Saturday 17 February 2024

A joke quoted by JRRT

From letter 97b, of the 2023, expanded, edition of Letters by JRR Tolkien*: 

Mother discovered her small daughter drawing.

"What are you drawing, darling" said she.

"I am drawing God." 

"Oh, but you can't draw God, dear. Nobody knows what he's like." 

"Well they will now."

*I got this for my birthday recently, and am avidly reading it; but - because it is so dense and interesting - only at a rate of 30-40 pages per day. With a total of more than 600 pages (not including index), it'll be a couple of weeks before I can write a review of the whole thing...  

Sunday 11 February 2024

Free, high quality e-books of Charles Williams and CS Lewis - downloadable from

I have recently discovered the excellent Fadedpage web site; which is done by volunteers, and provides free, high quality, downloadable e-books from a variety of authors in the public domain of Canada (which, sensibly, has 50 year copyright laws). 

I stumbled across it in search of Biggles books; but have since discovered a remarkably rich seam of Charles Williams's works (some them very difficult, or expensive, to get in hard copy); plus a large number of CS Lewis texts - also including some rarities! 

Even if you already have these books on paper, Fadedpage could provide handy portable versions to take on holiday or journeys.   

Sunday 4 February 2024

Valedictory Address: The only published piece by Tolkien that I dislike

Of course I do not enjoy everything by JRR Tolkien that has been published; but - with one exception - I do find all his works (finished and incomplete) to be worthwhile and respect-worthy... 

Except for one thing. 

That is the lecture entitled "Valedictory address to the University of Oxford" and included as final piece in the collection The Monsters and the Critics, and other Essays (Paperback, 1987; Edited by Christopher Tolkien).  

This was a public lecture delivered on the occasion of Tolkien's retirement in June 1959, after reaching the age of sixty-seven. Tolkien had been associated with the University first as an undergraduate (forty-eight years earlier); and had then served in two different Professorships (Anglo-Saxon, then English Language and Literature) for the exceptionally long span of thirty-four years.

To my mind; this final lecture should have been - overall - a warm and genial event; a celebration of Tolkien's relationship with a university he (mostly) loved and respected. 

But instead Tolkien adopted what comes-across as a petty, narrow, carping, and mean-spirited attitude; displaying an unattractive defensiveness towards his critics and intellectual enemies; and a persisting resentment concerning the academic decisions and trends he regarded as mistaken. 

Especially given that, by this time, the Lord of the Rings had been published and Tolkien had become somewhat famous outside of the academy - I would have hoped for a public demonstration of the man's greatness of soul and largeness of spirit. 

But I suspect that I would have found the actual lecture to be an embarrassing event to attend; altogether unworthy of Tolkien. 

I would have hoped for his themes to be broad and of general interest (as befits a public lecture); rather than this indulgence in nit-picking over the minutiae of past disputes relating mainly to the departmental syllabus and examinations! 

Valedictory means a goodbye; and when saying goodbye for the last time, one surely ought to attempt a heartening farewell? 

One ought not to leave a "nasty taste" lingering after departure. 

Altogether; the Valedictory Address strikes me as a disappointing and saddening leave-taking of Tolkien's life as Professor - the only of all his productions that I would prefer had not happened. 

Thursday 1 February 2024

"Broad Relic" in the Notion Club Papers is the island of Flat Holm in the Bristol Channel

JRR Tolkien. The Notion Club Papers - in "Sauron Defeated" The History of Middle Earth Volume 9, HarperCollins: London, 1993.  

[p277]. The Danes attack Porlock that night. They are driven off and take refuge by swimming out to the ships and so to 'Broad Relic'.[Note 106]* A small 'cnearr' [ship] is captured. It is not well guarded. AElfwine tells Treowine that he has stores laid up. They move the boat and stock it the following night and set sail West.

[p288]. Danes attack that night but are driven off. AElfwine and Treowine are among those who capture a small ship that had ventured close inshore and stuck. The rest escape to 'Broad Relic'.

*Note 106 [by Christopher Tolkien]. I cannot explain the reference of 'Broad Relic'. 


I have long been somewhat curious about the meaning of "Broad Relic", especially because Christopher Tolkien could not identify it. 

However, as a sometime resident of Somerset who dwelt near the Bristol Channel, I guessed that Danes driven off Porlock to their ships, might well take refuge on one of the islands between Somerset and Wales - of which there are three well known: Lundy, Steep Holm, and Flat Holm. 

I thought that "Broad Relic" might well be one of these islands. 

On researching the etymology of these islands it emerged that Flat Holm was named "Bradan Relice" in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles (which, of course JRR Tolkien knew) - and so the puzzle of Broad Relic appears to have been solved! 

...Although, perhaps typically, Tolkien seems to have quibbled with the mainstream translation of Relice (given below by Coates) as coming from Old Irish reilic meaning "cemetery"; by instead translating Relice as meaning "relic" as if derived from the Welsh rhelyw.  


Richard Coates. The name of the Island of Annet, Isles of Scilly, Cornwall. . Ainm: Journal of the Ulster Place-Name Society. 2008; 9: 73-84 - page 81. 

 A further Irish-derived name-pair evidently belonging in this category is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (Swanton 2000). Flat Holm (Glamorgan), an island in the Bristol Channel, is referred to as (æt) bradan relice, (into) bradan reolice (annals 918 [914] (A) and 1067 (D) respectively). Version D calls the adjacent Steep Holm (Somerset) (æt) steapan relice (annal 915 [914]). 

These names, though English in form, evidently contain a word, perhaps in use as a name, borrowed from Old Irish reilic ‘cemetery’ (Vulgar Latin reliquie), and not from the Welsh borrowing of the same item, which is rhelyw and means ‘relic’ (see Jackson 1953: 403 for the phonology).  


Note added from comments: I think it is pretty definite that the basic history of this "dream" episode of the NCPs is based on the Anglo Saxon Chronicles [] e.g (note the second paragraph): 

 A.D. 918. This year came a great naval armament over hither south from the Lidwiccians; (40) and two earls with it, Ohter and Rhoald. They went then west about, till they entered the mouth of the Severn; and plundered in North-Wales everywhere by the sea, where it then suited them; and took Camlac the bishop in Archenfield, and led him with them to their ships; whom King Edward afterwards released for forty pounds. After this went the army all up; and would proceed yet on plunder against Archenfield; but the men of Hertford met them, and of Glocester, and of the nighest towns; and fought with them, and put them to flight; and they slew the Earl Rhoald, and the brother of Ohter the other earl, and many of the army. And they drove them into a park; and beset them there without, until they gave them hostages, that they would depart from the realm of King Edward. And the king had contrived that a guard should be set against them on the south side of Severnmouth; west from Wales, eastward to the mouth of the Avon; so that they durst nowhere seek that land on that side. 

Nevertheless, they eluded them at night, by stealing up twice; at one time to the east of Watchet, and at another time at Porlock. There was a great slaughter each time; so that few of them came away, except those only who swam out to the ships. Then sat they outward on an island, called the Flat-holms; till they were very short of meat, and many men died of hunger, because they could not reach any meat. Thence went they to Dimmet, and then out to Ireland...

Friday 26 January 2024

Ramer contra Lowdham - comparing Tolkien's alter ego characters in The Notion Club Papers

Christopher Tolkien published the surviving material of The Notion Club Papers (in The History of Middle Earth - Volume Nine) in two parts, each of which has a particular character who serves as the main mouthpiece for Tolkien's own ideas; an alter ego. These characters are Ramer in Part One, and Lowdham in Part Two. 

Ramer and Lowdham divide between them several of Tolkien's major personal characteristics, motivations and interests - so that put-together they would represent something quite close to Tolkien himself. 

Furthermore, there is a progression between Ramer and Lowdham in the story which represents an imaginative possibility for Tolkien himself - albeit one that never happened "in real life".

Like Tolkien; Ramer is, apparently, a philologist (however Ramer's specialty is the Finnish and Hungarian language group); but "better known" as a writer of what would nowadays be termed fantasy fiction, including "science fiction". I think we are perhaps meant to infer that Ramer's heart is not in philology (that is what comes across in the reported conversations) - his interest in it is professional rather than personal - his heart is in his fiction writing. 

He is reported as having read a story to the club; then, after some preliminary "skirmishing", the NCP narrative takes-off when Ramer begins to describe his experiments in exploring the remote past and outer space with "parapsychological" methods such as telepathy, lucid dreaming and psychometry. 

The similarity of Ramer with JRRT is that internal evidence and some of Christopher Tolkien's notes suggests that his father had some experience of these paranormal-type experiences, and used the results in his writing.

Ramer could be described as having something like a travelers interest in other times and places - albeit this goes very deep; because he describes an extreme kind of sympathy with other places and "things" (such as a meteor) that amounts to near-complete identification of "what it is like" actually to be them. 

Yet, Ramer does not seem to want to do anything with these experiences more, or other, than to enjoy them; to remember and write about them.  

In sum, we could describe Ramer's "paranormal" experiences as being essentially contemplative - he desires to visit and mentally-explore remote space and time - partly from curiosity, but also implicitly to "use" such information in his fictional writing. This was also Tolkien's practice - to some extent; but it leaves-out some of Tolkien's other distinctive characteristics - in particular his lifelong passion-for, and profound expertise-in, philology. 

While Ramer is a somewhat lukewarm philologist; Lowdham is - like JRRT - a vocational philologist; and with similar specific interests in Germanic, Scandinavian and ancient English languages. Furthermore, Lowdham (and Lowdham's father, by report) articulates Tolkien's own special affinity for Anglo-Saxon. 

In Part One, Lowdham comes across as a rather facetious character, who protects his real nature and deepest enthusiasms by a "tortoise-shell" of bumptious behaviour, vulgar singing, and a stream of witticisms and jokes. Tolkien, likewise, was often defensive, and deliberately misleading, about the depth and passion of his unusual interests and strange beliefs. 

Yet, Lowdham's friends realize that this protective carapace is beginning to crack under the influence of Ramer's revelations and the themes that are emerging. As the story progresses and especially in Part Two, Lowdham comes to the fore as an intensely emotional man; almost volcanic in his energies and will. 

Indeed (like Tolkien as a keen rugby playing youth) Lowdham is a very physical man - loud of voice (his name was originally spelled Loudham) - albeit Lowdham is described, quite unlike Tolkien (fair haired, nimble), as physically large and dark-complexioned.   

Lowdham's core interest is (like Tolkien's) primarily in remote times; in ancient history rather than the further reaches of outer space. 

And indeed he seems most attracted to the uttermost West, beyond the British Isles - the mythic land of Faery and of "Atlantis"/ Numenor - which, he suspects, may have been the intended destination of his father - lost at sea. 

If Ramer's aims are those of a visitor, an historian - with intent to use the material in writing fiction; Lowdham's interest is more philological than historical. And more "therapeutic" than literary; in the sense of Lowdham desiring to follow his father Westward, or at least discover what happened to him and perhaps re-open a channel of communication between here-and-now and then-and-there. 

While some of this is - no doubt - a scholarly drive; the fact that Lowdham goes off on an actual quest with Jeremy, sailing along the Western coasts of Britain and Ireland, and exploring the countryside - a magical quest, indeed, where Lowdham's mediumistic ability to hear ancient language in states of lucid dreaming, is combined with Jeremy's complementary talent for experiencing visions of that which Lowdham hears.

Jeremy's developing partnership and alliance with Lowdham brings a focus on myth, about which Jeremy has much to say; and as the story proceeds mythic considerations tend to transcend Ramer's more mundane interests in the geography and history of strange places and remote times. 

Jeremy therefore brings-in yet another aspect of Tolkien. And Jeremy is another fantasy fiction writer - indeed that is his special interest as a literary scholar and critic. 

So; why do Lowdham and Jeremy desire so much to re-open communications with Numenor, and via Numenor with the ancient world of the elves (as understood by Tolkien), that they risk their lives in its pursuit? Risk death in that the two men are nearly killed by first walking into the teeth of a hurricane, then later sailing a small boat into the residue of terrible storms that have come-through into the times of the Notion Club from the downfall of Numenor?

What I perceive, overall, in the Notion Club Paper fragments and (by inference) from behind them; is a transformation from the somewhat detached, contemplative, non-interventional perspective of Ramer; through to a more active, participating and (potentially) world-transforming engagement with the reality of myth

This would represent a movement of intent from the mundane and aesthetic, into the spiritual and indeed divine purposes: It is (implicitly) Tolkien's acknowledgement of the need for the modern world of the Notion Club (and of the Inklings) to be rescued, or redeemed, by the realities of Tolkien's mythic world - as represented by first Ramer, then Lowdham - complemented by Jeremy. 

The Notion Club Papers can be seen as a sketch of how this epic task might be begun - if not accomplished altogether. 


Monday 22 January 2024

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and other verses from The Red Book by JRR Tolkien, 1962 - a review of 50 years re-reading

When I first read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings some half century ago, I didn't much enjoy the poetry - mostly because I did not enjoy any poetry at all at that time in my life. 

Or, more exactly, I didn't enjoy poetry qua poetry, but for other reasons. For instance, I enjoyed Middle English poetry such as Chaucer or Sir Gawain, but because I enjoyed the language rather than from any reason specifically poetic. 

But as the decades have rolled-by; I have come to appreciate and enjoy Tolkien's poems and verses more and more - indeed, more each year; until now I would have to say he is one of my very favourite poets! 

Most of Tolkien's best poetry is in The Lord of the Rings; but in 1962 he published a collection called The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (ATB) which was beautifully illustrated by Pauline Baynes. 

In 2014 was published a new edition of ATB, with extensive notes by those superhumanly-thorough scholars Christina Scull and Wayne G Hammond (authors of the indispensable JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide). 

These fascinating notes by S&H explain Tolkien's wide-ranging vocabulary, references, and acknowledged influences; and also often include earlier versions of the 1962 poems; which are always interesting and sometimes extremely good in their own right. 

(Unfortunately the page size in the 2014 edition of ATB is approximately halved from the 1962 version - including my 1972 reprint; so the illustrations have been somewhat miniaturized -- which is why I like to own and use both editions.) 

There are sixteen poems - long, medium and short, three of which are also in Lord of the Rings

The longest poem, and my favourite of all, is Bombadil Goes Boating: a tour de force of rhyme and allusion, which is touched by the genius of true lyric poetry. Scull and Hammond's notes really enhanced my already high appreciation. 

This poem was written just before 1962, and especially for this collection. Its original title demonstrates that it was envisaged as a series of "flitings" - a fliting being a public contest of ritual (i.e. non-serious), but exaggerated, satire and insult between master poets - as with the enjoyable Middle Scots Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie by William Dunbar from about 1500.  

The title poem opens the volume and makes a pair with Bombadil goes Boating. Bombadil admirers will relish it as a "prequel" (attributed to Hobbits of the Buckland area and nearby) to the Hobbits' encounter with Tom in the Old Forest. 

Another favourite is the remarkable and haunting The Sea-Bell; which works at several levels. These include in-universe references to Frodo's sadness and isolation during his final years after the One Ring was destroyed and before leaving Middle Earth; also un-missable autobiographical echoes, concerning Tolkien's own relationship with Faery. Its 1934-published precursor was titled "Looney" - i.e. lunatic, mad-man; which is telling. 

Overall; Sea-Bell makes a more pessimistic partner-piece to Tolkien's "valedictory" story published some five years later: Smith of Wootton Major

The final poem in the volume, The Last Ship, is also beautiful and sad. And it also has a precursor published version from 1934, called Firiel. Firiel is excellent; and interestingly different from Last Ship in both setting and mood. 

There are several pieces of Comic Verse that demonstrate Tolkien's excellent technique and capacity for complex verbal trickery - Errantry is the best known of these; but I prefer Fastitocalon; and its 1927 precursor is even better. 

Sam's Oliphaunt rhyme from LotR is is also featured in ATB; and Scull and Hammond provide a truly brilliant 1927-published version in the notes: which is the equal of Hilaire Belloc at his best.  

There are also pieces in a folk song or "ballad" narrative style - such as Perry-the-Winkle, and a couple provide fanciful "back stories" for nursery rhymes (one of these is the song Frodo sings standing on the table at the Prancing Pony). 


The illustrations are Pauline Baynes at her incomparable best; and they are very important to the effect of the book as a whole. Since there is such a wide range of quality and quantity among the sixteen pieces (e.g. I find Princess Mee pretty feeble*) - it is the illustrations running-through that bind the heterogeneous parts into a coherent and effective whole. 

Illustration for The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon - an imagined and elaborate precursor to the modern nursery rhyme about cold porridge in Norwich. 

*But only a fool judges a poet by his worst works! (Or are we to regard Shakespeare as the author of Titus Andronicus?) And even the best poets will produce mostly-mediocrity, and only relatively few (or even just one!) really good poems. 

Wednesday 20 December 2023

JRR Tolkien, Beowulf; and the nature of this mortal life

From Beowulf and the Critics by JRR Tolkien, edited by Michael DC Drout, 2002. 

[Drout:] Tolkien located civilization in the masculine institutions of the Beowulf poet (in particular the bright hall), outside of which the chaos-monsters ruled. The primary theme of Beowulf, Tolkien wrote, is "that man, each man and all men and all their works shall die." Beowulf is not subject to reproach for fighting with the dragon because he would have died anyway, albeit from a different sling or arrow of fortune. In Beowulf and the Critics Tolkien quotes from both the Seafarer and Hrothgar's words to Beowulf [translations by JRRT]: 


I believe not that the joys of earth will abide everlasting. Ever and in all cases will one of three things trouble his heart before the appointed day: sickness, or age, or the foeman's sword from the doomed men hastening hence will his life ravish


Soon hereafter it will come to pass that sickness or sword shall rob thee of strength, or grasping fire, or heaving flood, or biting blade, or flying spear, or dreadful age; or the flash of eyes shall foul and darken. Swiftly will it come that thee, o knight, shall death conquer


Comment. Thus it was and thus it is still...

Albeit that for us, in The West, death has recently conquered and the joys of earth been extinguished more by sickness or "dreadful age"; than by sword, fire, flood, or spear. 

Yet, it can been seen that our barbarian ancestors implicitly knew there was more to the world than the bright hall of mortal life and the chaos-monsters that surrounded such brief and fragile joys. Because these men had an ethic of courage; a morality that regarded death in battle against monsters, in obedience to duty to one's lord, in defence of one's people - as better ways to die than sickness or age.

There was therefore an unrecognized, implicit knowledge that - in spite of their belief that the monsters would eventually win, and chaos would consume the world of men; this ought to be resisted and delayed. 

In other words; although neither consciously known nor named, there was assumed to be some higher perspective, some point-of-view which stood above the apparent division of reality into temporary mortal joy and enveloping eternal chaos... 

And it was this higher perspective from-which came duty and values: and virtues. 

Such Men of the Dark Ages had an existential overview of reality and the human condition which is almost completely lacking in the modern West. 

We are, instead, so consumed by shallow, short-termist hedonic (utilitarian) concerns and fears; that we have genuinely lost sight of the reality and inevitability that all our joys and sufferings, our triumphs and disasters, are all temporary; and man, each man and all men and all their works shall die.

Knowing such facts-of life; to such men as Beowulf and his contemporaries; Jesus Christ's offer of the chance for resurrected eternal life in heaven; and a permanent escape from the tyranny of death, was a no-brainer!

Of course such Men wanted what Jesus Christ offered! 

That they wanted it was clear, certain and obvious - the only question was whether or not this "Jesus" really could fulfil his promises. Once convinced Jesus could do what he said - their decision was made. 

Once a pagan Anglo Saxon had been convinced that following Jesus really was a way to eternal Heavenly life; there was no question but he would seize the offer in both hands, and do whatever was required to obtain it.

(And the same applied to the Vikings who came some centuries after.) 

By contrast, modern Men of The West are so pathetically bound up in their everyday machinations, their hope for little pleasures and fears of possible suffering; that they cannot even comprehend the nature of Life; and failing to comprehend the problem, are indifferent to the solution. 

Consumed by trivia and selfish-utilitarianism; Modern Man is not sufficiently interested in the eternal questions to make an effort to investigate the real nature and potential validity of what Jesus offers. 

Our existential and spiritual inferiority to the Anglo Saxon pagans is an objective fact. We are so very inferior to them, that we have not even acknowledged the unavoidable existence of the question of Life - leave aside making an effort to evaluate the rightness of possible answers. 

Friday 24 November 2023

Numenor and the insufficiency of mortal life in this-world

The recent collection of Tolkien's Numenor material into a single volume The Fall of Numenor (edited by Brian Sibley, 2022) has triggered considerable further thought concerning one of Tolkien's most profound mythic themes. 

The significance of Numenor is something that I only gradually recognized, and which has increased over the years. 

The reason is not hard to discover; because Numenor addresses Tolkien's core theme of "death"; because Numenor enables Tolkien to explore Man's response to death in a very pure situation of this-worldly bliss: an earthly paradise. 

In Numenor, Men are given an ideal life in material terms: the "land of gift" bestows strength and stature, immunity from illness and the decline of age, greater intelligence and skill; and the best possible land and climate for humans to thrive. 

The point is that in the rest of the world outside Numenor (as in our own world) there are always material 'reasons' to explain the insufficiency of life: things like sickness, violence, famine, old age etc. Men can therefore assume that "if only" the material conditions of life could be sorted-out - then Life would become completely satisfactory. 

But Numenor is a world in which the material conditions have already been sorted-out; and yet Life is still insufficient!

In other words, in Numenor we are able to observe Men in a situation where all the solvable problems of life have been solved; and what remains are intrinsic features of the Human Condition. 

We are thus invited to reflect upon: whether or not the situation of ideal Men in an ideal world is sufficient to satisfy our soul's need? 

And Tolkien's answer is: No

That is Tolkien's answer and I agree, as have many Men back (at least) to the times of the Ancient Greek philosophers. Numenor is an illustration of the fact that this mortal life is insufficient - no matter how ideal its circumstances. Men are not ultimately satisfied by paradise. 

My understanding is that Man's eventual and decisive dissatisfaction with the life of Numenor was not itself evil: it was, indeed, an inevitability; and the fact that the Valar (and the Eldar) did not anticipate this dissatisfaction, and could not understand it once it had become evident - was evidence of the angelic powers' and the elves' limited sympathies when it came to Men: their limited understanding of The Nature of Reality. 

Men's dissatisfaction with their life and this world is actually a consequence (albeit indirect and expressed by opposition) of their ultimate spiritual superiority to the Valar and the Eldar; and the reason why The One brought forth this second wave of 'humans beings': why the Followers (Men) were always intended and designed to replace the Firstborn (elves). 

Death - in Tolkien's world - is called the Doom of Men; the word "Doom" covering both sides of the matter: that death was the ineradicable gift of Eru (God: the prime creator), and also that death was experienced as an inescapable and terrifying fate. 

One lesson of Numenor is that the inescapable reality of death means that there can be no ultimately adequate life for Men - not even in Paradise. That recognition is wisdom. 

But what then? If this mortal life is insufficient, if Paradise is not enough... What Then? How should Men understand their situation in the world; what should Men do?

Here is where the Men of Numenor went wrong - most obviously those who delusionally tried to attain eternal life by force of arms, but probably even those who were of "the faithful" - those who obeyed the Valar, and respected (and, it seems envied) the Eldar. Because Tolkien implies that "the faithful" wished in their hearts to be as the Eldar were, "immortal", but correctly recognized this was not possible. 

This desire for elvish longevity made the faithful, and their Middle Earth descendants in Arnor and Gondor, a sad people, prone to childlessness and an excessive (also counter-productive) concentration on health and longevity.   

Clearly it was a deep sin for the Men of Numenor to worship Morgoth and to assail the Valar. But; the Big Question is: what should the Men of Numenor have done instead

Because, on the face of it: Men seem to be in a no win situation. 

Men know that they are "doomed" to die, and know that their discarnate souls will leave "the circles of the world"; but Men have no idea (and have never been told by the Valar) what then (if anything) happens to their discarnate souls. 

Is the future of all Men utter annihilation - or... something else?

This is indirectly addressed by Tolkien in his "Marring of Men" narrative - in which he has his protagonists allude indirectly to what we are intended to infer is the incarnation of Jesus. 

Jesus is therefore put forward as being the - as yet unknown and apparently unknowable except by inference - answer to the problem of mortal Men and a world that has been "marred" ineradicably by Morgoth. 

Yet it is important to realize that the answer "Jesus" - the resurrection and eternal life he brings that is only accessible via death -  is, in Tolkien's universe, both unknown and unknowable to the Numenoreans. The Numenoreans have no foresight of Jesus, and neither do the Valar or the Eldar (who might, in principle, have informed Men). 

It is assumed that only Eru foreknew the coming of Jesus, and Eru (apparently) did not tell anyone

Men in Numenor are (in effect) asked to accept the insufficiency of mortal life on earth; and to hope without reason - to hope, based purely upon faith in the goodness of Eru. 

This was the challenge of the Men of Numenor; and clearly they failed to respond rightly to that challenge; and in failing, brought nearly-complete ruin upon themselves and their civilization.  

We can ask, however, whether (in Tolkien's world) it was reasonable of Eru to expect otherwise; given that He had not provided any of his creatures with any clue as the to eventual advent of Jesus Christ? 

Was it, therefore, reasonable of Eru to expect Men to live by faith and hope yet without knowledge or assurance? 

I sense that Tolkien was troubled by this aspect of his world; and was at least sympathetic with the Men who failed this high and ascetic task. And that Tolkien wondered why God did not provide his Men of Middle Earth and Numenor with foreknowledge of Jesus - which was indeed the situation for all Men except a tiny minority of Jews, in the ages before Christ. 

Saturday 18 November 2023

A note on the silver-handed Nodens and Tar-Telemmaite - resonances across the decades in JRR Tolkien

From The name Nodens by JRR Tolkien - Report on the excavation of the Prehistoric, Roman, and post-Roman sites in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire. Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London. 1932.

The name Nodens occurs in three inscriptions from the excavation, and may also have occurred in a mosaic. The inscriptions most probably represent a Keltic stem inferred to be 'noudent'. Now this is precisely the form required as the Old and Middle Irish form of mythological and heroic name Nuada. 

Nuadu was Argat-lam – King of the Silver Hand who ruled the Tuatha de Danann – the possessors of Ireland before the Milesians... It is possible to see a memory of this figure in the medieval Welsh Lludd Llaw Ereint (‘of the Silver Hand’) – the ultimate origin of King Lear – whose daughter Creiddylad (Cordelia) was carried off, after her betrothal to Gwythyr vab Greiddawl, by Gwynn vab Nudd, a figure having some connexions with the underworld... 

Of Nuada Airgetlam it says: Streng mac Senghainn cut off Nuada's right hand in combat at the battle of Mag Tured Cunga, when the Tuatha de Danann invaded Erin. The leeches of the Tuatha de Danann put on Nuada a hand of silver with the complete motion of every hand. ' If not an established certainty, it is, then, at least a probable theory that there was a divine personage of whom the chief later representative is the Nuada of the Silver Hand in Irish tradition, and that this Nuada is the same as the Nodens which occurs in curious and suggestive isolation in these British inscriptions... 

It is suggestive, however, that the most remarkable thing about Nuada was his hand, and that without his hand his power was lost.

From Tar-Telemmaite, 15th monarch of Numenor. In "The Line of Elros" in JRR Tolkien Unfinished Tales, 1980. 

The date of this writing is not given, but adjascent material on Numenor is dated to after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, around 1965.  

...The King was so called because of his love of silver, and he bade his servants to seek ever for mithril. 

Note 31 and Index entry concerning Tar-Telemmaite by Christopher Tolkien: " said to have been called so (i.e. 'silver-handed') because of his love of silver..." "Fifteenth ruler of Numenor, so named ('Silver-handed') for his love of silver".

An etymological note from Paul Strack states that his name is a compound of an assimilated form of telpë ("silver") and the adjective element maitë ("handed").    

JRR Tolkien's "The name Nodens" is an early and little known publication; an appendix concerning an inscription, following an archaeological excavation report. In this, the ancient Celtic god Nodens is described as "silver-handed"; with a magical hand made from silver from which he derived great prowess. 

Perhaps thirty-plus years later, Tolkien described one of the Kings of Numenor as again "silver-handed"; but this time, because of his love of the precious metal silver - particularly of the 'true silver' mithril. 

Different kinds of being, different reasons for the name; but surely Tolkien's early description of an heroic silver-handed Celtic god resonated in his mind with the covetous Numenorean?


Thursday 9 November 2023

Experiencing spiritual contact with JRR Tolkien via The Notion Club Papers

I have a strong, and still increasing, conviction that we ought to move away-from the kind of impersonal abstraction that has been characteristic of spiritual, mystical, meditative and prayer life for many centuries - so much so that the two are often regarded as synonymous. 

Christian mystics have, for instance, often been Neoplatonic in their rationale and experience, and mysticism is often asserted to be a negative state of indescribable, inexpressible experience.  

What I mean is that the ultimate is often supposed to be an experience and a 'subject' that is beyond the personal. 

On the other hand, personal experience of the spiritual - that is, when there is some kind of contact with a Christian personage - whether Jesus Christ, Blessed Virgin Mary, a saint of angel, or any other individual of higher spiritual stature - have also often been reported. 

But typically such an interaction has been conversational... 

An experience of meeting-together perhaps, and conversing. Such experiences as as talking-with a statue or crucifix, an icon, or at a shrine; speaking oneself and hearing replies in the mind... 

Maybe meeting with another person in a dream-like state (or an actual dream), accompanied by vivid visions. Perhaps writing questions and then being dictated answers; or automatic writing. 

These two seem like the options - either, on the one hand, a sophisticated and intellectual kind of abstraction and negation; or else, on the other hand, a rather child-like interaction with a personage that operates rather like a mundane conversation. This tends to encourage adult (and educated) Christians to abandon the personal and embrace the abstract. 

But there is at least one other option, which is something I have at times experienced. An example is when I was immersively reading and thinking about the Fourth Gospel - but an earlier instance relates to more recent historical people who I came to regard as spiritual teachers: William Arkle and JRR Tolkien. 

I have elsewhere talked about the Fourth Gospel and Arkle experiences; but not really about Tolkien. 

My Tolkien experiences were related mainly to my original readings and re-readings of The Notion Club Papers - including the notes by Tolkien's son Christopher. The fragmentary, incomplete, nature of the NCPs; and the fact that they required (or, at least, invited) speculative completion, was what made me embark upon the attempt to experience the work from Tolkien's perspective, by a kind of sympathetic identification with Tolkien. 

The result was that - from my personal perspective. I felt a clear and sure kind of understanding of what Tolkien meant or intended by particular passages; due to a subjective experience of validation or endorsement by (what felt like) Tolkien's spirit. 

To be more specific; I struggled with particular sections of the texts relating to the NCPs; and at times felt I knew just what they were getting at; what experiences of Tolkien's they were derived from; what aspirations of Tolkien's they related to. 

This was personal, like a kind of communion or co-thinking with Tolkien's spirit; but they were never 'conversational' in form, nor in the form of questions and answers, nor was it anything like telepathy or 'reading thoughts'. And they were mostly not mediated by words or pictures or anything else. 

The experience was much more like what I have termed direct knowing. That is a personal of experience of what I assumed were Tolkien's primary thoughts in relation to the subject. 

Although sometimes I did experiences mental pictures as well - such as pictures of what was being described - for example a burning meteor in the earths atmosphere. These pictures were more like secondary illustrations of the direct experiences which were primary - in other words it was more like being a burning meteor, than a picture of one. 

Of course; there is no particular reason why anyone else should assume that I have got these things right! 

I might well be regarded as fooling myself with wishful thinking; or trying to impress other people by claiming special authority by (whether manipulatively, or delusionally) having a 'direct line' to the author. 

Furthermore; in communicating such matters, what another person gets is itself a result of reading my writings (or, in principle, hearing me speak on the subject). Such is always something of a secondary nature compared with the original subjective experience, being only an expression of what I experienced, and also requiring the reader to interpret and understand the writings.  

The thing is that I don't really care what 'other people' think about it! 

For me, the experiences were well-motivated and self-validating and had spiritual value. That is the reason for them, and the reason for writing-about them. They are part of my spiritual life; not (except accidentally and occasionally) a matter of interacting publicly - except for a general hope that I may encourage more people to read and meditate upon the Notion Club Papers

I do not take a single such experience as everlastingly decisive: so, I have 'checked' the initial experiences many times over the years for coherence and stability of understanding; mainly by re-using the experiences in other thinking, at later times. 

The special value of these first experiences in relation to the Notion Club Papers is that this sense of attuning to the spirit of Tolkien (his intentions), worked as a 'key' to the NCP writings; to my being able to appreciate and learn-from some texts that initially made very little impression on me, which indeed - at first glance - I found rather dull and frustrating.  


My point here is to suggest that such an engagement may be of value to other people; at least when motivations are Good, and when the person whose spirit is sought is one with whom there is a strong respect, liking (indeed love); and when there is a valid desire to understand, and to learn-from him.

In retrospect; I think that the incomplete nature, and relatively small amount of material, in the published Notion Club Papers - was actually very helpful. It is too easy and false to try and understand a person by means of reading a great deal by him, and about him. 

For example, many historical persons have attracted a vast 'literature', and the reader is tempted to discover them at second-hand; by learning and compiling great swathes of 'evidence' from reading their entire outputs - from autobiography, biographies, memoirs, letters, critical scholarship etc...  

I do this myself! And have done so with Tolkien. 

Yet, I don't think I ever achieved such a sense of knowing Tolkien-the-man, as I did from my engagement with the bits-and-pieces that constitute The Notion Club Papers.  

Indeed, extra material can sometimes (apparently) interfere-with and hinder the understanding of a person, a spirit; by layering-over, burying, confusing an already-achieved empathic understanding. 

I found this with William Arkle. 

When I had very little biographical information about Arkle, I was compelled to wring everything possible out of that little I did know; I would brood on it, and press my mental understanding towards grasping his meanings by a kind of identification.  

When later I found out more supposedly-'objective' information, it overwrote the earlier understanding to an extent; the new material made a screen between myself and the author - rather as a movie can overwrite the experience of a book with its explicit imagery and specific interpretations. 

My experience of Tolkien, in the early 1970s, was similar - there were only a handful of books by or about Tolkien - and I could not access all of these; therefore what-I-had was scarce, precious, and pored-over repeatedly. Some was copied-out. I even tried to make my own illustrations. 

I think this behaviour relates to the achievements of Medieval scholarship in the pre-printing manuscript era; when books were scarce, precious - and therefore closely-pondered over long periods. In such circumstances; reading sometimes itself became a form of contemplative prayer. 

But there is more to this phenomenon of communing with an author than merely sustained and loving attention. 

We also need to be believe that it is possible for us genuinely to establish actual contact with the spirit of someone who is dead. 

Before I acknowledged the reality of a spiritual world, beyond and encompassing the material reality; I had a less-powerful and less-real experience of such identification. Consequently, I was much more concerned that my understanding was endorsed by "other people". 

Examples would include a deep identification with Shakespeare via Hamlet in my late teens; or a similar attitude to Ralph Waldo Emerson in my thirties. Although very strong in a subjective way; these feelings nonetheless seemed to need decoding into 'implications' for modern life, and for my particular life. 

I was focused on 'learning lessons' from authors - mostly because (at heart) I regarded such experiences as symbolic, and not-really-real.  

But now - because I know that life beyond mortal death is possible, and because I believe that there may be communication between the living and the so-called-dead; new depth and strength becomes possible and recognized.

It is probably worth emphasizing that I am not here talking about "channeling" JRR Tolkien! This is Not a matter of Tolkien speaking through me!

With the kind of spiritual contact I described above for The Notion Club Papers, I was Not a passive recipient of information - instead I had to do all the work*

(*Note: This, of course, also means that I am personally responsible for what I have written on the subject.)

The understanding reached was My understanding, not JRRT's intention; but my experience was of My understanding being endorsed by Tolkien. 

The result is not experienced as Tolkien's exact personal intention, nor even Tolkien's words; instead, it is more like me suggesting to Tolkien a particular explanation or interpretation - and the direct endorsement being of a nature somewhat like (but never in words): "Yes. OK. That's near enough. It's pretty close to what I intended."

After all; even among our closest family and friends, we do not experience perfect understanding of ourselves, nor can we achieve perfect understanding of our loved ones; nor are communications of understanding any better than approximate in expression and interpretation. 

Yet such situations are very far from hopeless; and we do experience moments and periods of certainty, or spiritual harmony and accord. 

My understanding is that it is possible - with correct understanding, right motivations, and sufficient personal effort - to experience the same sort of spiritual contact with dead authors, artists, philosophers etc; that we can with our living beloved family and friends. 


Note added 10th November 2023

It strikes me that it is worthwhile to analyze the general, public significance of my - or anyone else's - claim of experiencing spiritual contact with an author - whether dead, or indeed still alive!  

In terms of such public activities as literary scholarship or criticism, (because false claims are so easy, and none can be checked externally) a person's claim of special spiritual understanding cannot be allowed to have any formal or explicit significance: Scholarship or criticism ought to stand or fall on its intrinsic qualities. 

(This is what ought to happen in an ideal sense; despite that, in practice, this is seldom the case - and that instead high status institutional affiliations and educational certifications of the scholar or critic are too-often taken as validation of specific claims.)

So, we ought to judge for ourselves and not accept spiritual claims of another person simply because they have been made. Nonetheless; it seems absolutely valid to take-into-account such matters as spiritual affinity, when evaluating Tolkien scholarship and criticism. 

And, in practice, this is done; both by the majority mainstream, secular and academic, Tolkien scholars, and also by the significant minority of scholars whose perspective on Tolkien is rooted in his devoutly Roman Catholic religion. 

For myself; I make an evaluation concerning each scholars spiritual sympathy, that is his empathic understanding of Tolkien - and my attitude is (broadly) that the scope of a scholar's understanding is constrained by the limits of his spiritual sympathy. 

That does not exclude the possibility that - within that scope - a scholar may make a vast contribution to the understanding of Tolkien: thus (IMO) the greatest of Tolkien scholars so far - Tom Shippey - is neither a Catholic nor a Christian. 

Nonetheless, that constraint is still operative; and I would not expect Shippey to have much to contribute to a spiritual approach to Tolkien - that is, to the idea of regarding JRR Tolkien as a spiritual mentor and guide (as I do).  

Broadening-out the argument; my summary is that each of us whose concern is spiritual and Christian, can and should be discerning and evaluating, and taking into consideration, the degree and nature of spiritual affiliation between a specific scholar, critic or philosopher - and any person under discussion. 

In sum: making decisions concerning spiritual affiliation is not just relevant, but a necessary activity in the world generally - as well as literature specifically.  


Wednesday 1 November 2023

JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and wanting Heaven - rather than death or continued this-life

Since the Christian churches are thoroughly corrupted and converged to totalitarianism, and Christian evangelism has proved all-but useless in The Modern West; our best hope perhaps lies in inculcating a desire for Heaven that may influence our post-mortal choices.

In other words, since (it seems) modern people place this-worldly socio-political issues above religion and spirituality (which are assumed to be a mixture of wishful thinking and institutional manipulations). And since this civilization has adopted a materialist set of metaphysical assumptions that renders life-beyond-death impossible: Modern Man expects or wants only a painless death followed by annihilation; or maybe hopes for some kind of transhumanist-scientific extension of this life. 

Against this, there may be a few countervailing influences such as JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis's fantasies; which encourage, perhaps implant, at least a desire for something more; something beyond death: a daydream and yearning for Heaven in particular (however vague this notion in the mind of Modern Man).

This daydream/ desire/ yearning may be the best or only hope that post-mortal Men will at least consider accepting the gift of Jesus Christ. 

Such is the importance of Christian fantasy in this age. 


Wednesday 18 October 2023

Space travel in The Notion Club Papers by "Incarnation. By being born" - What does Tolkien mean?

[Guildford] "For landing on a new planet, you've got your choice: miracle; magic; or sticking to normal probability, the only known or likely way in which any one has ever landed on a world." 

"'Oh! So you've got a private recipe all the time, have you?" said Ramer sharply. 

"No, it's not private, though I've used it once." 

"Well? Come on! What is it?" 

"Incarnation. By being born", said Guildford

From The Notion Club Papers; page 170 of Sauron Defeated (1993) by JRR Tolkien. 

Note 15 expands on this: In the original text... [Dolbear adds] "Then try reincarnation, or perhaps transcarnation without loss of memory."


This is the exact point at which JRR Tolkien's Notion Club Papers (NCPs) takes a turn from mundane conversation among club members; towards the supernatural, or more accurately the occult.

Yet, I found this important passage to be very confusing at the time I first read it; and I am still unsure why Tolkien used the term "incarnation" in reference to the aim of space travel, of visiting another planet. I usually understand incarnation to refer to a spirit taking-on a body - and this is usually assumed to be irreversible except by death. 

"Being born" seems to confirm this. Being born onto another planet can hardly be described as a viable way of 'landing' on a new planet - even if memory of one's previous life was retained. It means becoming somebody else. Incarnation seems not to be equivalent to visiting another planet - implicitly temporarily, so one could come back and tell other people! - by means of spaceship, miracle or magic (the previously discussed possibilities)

I turned to the earlier draft note, which mentions reincarnation - usually meaning the same soul being clothed by a series of at least two bodies. But again, this is a linear and irreversible process - and seems unsuitable for visiting other worlds. 

Transcarnation may be a neologism: that is, a word here invented by Tolkien; which probably was intended to convey the idea of a soul transferring from one body to another without death. 

By this, I presume he must have meant that someone's soul might go to another planet; either by temporarily inhabiting the body of someone being already there (something of this kind, a 'body swap' is mentioned in CS Lewis's unfinished Dark Tower, which Tolkien had heard); or perhaps by (temporarily) clothing itself in a body (or appearance of a body) while on that planet. 

What actually emerges as the way in which members of the Notion Club visit other places, and times, has aspects of this (presumed) transcarnation, in the case of Ramer; and something like reincarnation in the case of Lowdham and Jeremy. 

Ramer's soul or spirit seems to leave his body and visit other places during sleep. Ramer does not seem physically to incarnate; but he does report being present, aware and localized - rather as if he had condensed spatio-temporally, maybe clothed himself with a 'spirit body'. 

This is sometimes called Astral Projection - for example Rudolf Steiner regarded this as what happened to us all, every night, during dreams. Our Astral body leaves the sleeping Physical and Etheric bodies; to go and do 'dream things' in another actual but spirit-realm of reality. 

And (according to Steiner) the Astral body 'carries with it' our Ego, or sense of self, or 'I' - which is how we are self-aware during dreams. 

Because the spatio-temporally limited Physical body (and its attached Etheric body) are left-behind (although still connected, as it were by an infinitely elastic thread) - the Astral body can be assumed to move freely through space; and perhaps also time. 

These ideas are compatible with what Ramer reports; including his comment that "Dreaming is not Death. The mind is, as I say, anchored to the body."

(It is quite possible that Tolkien may have known of these ideas, either from general reading and converstaion, or specifically via Inkling-member Owen Barfield, who was Britain's leading Anthroposophist - i.e. Steiner follower. Indeed; the obviously referenced "Ranulph Stainer" is listed as a member of the Notion Club!) 

By contrast; Lowdham and Jeremy were (probably) intended to be something-like (but perhaps not exactly, according to Tolkien's comments) reincarnations of paired souls; who had descended 'genetically' through history - including having inhabited Numenor, experienced its downfall, and been among those who escaped to Middle Earth. 

This narrative plan was something Tolkien carried over from his earlier draft story The Lost Road - but there it involved father-son pairings.   

In other words; Ramer's journeys were focused on space travel while Lowdham and Jeremny were primarily engaged in a kind of time travel. In her brilliant and inspiring monograph A Question of Time; Verlyn Flieger convincingly argues that Tolkien's idea of time travel was rooted in JW Dunne's ideas of the simultaneity of time. This enabled the mind to survey the past and indeed future. 

The idea was probably that Lowdham and Jeremy's connection of heredity was activated - partly by purposive dreaming - such that the simultaneity of the downfall of Numenor, and the 'modern' activities of the Notion Club, became superimposed. The Numenorean catastrophe then overlapped with contemporary Oxford in this condition of simultaneity; leading to the massive storm experienced by the South and West of the British Isles that forms the climax of the second part of the NCPs. 

Lowdham and Jeremy therefore do not engage in any kind of 'transcarnation' or Astral travelling; but instead become a kind-of simultaneous combination of their Numenorean and modern selves. 

For clarity, it would perhaps have been easier for the reader if Tolkien had dropped the term 'in-carnation' and stuck with his original terms of re-incarnation and trans-carnation; and maybe given them at least a bit of definition. Something like this may have happened, had the Notion Club Papers been taken any further. But in the event, we are left to complete the jig-saw ourselves, using the clues JRRT left-behind and which his son Christopher assembled and published - nearly half a century after the NCPs had been abandoned.

Tuesday 3 October 2023

Tolkien's Subcreation is (more or less) Barfield's Final Participation

If we assume that because Final Participation (FP) is our destiny, what God wants from us at this stage of things; then perhaps it ought not to be impossibly difficult or rare. Perhaps we should expect to see Final Participation in our own lives; and in those of at least some people whose work is recoded in the public domain. 

Maybe the difficulty in locating Final Participation is in recognizing it as something genuinely different and new, and therefore misclassifying it under old categories - because the old categories are all we know.  

To clarify; Final Participation is an engagement with reality, in which we bring to bear our own creativity - to participate in creating. 

This could be participation with divine creation (this is what I understand to happen in Heaven); or participation with another person's created work - perhaps someone from the past. 

This can serve as an illustration - taking the example of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (LotR). 

Two widely known categories of engagement with life, with works; could be termed 'projection' and 'channeling' - and I will contrast these with Final Participation.


Projection is not intentionally a participation, because it describes what happens when a reader of Tolkien projects his own concerns onto the book. 

This seems to be the usual practice of Tolkien mass-fandom. Except minimally; the projecting fan-reader does not experience what Tolkien himself felt or intended; but instead uses the book (selectively and distortingly) as fuel for his own interests. 

For example such a fan might read LotR as-if it were a "sword and sorcery" novel, being interested only by the fights, magic, monsters, spectacle etc; and either not-noticing, skipping-over or forgetting the other material. Or, to judge by the content of one genre of fan-fictions; quite a few readers even seem to read Tolkien in a subversive fashion, as fuel for their personal sexual fantasies.   

Therefor projection is not a form of 'participation' except very minimally, unconsciously, unintentionally; because the intent is to impose oneself upon the-other. 


The ideal behind the form of participation I am calling channeling, is that the reader become so totally immersed in the work that he identifies completely with the author. 

This is a contemplative, not creative, ideally-non-participating form of engagement - because the ideal is that the reader be passive, absorptive, and reflective. The reader seeks to lose-himself-in the work 

This is, indeed, the form that has been called 'inspiration' and which used-to be (in the pre-modern era) the form that so-called 'creativity' took. The 'creator' was supposed to be a clear-channel for God/ The Gods/ The Muses - and himself to play no personal role in what emerged.

In other words; with channeling, with inspired work, the ideal is non-participation. 

This channeling is therefore a particular example of what Owen Barfield termed Original Participation - which is the primal relationship with the world of the child or the early tribal Man. It does have elements of participating; but only in the secondary sense that we are then (and almost fully) engaged with the world, with life, with other beings. But (when channeling works) we are so immersed in the flow of external things, that while our own participation in them is inevitable, it is intentionally minimal.  

Perhaps the ideal of the medieval sculptor working on one of the great cathedrals might serve as an illustration. He is contented to be anonymous, and forgotten, and to work in exactly the same style as every other mason - because his personal nature should 'stand-aside' and should not have anything to do with the product. I have heard of musicians (conductors and soloists) who regard their interpretations likewise: they try to identify so closely with the composer that they lose-themselves in the perormance altogether. 

In terms of Tolkien, this is perhaps the ideal of the best kind of literary critic of the old school: he attempts to expound Tolkien, and not to 'interfere' by interjecting personal views or evaluations. In particular, he is very wary of 'projection', which he regards as itself a gross and unscholarly error, leading to distortions such as anachronism.  

Final Participation

For an example of FP we need to go to Tolkien himself, in his writing of Lord of the Rings; and to that activity which he termed "subcreation". 

This - I suggest - is the relationship between JRRT and his 'source material' - which came from the author's engagement with his academic subject of philology (the language-focused study of old texts), and his other concerns such as mythology, and the matter of England. 

I believe that Tolkien not only had a deep immersion in his sources; but that he also went beyond immersion in his 'sources'. That is; JRRT went beyond the contemplative-passive processes of channeling, and brought his own creativity to bear on the material that he was experiencing from-within. 

There are innumerable examples. Tolkien's elves are rooted in Icelandic, Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic material from his philosophical studies - the words for elves, their histories, their implications (as discussed by Tom Shippey in Roots and Branches); but Tolkien also brought a deep and intense personal interest and concern with elves - which he envisaged as an ideal type of certain aspects of Men; blessed with innate health and extreme longevity, greater love of the earth, greater skills and intelligence, and magical powers. 

And yet Tolkien felt a need to explain (to himself, primarily) how and why it was that elves were (more or less) estranged from, then replaced by, Men - who became rulers of this earth; despite that Men seemed inferior, overall. 

To generate acceptable answers to these (and other) questions about elves, problems about myth, England and so forth; Tolkien needed to go beyond existing material and theories: he needed to enlist his own creativity. 

I consider Tolkien's writing of LotR as a publicly-available example of Final Participation. 

In the first place JRRT was inspired by many, already existing, source materials; and had immersed himself in these materials so that he could, when needed or desired, 'channel'/ expound/ explain these materials in their own terms, in the context of the times and places of their composition. 

But in the second place Tolkien wanted to do more than just passively be-inspired-by; he wanted actively to generate something new by bringing to bear from-himself to participate with that which others had created.  

This was (pretty much) what he termed subcreation. 

To generalize, I think it would therefore be reasonably accurate to state that:

Final Participation = Inspiration plus Personal Creativity 

As such, examples can be generated from other areas of the arts, sciences etc. The pianist Glenn Gould did not just 'channel' Bach (as some have wrongly claimed), because, although he was steeped in Bach's creative mind and intent - Gould also added his own creativity, to make something participated. A synthesis, rather than recreation. 

A creative scientist of genius must, of course, build upon the valid science of his precursors; but as well as selecting from among the already-existing scientific literature that he deeply understands in its own terms (which might be said to 'inspire' him); and as well as extrapolating this work; the great scientist will bring something new, something original: from himself - in order to make a qualitative breakthrough.  

In sum; I hope the above might help make clearer what is meant by Final Participation; and to help recognize when it occurs in our own lives. 

Monday 25 September 2023

Review of Twenty-First Century Tolkien by Nick Groom (2023)

Nick Groom. Twenty-first century Tolkien: What Middle Earth means to us today. Atlantic Books: London, 2023. pp xxiii, 451.

Nick Groom, the author of Twenty-first century Tolkien, approaches Tolkien from almost the opposite side to myself; in terms of what we each think is significant about Tolkien the Man, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; and more fundamentally, also, in what we think is good and true in the world!

The core problem for me, is that Groom has an incompatible and, I feel, incoherent understanding of the subject matter itself: i.e. what we mean by "JRR Tolkien", and what "Tolkien" actually should-be. 

Twenty-first century Tolkien is an eclectic brew (including biography, textual analysis, literary history, cultural criticism and much else); but I think mostly about what can be termed "the Tolkien phenomenon", as this developed from publication and up to Amazon TV's Rings of Power in 2022. 

(The gulf between my own aesthetic and moral evaluations, and those of Nick Groom, is evidenced by the fact that he liked Rings of Power, thought it was conceptually interesting, well done, and a valid contribution to Tolkien's legacy; whereas my own evaluations were... rather different!)

Perhaps the main value to the book is its extensive information concerning how other people (not Tolkien himself) have interpreted, adapted, and exploited Tolkien's written works; across a wide range of media - especially radio, television, movies - particularly interesting in including unpublished and unmade examples. 

Groom's accounts of these are interesting and amusing, at a gossipy level - and I found myself reading-out sections to the family, about the astonishing absurdities and excesses of various plans and scripts for adapting The Lord of the Rings.  

But I began to realize what would turn out to be the core problem of this book for someone like myself; which is that Groom seems to like and approve-of - or at least take seriously as valid options - a great deal of what seems to me the most ignorant, incompetent and crass interpretations. 

And indeed this is the main problem I have with Twenty-first century Tolkien, throughout. For Groom; the proper subject matter of discourse is not JRR Tolkien As Such; but the Tolkien phenomenon - which is, in principle, anything and everything people have thought, said, written, depicted - which is (in almost any way) linked-with Tolkien's work. 

Groom goes to the extreme (that is, it seems extreme and indeed absurd to me, although fairly mainstream in Literary Criticism for several decades) of stating that "we" cannot any longer regard Tolkien (his life, his work) as a "purely literary" phenomenon; and that this means that we ought to cease regarding the original text as the subject matter. 

Groom says we "cannot" (I think he means that he believes we "should not") separate Tolkien the Man, his literary works, and the cumulative cultural products of the Tolkien Phenomenon/ Industry. 

Part of this argument is an extensive 'revisionist' reinterpretation of Tolkien's written works; by which Groom ingeniously homes-in upon those elements which contradict the accepted (and, I would say, true!) generalizations concerning Tolkien: such that his 'world-building' in Lord of the Rings was uniquely coherent and detailed. 

Groom highlights instead the inconsistencies, loose ends, and vagueness in the printed text; and emphasizes the zig-zag and exploratory way in which that final text was developed, through sometimes many drafts (as described in The History of Middle Earth). 

On the one hand, Groom's approach does highlight the exceptions behind the generalization; on the other hand, by the time Groom has finished his exposition, the Lord of the Rings has been almost inverted into something almost unrecognizable - to my mind almost an anti-Tolkien! 

But - and I think this is significant - Tolkien thus regarded has become something much more palatable to the institutionally-leftist and reflexly-secular assumptions, convictions and tastes of modern academia. 

I agree with Groom that it is possible to regard "Tolkien" in exactly the way he advocates, and I also agree that this is indeed how many or most people do regard Tolkien. 

As a clear example, the Peter Jackson movies have, as a matter of sheer fact, overwritten some aspects of the books in the memories of many who appreciate both - such that the two cannot be reliably distinguished or kept separate. 

This is, at least partly, because the "virtual reality" power of a movie is something largely passively and uniformly imposed-upon the audience; while by contrast a book's power is much more actively and personally co-created by the reader. This unfortunately means that even a bad movie (and Peter Jackson's movies are superb, greatly amplifying their power to usurp!) can penetrate and distort the impact of a book.

For example, the idiotic depiction of the Ents in Bakshi's 1978 animated Lord of the Rings (the first picture on this page) often jump into mind when I am reading the book; despite or exactly because I so much despise them!

In other words; the Tolkien phenomenon much more often, because so much more easily, degrades more than it enhances what is valuable in the original literary source. Unfortunately, in this world it is facile to mock, subvert, degrade and destroy - but very difficult to make something beautiful, true and virtuous. And what is easy happens more often than what is difficult. 

As Tolkien himself made clear; evil distorts and pollutes, it cannot create - and there have been few phenomena in the history of this world that are more purposively evil (in terms of their inversion of values) than the modern mass media

Insofar as we deliver Tolkien into the "phenomenon", we assimilate his texts into the mass media; and inevitably to that extent will his work be corrupted - and indeed inverted.  

But for me; to redefine Tolkien in this way, and open-endedly - such that "Tolkien" is being continually changed by... well, whatever latest Tolkien-themes cultural product has an impact - is a gross and indeed lethal diminution of what Tolkien and his work can be for us. 

In other words, to regard Tolkien as having disappeared-into, and been assimilated-by, the Tolkien Phenomenon; is merely to regard Tolkien as Just Another evanescent, attention-grabbing aspect of the mainstream mass media. 

Whereas, by contrast (and as this blog is intended to exemplify), to focus upon Tolkien the Man and his Books, can be to live in the presence of an unique and exceptionally valuable individual author - one who I personally would not want to be without.


Tolkien can give us a positively life-transforming, culturally challenging, deep perspective; but only if we are prepared to separate him sufficiently to discover his particular nature and contribution.

Saturday 26 August 2023

Charles Williams, the City of God, and this mortal life as palimpsest of the eternal

I first came across Charles Williams in Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings (1979) which I read in 1987, while living a somewhat Inklings-like life; researching English, and a Don in Durham Castle, University College, Durham. 

Carpenter does an excellent job of portraying Williams as an interesting and unusual person; so that the reader is drawn to investigate further - which I did. 

I have been thinking lately about that way of living (or something aimed-at in living) that I associate with the work and practice of Charles Williams - by which the mundane world is understood as (what I have termed) a palimpsest - as when a new medieval text is written on a secondhand parchment, and the pre-existing manuscript can sometimes be seen shining-through. 

The idea is that we are at first aware only of the mundane 'natural' and surface level of meanings; but underneath these, there is a super-natural reality, of eternal and archetypal forms.  

Thus; for Williams the City of London (or any city) represents the City of God; and its mercantile exchanges of goods and money, represent the Christian spiritual "exchange" between "co-inherent" Men. In his novels and poems, and also apparently in his own life and that of his 'disciples', this seems to have been the daily practice of Charles Williams - anything in the passing show, might be experienced as a symbol of some-thing archetypal and eternal.  

From long before I counted myself a Christian, this had a strong initial appeal to me; as an attitude that seemed to lend depth and meaning to a mundane, everyday world that so-often, so-badly lacked depth and meaning (consisting of dull bureaucracy, transient distractions, the pursuit of low motivations and rejection of high). 

It came naturally too: I suspected, sometimes detected, much going-on beneath the surface; including good things of which people seemed often unconscious, and good influences that were unnoticed, unintended, unsuspected... 

In other words; the reality was largely negative and implicit in in its effects; and my idea was that to make it positive ought to enhance its power to enhance life. 

"Power" was indeed a part of the concept - including Will Power. I was sympathetic to the idea that there could be a collective focusing of will power for Good; and that this kind of activity might do good in ways that were again unnoticed and unconscious. 

(Indeed, such ideas were prevalent a few decades ago, and people would often organize mass activities of 'will power' - such as prayer, meditation, and many varieties of ceremonial activity; with the expressed aim of doing some-Good to the world... In a sense, the underlying idea was that Good could be done-to masses of people - "whether they liked it or not"! 

So there were ideas of a realler-reality beneath the surface; and ideas of the Good-stuff being present and operative without awareness, working-away in all kinds of positive ways, but unknown and unsuspected. And maybe "some way" of tapping into this underlying world by those (relatively  few) who recognized the nature-of-things; and thereby influencing things-in-general for the better - although they probably would never know it. 

And so I continued for many a year. 

And I gained satisfactions by it: both an immediate satisfaction of seeing beyond or below, and the motivation of doing more so. 

Yet, of course, there was no purpose to it. Ultimately, it was hedonic in its intent - a way of making life more enjoyable, but without making life qualitatively different. 

And there were disadvantages - because regarding actuality as a palimpsest devalues it relative to the deep past and the hoped-for future. Indeed, the surface seems ever-thinner, as the mind penetrates to 'eternal verities' beneath; and this life itself - mortal life, full of ephemeral objects and ideas - seems futile. It is going nowhere - but to change, corruption, death; so why do we linger in this vale of mere shadows when there is a bright and pure and flawless world awaiting us on the other side? 

Indeed, why did we ever come here at all - when there exists a world so much better; and a world which we will (apparently) experience as wholly satisfying? 

What is the point, if temporarily incarnating into such a mixed and messy world of temporary stuff; if/when there is an archetypal and timeless reality to which we might in principle have dwelt-within? 

And when we try to abolish time and sequence, and start believing that what is now is always, what was is also now, and what is to come has already-happened - then various terrible implications begin to sink-in. 

We have bought meaningfulness as a terrible cost; the cost of abolishing purpose hence choice - leading to paralysis as we contemplate an essentially tragic state of being. 

So, in the end I found - as, I believe, did Charles Williams - that despite the immediate allure and benefits of regarding this mortal life as a palimpsest written over an eternal and ideal world that can be accessed by the determined adept; when taken seriously and over the long term, such an attitude detracts-from and devalues (rather than enhances and validates) the mundane life.  

Saturday 5 August 2023

The Shire was not an anarchy nor did it have a government; but had a clan- (family-) based system of authority

Some people have badly misunderstood The Shire as some kind of an 'anarchy'; with the implication that a lack of much in the way of formal government mistakenly-equated with a condition of unconstrained individual 'freedom'. 

But this idea of the unconstrained individual, free to do whatever he wanted, is very modern; and anarchy did not exist in traditional societies - although the delusion that it did, and that ancient tribal hunter gatherer societies were some kind of anarchy dates back at least to Engels, and Rousseau before him. 

On the contrary; it seems clearly implied that The Shire was - like many ancient and small scale societies - based upon extended families - that it was a kind of clan-based society.

In clan societies, individuals 'identity' is as part of their family; and it is families who regulate individual behaviour - using the relatively fluid and informal, but nonetheless authoritative, means by which families spontaneously operate. 

Thus we are told that hobbits are deeply interested by genealogy - that is family ancestry; and individual hobbits are nearly always discussed in terms of their familial descent and membership. 

Furthermore; there is also an implicit Shire class system; with some hobbit families identified as 'gentry' (such as Baggins, Bolger, Boffin) - and a few of these (such as the Tooks primarily, and Brandybucks secondarily) as something-like an aristocracy in that they have an hereditary and patriarchal (primogeniture) authority over others. 

This dominance by certain clans appears to be rooted in the hereditary competence for rulership of Fallohide hobbits; who seem to be both bolder and more intelligent than the other Stoor and Harfoot types.  

(Although formally patriarchal; it is also clear that  - just as in real life Men's families - exceptional female-hobbits may establish substantial - but non-hereditary - authority, or even dominance: examples are, buy implication, Bilbo's 'remarkable' mother Belladonna Took, and Lobelia Sackville Baggins, who we hear described apparently dominating first her wealthy husband, and later her son.)     

In such a clan society; there is almost nothing corresponding to the individuality of anarchism; since personal identity is - spontaneously - immersed in the family; which is indeed regarded by other hobbits as definitive. 

Bilbo and Frodo, as wealthy (hence independent) bachelors, who care little for the opinion of other hobbits, are, of course, notable exceptions, since they - apparently - do whatever they like! 

But there will have been extremely few Shire hobbits who could afford to lose their 'respectability' (i.e. their guaranteed place in Shore society) by steeping outside of family expectations.  

An important factor is that The Shire does not much resemble any actual historical society of Men; and this is mainly because hobbit-nature is different from Man-nature - especially in that hobbits have very little desire to dominate and control others; so that Big Man societies or monarchies do not develop. 

Again, there is an exception with Lotho Sackville-Baggins, who is power-driven and briefly becomes a Big Man (the "Chief"). Lotho is widely disliked, yet meets with very little significant resistance to his monopolizing of power from other hobbits, confirming their innate lack of dominance instinct. 

The exception is the Thain - who is head of the Tooks, the most powerful clan; and with the strongest Fallohide inheritance which fits them for ruling both intellectually and temperamentally. Thus, the Tooks refuse to acknowledge Lotho's authority, and indeed defend their territory with lethal force when Lotho send 'ruffians' to intimidate them.

In conclusion, The Shire is very far from an anarchy; and instead seems to be a society with a clan-family structure that is similar to those of many historical Men, plus a small degree of national government (e.g. the mayor, shirrifs and postal service). But the end result is significantly modified compared with Men to become something unique; by the different and less dominating and power-driven nature of hobbits*. 


*Note: This resistance to the temptations of power is exactly what makes hobbits the best of all races to bear The One Ring; and indeed suggests that this is precisely the reason that Illuvitar enabled hobbits to 'evolve' from Men, probably during the Third Age.    

Thursday 27 July 2023

Why I found it necessary to revise the "polar metaphysics" of ST Coleridge and Owen Barfield

The transcendental philosopher says; grant me a nature having two contrary forces, the one of which tends to expand infinitely, while the other strives to apprehend or find itself in this infinity, and I will cause the world of intelligences with the whole system of their representations to rise up before you. Every other science presupposes intelligence as already existing and complete: the philosopher contemplates it in its growth, and as it were represents its history to the mind from its birth to its maturity....

It is equally clear that two equal forces acting in opposite directions, both being finite and each distinguished from the other by its direction only, must neutralize or reduce each other to inaction. Now the transcendental philosophy demands; first, that two forces should be conceived which counteract each other by their essential nature; not only not in consequence of the accidental direction of each, but as prior to all direction, nay, as the primary forces from which the conditions of all possible directions are derivative and deducible: secondly, that these forces should be assumed to be both alike infinite, both alike indestructible. The problem will then be to discover the result or product of two such forces, as distinguished from the result of those forces which are finite, and derive their difference solely from the circumstance of their direction. 

When we have formed a scheme or outline of these two different kinds of force, and of their different results, by the process of discursive reasoning, it will then remain for us to elevate the thesis from notional to actual, by contemplating intuitively this one power with its two inherent indestructible yet counteracting forces, and the results or generations to which their inter-penetration gives existence, in the living principle and in the process of our own self-consciousness.

from Biographia Literaria by ST Coleridge, 1817.


The above passage has stood for over two hundred years as the basis of a "polar metaphysics" that has underpinned several of the most valid and coherent metaphysical explanations of a Romanticism compatible with Christianity

These include the work of Owen Barfield (especially as elucidated in his book What Coleridge Thought) and William Arkle (appearing as contrasting feminine and masculine poles, geometrically or by analogy with physics described in A Geography of Consciousness and The Hologram and Mind). 

Although these two 'contrary forces' can indeed be the basis of a coherent and valuable metaphysics; as Coleridge immediately makes apparent it is also necessary to add further assumptions - such as that these forces are 'infinite' and 'indestructible'; in other words, eternally self-originating and self-sustaining. 

It is also necessary to add at least a further two similar factors; namely purpose and time; because to explain the phenomena of this world it is necessary to explain change, and necessary too to explain the direction (teleology) of change. 

Put together; these are the basis of Coleridge's Polar Metaphysics/ Polarity/ Polar Logic; which was his fundamental and most original philosophical idea - an idea never popular, seldom well-understood, yet nonetheless always retaining influence.

[Note: It should be noticed that Coleridge's Polarity is almost the opposite of what modern people mean by "polarization".] 

So, we get what amounts to a complex, abstract, dynamic, and difficult to conceptualize, explanatory scheme - with at least four elements.

Moreover; polarity a 'model' of reality that does not arise from common sense, and is utterly incomprehensible to children, or simple people, or those incapable of or unwilling to make sustained and concentrated effort. 

Thus; having grappled with Polar Metaphysics until I felt I did understand it - I still found it very difficult to explain, such that it was difficult to be sure I had genuinely understood it - or indeed that other people had understood it.

Furthermore; given that Polarity/ Polar Logic was associated by Coleridge by the idea of an animated universe: a reality in which nothing was "dead" or "mineral"; and instead everything was alive, conscious, purposive... 

Given this; the metaphysics of Polarity led to the strange and wrong-seeming necessity to explain organisms and other actual, concrete and experienced living beings, in terms of these abstract forces and tendencies...

This felt the wrong way round! Surely the primary reality was the living beings, and the abstract explanations are (merely) ways of conceptualizing their attributes? 

So, I decided to dispense with the abstractions of Polarity/ Polar Logic and start by assuming the primacy of "beings". 

It is such Beings (each, in some degree and to some extent - alive, conscious, purposive) that already-contain, inextricably, as of their ultimate nature, attributes that can be distinguished in terms of the categories of polarity.

It is Beings for which we assume attributes such as being 'infinite' and 'indestructible'; eternally self-originating and self-sustaining.  

Beings, in other words, are actual things (but including immaterial 'spiritual' things) that do not need to be 'explained' because each Beings has always been; and each Being has essential attributes by which (as we know from our experience of our-selves and other Beings) there can be change, even transformation - while remaining the same Being - while retaining its eternal identity.       

Therefore; I assume (I define) Beings as innately comprising all the needful aspects which might abstractly be considered as elements of Polarity. 

Beings are the primary categorical assumption of my metaphysics: Beings are how the universe of reality is (and always has-been) divided. 

To which must be added the possibility of relationships between these eternal Beings - and then, I think we have a far more concrete and comprehensible scheme than Coleridge's: yet one that can equally well Cause the world of intelligences with the whole system of their representations to rise up before you!