Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Romantic Religion by RJ Reilly (1971/ 2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Hobbits and Wombles


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

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

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


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

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

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

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

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

Note: This was originally published at Superversive Inklings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can we find an upper bound on claims of extremely fast reading? In fact, the well-known savant Kim Peek provides such an upper bound. Peek was able to read two pages of a book in 8-10 seconds (one with each eye) and recall every word he had read with nearly perfect accuracy. Peek could thus read 12 pages every minute, which works out to 720 pages per hour, and assuming again that a single-spaced page is approximately 500 words implies that Kim Peek could read 360,000 words per minute.

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

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Where in Middle Earth would you most like to live?

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

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


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

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

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Who is your favourite Inkling - as a person?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Williams - my evaluation from 2010

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


Tuesday, 16 October 2018

The shamanic creativity of JRR Tolkien

Note: This is cross posted from Superversive Inklings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 5 October 2018

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

 Alister McGrath - a worryingly smug face?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, 23 September 2018

The synergy of CS Lewis and Owen Barfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Monday, 17 September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

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

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


Wednesday, 5 September 2018

The Last Battle - Narnian litmus test


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, 2 September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

In contrast to the exogenous personality:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

JRR Tolkien's nervous breakdown

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

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

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

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


Evidence to prove Tolkien's psychological breakdown 1945-6

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

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

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

From Joel Heck's chronology of the Lewis brothers:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

From Joel Heck's Lewis chronology:

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

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

From the Tolkien chronology: 

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

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

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

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

Back to references in the Tolkien chronology:

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

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


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

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


The probable cause and effects of Tolkien’s breakdown

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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




*Note on the meaning of 'nervous breakdown'. 

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

My dissatisfaction at the metaphysics of Place of the Lion, by Charles Williams

 The lion archetype launched upon an unsuspecting world...

The fact that I have just re-read Charles Williams's The Place of the Lion for (about) the sixth time (in thirty years) is evidence of my fascination with this book. And this despite that I also regard it as extremely flawed! - being written in a clumsy and unconvincing (intrusively facetious*) style, and lacking effective expression in some of the most important passages.

What I like so much about it is probably similar to what I like about Tolkien's The Notion Club Papers (itself a work which lineally descends, via The Lost Road, from Tolkien's own reading of PotL in 1936). And that is the idea of 'the hero' working by means of a gain in understanding and a change of consciousness - and 'the quest' therefore being, mostly, a matter of discussion, thought, reading and meditation.

Yet I realised how far away from Williams my own understanding has moved, so that regard his plot - the nature of threats and the solution to it - as no longer credible; it would have been credible at earlier times in English history, but not in recent generations. In this sense I think Williams was simply mistaken in his basic understanding of the world.


In terms of what he personally sought, Williams aimed to revive, strengthen and adopt the 'medieval' metaphysical system; which was itself lineally descended from the Ancient Greek philosophical breakthroughs of the age of Plato (this is what Rudolf Steiner would term the Intellectual Soul - see Owen Barfield's Romanticism Comes of Age, for an analysis).

My understanding of this consciousness is that it divides reality into categories, and is has a primary role for proxy-action - for the intercessions of particular individuals (who have been-through mystery-initiation processes) to act on-behalf-of ordinary humanity. Thus, in PotL the world is threatened by the categories of basic ideas, of ultimate archetypes; and these are defeated by an individual asserting authority over them on behalf of Man (and the Christian God).

This is a model in which reality is knowable only by mystic-priests, and these do their salvific work - by means of symbol and ritual - on behalf of the mass of people. It is thus a version of 'Temple Religion', or the work of monasteries - but putatively translated to a modern context.

This, I regard as a half-way house consciousness - in between the ancient individualistic immersion in the divine and the modern materialist self-exclusion from the divine; but no longer viable. I do not believe that there really are such entities as Plato's ideas or archetypes; not do I believe that intercession is possible any longer (although it was possible in the past).


We are confronted by a reality which we must apprehend each for himself by intuition; and in which our individual salvation depends on a directly attained knowledge; and personal freedom, agency, choice... The reason (as I understand it) for this necessity is that Man's divine destiny is linear, sequential, non-repeating - although with some cyclical aspects; so that history resembles a spiral.

Salvation is individual - we are Not converging onto a single 'type' but rather we ultimately are aimed-at becoming our-unique-selves And fully-harmonised with the divine purposes.

To make this possible, God has taken care that every specific place, hour, day, lunar month, year, and era are different - so that each individual human life may be provided with the experiences best-suited to its spiritual progression (then; it is up to each of us to learn from these experiences).

On the other hand, it is only from the repetitions and regularities of life that we are able to learn. So we get both.


Therefore, I have to regard the basic set-up of Place of the Lion as mistaken and - not just unlikely, but impossible. This recognition has triggered a compelling line of thought in me (that has not reached a conclusion)  - which is based on 'If not, Then what?'...

In other words; what would be an analogous but correct plot for a more-metaphysically-accurate version of Place of the Lion?

 
*As replicated by the illustration...

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Depictions of the Inklings, by the Inklings

An Inklings meeting was the (usually) Thursday late-evening meeting in CS ('Jack') Lewis's rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford; to read work in progress, criticize it, and have conversations arising from this.

It is important to recognise that the focus of the Inklings was the writing of its members; even though one of the members – Robert E ‘Humphrey’ Havard - did little writing, and that mostly of a scientific nature (he was JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis’s doctor).

Havard and Warren (‘Warnie’) Lewis functioned mainly as an enthusiastic and critical ‘audience’ for the three main writers: Jack Lewis, Tolkien (nicknamed ‘Tollers’) and Charles Williams. Of course there were many other guests, readers and conversationalists during the fifteen or so years that the Inklings were active.

These true Inklings meetings probably began in the early 1930s and finished in October 1949 – when Warnie Lewis recorded for the first and final time that nobody had shown-up for a scheduled meeting – except himself and his brother Jack.

The Inklings was not, therefore, the Tuesday (later Monday) lunchtime gatherings at various pubs in Oxford, again focused on Jack Lewis, which happened especially at the 'Bird and Baby' pub (a slang term for the Eagle and Child), or sometimes at the Lamb and Flag situated opposite.

These lunchtime pub meetings were certainly attended by The Inklings, but also a wide range of others on a casual basis; and they were occasions for general, mostly light, conversation. These informal, convivial meetings continued until Jack Lewis's death in 1963.

There is no direct transcript of an actual Inklings evening, featuring the actual people who attended. The nearest to this are a few, paragraph length, summary entries in Warnie Lewis's diary - a selection from which is published in Brothers and Friends: the diaries of Major Warren Hamilton Lewis edited by Marjorie Lamp Mead (1988).

The best known word-by-word depiction of an Inklings meeting is a chapter in Humphrey Carpenter's group biography The Inklings (1978); which is not an actual meeting, but one that he creatively reconstructed by sampling and synthesizing from multiple writings of the Inklings, together with hints from Warnie's diary. This features the Lewis brothers, JRR Tolkien, Havard and Charles Williams – and these seem to have been the core Inklings of the 1939-45 war years. The only survivor - Havard - endorsed Carpenter’s account as providing the genuine flavour, although probably more intellectually concentrated than a typical real meeting.

JRR Tolkien's The Notion Club Papers (an unfinished and posthumously published novel to be found in Christopher Tolkien's edited The History of Middle Earth, Volume 9, Sauron Defeated, 1992) comprises a highly Inklings-style meeting of a club that was based explicitly upon The Inklings and written to be read at Inklings meeting during 1945-6; but with different, fictionalized and composite participants. This probably captures the spirit of an Inklings meeting more closely than any other source.

CS Lewis also left a short depiction of an Inkling's-esque meeting which can be found in an unfinished fragment of a story named The Dark Tower, and which was posthumously edited and published by Walter Hooper in 1977. The tone of discussion – its mixture of humour and seriousness - is similar to that of the Notion Club.

Owen Barfield was an infrequent, but very keen, Inklings participant - and arguably the Inklings evolutionarily-arose from the Barfield-Jack Lewis conversations and written debates of the 1920s. Barfield published a novel entitled Worlds Apart (1963) which describes a weekend length conversation of a very Inklings-like character - including characters based on Barfield and Jack Lewis.

What was the key to the Inklings as a club? My guess is that it worked and kept-on working because of the friendship between the participants; but to keep going for so long and with such intensity, the meetings required two further elements.

The first was the shared serious focal element of being helpful with the writing of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien; indeed the club was absolutely vital to the writing of The Lord of the Rings.

The second element was that – especially from the perspective of Jack and Tollers, these writings had a broad cultural significance; they were Christians who were fascinated by myth and the imagination as things of real importance and modes of truth. In other words; the Inklings meetings were (for CSL and JRRT specifically) not only enjoyable and helpful – they were doing something important.

And this is where the – mostly absent – Owen Barfield came in; because he was the philosophical theorist among the Inklings, whose life’s work was to explain exactly why – and in exactly what sense - myth and imagination were important, real and true.

This is why, I believe, the Inklings was so much more than a fluid assembly of Jack Lewis’s friends (as Humphrey Carpenter regarded them), and so much more than a writers’ workshop (as DP Glyer regards them, see Note). The Inklings were, and are, a group of major cultural significance; which is why public interest in these men and their private meetings has grown significantly with every decade over the past seventy years.

Note: For further discussion of sources relating to the Inklings, see Diana Pavlac Glyer's The Company They Keep (2008). This important book is a very thorough and enjoyable account of the Inklings as writers, and of their interactions. But DPG is not, as I am, in profound sympathy with the core Inkling ‘philosophy’.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Faramir, Boromir and Providence in Lord of the Rings?

From The Council of Elrond, Boromir speaking:

On the eve of the sudden assault a dream came to my brother [i.e. Faramir] in a troubled sleep; and afterwards a like dream came oft to him again, and once to me.

In that dream I thought the Eastern sky grew dark and there was a growing thunder, but in the West a pale light lingered, and out of it I heard a voice, remote but clear, crying: 

Seek for the sword that was broken: 
In Imladris it dwells; 
There shall be counsels taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells. 
There shall be shown a token
That Doom is near at hand
For Isildur's Bane shall awaken
And the Halfling forth shall stand.

This is a very interesting passage, for several reasons. Most obviously, the content of the prophecy is remarkable. On the one hand it is expressed in a riddling form, that none of the recipients could fully understand. Only Denethor knew what Imladris was (i.e. Rivendell), and he did not know exactly where to find it. - just that it was in a 'far Northern dale'.

(I am unsure whether Denethor realised that Isildur's bane was the One Ring, or even suspected it; but I doubt it - or else Denethor would surely have 'briefed' Boromir on the matter and instructed him what to do with the Ring.)

But the prophecy was certainly helpful; and some aspects of the prediction are remarkably exact - especially that in Imladris a token would be shown - i.e. the One Ring; and that the Halfling would stand forth - which was fulfilled when Frodo volunteered to be the Ring Bearer.  The dream came to Faramir on 19th June and the Council of Elrond was 25 October - and a lot happened between the two events; specifically Frodo was in great peril and in danger of death several times.

To an alert observer (Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn) the prophecy would confirm that there was a destiny ruling their choices and actions; and there was a 'right answer' they ought to seek and do.

Who, exactly, was it that sent this prophetic dream - clearly it was divine, and also benign: on the side of Good. I think it most likely that this dream came from Eru, The One, God - rather than one of the Valar (angelic rulers or gods); because I don't think the Valar have that kind of detailed foresight, nor (at least in the Third Age) do they seem to intervene directly in this proactive and strategic way.

Did this mean that Frodo was never really in danger, and also his dangers were pretend, and his decisions could not have been otherwise? No. I think we must assume that a Halfling would have offered himself as Ring Bearer, but it need not have been Frodo - but if it had not been Frodo, then things would probably have turned-out worse, overall. Furthermore, the Council needed to choose the correct Ring Bearer - the Halfling would have stood forth, but the Council might have chosen somebody else.

Also Frodo's wrong choices, and failures to resist The Ring's temptation, led to the permanent psychological damage he suffered from the stabbed with the Morgul knife on Weathertop.   

An example of things turning out worse is probably that it was intended to be Faramir who undertook the journey to Imladris; since the dream came to him first and many times, but to Boromir only once - and perhaps merely as a confirmation of its objective validity.

It was the bad decision of Denethor (based on his bias and also the beginnings of his corruption, despair and exhaustion) that over-ruled the proper choice of Faramir and enabled Boromir instead to join the Fellowship of the Ring; and it was of course the corrupted Boromir who prevented Plan A being pursued by attacking Frodo and attempting to take The Ring. We can infer that if Faramir had been present, 'things' would have turned-out better.

Overall, it seems that God provided the kind of prophecy which left a great deal of hard work to the forces of Good, in terms of both interpretation and action; and all the important decisions still needed to be made by Men (also hobbits, dwarves, and elves) unaided... Or, unaided except by their intuitive sense of what was right; which all the best characters have (even when they sometimes fail to follow it for various reasons).

This fits with a picture of the world in which God has made the world such that Men's agency is primary; is indeed absolutely sacred - but made a world in which God is always present, and will sometimes intervene directly (as divine Providence) in order to create situations where it is possible for Men to make the right choices, leading to the best possible outcomes (the best possible - given the cumulative effects of evil in the past).



Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Review of Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth - edited by Catherine McIlwaine (Bodleian Library, Oxford University, 2018)


Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth - edited by Catherine McIlwaine. Bodleian Library, Oxford University, 2018. pp 416.

This is a sumptuous, large format, beautifully illustrated 400 page book which serves as the catalogue for a current Tolkien exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford - but it also serves as the single best, and best value, one-stop-shop for the visual material associated with JRR Tolkien.

Amongst other achievements, Maker of Middle Earth includes - in larger scale and at a higher quality of reproduction - much (not all) of the material from The Tolkien Family Album (1992) JRR Tolkien; artist and illustrator (1995). 

In addition it has some seventy pages of essays (by eminent scholars) on Tolkien's biography, the Inklings, Faery in Tolkien, the Elvish languages, the Northern spirit, and Tolkien as artist.

For me, there were several special pleasures in this book. The first was in seeing new-to-me photographs of Tolkien and his family - and seeing larger and sharper versions of many I was familiar with and especially like; such as JRRT asleep with toddler Christopher on a garden lounger in Northmoor Road.

I enjoyed seeing Tolkien wearing a tweed suit and digging a sandcastle on a (presumably chilly) 1925 summer holiday, with sons John and Michael. There are several characterful photographs of JRRT's mother; and of his young and beautiful wife Edith, showing why Tolkien regarded her as the inspiration for Luthien. In general, these family pictures are delightful, revealing the happiness, love and importance of this vital aspect of Tolkien's life (something which sets him apart from the other Inklings, and indeed from most other writers).

All my favourite Tolkien paintings, pen and pencil illustrations were there; and some examples of the complex doodles he distracted himself with, while trying to work on The Silmarillion

There are a lot of letters and manuscripts in facsimile - not just Tolkien's wondrous script; but an example from 1893 of his mother's fine and original penmanship, suggesting an hereditary element. And several 'fan letters' - mostly from now-famous people; the 19 year old Terry Pratchett, for example, evidently having been deeply moved by Smith of Wootton Major. Some letters were from children - I  liked these better.

(My letter to Tolkien didn't make the cut, I'm afraid - I wonder what I wrote? Questions about elves, I expect.)

There are also maps! - sketch maps, drafts of maps, fragments of maps; reproduced in large scale and clearly. 

And there is something I have wanted to see again for a long time... the 1969 poster map of Middle Earth illustrated by Pauline Baynes (below). For many formative years this was a fixture on the wall of my bedroom - carted from place to place. I spent many an hour examining the pictures with a magnifying glass, to extract the last drop of detail... There was another similar, but not quite so good, poster of The Hobbit.

In sum, if you are know a Tolkien lover, and you will needing to buy him a Birthday/ Christmas present soon - look no further. And any reader of this blog will surely want to put Maker of Middle Earth onto his own Birthday/ Christmas list.




Friday, 27 July 2018

Tolkien's noblest book: Unfinished Tales (1980; edited by Christopher Tolkien)


It is a controversial choice, no doubt; but for me Unfinished Tales - the first 'History of Middle Earth volume, edited by Christopher Tolkien and published in 1980 - is the noblest of Tolkien's works: the one that has the most heart-stopping passages of high style and grandeur.

I came across this book in the summer of either 1985 or 1986, when I found a paperback copy at a holiday cottage rented by my parents; and it was responsible for triggering a resurgence of love for Tolkien which had by that time subsided from the heights it reached in my middle-late teens.

After JRR Tolkien died in 1973, his youngest son Christopher (by then nearly fifty years old) took responsibility for his legacy, especially the unpublished writings - during which CRT became, in my opinion, the most important - because irreplaceable - literary scholar of the past century.

By which I mean that in the same way nobody-else could ever have written what JRRT did; nobody-else could ever have edited JRRT in the way that CRT did (and, astonishingly, still does). Thus we have a first rate writer whose oeuvre was massively amplified by first rate posthumous editions of a mass of unpublished and inaccessible material.

Christopher began* with a stumble (as he later acknowledged) with the 1977 Silmarillion - but with  Unfinished Tales he hit his straps, and from then continued in a truly transcendent synergy with his father's writings. It is perhaps this being the very first of CRT's couple of dozen collections from the unpublished writings and drafts, that gives UT its special place in my heart. Since CRT (apparently) did not know in 1980 whether UT would be the only selection from JRRT's unpublished manuscripts; UT has the character of being something like The Cream of these works - sampled from across a wide range of times and subjects.

The whole collection is wonderful - but I will here mention just a few of my personal favourites.

Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin is a detailed fragment of a large but incomplete narrative. I find the character or Tuor very appealing, and (as an unseen frame) the sketched story has the ultimate happy and strange conclusion that Tuor - a Man - eventually (somehow) became an Elf: one of the Eldar. 

There are two pieces on Numenor; which together make the best source on this fascinating 'earthly paradise' devised for Men: its early freshness and innocence, and its later extremity of both power and corruption. Truly, a tale for our times...

The History of Galadriel and Celeborn is a miscellany, and indeed self-contradicting (but I don't care about that); and studded throughout are answers to some of the questions about Elves I had been most longing to have answered for many years - especially about the Silvan/ Wood Elves, which have always evoked a great yearning within me.

Cirion and Eorl is about the friendship of Gondor and Rohan; and contains a lovely account of the oath-making between the leaders of these nations: that is certainly one of the noblest passages Tolkien ever achieved. It moves me to tears.

The Quest of Erebor is a pure delight - being a 'framing' account of The Hobbit narrative from Gandalf's point of view. At only a slightly lower level; The Disaster of the Gladden Fields, and The Hunt for the Ring deepen the understanding and appreciation of Lord of the Rings.

The Istari (i.e. the wizards) was another chapter I seized upon with eager cries, since (like so many people) I had been particularly intrigued by Gandalf, Saruman and Radagast; and here we get their back-story.

The hardback edition ends with a corrected, added-to and improved version of Christopher Tolkien's fold-out map of Middle Earth, modified from the one he originally drew for The Lord of the Rings. Ideal for reference - and a treasure in its own right.


*Note: I should add that even before the Silmarillion in 1977, CRT had edited and published several 'minor' works by his father; such as the Bilbo's Last Song for a poster by Pauline Baynes; and the translations of Sir Gawain, Pearl and Sir Orfeo; and Baillie Tolkien (CRT's wife) had edited the first collection of Father Christmas Letters. 

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Tolkien's beatitudes - his affirmation even of clumsy, insufficient, vague wish-fulfillment fantasy fiction; so long as its motivations are Good

Note: The Beatitudes are that part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel, which consists of a series of statements beginning with 'Blessed are...' - blessed (apparently) being the English translation of the Latin (Vulgate) Bible word 'Beati'. 

From Mythopoeia, a poem by JRRT Tolkien that was begun probably late 1931-1932; but only reaching the form containing this passage probably about 1946.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate,
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bare, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow's sway.

Blessed are the men of Noah's race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things nor found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organised delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have turned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.



So, what does this section of the poem mean?

The statements of blessing follow a statments that : of Evil this
alone is dreadly certain: Evil is
. Tolkien is drawing a contrast with those who sustain evil, and those who reject it and respond by imagining something better - even when those imaginings are grossly imperfect.

The three Blessings are given upon three types of imperfect creator: those that hate evil but have timid hearts, those of faith who yet lack ability, and those who discern something better than this world - but only vaguely.

Tolkien firmly endorses all three types of flawed creator - and indeed he expresses admiration at their determination to 'do the right thing', as best they can, despite the high probability of (worldly) defeat.

A later passage endorses this - by drawing an allegorical equivalence between the creator as a maker (minter) of coins, but the fact that the actual coins produced are of poor quality with blurry images; and indeed even what is depicted on the coins is not clearly known.

It is the aspiration, and bravely acting upon it, that makes such Men blessed - even when they fail.

And some will succeed - some have passed beyond the fabled West. And, as things turned-out; Tolkien himself became one of them.

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.