Some musings on this vital question can be found at my BC Notions blog...
Tuesday, 1 December 2020
In JRR Tolkien's essay On Fairy Stories (1947) he invented the word 'eucatastrophe' for the happy turn of events which, he argued, characterised the truest fairytale genre.
In a eucatastrophe (meaning 'good catastrophe') things become more and more terrible, until a bad outcome (catastrophe) seems inevitable. Then there is a joyous happening, some unexpected twist - an escape or victory snatched from the jaws of defeat; which produces a characteristic lift of the reader's heart and spirit.
Tolkien argues that this type of 'happy ending' (when done well) is a special and desirable quality; and one of the main reasons why someone might want to read fairy stories.
It might be supposed that - having already written the Hobbit, with its own eucatastrophic plot turn ("The eagles are coming!"), and happy ending - the eucatastrophe came naturally and spontaneously to Tolkien. But the evidence of his projections and drafts indicates that - on the contrary - his first thoughts on stories often led to unhappy endings - to the point of making an incoherent and unsatisfying plot.
I have already analysed the way that - from Tolkien's earliest work right through to the Notion Club Papers drafts of 1946 - he kept returning to the idea of a plot where a mariner nearly managed (after many perils and adventures) to sail to Elvenhome... but at the last moment, something prevented it, and he failed to get there.
This strikes me as unsatisfying as the end of any story; but more to the point, it fails to provide that eucatastrophe which Tolkien later regarded as the main feature of 'Fantasy' literature. Yet Tolkien's 'first thoughts' on plots often seemed to converge on this kind of failure.
I was reading Tolkien's plans for his unfinished time travel novel The Lost Road - which he worked on in 1937. The text and editorial discussion are found in Christopher Tolkien's The History of Middle Earth - Volume 5 (1987).
The projected story involved several 'reincarnations' of a Father-Son duo that recur throughout history, each forming a sub-story within the novel; each incarnation going backwards in time through actual human history, to reach the mythic last days and fall of Numenor. Numenor would be the climax; and, if there was to be one, that would be the eucatastrophe.
As I said, the story was not finished (less than 40 pages of novel, plus texts describing Numenor); however, Tolkien left some notes on how he intended to continue it - I am focusing on those listed on page 76. What I find striking is that Tolkien, here as so often, projected a messy, rather 'sordid' plot - with a disappointed and sad ending.
In the climactic Numenor story; JRR Tolkien wrote (as summarised by Christopher, quotes are from his father's notes, square brackets indicate my explanatory insertions):
Elendil spoke the phrase ["The Eagles of the Lord of the West"], but he was overheard, informed upon, and taken before [the King] Tarkalion, who declared that the title [Lord of the West] was his... The outcome of Elendil's arrest is not made clear... but it is said that [Elendil's son] Herendil is given command of one of the ships [built to invade Valinor], that when they reached Valinor Tarkalion set Elendil as a hostage in his son's ship, and that when they landed on the shores Herendil was struck down. Elendil rescued him and set him on shipboard, and 'pursued by the bolts of Tarkalion' they sailed back East. 'As they approach Numenor the world bends; they see the land slipping towards them'; and Elendil falls into the deep and is drowned.
Wow! What a stunningly miserable, depressing, unsatisfying ending to a projected novel! We go back and back in time, through father and son reincarnations; and to culminate there is a rather sordid, gangster-thriller-like plot about hostages and the son's treachery; and then it all finishes with Numenor destroyed and everybody killed!
Now, of course, Tolkien has second and third thoughts about this; and would surely have changed this radically if and when the book had ever been completed and published. But my point here is that Tolkien's first thoughts, his spontaneous 'instinct' for the story; was that it should end in total despair and destruction - about as far away from a eucatastrophe as can be imagined!
My understanding is therefore that Tolkien's natural, spontaneous tendency was to end his stories in disappointment and despair. The desirability, and perhaps necessity (at least for fairy stories) of a 'eucatastrophic' ending was, apparently, a relatively late discovery; hard-won, built on deep thought and personal experience; and something that went 'against the grain' of his own personality and instinct as a writer.
Friday, 20 November 2020
My son Billy is a keen Dungeons and Dragons player and game-master; and when he was trying to explain to me how the Alignment system worked, he devised an example using Tolkien's orcs - which ended-up by throwing light on the different nature of the orcs themselves.
Lawful Evil - Saruman's Uruk-Hai
Neutral Evil - The orcs (or goblins) of the Misty Mountains, including Moria. (These are depicted in most detail in The Hobbit.)
Chaotic Evil - The ordinary rank-and-file Mordor orcs
The Alignments of evil can be differentiated by how selfish the orcs are, how short their time horizon; and by how much good is mixed with their evil qualities.
The three Alignments can be seen played-off against each other in the Uruk-Hai chapter of The Two Towers, when representatives of all three alignments can be seen contrasted, as a mixed companyof orcs carry Merry and Pippin across the fields of Rohan.
The Uruk-Hai are Saruman's elite warriors, cross-bred by the wizard from Men and Orcs. They are Lawful Evil because they have Good qualities of loyalty, obedience and courage - which are directed-towards evil goals.
The Uruk Hai are personally loyal to Saruman, whom they worship; seem to lack selfishness and personal ambition; and they follow Saruman's orders as an abstract Good - which gives them satisfaction (and not just because they fear being punished if they were to disobey).
Thus Ugluk ensures that Merry and Pippin are healed of wounds, fed, and given an energizing draught; so that they have the strength to run long distances and can be delived to Saruman quickly and in good condition; according to his orders. He also, for the same reason, protects his prisoners against the Chaotic Evil Mordor orcs - who merely want to eat, despoil and torture the prisoners.
In a sense, Lawful Evil is evil 'only' because it is harnessed to evil purposes; and because it denies any personal responsibility - being ruthless in pursuit of obedience and loyalty.
The paradox is that lawful evil is by far the most effective type of evil (just as the Uruk-Hai are by far the most effective orc troops); but that its effectiveness is a consequence of the evil being mixed-with good.
At the opposite extreme from the long-termist, self-effacing obedience and loyalty of the Uruk-Hai, are the rabble of Mordor Orcs. These are a much 'purer', unmixed form of evil.
They delight in inflicting pain, laughing at misery, and in killing - and are just as happy to torture and cannibalise orcs as anyone else.
In a sense, Chaotic Evil orcs are impulsive psychopaths; liable at any moment to fight each other to death, and abandon the mission and ignore orders to indulge in a spree of looting, arson, murder. They will go to considerable efforts to destroy; simply because they enjoy destruction. Any mission can be sabotaged (hostages beaten, tortured, killed, dissected, eaten) simply because they become overwhelmed by the immediate desire to do harm.
It is presumably these orcs who chop down trees and leave them to rot, pollute their own drinking water, and burn crops. They are like virulent parasites who kill their own hosts, then each other - and then die themselves.
Chaotic Evil orcs are only ruled by the immediate threat of punishment for disobedience; or by the kind of coercive mind-control that Sauron or the Nazgul Witch-King can impose upon them. Left to themselves, they are useless - and self-destroying.
The orcs of the Misty Mountains seem to be exmaples of Neutral Evil, as is Shagrat and, to a lesser extent, Gorbag who are captains in Cirith Ungol. Their moral nature lies between Lawful and Chaotic evil - with aspects of both; but Neutral Alignment has a self-sufficiency which is its own.
The Hobbit depicts a goblin (orc) civilization in the Misty Mountains - in which individuals are loyal to their orc king (Bolg); and cooperative to the point of risking their lives in pursuit of his killers (i.e. Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves); eventually waging war upon them (in the Battle of the Five Armies).
Neutral Evil Orcs seem to have a clannish, gangster-like society with a medium-term time horizon; able to cooperate in construction of the underground chambers and tunnels and invention of weapons and machines; wanting mainly to be left alone to live by relatively low-key theft, piracy, kidnap and the like. One can imagine them running protection rackets with the surrounding Men.
Their evil is in their means employed, more than their ultimate ends. In terms of their virtues - they are loyal, but not lawful; they are reasonably obedient - but it is easily overwhelmed by temptation. They lie without conscience, even to their leaders; when they think they can get away with it - and pretend to the same kind of virtues as Men; but purely expediently.
Neutral Evil orcs do not seem to be motivated by conquest - except when their numbers increase and they need more resources.
This aspiration of Neutral Evil orcs is spoken in the conversation Sam overhears between the Mordor orc-leaders Shagrat and Gorbag:
[Gorbag]: 'the war's on now, and when that's over things may be easier.' `It's going well, they say.' 'They would.' grunted Gorbag. `We'll see. But anyway, if it does go well, there should be a lot more room. What d'you say? - if we get a chance, you and me'll slip off and set up somewhere on our own with a few trusty lads, somewhere where there's good loot nice and handy, and no big bosses.' 'Ah! ' said Shagrat. `Like old times.'
The nostaligic tone for the good-old-days when there were 'no big bosses' - when orcs ran their own affairs - is unmistakeable!
While Lawful Evil orcs live to serve, and ask for nothing more; and Chaotic Evil orcs serve to live (or else they will soon kill each other); Neutral Evil orcs crave their own version of an autonomous Good Life - The Orcian Dream...
Sunday, 18 October 2020
When Frodo was fleeing the Nine Black Riders and had crossed the Ford of Bruinen onto the Rivendell bank - with The Nine still on the opposite bank - there is a scene when Frodo draws his sword and shouts defiance (rather feebly). But the Witch King merely gloats, raises his hand, casts a spell, and the sword breaks in Frodo's hand.
This broken sword is one of four apparently identical weapons that Tom Bombadil gave the hobbits from the treasure horde accumulated by the Barrow Wight; after Tom had broken-open the barrow. They are described as long, 'leaf shaped' daggers for use by Men - but the right size to be swords for the hobbits. These were Numenorean blades, from the Kingdom of Arnor.
Later, on the eve of The Fellowship setting out on their quest to destroy the One Ring; Bilbo apologises that he forgot to have Frodo's broken sword mended; and gives him Sting instead - an Elven blade originally from Gondolin. This is a symbolic gesture of handing-on responsibility; and has important repercussions later - for example this type of Gondolin magical blade was made for use against giant spiders (as we learn in The Hobbit), and Sting was able to cut through Shelob's massively-thick web - when Sam's Numenorean blade could not.
But why was the Witch King able to break Frodo's Numenorean blade when, as we discover later, these were magical blades specifically forged to destroy the Nazgul Chief himself? (When he was known as the Witch King of Angmar, and was attacking the northern Numenorean Kingdom of Arnor.) How could the Nazgul Chief destroy by magic, a magical anti-Nazgul weapon?
The problem arises because it was Merry's use of exactly such a blade in the Battle of Pelennor Fields, that enabled the Chief of the Nazgul to be killed - it is described as undoing the spell by which the wraith's body was kept-together; such that a follow-up thrust from the ordinary (non-magical) blade of Eowyn was able to 'finish him off'.
The reason, I suggest, was because Frodo had been stabbed by a Morgul Knife on Weathertop - and this was a black magical weapon that had the effect of making Frodo a wraith. This wraithing process was far advanced by the time that Frodo crossed the Ford of Bruinen - Frodo was even becoming transparent, and falling under Sauron's control.
I assume that the Morgul Knife was indeed magically forged by Sauron - a very rare - possibly unique at the time, difficult to make, sentient weapon (although one that Glorfindel recognised, so presumably not the first such weapon) - designed so that the tip would snap-off after stabbing then - under its own power and sense of direction - work its way to the heart. Once the knife tip reached the heart, the wraithing process would have been complete.
The intent of the Witch King, according to Gandalf, was indeed to stab Frodo directly in the heart; making him immediately a wraith. The plan of the Nazgul was, apparently therefore, to capture Frodo and take him to Sauron as a new 'ringwraith' - and unable to die; where Frodo would have been tormented 'forever'.
This explains why the Witch King did not try to kill Frodo (e.g. with a sword) when he had the chance. Sauron did not want Frodo to die, but to be kept alive for the worst and longest-lasting punishment Sauron could devise - for having taken the One Ring and kept it.
But this wraithing had not quite happened by the time the Ford to Rivendell was reached; because Frodo had, at the last moment, resisted the Witch King's attack, and spoken the name of Elbereth - momentarily dauting and distracting the Witch king, so that the stabbing blow missed the heart by several inches - enough to delay the wraithing (in a Hobbit, which is more resistant to the corruption of evil than a Man) for several weeks.
Nonetheless, Frodo was most of the way towards being a wraith by the time of the Ford of Bruinen, and he therefore had a 'spiritual connection' to the ringwraiths - a channel had been opened-up. Frodo could see and hear the Nazgul much more clearly than could the other Hobbits, and indeed by this time he saw the Nazgul more clearly than he saw his companions.
Presumably, therefore, the Witch King was able, via this magical connection, to destroy even Frodo's magically-anti-Nazgul sword, by an unspoken command and a gesture.
This breaking of the Numenorean sword then created the desired plot-opening by which Frodo needed a sword at the last minute, and provided a reason for Bilbo giving him Sting.
Acknowledgement: To my son Billy, for the suggestions and conversation which led-up to this insight - putting to rest a long-term uncertainty.
Thursday, 27 August 2020
Robert Emlyn Havard (1901–1985; general practitioner and sometimes medical scientist) was the only non-literary member of the Inklings – a 1930s and 1940s Oxford University club which included Lewis and Tolkien. Despite spending most of his time in family medicine, Havard was a productive medical scientist. While still a student at Cambridge University, Havard co-authored an influential study published in the Journal of Physiology of 1926 entitled ‘The influence of exercise on the inorganic phosphates in the blood and urine’. The style and structure of this paper provides a charming window into the elite medical science of the 1920s.
Havard: The medical Inkling
The Inklings was a group of friends and colleagues who gathered around Lewis in Oxford University during the 1930s and 1940s . The group would meet weekly after dinner in the evening at Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen College to read works-in-progress, and more informally to converse in the Eagle and Child (‘Bird and Baby’) pub in St Giles.
Lewis is now world famous as author of the Narnia fairy stories, and was probably the greatest lay Christian writer of the 20th century. The other world famous Inkling was Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Charles Williams the novelist, poet and theologian was a later member. Other well-known Inklings included the philosopher Owen Barfield, Nevill Coghill – who became known as a Shakespearian director and published the best known modern English version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the ‘angry young man’ novelist and literary scholar John Wain, and the biographer Lord David Cecil. Lewis’s brother Warren (‘Warnie’) was usually in attendance: he was a popular historian of the France of Louis XIV. Tolkien’s youngest son Christopher later joined, and is now the only surviving Inkling – Christopher Tolkien is the most important scholar of his father’s work.
In a recent book on the Inklings, The company they kept , Diana Pavlac Glyer notes that almost all of the regular members of the group were active authors – producing academic books, essays, novels, stories, plays and poems. The Inklings essentially functioned as a writers’ group that provided mutual encouragement, criticism and editorial assistance. Superficially at least, the odd-man-out was Robert Emlyn Havard (1901–1985), who was a general practitioner and sometimes medical scientist and the family physician for both Lewis and Tolkien.
Havard appears in fictional form as the somnolent but shrewd character ‘Dolbear’ in Tolkien’s posthumously published story The Notion Club papers ; and Lewis’s Prince Caspian is dedicated to Havard’s daughter . He had various nicknames bestowed on him by the group including ‘Humphrey’, ‘the Red Admiral’ (due to a beard grown while in the navy) and UQ – which stood for the ‘Useless Quack’. Indeed, in his sneering and pervasively unreliable biography of Lewis, Havard is depicted by AN Wilson as something of a buffoon .
This was far from the case, as can be seen from Havard’s early career as a medical scientist. The most complete account of Havard’s life so-far is by Walter Hooper in his Lewis: a companion and guide . Havard began by taking a first class degree in chemistry at Keble College, Oxford then studying medicine at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and Guy’s Hospital in London to graduate with the Oxford medical degree of BM BCh in 1927. He took an Oxford DM (Doctor of Medicine) in 1934 while working at Leeds University in the Biochemistry Department, and in the same year returned to Oxford as a research fellow in The Queen’s College, and around this time became a general practitioner.
Despite spending most of his time in general medical practice, Havard was a productive medical scientist with his name on more than two dozen papers published in first rank journals such as Nature, the Lancet, Biochemical Journal and the Journal of Physiology. He had three spells of research and publication – the first mainly to do with human biochemistry during the mid 1920s while he was still a medical student; a second studying more clinical aspects of biochemistry from the early 1930s as a medical graduate doing a doctorate in Leeds and Oxford, and the third from the early 1940s when working on anti-malarial drugs while an above-conscription-age volunteer for military service during world war two .
Exercise, phosphates and fun
During his days as a medical undergraduate in Cambridge, Havard co-authored (with George Adam Reay) an influential study published in the Journal of Physiology of 1926 entitled ’The influence of exercise on the inorganic phosphates in the blood and urine’. It was this amiable paper, with its depictions of a time when doing science was akin to an undergraduate ‘jape’, that provoked the following reflections.
This paper was certainly not earth-shattering, nonetheless seems to have been one of the most cited of that year’s volume of J. Physiol. There are currently 13 references to be found on the Google Scholar database (http://scholar.google.co.uk) (quite a lot for such an old paper) with the most recent reference in 1971.
The style and structure provides a charming window onto the very different science of the early 1920s; with its un-translated ‘varsity’ slang, ‘clubby’ style of referencing which lists only authors surnames without initials (in 1926 the membership of the Physiological Society was less than 400 ) and delightful vignettes concerning the conduct of experiments.
One striking feature is that the experimental methodology reported in the paper is described as having changed significantly throughout the period of the experiment, and results are given both for before and after these trial-and-error modifications. A modern scientific paper would surely omit the earlier failed attempts. Indeed, the style of this article is less like a modern paper than a slice of laboratory life. The impression is that these scientific pioneers wanted to share not just their results, but the nuts and bolts of how results were generated.
Havard and Reay describe how ‘the exercise took the form of the subject running up and down the laboratory stairs, 40 ft in height, until he was exhausted’ during and after which many one cubic centimetre blood samples were taken from the subject’s finger in order to measure the phosphate etc. – which seems likely to have been a painful procedure. However, one of the main subjects listed was ‘R.E.H.’ himself, so he could not be accused of inflicting on others something he avoided himself.
Indeed, all the experimental subjects are listed by their initials, and presumably therefore identifiable by those ‘in the know’ (so, none of our present-day worries about ‘confidentiality’ are in evidence). In one of the tables we are told that that subjects include G.B. described as ‘A rowing man’, W.E.T. a ‘Rugby “Blue”’ (a ‘Blue’ was awarded to Oxford undergraduates for competing at the highest level of university sport), H.K.B.O. a ‘Running “Blue”’, E.H.F a ‘Sprinter’; and again Havard himself who is, by contrast to these athletes, only ‘Partly trained’.
Collecting urine samples was a problem – we are informed that H.K.B.O. (despite – or maybe because? – of being a Running Blue) was unable to produce a urine sample for 7 min after his exercise. In another experiment R.H.B (‘Running’) was ‘as exhausted and distressed as any of the untrained subjects’ – which must have been rather humiliating for him. But then R.H.B seems not to have been a Blue.
Three women were included as subjects. Miss (I assume it was a Miss) M.M. did exercise which was rather disdainfully dismissed as ‘not very vigorous’; Miss B.E.H. managed ‘more vigorous’ exercise; while the Amazonian Miss C.E.L. was able to perform ‘very vigorous’ exercise – unfortunately however after these exertions she was depicted as ‘very exhausted’. Havard noted, with obvious regret, that the women produced ‘anomalous results’ which were ‘difficult to account for’.
In conclusion the authors reported that phosphate goes up a little then markedly down on exercise, and that trained men show less of these exercise-induced changes in their blood inorganic phosphate.
A snapshot from a lost era
My interest in this paper was stimulated because it presents in microcosm a snapshot of science from an all-but lost era of the ‘invisible college’ of collaborating and competing researchers who knew each other well-enough to dispense with formalities, and whose world was essentially private despite publication in widely circulated journals . To the hard-nosed professional modern scientist, such early 20th century papers look eccentric and idiosyncratic. The paper is indeed ‘amateur’, but mostly in a desirable sense of describing science as an avocation done for intrinsic reasons and the esteem of peers, rather than a vocation rewarded by a secure income and managerial power.
But much more important and striking is the total absence of exaggeration, hype, or spin: the paper’s openness, candour – in a word honesty. This marks the biggest and most dismaying contrast between publications of the science of 80 years ago and of modern science. There has indeed been a loss of innocence, collegiality and fun; but a loss of unvarnished truthfulness is the most serious change against current practice .
I have said that Havard was not himself a writer, but on the evidence of this early article, Havard was an unusually vivid scientific author from his mid-twenties. Indeed he wrote essays and journalistic reviews dating back to his student days and continuing through into the 1950s. Furthermore, Havard contributed posthumous memoirs of both Lewis  and Tolkien .
All of which helps explain why, despite not being a literary man, ‘Humphrey’s’ presence at the Inklings meetings was so highly valued.
I am grateful to Robert Havard’s eldest son John, who kindly gave me a list of some of his father’s publications, and provided fascinating background information by means of e-mail and telephone conversations. John Havard’s brother Mark (i.e. RE Havard’s second son) also corresponded, and reminded me that the doctor in CS Lewis’s 1943 novel Perelandra was named ‘Humphrey’.
 H. Carpenter, The inklings, George Allen and Unwin, London (1981).
 D.P. Glyer, The company they keep: CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien and writers in community, Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio (2007).
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Notion Club papers, Morgoth’s ring: history of middle earth volume IX, HarperCollins, London (1992).
 C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, Geoffrey Bles, London (1951).
 A.N. Wilson, CS Lewis: A biography, Collins, London (1990).
 R.E. Havard and G.A. Reay, The influence of exercise on the inorganic phosphates of the blood and urine, J Physiol 61 (1926), pp. 35–48.
 W.F. Bynum, A short history of the physiological society 1926–1976, J Physiol 263 (1976), pp. 23–72. View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus (0)
 T. Kealey, Sex, science and profits: how people evolved to make money, William Heinemann, London (2008).
 B.G. Charlton, The vital role of transcendental truth in science, Med Hypotheses 72 (2009), pp. 373–376.
 R.E. Havard, Philia: Jack at ease. In: T. James and C.S. Como, Editors, Lewis at the breakfast table and other reminiscences, Harvest/HBJ Book, New York (1979), pp. 215–228.
 R.E. Havard and J.R.R. Professor, Tolkien: a personal memoir, Mythlore 17 (1990), pp. 61–62.
Wednesday, 26 August 2020
I felt this again just recently on re-engaging with Charles Williams - as I did on the first encounter back in 1987. Williams takes the everyday, the personal and inter-personal - and makes it into symbolic abstraction; and then he sticks-with that abstraction, and goes higher and further, until we are close to replacing the mundane with the abstract.
This produced a distinctive feeling in me. The everyday would be made strange, hazy and surrounded by a magical glow - yet Williams sought (explicitly, persistently) for absolute clarity, for pattern, for precision...
Thus the initial abstraction would be clarified by ever-more, more-precise abstractions; yet the effect of these explanations on me was that I never quite got to the clarity that would allow it to become a root or basis for life.
To my mind, Williams would 'solve' one problem - such as human suffering - by extraordinarily radical abstraction; that, if adhered to, ended by making everything an instance of that problem.
Yet it is almost unique to Williams, among Christian writers I have encountered, that he stuck-with his abstractions wherever they would lead - which was, in fact, to a condition that was close to despair. Not exactly despair, because of faith - but only a (crucial) hairsbreadth, only the thickness of gold leaf - between his abstract realism about this mortal life... and despair.
This can best be seen in perhaps his supreme work of theology 'The Cross' , which I would encourage you to read slowly and thoughtfully (if possible). Williams's apparently positive and optimistic ideas of Romantic Theology are based on co-inherence, substitution and exchange; which seem to offer great possibilities for present alleviation, for the assistance of future and past persons in our present lives (as in Descent into Hell, when a modern women and a long-dead Protestant martyr exchange their sufferings).
Yet in The Cross; Williams recognises that his use of a unity of Time to make all past, present and possible futures ultimately simultaneous; has some extremely stunning consequences. For instance, that the sacrifice of Christ's crucifixion is always now, always available - means that Christ is always being crucified. That any suffering by anybody is not only eternal, but actively willed by God.
That the historical reality of Christ is also absolutely non-historical because his life/ death/ cricifiction/ ascension always-was and always-will be.
But also that Satan, all demons, all the worst evil ever done by anyone (including all future evil) is simultaneous and experienced now; and part of God's plan.
At a mundane level; Williams's assertion that the City of London is really and ultimately the City of God; means that everything about London is part of the divine. On the one hand, this elevated the everday business of life in the Oxford University Press offices to a divine and eternal level; on the other hand it meant that all the pains, fears, boredom, dullness, spite and other sins of his actual life was incorportated into the City of God, forever.
And yet, actually grasping such a perspective, holding onto it, comprehedning it, explaining it... always this seemed to be slipping out of reach. And the more I really focused-in on William's explanations of his explanations; the more often it slipped away.
Eventually I recognised that this was intrinsic to abstraction itself; and that the only understanding that would ultimately satisfy me were the very simple and personal explanations of early childhood 'animism' - of a living and wholly personal creation.
So I ended at an opposite extreme from CW; but I am very grateful for him in getting me here; and I believe that he deserves great credit for taking his ideas to their extreme terminus - taking them to a point far beyond that which most philosophers or theologians are prepared to venture.
That point you can see for yourself - if you make the (significant) effort to read What the Cross means to me.
Only at that point was the reductio ad absurdum of Williams's abstracting premises apparent to me.
Therefore, I would have to regard Charles Williams as a more important (because more rigorous and honest) Christian philosopher than many much-more-famous and more-widely-prestigious names.
Tuesday, 25 August 2020
When Charles Williams died in May 1945, The Inklings seemed to be a thriving creative force - since the war years had seen CS Lewis produce some of his very best, and most impactful, work; Tolkien was working on Lord of the Rings; Warnie Lewis had begun to publish his histories of 17th century France - and Charles Williams had written and published some of his very best (and forward-looking) work in poetry and fiction.
All this was brought to an end by the sudden death of Charles Williams following surgery, aged only 58. This knocked the heart out of The Inklings - as they all immediately acknowledged. The gathering afterwards became a looser and more casual, less purposive, less valuable gathering of friends - instead of a focused and productive collaboration of writers, critics and thinkers.
Yet, in a sense, the end was coming anyway; since CW had already decided to return to London, to serve-out his years at the Oxford University Press. Furthermore, Williams felt himself to be already in a decline of health, energy and motivation.
By 1944, by my judgment; Williams had proved that prevarication and dissipation of effort was a part of his nature. CW was continually profligate with his money, which led to him wasting time and effort on hack work (pot-boiler books and reviews, done purely for money). Consequently he seldom gave the fullest time or energy to his significant books and poems; or didn't get around to writing them at all (e.g. critical monographs on Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth; which he was so well-equipped to write). My point is that Williams needed explicit encouragement and pressure (from those he respected) if he was to retain courage and a sense of high purpose - left to his own devices, he would be likely to waste his abilities and remaining strength.
At this point; I wish to take a transcendental view - a 'God's Eye' view - of CW's mortal life, and the question: Why did Charles Williams die when he did?
Of course, this kind of alternative history is completely subjective and speculative; but here it is...
As the war came to its end, the situation for Charles Williams was that his status at the Oxford University Press had declined, he was tolerated rather than being the centre of things - as he once had been. He was overlooked for 'in house' commissions - he reported that when an OUP meeting was gathered to consider who should be invited to author a new book on Shakespeare, it seemed that it did not even cross anybody's mind that CW might be well-suited to the job.
The Press declined to publish the new collection of poems The Region of the Summer Stars - despite that this proved to be the best-selling, and (I would say) best-quality poetry of Williams's career (both aspects of which were perhaps bolstered by the intense interest in Williams's poetry by Oxford's wartime undergraduates).
Apparently, CW was now a has-been from the perspective of the OUP. All that he could expect from the return to the London offices, was to work-out his final years in quiet seclusion, qualify for his pension, and then retire.
And the reason for this coolness at the Press was probably Oxford University itself. CW had, throughout the war years, devoted a great deal of his work time - i.e. the hours for which was paid by the OUP - teaching for Oxford University as a tutor and lecturer; even to the point of supervising pupils in his office on the premises of OUP!
More significantly, Oxford University valued CW far more than the Press. He attracted respect beyond his friends Lewis and Tolkien (the major Oxford 'fixer' and administrator Maurice Bowra - head (Warden) of Wadham college, was an admirer); was awarded an honorary degree (MA) qualifying him for full academic privileges; and he had become something of a cult figure among the students. His lectures were well attended, impactful and influential; and student societies (and other clubs in the area) called upon him frequently to give talks.
There was nothing definite to keep Williams in Oxford; but there were distinct and plausible possibilities for Williams if he was to stay - especially given his powerful and high-level support. There was talk of making him a University Reader (a faculty level, not college, sub-professorial appointment); and putting him in for the Professor of Poetry election (this was a prestigious public platform, but time-limited and essentially unpaid). Plus there were possibilities of college Fellowships, in the usual Oxford way.
Therefore in late 1944 to early 1945; Charles Williams was faced with two possibilities.
There was the high risk but potentially high reward path of staying at Oxford, continuing with The Inklings, and continuing to grow in fame and influence from that base.
And there was the 'safe' path of going back to London, and time-serving towards his pension at the Press.
Here comes my speculative explanation of Williams's premature death... My feeling is that by choosing the safe but mediocre path of London, Williams was signalling that his creative life was over, and that there was no compelling reason for him to keep living: therefore, he died.
And the counter-factual speculation is that if Williams had chosen the Oxford path - he would Not have died.
Instead, CW would have continued to develop creatively as a poet, novelist, critic and teacher. And, as a side-effect, the Inklings would have continued as a generative and significant gathering of co-workers - since they had come to depend-upon his presence for their distinctive cultural role.
In brief; I am saying that Charles Williams made the wrong decision in opting for London over Oxford; therefore there was no reason for him to continue living: so he did not.
Thursday, 30 July 2020
There is a one hour Canadian radio drama version of The Place of the Lion from 2003, which is available online:
This is performed live, before a festival audience, and by Canadians (i.e. not native English accents) - so allowances must be made; but its heart is in the right place; and there is plenty of humour as well as a clear and strong exposition of the profound, Platonic aspects. The combination of philosophy and jokes is very Shavian - and this broadcast was indeed done at a Shaw festival.
If you like what you hear - the abbreviated play-version may encourage you to 'read the whole thing' - and indeed might prove helpful in understanding what is going-on in some of the trickier parts of the novel.
PloL is my absolute favourite of Charles Williams's novels - which I have read multiple times over a span of thirty-plus years (indeed, I wore-out my first copy!).
It was also a vital catalyst for both CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien in the fiction writing; to the point that I don't think Lewis's Space trilogy would have been written without it, and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings might just have been a kids sequel to The Hobbit.
H/T: Thanks to David Llewellyn Dodds for pointing me at this.
Tuesday, 14 July 2020
When I first read-through the Chronology volume of Scull and Hammond's JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide (2006); I was astonished by the 'saga' of Tolkien's involvement in trying to co-write a (basic!) textbook for students entitled Selections from Chaucer's Poetry and Prose, to be published by the Clarendon imprint of Oxford University Press (OUP) - because this attempt extended from 1922 up to 1951, and he had still not finished it!
Indeed, Tolkien eventually handed-over (very reluctantly) his notes to the OUP and, after a period of trying to find another author or re-launch the project, the book was never published. The proofs and manuscript copy languished in the basements of the OUP for some fifty years until rediscovered through the offices of Professor Bowers - leading to this book.
Thus, JM Bowers has written this new book about this extraordinary episode; which illustrates Tolkien at something likes his extremes of fascinating scholarly inspiration and thoroughness on the one hand; and maddening, obtuse inefficiency and ineffectiveness on the other - all compounded by a stubborn refusal to admit defeat and allow somebody else to do the job (until it was too late).
This book would be appreciated by two main kinds of people: those who are intensely interested by the way Tolkien thought and worked as a writer; and those who are interested by Chaucer. But most appreciated by those who are, like me, keen on both! As such, there is - especially in the earliest chapters, a great deal of worthwhile and important material here. I found myself talking to the family about what I was reading; which is always a good sign!
There is also significant material about Oxford University and Oxford University Press in the middle of the twentieth century; which, again, is something that has long interested me. For example, chapter three is about 'Four Chaucerians': Walter W Skeat, Kenneth Sisam, George S Gordon and CS Lewis. I was particularly pleased to find out more about that rather shadowy, but oft-present, person of Sisam; who was variously Tolkien's tutor, a competitor for the Anglo Saxon Professorship that Tolkien (improbably!) won, and his editor - both successfully as in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight of 1925, and unsuccessfully - as here; and that colossus of British philology: Skeat.
When one looks at Middle English, as I do, Skeat seems to have been everywhere; if not first, then definitively. And Bowers presents a pretty convincing thesis that Tolkien suffered a long term sense of rivalry and inadequacy when measuring himself against Skeat's vast, towering contributions (more than seventy books!). There are some striking examples cited where Tolkien gives minimal acknowledgement to Skeat, despite relying very heavily on him; and others when Tolkien makes too much of rather minute disagreements with Skeat's decisions about editing and etymology, seemingly in order to assert his independence and superiority.
The most interesting aspects of this book for me were the account of the history of the 'Clarendon Chaucer', and the very detailed accounts of Tolkien's editorial work on the text and glossary and his notes for Chaucer; during which I picked up quite a lot of fresh knowledge about these vital but neglected literary skills: compounded of hard work, knowledge and creativity. Here we see Tolkien, often in first draft, and in the process of thinking-though various matters of judgment and interpretation.
On the negative side; I found some parts of the book tedious. There is way, way too much assertion of parallels and influences between details of Chaucer's writing and details of Tolkien's writing; and a whole chapter that compares aspects of Chaucer's and Tolkien's lives and personalities; and their relationships with their sons.
Many of these comparisons I found forced and unconvincing. Especially far-fetched to me was the idea, pursued across 14 pages, that Tolkien was rewriting and correcting The Pardoner's Tale - a simple and cliched parable about greed - throughout The Lord of the Rings. Even if such influences (whether unconscious or conscious) were true they seem to be trivial. These numerous instances I found to be a significant flaw in the book.
However, the main text ends delightfully by describing how Christopher Tolkien, in effect, completed one aspect of the Clarendon Chaucer; by writing the notes and glossary for The Nun's Priest's Tale in the wonderful Harrap edition of 1959 that I studied with such delight for my 'O-Level' (16-plus) exams. I still have the copy, covered in hundreds of minute pencilled annotations; and it was this book (and the excellent teaching of Nigel Hamilton, a Durham graduate who was grounded in Tolkien-style philology) that led to my lifelong enjoyment of Chaucer in the original language.
And led, therefore, to my reading of this book!
Monday, 13 July 2020
But there is no specific reason necessary, beyond that Tolkien was a normal, patriotic Englishman; among whom such an aversion is normal and unremarkable.
The ordinary Englishman has 'always' had a thing against the French; and this was only amplified by having them as 'allies' in both 20th century world wars. Aversion to the French was as common among World War I and II veterans as was an admiration-of, and friendliness-towards, the Germans.
A pervasive (but mostly unspoken) dislike of Frenchness is just normal among the English lower classes; including the non-professional middle class, from which Tolkien emerged.
There are many reasons for it - for example the Norman Conquest imported a Frech-speaking ruling class, leading on to centuries of cultural division, destruction and oppression. And France was an old (often primary) military enemy and political threat (or rival) for many centuries up to Boneparte.
Then there is the association between France and radicalism generally; such that those English who are keen on Leftism, Feminism, and sexual license have always been keen on France. (These are the same people who want England to Remain in the European Union, which is French in origin and spirit.)
Those who find it strange or sinister that Tolkien was French averse are mostly upper-class and/or progressive English - for whom to be Francophile ("the food, the fashion, the sheer style") is a natural as their complementary (and more visceral) despising of Englishness. This description covers nearly all of those people who would be inclined to publish books about Tolkien.
...Or else they are Americans; who just don't understand.
(They may instead be Scottish or Irish; for whom the French serve as just another stick with which to beat the English.)
What is perhaps surprising is that Tolkien qua Oxford Professor did not adopt the Francophilia of his new tribe. But Tolkien's retaining of natural, patriotic, 'common folk' Englishness, was a sign of that same integrity that made him the genius he was.
Monday, 22 June 2020
Tolkien, the late-developer, with reference to photographs (stimulated by re-reading Tolkien at Exeter College, by John Garth; 2014)
What strikes me is that Tolkien was very much of a late developer. This is obvious from his undergraduate career; he started at Oxford aged 19, and the impression from his first couple of years of college life is of an immature, almost compulsively-sociable young man; who joined a large number of dining, conversation and sports clubs; worked very little; engaged in rowdy, destructive, even criminal 'japes'; and spent a lot more money on entertainment, eating and drinking than he could afford - significantly more than the other young men with Exhibitions and Scholarships spent.
It was not until he changed his course from Classics to English, that Tolkien found his vocation, and began to focus his efforts on learning and working. Furthermore, he focused his friendships away from casual acquaintance with dozens, down to fewer and closer relationships; especially with the TCBS members from his schooldays (GB Smith at Oxford; RC Gilson and C Wiseman at Cambridge), and the re-awakening engagement with his future wife Edith.
But I would like to discuss photographs. In Humphrey Carpenter's 1977 official biography there is indeed a whole chapter called Photographs Observed; but HC does not mention what strikes me just now.
Which is that in all his early photography, from his teenage right through to the early twenties, Tolkien had a singularly characterless, expressionless face - at least as revealed in photographs. There seems no disernable trace of his genius, nor even of an interesting person!
The narrowed eyes stare into the distance - but in a way that seems vacuous rather than visionary!
It might be objected that these are just photographs, and that nobody looks very lively in these old posed pictures. Yet the fact is that most of Tolkien's colleagues look much more distinctive, interesting, characterful than he did!
Of course these were a talented bunch of young men, and many of them were killed in the war (fully half of his matriculating class; overall about 20 percent of the entire college) before they could demonstrate that they might be even greater geniuses than Tolkien...
For example, Colin Cullis, in the second picture, was Tolkien's room mate and a member of most of his clubs, and held a higher academic award than Tolkien (a Scholarship, to Tolkien's Exhibition). He has a poetic and sensitive-looking face; with intent eyes. But Cullis was laid low with a serious heart condition, missed the war from ill heath and died in the 'Spanish Flu' of 1919.
Nonetheless, having made all these caveats I am in no doubt that Tolkien was a singularly blank-looking young man, especially when contrasted with the more familiar characterful and appealling old man he became. This fits with his extravert, sensation-seeking, drifting way of life.
Presumably the transition to an internally-driven genius began to evolve in his young adult life or later; perhaps related to getting married, having children, taking responsible jobs...
There is, however, a picture taken in his later 20s when a Reader or Professor at Leeds, where he still seems only 'partially-formed'! And even by the time of this formal picture of 'the 1930s' (aged about forty), although Tolkien has developed a much more intent and eagle-eyed expression, yet he still seems a bit blank and 'vacant'!
It was not until Tolkien's late forties when we start to see that 'twinkle' in the eye that I regard as characteristic:
What do I conclude? Simply that Tolkien's facial appearance broadly matches-up-with and tracks the strengthening and deepening of his literary powers; and this came after middle age. Surely this is what we would expect, after all?
It is perhaps reasonable to conclude (albeit rather lamely!) that these and other photographs confirm that Tolkien probably could not have written his greatest work, until the later-life years when - in fact - he did write his greatest work!
Note: The photos above are merely illustrative ones that I could find on the interweb. My case is argued on the basis of scores of photos I have in various books.
Saturday, 20 June 2020
John Garth. The Worlds of JRR Tolkien: the places that inspired Middle-Earth. Frances Lincoln, London: UK, 2020. pp 208
John Garth is one of the best and most important writers on JRR Tolkien. This is his first full-length book since the landmark volume Tolkien and the Great War of 2003; so I knew I would enjoy it.
From the title, and the fact that it is a large format, really beautifully-produced, hardback volume; I supposed The Worlds of JRR Tolkien might be dominated by the pictures, maybe even be something like a superior 'coffee table' book? I supposed that I might be able to read it in an hour or two... I could not have been more wrong!
This book is absolutely packed with information, a considerable amount completely new to me; analyses, comparisons, discussions, perspectives...
For example, the chapter on 'Craft and Industry' is a fresh examination of the Birmingham links; clarifying that the city was originally composed of thousands of small workshops, making 'toys' of a very hobbit-like kind: buckles and buttons and the like. Tolkien's Grammar School bulidings (now demolished) were one of the great examples of Victorian Gothic revival. And, in general, it would seem that Birmingham and its environs had many positive aspects to contribute to the assimilated childhood and youth experiences of Tolkien, upon which he mainly drew in his writing.
Another stunning chapter was entitled 'The Land of Luthien', and this focused upon maps. There is enough inspired analysis in this chapter to make a whole book. I was particularly gripped by the multiple diagrams where Garth superimposes Tolkien's Lost Tales, Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings maps onto the modern geography of the British Isles (sometimes altering scales). He does this several times, demonstrating what we get from various possible identifications of specific Middle Earth places with specific British cities (e.g. Hobbiton and Oxford) or rivers (e.g. Lhun with Severn).
Other chapters focus on the sea and coastline, mountains, rivers and lakes, towers, warscapes, and - of course! - trees, woodland and forests!
So in broad terms; this book is about the influences of Place on Tolkien's work. It can immediately be seen that this is an entirely appropriate subject matter; because Tolkien is, perhaps above all others, a creator of places. Influences are traced in both directions: from the Tolkien's important places to their possible usage in his works; and from the striking places in Tolkien's works, looking back to possible real locations and experiences that may have contributed to them.
Throughout, Garth manages to maintain the 'right' tone. On the one hand he acknowledges that this is a serious study, about a writer who for many people (including myself) - is The most important of modern fiction authors. On the other hand he maintains a lightness of touch about the activity - allowing himself to speculate (and report the speculations of others) even when these are somewhat wild and loose.
In the event, the book took me several days of intense reading - the process interrupted frequently by setting it aside to think; and by reading out passages, showing pictures, and expounding 'fascinating facts' to my family.
The Worlds of JRR Tolkien is clearly a labour of love; a considered product of thought; fuelled by a deep appreciation of Tolkien and his works. You could buy it as a handsome gift, because it is an exceptionally fine volume: built to last. But anyone who engages with the text and illustrations will discover greater depths and deeper fascinations; and find this to be a major resource for the serious Tolkien reader.
Friday, 19 June 2020
Saruman is a corrupted wizard (a goodie turned baddie) who is the second most important villain in LotR. He is defeated by a combination of the Riders of Rohan and the Ents; and, after being offered and refusing a chance to repent and reform, he is imprisoned by the Ents in the tower of Orthanc.
However, after only a few weeks (and after the prime evil leader Sauron has been defeated and destroyed) Saruman is allowed by the chief Ent (Treebeard) to leave the tower and wander free.
In other words, Treebeard shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and lifts his punishment.
When Gandalf discovers that Saruman has been released, he believes that Treebeard has been hoodwinked by Saruman's almost magical rhetorical skills; and that releasing him was a mistake.
However, when Gandalf and a group of the Fellowship accidentally meet Saruman later in the journey, Gandalf does not make any attempt to recapture Saruman; but allows him to continue his wanderings.
In other words, Gandalf shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and lifts his punishment.
Saruman goes to the Shire and accelerates the process of enslavement, torture, killing, looting and environmental destruction which he had set into action shortly after Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin had left on their quest. When the four hobbits return to the Shire they need to fight and defeat Saruman and his gangs of ruffians; and in doing so several hobbits are killed and others injured.
So, Gandalf's mercy has by this point led to considerable death among hobbits and destruction of the Shire (plus even more death among the ruffians - who are first offered and refuse a chance to repent, surrender and leave without molestation).
Even after all this, Frodo offers Saruman a further chance to repent, which he refuses. Then Frodo shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and does not impose punishment.
Saruman then stabs and tries but fails to kill Frodo, after which Frodo again shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and does not impose any punishment.
Eventually Saruman is killed by his servant Wormtongue, who is slain by the other hobbits before Frodo could stop this.
The result of Frodo’s last acts of mercy was the death of both the unrepentant Saruman, and the on-the-verge-of-repenting Wormtongue.
My feeling is that while Gandalf and Frodo are obviously just in offering Saruman repeated opportunities to repent, and that in their hearts it is right that they forgive Saruman; they are both at fault for showing Saruman a mercy (a reprieve from just punishment) which he did not deserve and which led to great harm. I mean, Gandalf and Frodo's repeated acts of mercy led to harm to others, although not to Gandalf and Frodo.
I am also troubled that Saruman - unlike his mass-slaughtered and mass-imprisoned minions (which included men, as well as orcs, wolves and other perhaps intrinsically-evil creatures) - was hardly punished for his wicked deeds.
Such punishment would have been deserved, and it could perhaps also have brought Saruman towards a realization of his wickedness. To let him wander free did none of this.
I wonder how these acts of mercy would have seemed to the men of Rohan, for example. Saruman simply walking free at the end of these terrible wars; having lied, betrayed, corrupted - not to mention having unleashed orcs on women and children... and so on!
Why should Saruman not be punished?
My interpretation is that Gandalf and Frodo were - understandably - exhausted; and for that reason behaved wrongly in showing mercy to Saruman.
They had both, in fact, from perfectly understandable exhaustion lapsed into a lazy and immoral attitude of pacifism - which is at root a kind of pride, pride in one's own superiority, a reluctance (born of exhaustion) to go through the psychological struggles and compromises of judgment, punishment etc).
Indeed, it was wrong for Gandalf and Frodo to have taken it upon themselves to judge in this matter - since both were (at this point in the story) merely biding their time and settling their affairs prior to leaving Middle Earth. Both had done their duty, succeeded in their primary tasks, and neither had an eye to the future of Middle Earth.
Therefore, the right thing for Gandalf to have done would have been to step aside for Aragorn to make a judgment (or to send Saruman back to the King Aragorn for this purpose); the right thing for Frodo to have done was to step aside for Sam, Merry and Pippin to make a judgment - or perhaps also to refer the matter to King Aragorn (imprisoning Saruman and Wormtongue in the meanwhile).
The whole business illustrates for me a confusion between forgiveness and mercy which is very common.
People seem to assume that to forgive somebody also entails showing them mercy - such that a person who is forgiven is not punished.
This is surely completely and utterly wrong!
Universal forgiveness is quite simply a duty, which everyone must strive to achieve - but universal mercy would be wicked, catastrophically wicked.
It is a gross misunderstanding to imagine that wrong deeds ought never to be punished, and that punishment is only done from resentment.
What should have happened (surely?) is that Gandalf, and Frodo, and the Riders of Rohan and everyone should ideally have forgiven Saruman; but that Saruman should have been punished - and punished severely, up-to and perhaps including execution of his earthly body (as an angelic spirit Sauman's soul was presumably immortal within the life of the world).
In my opinion, the repeated mercy that Gandalf and Frodo showed towards Saruman was at best inappropriate soft-heartedness and at worst a kind of 'aristocratic' lenience - whereby rulers are (from a sense of solidarity) more considerate and merciful towards each other than they are to the common people.
Did Tolkien intend to imply this kind of interpretation?
I am not at all sure - but I would not be *too* surprised if he did; wanting, at some level, to show us mistaken mercy borne of exhaustion as being yet another of the many ill effects of the war of the ring.
Note: Originally published 7th September 2010 at Bruce Charlton's Notions.
Further Note: If Saruman deserved to be let go free to do evil 'in a small way'; how about if Sauron had been captured instead of killed (supposing that the destruction of The Ring hadn't dissolved him into smoke)? What kind of justice would that be?
Tuesday, 9 June 2020
When the Lord of the Rings was first published in the middle 1950s, its UK cost was 1 Guinea - and a Guinea was 1 Pound and 1 Shilling (a Pound being 240 old-pennies and a Shilling being 12 old-pennies); so a Guinea was was 252d (d = old-pennies).
All three LotR volumes cost 3 guineas = about 3.2 pounds. Nowadays, the three volume paperback costs about 25 pounds from amazon.co.uk including delivery. So, the raw cost of buying a new three volume LotR has increased from the 1950s to now by about Eight-fold (25/3.2 = 7.8).
By contrast the price of a Mars Bar (MB) has increased from 5d to 60p, and 60p would have been 144d. Therefore the cost of a Mars Bar has increased (1950s-now) by about Twentynine-fold. (144/5 = c28.8)
Therefore, to adjust for UK inflation since the 1950s to now, we need to multiply current prices by twenty-nine.
(Why Mars Bars? Well, the Mars Bar is 'officially' (i.e. according to an article in the The Financial Times) a Standard; and a (sort-of) acknowledged unit of inflation-adjusted cost. This means that we can standardise the 'real value' of money c. 1955 by correcting for the inflation of Mars Bar prices - that is by multiplying current price by twenty-nine*. )
Therefore, the equivalent (MB-adjusted) cost of LotR at the time it was published was about 93 pounds (approx = 29 X 3.2 pounds).
Of course, for that high price, one was getting a beautifully sewn hard-backed book to last a lifetime, instead of a glued paperback that will probably fall to pieces in about a decade.
The point is that 93 pounds would nowadays be A Lot to pay to buy a copy of a novel, and way beyond what people (especially teens) would normally pay for a book. Therefore it is not at all surprising that the LotR took quite a while to become well known and widely read in the UK.
The first UK paperback was an omnibus edition of all three books - which was not published until 1968. However, this version was minus the appendices (except for an excerpt about Aragorn and Arwen). It sold for 30 Shillings - or 1.5 pounds.
By 1970 the Mars Bars had apparently increased in price to 6d - so we can use a twentyfour-fold inflation adjuster; then we get an MB-adjusted price of 36 pounds for the 1968 omnibus paperback edition.
At the time I first read LotR that single-volume-paperback was the only 'affordable' option for a teen - and very steep even so.
Because the paperback was incomplete, I wanted to buy The Return of the King, in order to get the appendices; and this was only available in hardback. But by 1970 the hardback had nearly doubled in price (to 1.95 pounds) since it was published.
So the MB-adjusted cost of a single volume of the hardback at the time I began reading the LotR in 1972 would be something-like forty-seven pounds. (1.95 X 24 = 46.8). No wonder I didn't buy it...
This shows what poor value was the UK paperback in the early 1970s, and how the restrictive practices of bookselling had - by the 1970s - made UK books relatively more expensive in 1968 than they were in the 1950s. Although I recall that, in addition, Unwin's Tolkien books were noticeably more expensive than most.
From all this it is easy to see just why it was in the United States that Tolkien first became popular, with the UK lagging far behind. Books have always been cheaper in the US than the UK - despite usually being better made; perhaps due to more competition and to the larger market?
And furthermore while the UK had to wait until 1968 for an incomplete paperback; the US had a (pirate) Ace paperback of the complete book from 1965, selling at 2.25 dollars for all three volumes (75 cents per volume) - which would (with about 2.5 dollars to the pound, at that time) have been equivalent to less than 1 Pound, half the price of the UK paperback omnibus version.
*Note: Alternatively, we could express the cost of buying the Lord of the Rings - then and now - in Mars Bars (MBs). At the time of publication the cost was 151 MBs (756d/5) and this has now gone down to 42 MBs (2500p/60).
PS: I got the idea for this from Tom Shippey, who calculated the relative cost of LotR - then and now - but (characteristically) using the price of a pint of beer as his adjustor. I felt this could be improved (economically, albeit less amusingly) using the FT-approved Mars Bar Standard.
PPS - 16:32h - Commenter dearime tells me that Mars bars were 5d in the 1950s (and I believe him!) so I have recalculated on that basis, and again on the basis that an MB was 6d by 1970.
Saturday, 6 June 2020
This is a hardly-known, slim, minor, but fascinating contribution to the writings about Tolkien. Its centre is an account of the summer of 1966 which the author spent meeting with the seventy-four year old Tolkien a few times per week, ostensibly to provide him with informed and enthusiastic secretarial assistance to get The Silmarillion ready for publication.
Clive Kilby was extremely well suited to the job - being a scholar of English literature, and the man who ultimately established the Marion Wade centre at Wheaton College, Illinois (a mecca for Inklings scholars).
As he candidly admits, Kilby's mission failed completely and he was unable to move Tolkien even an inch towards completing his task; indeed it soon became apparent that Tolkien was not really even trying to make the Silmarillion ready for publication; devoting his attention and spending his time on almost anything else rather than this. The Silmarillion was finally prepared for publication by Christopher Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay in 1977; the same year as this book was published.
Kilby's secondary task (given him by Rayner Unwin, Tolkien's publisher) was to get him to finish the introduction to the modern translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; which needed only a few more days work to be ready but had been stuck at this point for many years. Kirby also failed at this - and Tolkien announced ("almost triumphantly") at the end of the summer "Well, I didn't write it!" (The book was finally published posthumously by Christopher, in 1975.)
Kilby's book made no kind of impact - probably because it was from such a small publisher; and partly because its speculations about the Silmarillion seemed to be rendered obsolete by the long trailed publication of The Silmarillion itself, in 1977. Similarly, the memoir snippets about Tolkien which Kilby provides, were also swept away by Humphrey Carpenter's official biography, also in 1977.
The special value of Kilby's book, and why it still remains well worth reading (if you can get hold of a modestly priced copy) is the 28 page chapter Summer with Tolkien. This I would rate as the best concentrated account I have ever read of what Tolkien was like as a person - in his old age. Kilby had (and Warnie Lewis confirms this, in his diaries) a very sweet and direct nature, with that nice kind of (as it seems to English people) boyish naivete characteristic of some grown-up American men.
So, there are some really good descriptions of Tolkien's appearance, behaviour, manners, mode of speech - and the conversational topics that interested him. Kilby provides a specimen day where he lists, in order, the subjects into-which Tolkien led the conversation:
1. Fan letters, and how T replies to them; 2. Annoyance at an article on T in the Saturday Evening Post; 3. Declaring the birch outside to be his totem tree; 4. How he and Mrs T were annoyed with WH Auden for reportedly making the remark that T's home was 'hideous' in a meeting of the T Society in the US; 5. His dislike of the covers on the Ballantyne paperbacks - and (on publishers more generally) that he was both annoyed and gratified by the Ace paperbacks pirate edition of Lord of the Rings; 6. That he was pleased with the Japanese edition of The Hobbit; 7. Discussing Mrs T's chronic illness; 8. K asks if anyone has asked to write a biography, T says yes and discusses his worries at inner motives being misrepresented; 9. His intention to write a book on the Second Age of Middle Earth, especially Numenor; 10. T showed K some old manuscripts of his work, with evidence of much re-working.
In general; Kilby commented (what the above list confirms) that Tolkien did not seem much interested in working on The Silmarillion, had lost track of much written material among a chaos of manuscripts, and seemed to have forgotten some things he had written (often some decades earlier).
In sum, this little book contains plenty to enjoy, and contributes an unique perspective to understanding the delightful, frustrating, complex and contradictory character of JRR Tolkien.
I am currently on an all-round diet of Tolkien - Reading The Notion Club Papers for the nth time (and dipping-into other things); and listening to the audiobook of Christopher Tolkien's thematic edition of the Beren and Luthien texts (2017).
Coming at the Notion Club Papers this time, I am much aware that Tolkien was writing this as a spiritual exploration, he was trying to solve some pressing personal problems by writing them. Instead of working these out in real-life conversations with the Inklings; he chose to do so through the the Notion Club - which were fictional-fantasy Inklings.
And then he would read what he had written to the actual Inklings, presumably to gather reactions; and return to do more Notion Club - all through the first half of 1946 until he again took-up The Lord of the Rings, never to return again to the NCPs.
What Tolkien was concerned by, was something that 'obsessed' him all through his writing life - which was the 'frame' of his fantasy.
The NCPs open with Tolkien's alter ego Ramer (one of his two alter egos in this work - the other being Lowdham) having just read a science fiction story about another planet to the Club; and being criticised for the clumsiness and perfunctory, unconvincing nature of the 'framing device' for travel to and from this planet - apparently in a spaceship of some kind.
Tolkien himself needed a way of relating, of explaining, the link between his stories and the modern world.
After considering various possibilities, the consensus is that some kind of mental travel is the best possibility - either telepathy or in a trance or dream state. A psychic link needs to be established between a human body here-and-now, and other times and places. This was actively being considered by Tolkien as the basis for linking his 'Middle Earth' (Arda) writings with modern Oxford - in which case the NCPs would have been, in effect, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings and/or The Silmarillion.
But in a larger sense, which soon becomes apparent; Tolkien is writing more generally about the relation between his imaginative fantasy and the modern mundane world. The Club's discussions branch off into considering how - as imagination goes back - history turns into myth. And it is clear that the mythic way of thinking is regarded as being of great value. Indeed, the projected NCPs seem to be about re-establishing the link between myth and modern life.
Following the telepathy/ trance/ dream line of thinking; this link is established by members of the Notion Club themselves, as a consequence of their conscious and purposive brooding on this theme. In effect, because they regard it as important and as possible - the Notion Club are able to bridge time and space in their own minds, thereby opening a 'channel' through which myth can re-enter modernity.
This at first happens by the storms that led to the drowning of Numenor, breaking-through to sweep the British Isles from West to East (Ireland bearing the brunt of it, but Oxford also severely affected).
What impresses me with the NCPs this-time-round, is that Tolkien was saying that thinking is real - and that purposive, conscious, sincere thinking has an effect on the world - primarily a spiritual effect, but also a physical effect (albeit something of a minor disaster in terms of wind and floods).
Also, I am appreciating the way that the Notion Club are engaged in a kind of intuitive searching. They don't know exactly what they are looking-for, nor do they know where or how to find-it. So they try this, and that - and follow hunches to see whether they lead to anything.
Ramer and Dolbear being by means of trances and dreams; and in the second part Lowdham and Jeremy extend this to a physical search for... clues and connections; travelling by boat and on foot in Ireland and the West coast of the mainland of Britain.
I am finding all this is encouraging me in my current efforts, as described recently. Because The Notion Club Papers is - in one sense - 'about' the need to combat the deathly, dead-ly materialism and reductionism of modern society; to combat it consciously and purposively (and effectively) by our minds, our imaginations.
Friday, 17 April 2020
In Paul Kocher's Master of Middle Earth (the first first-rate work of literary criticism that Tolkien attracted) there is a superb chapter that discusses the inter-relationship between individual choices and the working of divine providence.
It is indeed a recurrent theme throughout the story. It is clear that the individual protagonists have real decisions to make, and that these decisions are genuinely free and not pre-determined; equally it is clear that there is a divine will at work shaping events in the direction of Good.
Providence seems to have a first-choice Plan; which, if the best choices are made, will give the best overall outcome; but has back-up plans (Plan B, Plan C etc.) that can be tried sequentially to get the same main result - but at the probable cost of worse collateral damage.
(No matter how many plans have failed - God does not give-up on us - his children; he is not limited to Plans A-Z but will patiently continue to shape the situation for our eternal good regardless of how many people have made the wrong choices.)
Thus, the actual destruction of the One Ring was probably Plan C.
Plan A probably involved Gollum repenting at or before the scene on the stairs of Cirith Ungol where he sees Frodo and Sam peacefully asleep (this plan would also entail Sam not calling Gollum a sneak when he woke to see Gollum stroking Frodo tenderly, but interpreted as him trying to steal the ring - so Sam shares this blame).
Then Frodo would maybe Not have been stung by Shelob nor captured by the Orcs. How the ring would then have been destroyed is not made clear in the text (although Tolkien later speculated on this matter in one of his published Letters) - but perhaps Frodo and/or Gollum would have made a voluntary sacrifice.
Plan B included that Frodo should cast The Ring into the cracks of doom, voluntarily (or, at least, Not claim it for his own); but it was Plan C by which the job was accomplished. Plan C was sub-optimal; and entailed the destruction of Frodo's appetite for life, tipping him into a chronic and worsening melancholia. Because Frodo did not succeed in voluntarily casting-away the ring, because he tried to claim it; he was plagued by regret for its destruction.
This is not a matter of blaming Frodo for his failure, since carrying the ring to Mordor and destroying it was a task beyond his power, and Frodo knew this; yet continued anyway. It was, indeed, a task that could only be accomplished with the aid of providence.
Nonetheless. moral choice is real and consequences are real, and Frodo made the wrong choice; and this carries an inevitable consequence - which is inevitably sub-optimal.
Friday, 17 January 2020
CT was probably the person I would (in a theoretical way) most have liked to get to know, as a friend, for long and detailed discussions - because there was so much that only he could have told. But I do feel as if I knew him; because I have read so many of his words, in so many different situations relating to his Father's work.
I always enjoy and appreciate (and re-read) those parts of the History of Middle Earth which Christopher contributed; starting with Unfinished Tales of 1980 (which I happen to be re-reading currently) and continuing up to The Fall of Gondolin (which was published in 2018, in which he said his goodbye).
(I leave aside the 1977 Silmarillion as somewhat of a failure, in which he had not hit his straps as an editor; and which lacks his authorial voice.)
Christopher brought a remarkable (and unexpected) extra dimension to his Father's work, which is probably unique in the history of literature; since it is exceedingly rare to combine such knowledge, talent and dedication with deep sympathy and an apparently complete absence of ego.
Christopher's vast output of his father's posthumous primary writings, and of commentary and scholarship, seems to be motivated entirely by filial love; and this is what makes his achievement so beautiful.
Tuesday, 14 January 2020
Naive first-time readers of The Lord of the Rings regard Frodo as the hero.
Sophisticates, who have read the book a few times, or read the secondary literature; regard Sam as the hero - noticing that the point-of-view switches to Sam not long after the Fellowship is broken, Sam has the last words in the book; and that Sam is indeed heroic in multiple ways - especially in fighting Shelob and rescuing Frodo while alone.
(Some weird people - who are profoundly out of sympathy with Tolkien, and haven't read LotR carefully - regard Gollum as the hero, because... well, you know the kind of stuff.)
However, Ultra-sophisticates such as myself (!) realise that Frodo was the hero all along!
Why? Well, because the book is primarily about the destruction of The One Ring, and Frodo is the only character whose primary priority is the destruction of The Ring. This is not vitiated by the observation that Frodo was unable purposively to complete his task - the fact is that he gave the job his everything.
Most important job, gave it everything: Frodo is the hero.
By contrast, Sam's priority is Frodo - and when he temporarily tries to put The Ring first, and leaves Frodo for dead - he deeply regrets having done so, and berates himself for having failed to stick by his proper task.
(Gollum is the person who actually destroys the ring, but does so by accident - assisted by providence; so he isn't the hero.)
Monday, 30 December 2019
A Middle Earth Traveller: sketches from Bag End to Mordor. John Howe. HarperCollins, 2018. 192 pages, large format.
John Howe has become the best artist to illustrate Tolkien. Not only scense and characters from the major works published in Tolkien's lifetime and posthumously, but he has extended imaginatively into subjects that were only hinted-at in the extensive Legendarium.
Howe has been illustrating covers for, I think, more than 25 years - and these were always good; but over the decades Howe as become a better artist and has gone ever more deeply into Tolkiens world; assisted by being one of the two artists (the other was Alan Lee) to work on the design of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies.
I already have several earlier books including Howe's Tolkien work, but Middle Earth Traveller reaches a new level of quality, interest and sheer generosity. It includes colour paintings finished drawings, and hundreds of pencil sketches; of landscape, people and artefacts.
I say Howe is the best artist to illustrate Tolkien because he is the best at figure drawing, portraiture; and this comes from his very fluid and fluent line. I presume this has developed from the vast workload undertaken during the movie making process, when he was needed 24/7 to make multiple last minute changes to the set, costume, props etc.
In addition - from his own passionate engagement with Tolkien's world - Howe has made (it seems) many thousands of extra sketches extending beyond what was needed for the movies (and commissioned illustrations), and noting features of suitable landscapes.
What I get from this book (including the extensive explanatory texts) is a sense of genuine personal engagement and love of the subject matter; combined with accuracy and skill. The book is jam-packed with good stuff, and represents excellent value for money - whether as a present (which is how I got mine) or for yourself.
Saturday, 23 November 2019
Indeed, I would say that the fact that the Inklings was a loving group was what raised it above other superficially similar intellectual groupings.
At the centre of the Inklings was CS Lewis - who, of course, wrote on the subject of The Four Loves (1960), a man with a genius for friendship, and who genuinely loved his friends. Jack Lewis attended all the meetings, which were held in his rooms; he was driving force that kept them going. And after the evening meeting of the true 'Inklings' dissolved, Jack maintained an extended convivial conversation group for more than another decade, lunchtimes at the 'Bird and Baby' or (opposite) Lamb and Flag pubs.
Of those inklings whom Lewis loved, first was his brother Warnie, second was his student friend Owen Barfield. Then came JRR Tolkien. And in all of these instances, the love was mutual.
Finally, there was Charles Williams...
As always with Williams, the friendship with Lewis is not straightforward. There is no doubt that Lewis loved Williams; but I doubt whether this love was reciprocal - indeed, I have never seen any reference anywhere to suggest that Williams actually loved Lewis as a friend. Respected, yes. Enjoyed the company of, yes. But I am not confident that - after his youth and young adulthood - Williams loved any man.
This is not, perhaps, unusual; because few men can develop robust and lasting loving friendships with other men after early adulthood; and in this respect Lewis was exceptional.
But with Jack, Warnie, Barfield, Tolkien and Williams we have the core of the Inklings; and at the centre of this web of loving relationships was Jack. He truly was the heart of the group.