek was able to read two pages of a book in 8-10 seconds (one with each eye) and recall every word he had read with nearly perfect accuracy. Peek could thus read 12 pages every minute, which works out to 720 pages per hour, and assuming again that a single-spaced page is approximately 500 words implies that Kim Peek could read 60,000 words per minute.

However, Peek was not actually reading. He was not comprehending the thoughts expressed on each page but memorizing the text contained in the book. He would have scored almost perfectly on Carver’s tests of detail recall but would not have been able to write a good summary. Peek’s reading speed provides reason to be skeptical of claims to read above 720 pages per hour.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Where in Middle Earth would you most like to live?

Having enjoyed last week's 'survey' of Your Favourite Inklings - I thought we might try another. 

Where in Middle Earth would you most like to live? To remind you of the possible choices - here is a map (click to enlarge):

Please explain your choice, and include what time (era) you would have most wanted to inhabit that place.

As usual - I will give my own answer (which, again, you may be able to guess from previous posts on this blog) after a few of yours have come-in...

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Who is your favourite Inkling - as a person?

I don't mean who was the best writer or the best person; neither do I mean which Inkling you respect the most... I simply mean which of the Inklings is your favourite person - someone with whom (given appropriate circumstances) you might have developed an affectionate relationship.

And let's include here the extended definition of the group that includes the people who met for conversation and drinks on Tuesday or Monday lunchtimes, at the 'Bird and Baby' or Lamb and Flag pubs; as well as those 'inner ring' who met on Thursday evenings in CSL's rooms to read works in progress.

Which Inkling do you like best as a person cengenial to you? Who of these would you have most liked to spend time with - conversing, eating or drinking, walking-with...?

You don't have to be restricted to a single name - and please explain your reasons. 

For those of you who don't already know my views - I'll give my personal choice later.

'Canonical' Inklings from David Bratman's list (if you want to mention somebody else not mentioned here - Walter Hooper, Roger Lancelyn Green, Dorothy L Sayers... that's fine, but for interest please include your justification):

Barfield, Owen (1898-1997)
Bennett, J. A. W. (1911-1981)
Cecil, Lord David (1902-1986)
Coghill, Nevill (1899-1980)
Dundas-Grant, James (1896-1985)
Dyson, H. V. D. (1896-1975)
Fox, Adam (1883-1977)
Hardie, Colin (1906-1998)
Havard, Robert E. (1901-1985)
Lewis, C. S. (1898-1963)
Lewis, W. H. (1895-1973)
Mathew, Gervase (1905-1976)
McCallum, R. B. (1898-1973)
Stevens, C. E. (1905-1976)
Tolkien, Christopher (1924-
Tolkien, J. R. R. (1892-1973)
Wain, John (1925-1994)
Williams, Charles (1886-1945)
Wrenn, C. L. (1895-1969)

Charles Williams - my evaluation from 2010

I published the following on my main blog on November 4 of 2010 - in other words, before reading the Lindop Biography; and reviewing the post now I am surprised to see how much of William's story I had pieced together from the scattered sources. The Lindop biography didn't, therefore, change the quality of my evaluation so much as solidify it - and thereby intensify it.

At present I find I am not reading CW very often; and have pretty much set aside the theology - although I continue to re-read Place of the Lion with strong appreciation. 

But I still feel there is some more to learn, and look at the CW shelf from time to time, with a nagging sense of unfinished business...


Charles Williams (1886-1945) was a strange man.

Great friend of C.S. Lewis and the Oxford Inklings circle at the end of his life, he inspires very divergent responses.

To Lewis, and TS Eliot, he was a man of advanced spirituality, and apparent holiness. His 'theological' writings and novels have a very strong following (including, for what it is worth, the current Archbishop of Canterbury - who is President of the Charles Williams society - and a scholar of C.W's works. This at least means that C.W. really is intelligent and subtle - because the Archbish can certainly judge that kind of thing).

On the other had there are those who find C.W. creepy, pretentious, and at best a hazardous guide to spirituality - at worst an actively dangerous advocate of magic and demonic flirtations - altogether a character prone to an unhealthy degree of fascination with power and perversity.

While on the whole I find Williams valuable and stimulating, at times I too veer towards the idea that he was not a good example.

His Letters to Lalage certainly confirm the creepy side of his nature - there is something vampiric about his hyper-charged, perverse, platonic sexual relationship with this beautiful and intense young woman (only a year before his death).

The letters to his wife are just plain dishonest: evasive, elaborately deceptive, fearful, terribly sad...

On the whole, my impression is that Williams was someone who lived very close to the edge - very close to utter despair.

I think he kept himself distracted - he seems always to have been 'busy' or in company, to have made-himself busy and have collected company - which I take as a sign he was actively avoiding silence and solitude.

He sought extreme situations in order to generate energy, in order to feel in contact with life.

And he did this (justified this) primarily to re-direct these energies and meanings into 'poetry'.

C.W.'s work is always slapdash, his writing is deliberately and habitually obscure, he is pretentious - for example in his verse, which is a mixture of contrivance and accidental effects. (Although apparently effective enough to fool C.S Lewis and perhaps T.S Eliot - neither of whom were what I would call poets themselves. Tolkien, who was - albeit rarely - a real poet, could never get anything for C.W's verse.)

And C.W. would not have disagreed with me, I am sure - he knew what he was doing and why.

I do blame C.W. for his refusal to admit that he was not a real poet; because a lot of his worst behaviour was designed to get energy and inspiration for generating his fake poetry.

His 'big ideas' about positive theology, the City, the way of affirmation of images - are good ideas badly expressed - perhaps because they are undermined by his personal need for them?

The writings on exchange, co-inherence etc are either simple, banal and wrong; or else expressed so complexly, defensively and obscurely as to be ineffective communications. Indeed, they are quasi-magical, or therapeutic, rather than Christian ideas.

His idea that romantic love is a viable alternative to the ascetic is purely speculative, and in the absence of even a single real world example of its validity or effectiveness, seems merely special pleading for his own irrational and un-admirable obsession (despite being married) with a younger (and un-admirable) woman. 

But he did have some extraordinary insights - at least it seems to me.

Here and there, in Descent into Hell and The Place of the Lion; and quite often in his best prose like the Descent of the Dove and He came down from Heaven, he really does seem inspired, and produces wonderful momentary clarifications.

Lewis and the Inklings knew nothing of Williams disreputable behaviours; they saw only his good side, and they loved the man.

There is indeed much to love about him - he gave of himself very freely.

In sum, he is one of those maddening people that seems just one small psychological step away from being really valuable, perhaps even a saint? - but he never did take that step. So his legacy is flawed and his character almost as much demonic as holy.

That step was simply to acknowledge that he was not a poet, not a real poet - not that which he so much wanted to be.

It was this rather small dishonesty with himself which caused nearly all of C.W's troubles.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

The shamanic creativity of JRR Tolkien

Note: This is cross posted from Superversive Inklings

Tolkien's remarkable creative method has been elucidated by TA Shippey in his Road to Middle Earth; and amply confirmed by the evidence from the multiple volumes of The History of Middle Earth (HoME) edited by Christopher Tolkien. What happens is that Tolkien treats his 'first draft' as if it were an historical text of which he is a scholarly editor. So when Tolkien is revising a first draft, his approach is similar to that he would take when preparing (for example) an ‘edition’ of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Beowulf.

Thus, as Tolkien reads-again his own first draft, he is trying to understand what 'the author' (i.e. himself) 'meant', he is aware of the possibility of errors in transcription, or distortions that may have occurred during the steps of historical transmission. He is also aware that 'the author' was writing from a position of incomplete knowledge, and was subject to bias.

This creative ‘method’ leads to some strange compositional occurrences. For example, in the HoME volume The Return of the Shadow (covering the writing of the first part of The Lord of the Rings - LotR) Tolkien wrote about the hobbits hiding from a horseman who stopped and sniffed the air. The original intention was that this was to be Gandalf, and the hobbits were hiding to give him a surprise 'ambush'. However, in the course of revision, the sniffing horseman became a 'Black Rider'; and the hobbits were hiding in fear of him. The core incident remained but its significance was inverted.

Furthermore; the nature and intention of the Black Riders was originally a mystery to Tolkien; only later, over the course of many revisions and as the story progressed, did these horsemen develop into the Ringwraiths, wearers of the Nine Rings, and the most powerful servants of Sauron.

This is a remarkable way of writing! It think it probable that most writers know what they mean in their first draft, and in the process of revising and re-drafting they try to get their expression closer to that known meaning. But Tolkien did the reverse: he generated the first draft, then looked at it as if that draft had been written by someone else, and he was trying to decide what it meant - and in this case eventually deciding that it meant something pretty close to the opposite of the original meaning: with hostile Nazgul substituting for friendly wizard; hiding from fear replacing joke ambush.

In other words, Tolkien's ‘original intention’ counted for very little, but could be - and was, massively reinterpreted by editorial decisions. The specifics of the incident (rider, sniffing, concealed hobbits) stayed the same; but the interpretation of the incident was radically altered. This pattern is often seen throughout the HoME - specific details are retained, while the meaning of these is transformed throughout the process of revision. By contrast, I suspect that most authors maintain the interpretation of incidents throughout revisions, but change the specific details.

This sequence corresponds to the transmission of texts through history - specific and striking incidents tend to be remembered and preserved - while (due to historical changes in culture, assumptions, background knowledge etc) these incidents get hugely re-interpreted in 'anachronistic' ways. So the incident may stay the same, but its meaning may be reversed.

I have seen this with a couple of folk tales during my life. When I was a child King Midas - everything he touched turned to gold - was regarded as a cautionary tale of greed leading to (potential) death, since food and drink were also turned to metal. But nowadays, the Midas Touch is regarded as something desirable - it means the ability always to make money in every situation. Presumably the benefits of wealth are now regarded as greater than mere life!

"Shooting yourself in the foot" used to mean a deliberate act of self-wounding with the aim of being invalided away from the front line of a war. Someone shot themselves in the foot on purpose, but pretended it was an accident. But it now means almost the reverse - an accidentally self-inflicted wound; such as when a politician makes a ‘gaffe’ during a press conference, and ends-up being sacked.

In both cases a striking image (the gold-transforming touch, the firearm discharged at the boot) is preserved, but its meaning is transformed.

Tolkien's compositional technique recognizes this process - and Tolkien approached his first draft of composition as if the draft were the end product of this type of misinterpretation or distortion. So, his draft containing the striking detail of the ‘sniffing rider'; but it is as if Tolkien assumed that the meaning of the detail had been misunderstood by one or more of the copyists and clerks via whom the text had been transmitted to Tolkien.

But why did Tolkien write in this way? I think there are two reasons. The first is that he was by profession a philologist: a scholarly editor, a man concerned with old and fragmentary and distorted texts - and he brought this skill and perspective to his fictional writing.

But secondly it relates to Tolkien's creative processes. This relates to the key question – ignored so far: How did Tolkien arrive at his first draft? And this is where the ‘shaman’ aspect of the title comes in. Because Tolkien’s way of arriving at a first draft could be described as 'shamanic'.

Shaman is a term used to describe spiritual practitioners of tribal people that do their work in a state of altered consciousness – such as trances, fasting, frenzies or lucid dreaming. By calling Tolkien shamanic; I mean that much of Tolkien's primary, first-draft creative, imaginative work was done in a state of altered consciousness – either an awake 'trance' state or using ideas from exceptionally clear and memorable (sometimes recurrent) dreams. The altered state generated the first draft; then re-writing was done in normal everyday ‘clear consciousness’, with his full critical faculties brought to bear.

Clues to this being Tolkien’s practice are scattered throughout his biographical material; but I became aware of it particularly when studying the disguised autobiographical aspects of The Notion Club Papers (in Volume 9 of HoME, Sauron Defeated). There are descriptions of lucid dreams, detailed visions of history, overpowering imagination, hallucinations of mysterious languages, ghosts, psychometry (knowing the history of an object by touching it) and many other altered states of consciousness and ‘paranormal’ experiences. The supporting notes by Christopher Tolkien link several of these fictional descriptions to JRRT’s real life incidents and experiences.

This combination of first creating a dreamlike first draft, then using it as the basis for scholarly and meticulous revisions, is not unusual among creative people, perhaps especially poets. Robert Graves wrote about the ‘poetic trance’ a great deal; and Graves’s ideas of proleptic (historical) and analeptic (predictive) thinking were what enabled him to ‘inhabit’ imaginatively, and he would say in reality, another time and place: that is, to be an inspired prophet.

The first draft - if it truly has been inspired - is interpreted as coming from elsewhere, beyond the mind of the artist; for instance coming from divine sources, from 'the muse', or perhaps from the creative/ collective unconscious. At any rate, the job of the alert and conscious mind of the artist is to 'make sense' of this inspired material without destroying the bloom or freshness deriving from its primary source. In this respect, and others, Tolkien wrote more like a poet than a novelist.

This is, I believe, the psychological basis of the fact (often cited) that Tolkien did not see himself as inventing, rather as discovering. He was not consciously inventing his first drafts but rather 'transcribing' material which came to him during altered states of consciousness, by a process of inspiration which was not under his control. When revising this primary material, if he found that key evidence was missing, he could try and interpolate it like a historian by extrapolation from other evidence, linking between the inspired material; or he could await further poetic inspiration to be validated by intuition. Sometimes he did one, sometimes the other.

This interpretation is also consistent with Tolkien's oft-stated remark that the essence of his Legendarium originally came from the languages he had made – what became called Quenya and Sindarin. I think he meant that words were often primary data, attained in an intuitive trance state; and these words required to be understood. This is where his professional philology and his spare-time creative writing fused.

For example, Tolkien came across the Anglo Saxon word Earendil in a poem called Crist. Then, over the decades as Tolkien's Legendarium evolved, the meaning of Earendil (the myth behind the word) gradually changed – as Tolkien ‘learned’ about the history of Middle Earth - but the same word remained (although subtly re-spelled; since philologists are .

Or, if we read the early Lost Tales (written during the First World war) and through the drafts of the Silmarillion over the next forty plus years, we can observe that the meaning of the Beren and Luthien story changed. For instance, Beren was originally an elf; but later the special significance of the story was that Beren was the first mortal Man to marry, and have children, with an immortal elf-maia. Yet the key ‘first draft’ detail of Luthien dancing for Beren among the flowers in the woods remained constant – and this was based on a real life magical experience of Tolkien with his wife. In this case; the shamanic state of altered consciousness was, apparently, a shared one.

A further well known example is Tolkien’s recurrent ‘Atlantis’ dream of a great green wave, rolling over the land – a dream which independently also occurred for his son Michael. This primary image, from an altered conscious state; was eventually embedded into the complex Silmarillion narrative of Numenor and its downfall, and the dream itself was given to Faramir in The Lord of the Rings – as well as being discussed by the Inklings-like club members in the (unfinished) Notion Club Papers

Tolkien regarded key words, images and story elements that came to him in ‘shamanic’ states as his primary source material. The interpretation of these emotionally-charged, entities might change, might even reverse; but the entity should be kept the same throughout all these changes, because that element was what had been 'given' to Tolkien during the altered consciousness of his most profound creative states.

Given to Tolkien by whom? …it might be asked. Well, insofar as these primary story elements were true and good; Tolkien would have assumed that they came as a gift of God. And this, I think, was the deep reason that such story elements absolutely needed to be preserved throughout even decades of revisions.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Alister McGrath points and sputters at CS Lewis's 'ill-judged remark'

 Alister McGrath - a worryingly smug face?

I am listening to the audiobook version* of Alister McGrath's very valuable biography CS Lewis: a life (2013; which I previously reviewed). McGrath has many qualities that enable him to write a Lewis biography that is a genuine addition to the earlier examples; and this is indeed an essential secondary resource for the keen Lewis scholar.

However; McGrath is a 'liberal evangelical' theologian and a British Establishment intellectual; in other words he is on the wrong side of the cultural war, including specifically being on the wrong side in the litmus test issues concerning the sexual revolution that have divided and almost destroyed the Church of England.

McGrath is therefore ultimately against Lewis (and, despite his widespread activity as an apologist, ultimately anti-Christian). If there were a barricade, these two men would be fighting on opposite sides. So, despite McGrath's genuine affection and interest in Lewis; there is (I detect) an endemic tendency in this biography towards revisionism and subversion of Lewis's rock bottom convictions which underlies the work and becomes evident from time to time.

For example, on page 228 in discussing the flaws of Lewis's greatest apologetic work, Mere Christianity, we get:

[McGrath's text] Consider, for example, the following ill-judged remarks.

[Quote from Lewis] What makes a pretty girl spread misery wherever she goes by collecting admirers? Certainly not her sexual instinct: that kind of girl is quite often sexually frigid.

[McGrath speaking again] I recall a conversation with a colleague about those two sentences some years ago. We had a copy of Mere Christianity open at the appropriate page. "Why did he write that?" I asked, pointing to the first sentence. "How could he know that?" he replied, pointing to the final part of the second.

That is the full extent of McGrath's 'analysis' of this passage - and he seems to regard it as a knock-down, drag-out argument...

Yet, McGrath does not say why the passage from Mere Christianity really-is 'ill-judged' - he merely tells us that it is. McGrath is simply doing a 'point and sputter' (as, I think, Steve Sailer named it) - and is engaged in 'virtue signalling' to Leftists of his own kind (as Vox Day calls it) - and he is practising Bulverism as defined by CS Lewis himself.

That is, McGrath simply assumes that what he says is ill-judged is indeed ill-judged, and immediately goes on to express abhorrence of the error without showing that it is indeed an error.

The proper answer to McGrath's self-cited rhetorical question 'Why did he wrote that?' - is simply: Because it is true! And if McGrath has genuinely never encountered pretty girls of that type, then Lewis and I have done; and they do indeed spread misery, widely and deeply.

As for 'How could he know that?'... well, there are so many plausible possible answers that I would not know where to start.  Let's just say that from a man of such astonishing breadth and depth of wisdom and perception as CS Lewis demonstrates himself to be in many writings; it is very easy to suppose that he would notice that attractive, histrionic, attention-seeking, manipulative women often are 'frigid' in the meaning implied.

In sum, McGrath is doing something very modern and typical of the political correctness of a Social Justice Warrior: that is, he is treating Lewis's passage as a Hate Fact - something factually true that ought not to be said; and when said must be denied. Because those two sentences from Lewis would nowadays be quite sufficient to get him vilified without restraint throughout the international mass media, sacked from his Oxford fellowship, barred from mainstream publication, and hounded-out of 'polite society'.

And, implicitly, that state of affairs is what McGrath (perhaps unconsciously, through sheer ingrained habit, but certainly) is supporting and endorsing by the way he treats this passage. As I said; McGrath is on the wrong side in the Spiritual War of our age; when the gloves are off McGrath is on the same side as Screwtape.

This may seem a bit harsh but I regard it as a simple fact; and it is unsurprising; given how very rare it is for someone in modern Britain (especially among the high status intellectual elite) to be on the right side: whether they genuinely regard themselves as a Christian, or not. Anyone who is a senior Professor at top universities, and has accumulated multiple high status prizes, awards, medals is almost certainly on the wrong side; and when (or rather 'if', because I can't think of any) they are on the right side... well, they would stand-out very sharply indeed. 

The only valid question is whether McGrath was/ is fooling himself, or whether his rhetoric is deliberately manipulative. Maybe he was 'in transition' between real and fake Christianity when he wrote this book: it seems rather likely.

But the thing about these End Times is that the centre-ground has been destroyed, there is no neutrality, we are either For or Against. We are pushed to one extreme or another, and lack of clarity about this fact, evasiveness about which side we will personally take our stand, rapidly becomes exactly equivalent to lying.

On the plus side; because of this extreme cultural division between Good and evil; one does not need to be an exceptionally subtle and discerning reader to take what is good about McGrath's biography and to leave aside that which is strategically evil. Now the gloves are finally off, subtle subversion becomes de facto impossible - so (thank Heavens!) we need not avoid all mainstream productions!

*Note added. The Audiobook version is only adequate - despite some 'rave reviews online!). The tone is rather monotonous, and a bit hurried; and there are too many mispronunciations and actual misreadings of important words (e.g. Inkling Humphrey Havard is calle Harvard throughout). I don't blame the voice actor for this (Robin Sachs - aka Ethan Raine from Buffy) but the director - whose job is to know the book's background, establish the style, set the pace and monitor the language.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

The synergy of CS Lewis and Owen Barfield

It is well known that CS Lewis and Owen Barfield were best friends, from soon after 1919 when they met as undergraduates in Oxford University until Barfield's death in 1997, some 34 years after Lewis had died.

Because Barfield's active engagement with Lewis - as man and thinker - continued right throughout his life, as evidenced in the fascinating (and deep) 1989 collection Owen Barfield on CS Lewis.

Most people, until recently, have approached Barfield via his more famous and influential friend; or have tired to tease out the 'influence' one had upon the other. But I have gradually come to realise that there are richer rewards from considering both together as complementary - indeed synergistic - writers. I mean by this that each offers something that the other lacks and needs; and considered together they are greater than their sum.

Starting with Lewis, we can see that he was the more creative and accomplished writer, and that he was able to express instinctively more than he could (or would) comprehend explicitly. For example, there are depths, there is heart and resonance in Lewis's imaginative fiction - especially the Narnia stories but also the Planetary trilogy, and also in his imaginative essays such as the Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce - that are absent-from, and even contradicted-by, Lewis's theoretical and explicitly-Christian writings..

Barfield was a deeper, more rigorous and honest theoretician than Lewis. Indeed, Barfield understood Lewis and Lewis's writing, better than Lewis understood himself. In this sense, Barfield was 'largher' than Lewis - but Barfield could not accomplish what Lewis did - so it could be said that Lewis expressed Barfield better than Barfield expressed himself! This is why they are complementary.

They are also synergistic, because when they are considered together, we can see that the combination of Lewis and Barfield make-up a really tremendous resource with vast potential for exploration and extension: something which has barely yet been begun.

Something that has limited this, so far, is that while the basis for understanding Lewis's fiction depends on an understanding of his interaction with JRR Tolkien and Charles Williams - and these are accessible and comprehensible writers; understanding Barfield depends on getting to grips with Rudolf Steiner - and this is a very much larger and more difficult task!

However, over the past several years, it is something I have done - and the rewards are immense. Barfield in deed, made it easier for us by telling us to focus on two of Steiner's earliest, and most straightforward, writings: The theory of knowledge based on Goethe's world conception of 1894; and The Philosophy of Freedom of 1896. Both take careful, prolonged, thought-full reading to understand - but the task is not beyond someone who really wants to do it.

So what might we get from this endeavour of combining Barfield with Lewis?  In brief, we get to understand - both in practice and in theory - exactly what it means that imaginative literature is true. We all sense, as Lewis sensed, that imagination takes us to places beyond and different from what can be stated explicitly in concepts - that indeed imagination is a kind of knowledge. And that fantasy, and invented worlds, provide something more real than real life.

We see all this demonstrated in practice in Lewis's writing, and we feel it with our hearts. But Lewis himself was confused and contradictory when it came to explaining how this works. Whereas Barfield understood it, in a conceptual and explicit fashion, as well as anybody ever has - but in ways that Lewis himself never really engaged-with.

Barfield often commented that although Lewis claimed to have been influenced by him; Barfield could not really perceive that influence. Barfield also explained that after Lewis became a Christian, Lewis absolutely avoided any deep and focused discussions on fundamental, metaphysical issues. (A fact that Barfield deeply regretted, although it never threatened their deep affection for one another).

And although Lewis read, admired and praised Barfield's writings - for example multply re-reading Worlds Apart during his final months of illness - Lewis did not show any sings of having either understood or accepted the major ideas in Barfield's writings.

This is not too surprising, because the differences between Barfield and Lewis were very deep; at the very deepest level of metaphysical assumptions. For Lewis to have accepted Barfield would have overthrown several of his most basic Christian theological beliefs - and this was probably why Lewis never engaged with Barfield. Lewis's main assertion was that all Christians shared a core Mere Christianity - yet Lewis's description of the content of Mere Christianity was quite different, in many significant respects, from Barfield's understanding of Christianity.

For instance; Lewis believed that God, and ultimate reality, were outside of Time; while Barfield believed that Time was universal, sequential, linear, irreversible. Linked; Lewis believed that human nature was the same among all people and in all times and places; while Barfield believed that human consciousness unfolded, developed, evolved throughout history. Lewis believed in an infinite gulf between God and Man; Barfield that it was Man's ultimate destiny to become divine in the same qualitative sense as God. 

This emphasises that for the fullness of the complementarity between Lewis and Barfiled to be recognised, requires that the reader be prepared to 'take Barfield's side' on these explicit philosophical questions - at least as a starting point. Whether someone wishes to entertain such a possibility depends on whether he believes that a theoretical understanding of imagination is important and necessary. Lewis was able to avoid engagement with Barfield, because Lewis regarded it as unnecessary and probably undesirable (perhaps lethal to imagination) to analyse and explain the structure and inner nature of imagination.

But Barfield believed that to become conscious of the truth in imagination was simply the most important and urgent task for modern Man. I agree with Barfield. If you also agree, then you simply could not do better than to study Lewis and Barfield together, as complementary, as indeed synergistic writers - as together yielding even more than both added together.

This essay has been published on L. Jagi Lamplighter's Superversive Inklings blog.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Till We Have Faces - is it CS Lewis's best or worst book?

This is a real question - in the sense that some people - including his best friend Owen Barfield - say that the 1956 novel Till we have faces (TWHF) is Lewis's best fiction book, and Lewis himself sometimes said it was his best book! On the other hand it has never been very popular among the majority of Lewis devotees. I myself don't care for it*.

But this is also something of a trick question, in the sense that, uniquely in the entirely of Lewis's prose writings (novels, essays, theology, literary criticism, letters, journals) TWHF does not read as if it was written by Lewis.

So, those who enjoy Lewis's writing style would not be likely to enjoy TWHF. Indeed, they might - like me - actually dislike it because it appears under Lewis's name and with Lewisian expectations; even though, taken in and of itself, TWHF is a good quality novel.

The reason why TWHF reads differently is that it was, in effect, co-written by Lewis and his wife Joy Davidman - who was a professional writer and editor. To my eye and ear, TWHF is an edited book - that is, a book subjected to line-by-line editing; and this is unique to Lewis's oeuvre.

Lewis, in fact, wrote many of his most loved books in a single, 'first' draft, merely requiring correction. His personal letters are thus just as good as the Screwtape Letters! His journals are as good as The Allegory of Love. His journalistic essays, his sermons, his devotional books share a style and a spirit.

So why did Lewis think it was his best book? Perhaps because he wrote it with his wife, who soon after died. Perhaps because he laboured over it, and achieved something different from anything he had managed before. Perhaps because authors nearly always favour their least popular book - their beloved but unpopular child!

Why, then, did Barfield like TWHF best? I think perhaps because - and this comes across in many of OB's reflections on Lewis, Barfield had reservations about Lewis's normal, natural style. He recognised that Lewis was accessible and effective, and in a sense what was needed in his time and place - but Barfield's own taste in literature was more highbrow; and TWHF is Lewis's most highbrow novel, by some margin.

*Note: I do, however, love the title! One of the best ever, I would say. 

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

My 'depictions of the Inklings by the Inklings' essay is posted at Superversive Inklings

L Jagi Lamplighter has posted my 'depictions' essay at the Superversive Inklings website - which is well worth browsing.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

The Last Battle - Narnian litmus test

The Last Battle - Book 7 of the Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis - is a real fan base-breaker, and serves as a litmus test of which side someone occupies in the culture wars.

This is the kind of book that gets either five star (top) reviews; or else elicits one star loathing.

I can recall before I was a Christian finding the book utterly intolerable, viscerally detestable - despite a long-term liking for several of the earlier books in the series. This is very common. Such people as I was, and as most Western people currently are, find exactly what is best about the book, to be the most revolting. They are simply revealing their own lost-ness and self-inflicted nihilism; and lashing-out with displaced anger against politically correct pseudo-flaws which are actually the book's deepest and most complex virtues.

It is the anger of the damned who know - deep down - that damnation is their own choice, that they could be saved - the door will open if they knock; but who have instead taken the ultra-selfish, ultra-short-termist, ultra-egotistical choice in Life; have disguised this under a show of fake-virtue - and don't want reminding of the fact.

But now... well... the first part of Last Battle is really hard to read, because it is so sad, and so real (here and now), and so effective at raising then dashing our hopes; but the book as a whole, including its later section especially, is absolutely wonderful! And the marvel of the second part depends on us having gone through the first part; and the resulting reshaping of priorities.

The passage on the dwarfs in the stable, for example, was directly instrumental in the late stages of my conversion, in crossing the line to become a Christian. It simply elicits gratitude. And several other parts of the book have become touchstones for particular problems in these end times, or for the ultimate nature of God, salvation and Heaven.

(This despite my very definitely not being a Platonist, like Lewis - here it doesn't matter.)

So, if you have not yet read The Last Battle, or have not read it recently; then perhaps you should - not least to see how you perform in the test, what colour you turn the litmus paper...

Comment from David Llewellyn Dodds - Listening again to Brahms's Alto Rhapsody the other day, I was struck by the similarity between Goethe's text and the experience of those Dwarfs in the Last Battle - and heartened by the prayer. We know Lewis knew some Goethe, and it got me wondering if this part of 'Harzreise im Winter' might have contributed to Lewis's work, here. (Interesting to compare, in any case, and leaving me wondering about any broader context of both...)

Sunday, 2 September 2018

The genius of Tolkien's dwarves explained in terms of life history theory and the endogenous personality: a guest post by Kevin McCall

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a slow life history world. Hobbits mature at 33 and regularly live to 100. Numenoreans also mature slowly (Gilraen at 22 was at first considered too young to marry Arathorn) and live to between 100 and 200. At over 100, Dain was considerd a mere “stripling” at 32 when he killed Azog and the dwarves regularly live 250 to 300 years.

 Furthermore, dwarves invest highly in their marriages: “For dwarves take only one wife or husband each in their lives, and are jealous, as in all matters of their rights”

All the things that are associated with slow life history should be associated with Middle Earth: the dwarves, hobbits, and the men of Gondor value their families and and Middle earth must be a highly stable environoment that changes slowly. All in all a highly "conservative" world, in the best sense of the word.

Most remarkable is the degree to which the dwarves match the ideas about genius described by Bruce Charlton in The Genius Famine. According to this book, the genius exhibits the endogenous personality:

“The Endogenous personality is the ‘inner’ Man; a person whose outlook on life is ‘inward.’ He is inner-directed, inner-driven, inner-motivated; one who uses inner modes of thinking, inner evaluations, in-tuition; one who is to a high degree autonomous, self-sufficient; one who is relatively indifferent to social pressures, influences and inducements”

In contrast to the exogenous personality:

“He stands in stark contrast to the Exogenous personality; that is, to most people. The Exogenous Personality is orientated toward the environment, particularly the social environment. These are people who want more than anything else social (including sexual) status, worldly success; people whose perceptions are directed outwards and who try to align their behaviour with group norms.”

Many dwarves exhibit this characteristic: “As for the men, very many also do not desire marriage, being engrossed in their crafts.” The endogenous personality is more common in men than in women and dwarves have an imbalance of men and women: “It was said by Gimli that there are few dwarf-women, probably no more than a third of the whole people.”

We can imagine that in dwarf society due to their high investment in marriage, marriage and children would be highly valued. Dwarf craftsmen would not have children, but would probably take apprentices at a young age, focusing not on reproducing but on passing down their knowledge. Furthermore, the ordinary dwarves, including dwarf women would be more endogenous, more focused on work and crafts than ordinary human beings. Dwarves would not be anti-social but dwarf socialization would be based around crafts and work.

The Genius Famine states “it was group selection which led to the evolution of geniuses.” In fact, the dwarves exhibit a high degree of group cohesion: after Thror was killed by Azog, all the dwarves, even those not descended from Durin began a massive war against the orcs: “Durin's folk gathered all their host, and they were joined by great forces sent from the Houses of other Fathers; for this dishonour to the heir of the Eldest of their race filled them with wrath.”

The dwarves are a species that relies on the products of genius rather than using genius occasionally, as is the case for humans: “There need not be many such men – indeed, there should not be too many, since the necessary mind is relatively unfit for the primary, day-to-day, activities of survival and reproduction of the species. But such men are needed – sooner or later, from time to time.”

It appears that about one third of the dwarf population is genius craftsmen, while the remaining two thirds raise a family in addition to their work. Actually, the number is fewer than this since of the dwarf women: “some desired none [husbands], some wanted one they could not have and would have no other.” This is the dwarven gambit: a species sustained by genius rather than by reproduction. In the harsh but stable environment of their mountain domains, the dwarves rely on the products of their craftsmen. Yet, there is a cost to produce such a large proportion of geniuses: “It is because of the fewness of women among them that the kind of the Dwarves increases slowly, and is in peril when they have no secure dwellings.”

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

JRR Tolkien's nervous breakdown

(This post is adapted from several previous posts on this blog, supplemented by subsequent information. For what I mean by a nervous breakdown, see below*.) 

I believe that JRR Tolkien suffered what could be termed a 'nervous breakdown' in 1945-6; after taking-up the Merton Professorship of English Language and Literature in June of 1945, and at exactly the time when he was writing the Notion Club Papers (NCPs). The Notion Club Papers is therefore itself an indirect source of evidence about Tolklien's state of mind.

This period of 1945-6 was also associated with an apparent marital crisis, during which Tolkien (with his son Christopher) and his wife separated for some weeks.

My impression is that this breakdown was mostly a matter of alienation brought-on by overwork and stress.

Evidence to prove Tolkien's psychological breakdown 1945-6

Tolkien's nervous breakdown is a fact of considerable interest - especially in terms of the composition of Lord of the Rings, with its prolonged interruption from 1944 to the second half of 1946; and it gives added interest to the unfinished Notion Club Papers novel. This was composed during this hiatus and (I suspect) indirectly conveys information concerning Tolkien's strange state of mind.

Humphrey Carpenter's authorized biography of Tolkien (1977), describes that there were significant problems during his marriage; but these were not made explicit by Carpenter; nor were the problems referenced to any particular time or situation.

I have drawn on several sources of information below, which are identied as they occur. My first inference is that the main nervous problems began in late 1945.

From Joel Heck's chronology of the Lewis brothers:

December 11-14 1945: Tuesday-Friday. An Inklings victory holiday takes place at The Bull Hotel, Fairford, with Jack, Tolkien, Warren, and, part of the time, Dr. Havard.

December 11 Tuesday. Warren and Tolkien go to Fairford on the 9:35 a.m. train and spend the day together. In the afternoon Warren and Tolkien take a two-hour walk around by Sunhill and Meysey Hampton with Tolkien talking frankly about his domestic life.

From Warnie Lewis's selected dairies (Brothers and Friends):

Saturday 15 December 1945: "Tollers [i.e. Tolkien] and I went out by the 9.35 [train] on Tuesday morning and spent a pleasant day together; he spoke with much more frankness about his domestic life that he has ever used to me before, and did me good in making me realize how trivial after all are the things which I have to complain of at [the] Kilns."

From the Tolkien Chronology in the JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide by WG Hammond and C Scull:

Christmas vacation 1945-August 1946. Tolkien writes during 'a fortnight of comparative leisure' around Christmas 1945 [the beginnings of The Notion Club Papers].

End of 1945-early 1946 ...But neither [Simonne d'Ardenne] nor Tolkien are in sufficiently good health to do extensive work.

End of February-March 1946. Tolkien is ill, the result of various worries.

20 March 1946. ... He is unwell, and although his doctor has ordered him to apply for a term's leave, he realizes that this is impossible in the present academic plight, short of a complete collapse. He is, however, going away for a while...

25 March - 1 April 1946. Tolkien stays at New Lodge in Stonyhurst, Lancashire (...). In a letter to Stanley Unwin on 21 July 1946 he will say that he came 'near to a real breakdown' around this time, and went away and 'ate and slept and did nothing else, by orders, but only for three weeks, and not for the six months that my doctor prescribed...

From Joel Heck's Lewis chronology:

Tuesday 2nd April 1946: "An exquisite sping morning, J[ack] poor devil in Manchester. To the Bird and baby where I was joined by Humphrey [Havard], Tollers and Chris[topher Tolkien]. Tollers looking wonderfully improved by his restcure at Stonyhurst, and in great spirits (having packed his wife off to Brighton for ten days). He has shut up his house and he and Chris are living at the Bear [Hotel] at Woodstock [a small town just north of Oxford]..."

April 11 Thursday. Jack and Warren go out to Blenheim by the 6:25 p.m. train for an Inklings dinner to celebrate the Tolkien’s last night at the Bear. Present are both Tolkiens (Christopher and Tollers), Humphrey Havard, Jack, and Warren. They have a good dinner, good beer, and good talk.

From the Tolkien chronology: 

Early June 1946. ... [Tolkien] is unwell and also heavily engaged with an extremely difficult term...

21 July 1946. Letter to Stanley Unwin... I have been ill, worry and overwork mainly, but am a good deal recovered... I hope after this week actually to - write.

And from Joel Heck's chronology of the Lewis brothers, we have the following: 

August 22 Thursday. Warren dines with Tollers (Tolkien) at Merton College this evening during a thin rain. They dine in Common Room by candlelight, a party of seven, and Warren is seated on the right of Garrod. They have a glass of port and then coffee after dinner, where Warren talks with the Chaplain. They (Warren and Tolkien) attend a meeting of the Inklings with Christopher Tolkien, B (a gate crasher [almost certainly JAW Bennet - invited, without consulation, by Tolkien the previous week]), and Jack. [From Warnie's diary we learn that Tolkien read from 'a magnificent myth which is to knit up and concludes his Papers of the Notions Club' - referring to the downfall of Numenor, in one of its versions. So Tolkien was still working on the NCPs in late August.]

Back to references in the Tolkien chronology:

c 23 September 1946... Tolkien returns again to The Lord of the Rings [delayed by the 'tiresome business of the election to the Merton Chair'].

On September 30th Tolkien writes a letter (published in the JRRT Selected Letters of 1981) to Stanley Unwin to say he has again started working on The Lord of the Rings.

In conclusion; by the end of September 1946, which was the time we know that he began work again on The Lord of the Rings, it seems that Tolkien had recovered from his breakdown.

This makes the dates of Tolkien's psychological problems building-up to become severe by December 1945, peaking in March and April of 1946, and resolving in July of 1946.

The probable cause and effects of Tolkien’s breakdown

Tolkien seems to have written most of The Notion Club Papers during the darkest and most difficult time of his life - the period of somewhat more than a year which followed after his appointment to the Merton Chair of English Language and literature in June 1945.

The root of the problem seems to have been overwork and stress brought on by the fact that he took on the duties of the new professorship (from October of 1945) while overlapping with duties of his previous professorship (in Anglo Saxon, at Pembroke College). So Tolkien was doing a double work load, plus all the extra work of taking on a new job.

Another factor he refers to in later correspondence was that this was the only period of his academic life when he had to teach subjects in which he was not interested; and he absolutely hated this.

From Tolkien's selected letters - To Michael Tolkien 1 November 1963: "...I was never obliged to teach anything except what I loved (and do) with an inextinguishable enthusiasm. (Save only for a brief time after my change of Chair in 1945 - that was awful.) 

It seems that this put sufficient stress on Tolkien's marriage that he talked about the resulting problems with his friends; and Ronald and Edith temporarily separated for some period of time in early 1946 as described above.

(Unless, as is possible,  problems in the marriage were themselves a contributory cause of his nervous breakdown.) 

It is interesting that Tolkien, despite the extreme psychological stresses, did not stop writing; but apparently worked-through his psychological difficulties in fictional autobiographical terms - specifically the Notion Club Papers. This story has many descriptions of unusual mental states - such as trances and lucid dreams which Christopher Tolkien confirms were sometimes accounts of JRRT's own experiences.

It may also be significant that by the time Tolkien resumed work on the Lord of the Rings in the autumn of 1946, probably during September; and after a prolonged break, the book seems firmly to have become conceptualised as a deeper and more serious book than it was when he embarked upon it as a sequel to The Hobbit.

My guess is that the nervous breakdown experience of late 1945-1946 had a permanent effect on Tolkien - and that the effect was beneficial to his writing. On the one hand he was able to write with increased emotional depth. More speculatively; it is possible that the experience of his 'self-therapy' in writing the Notion Club Papers was able to give him surer access to altered states of consciousness, especially dreams, and these provided a source of other-worldly sub-creative reality to the Lord of the Rings.

Without the nervous breakdown of 1945-6, and without the experience of writing the Notion Club Papers - The Lord of the Rings would have been a different, and probably lesser, book.

*Note on the meaning of 'nervous breakdown'. 

I should clarify the key inference which I make: and this is quite simple. That when Tolkien has a period of time off work, leave of absence, of a few weeks, on psychological grounds - then this is strong evidence of psychological illness. I believe this inference is correct, because (partly due to my training in psychiatry) I know that it was unusual in the mid-twentieth century to take time off work explicitly for psychological reasons. Indeed, it is still unusual - and the majority of people who are diagnosed with anxiety or depression do not stop work. It is even more unusual for people who have stopped work for psychological reasons in addition to take a rest cure away from home, a therapeutic holiday, as Tolkien did; but this difference may be more a matter of fashion. Therefore, I consider it very highly probable that JRR Tolkien suffered significant psychological problems, and that these would at the time have been regarded as severe enough to be termed a 'breakdown'  (since he needed to stop work). The diagnosis of these kinds of problem is not precise and has changed over the decades - the usual symptoms are mostly anxiety and depression. The illness was certainly 'neurotic' rather than psychotic, and was an exacerbation of predisposing personality ('reactive') rather than coming out of the blue ('endogenous'). But during Tolkien's era the term 'depression; was reserved for severe illness requiring admission to a hospital. So the diagnosis of the 1945-6 episode at that time was probably some kind of stress-related anxiety state - which was usually termed a nervous breakdown.