Thursday, 23 March 2023

Review of the 1968 BBC Radio 'experimental' dramatization of The Hobbit

The BBC Radio dramatized version of The Hobbit came out in 1968 at the crest of the first phase of Tolkien's mass popularity; and the whole thing was an ambitious piece of work, done with considerable zest and and attention to detail. 

There is a complex, high quality, medieval-style musical score; played by top-notch musicians on ancient instruments such as Crumhorns - which, immediately and throughout, sets the tone of the drama. 

This sonic landscape is reinforced by the involvement of the BBC Radiophonics Workshop to provide sound effects and voice treatments: mostly good, but sometimes overwhelming in volume, and at other obscuring the voices. 

About these voices... Several are given electronic 'treatments' - such as the Trolls, High Elves, Wargs, Eagles, and Thrush; and - especially for the Thrush - the words often becomes so distorted as to be simply incomprehensible. 

Furthermore; it may be acceptable to have goblins speaking in high-pitched nasal accents - but the wood elves too, including their King? 

There is, as in the original book, an 'avuncular' narrator to introduce and guide us (spoken by Anthony Jackson); but here he also interacts considerably (and humorously) with Bilbo himself - who is given a nuanced and varied performance by that stalwart of BBC radio: Paul Daneman. 

Gandalf is given a distinctively waspish, ultra-irritable, somewhat Kenneth Williams-ish, character by Heron Carvic.  

In general terms; the dramatization does a good job of following the light and shade of the book, and the darkening of tone towards the climax; Thorin's death and the maturation of Bilbo himself were well done. The climatic bits succeeded in being gripping and moving - except the scene with Gollum, which (for once) lost tension and fell a bit flat - partly due to repetitive sound-effects simulating the flapping of wet feet (I presume).  

On the flip -side, it is sometime hard to understand what is going-on (unless you already know), and this is hindered by an extremely wide dynamic range - with some parts (especially speaking) so quiet as to be nearly inaudible, while others are deafeningly loud (the dragon attack on Esgaroth, for instance). This makes it useless for listening to in the car!

There are some other strange aspects: for example wilfully wrong pronunciations of several names. Gandalf is pronounced gand-ALF, Thorin is torEEN, Gollum is gohLOOM, Gondolin is gondo-LEEN (do you see the pattern?). 

I can't imagine how this happened, given that no English-speaker in the world has ever spontaneously pronounced the names like this!

Especially since Tolkien was still alive at the time this programmed was made, and the BBC had a dedicated (and zealous) specialist department responsible for correct pronunciation in all broadcasts. 

In sum, this could be called an 'experimental' dramatization of The Hobbit; and as such it was clearly done with care, considerable resources, and high motivation... albeit, in some parts, the experiments don't work. 

On the plus side, this lends this 1968 Hobbit the charm of a 'period piece', very much 'of its time'. 

Overall, in balance - I heartily recommend this dramatization. I have listened-to and enjoyed it many times over the years. 

Thursday, 16 March 2023

Review of the BBC Radio Lord of the Rings (1981) - adapted by Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell

The most important evaluation of the 1981 BBC Radio Lord of the Rings is that I have listened to it many times - most recently over the past few weeks. There is a lot to enjoy, and that enjoyment is enhanced by repeated listening; and some aspects are absolutely excellent. 

Ultimately; I do not think it possible to adapt LotR for radio in a wholly satisfactory form, due to the constraints of the medium - but this version does very well those kinds of things that radio does best; which are the small scale, inter-personal dramas of the story. 

That, indeed, seems to have been a guiding principle in the highly necessary process of selection; because the script jumps rather swiftly between such scenes - compressing the exposition, travels, crowds, and battles; which probably cannot be realized on radio. 

At any rate; Helm's Deep and Pelennor Fields are neither done effectively, such that Volume one ("The Fellowship of the Ring") seem (as a whole) the best done of the three books. 

Given such opportunities by the script; several of the characterizations are memorable and powerful. Gandalf could not be bettered, Gollum is superb, Merry and Pippin are exactly right, Barliman Butterbur likewise. Sam is very well acted and the character developed, but I didn't find Bill Nighy's 'Mummerset' accent terribly convincing. I was not so keen on Frodo - who seemed over-emphatic in his mood changes, or Aragorn - who was inconsistent. 

As seems usual in performance of LotR, the songs present a problem which is only partially solved. On the whole, I didn't find the quasi-classical music to be very appropriate or pleasing (except for the simple hobbit songs), and it was sometimes distinctly grating (especially the counter-tenor eagle, accompanied by harsh xylophone chords, whose chanting announces victory to the city of Minas Tirith - admittedly one of the lowest points of the original text).  

The main weakness is that I do not think someone unfamiliar with the books would be able to follow the story - in particular I think the 'action' scenes would be confusing. 

This is mostly the limitations of radio; and could only have been overcome by having long passages of narration - which would probably have spoiled the inter-personal, dramatic, scenes that are this adaptations greatest strength.   

I think the version's major virtue is in its overall spirit. It comes across as a sincere and highly-motivated adaptation - produced, directed, written... put-together (where it mattered) by people* who loved Tolkien's book and were doing their very best.

(For instance, in my experience, any adaptation by Brian Sibley always provides something valuable.)

Thus I find the whole thing likeable, and feel considerable affection towards it - warts and all!

And - at its frequent best, in the scenes of conversations between major characters - the 1981 BBC Radio LotR is often variously amusing, sad, charming, frightening, and beautiful. 

In sum; it enhanced my appreciation and understanding of the original, as well as being enjoyable in its own right. 


Thursday, 23 February 2023

Don't mention the Gollum! Why doesn't Frodo tell the others in the Fellowship that they are being followed?

I have always been puzzled that - from Moria, to Lothlorien under under its eaves, then down the River Anduin, Frodo never thought to mention to other members of the Fellowship, that he could hear the sounds of someone following - and that he suspected it was Gollum.

(Page numbers are from the Kindle edition of Lord of the Rings): 

p311: Yet Frodo began to hear, or to imagine that he heard, something else: like the fall of soft bare feet. It was never loud enough, or near enough, for him to feel certain that he heard it; but once it had started it never stopped, while the company was moving. But it was not an echo, for when they halted it pattered on for a little all by itself; and then grew still.

OK; Frodo wasn't 'certain' - but why not mention it? 

Just to be on the safe side, and to alert the others? 

Why not?

p314: Frodo's spirits rose a little, but he still felt oppressed, and still at time he heard, or thought he heard, away behind the company and beyond the fall and patter of their feet, a following footstep that was not an echo

p317: [Frodo's] watch was nearly over when, far off where he guessed that the western archway stood, he fancied that he could see two pale points of light, almost like luminous eyes.

Frodo manages to convince himself he was dreaming the eyes, but given the previous twice times he 'thought' he had heard footsteps, and what he knew of Gollum from Bilbo; surely now would be the time to voice his suspicions and put the Fellowship onto alert.

In between escaping from Moria, and reaching the woods of Lothlorien, Frodo is at the rear with Gimli who says he can hear nothing. But then, hobbits hear better than dwarves.

p337: Yet [Frodo] had heard something, or thought he had. As soon as the shadows had fallen about them, and the road behind was dim, he had heard again the quick patter of feet. Even now he heard it. He turned swiftly, There were two tiny gleams of light behind, or for a moment he thought he saw then, but at once they slipped aside and vanished. 

'What is it?' said the dwarf. 

I don't know', answered Frodo. I thought I heard feet, and a thought I saw a light - like eyes. I have thought so often, since we first entered Moria.'

At last, Frodo has mentioned it! But when Gimli hears nothing by lying with his ear to the ground (!) - this supposedly settles the matter negatively, and no more is said or done. 

That same night, Frodo actually sees Gollum's face, after Gollum has climbed up to the tree platform where the hobbits slept.

But Gollum escapes when Haldir the elf returns. Haldir also sees something not an orc, that he thought was like a hobbit, except for being skilled in trees (so Frodo knows for sure he did not imagine it). But the mystery climber is never mentioned to the company, nor his identity speculated upon.

By now, Frodo has surely put two and two together and knows that they are being followed by Gollum; but still says nothing to the company at large. 

Only when, after leaving Lorien, when they are travelling in boats down the Anduin, and Sam reports seeing 'a log with eyes' that is catching up with the boats, and 'puts a name' to this creature; does Frodo actually discuss his previous observations of Gollum, and reveal - but only to Sam! - that he had already noticed that something was trailing the company, and who it was. 

Later that night, after Gollum has attempted an attack and Aragorn has been roused, it turns-out that Aragorn has also known that Gollum has been following them "all through Moria and right down to Nimrodel".

I must say; I find this kind of secrecy inexplicable! 

If I had been another member of the Fellowship, I would certainly have appreciated being told, whether by Frodo or Aragorn (who became their leader after Gandalf's fall) that we has Gollum on our trail. 

Not least, those of the company who were standing watch, ought to have been told what Gollum looked like, and his capabilities, so that they would know the kind of threat to look-out-for. 

In fact; if I had been Boromir, Legolas, Gimli, or one of the other hobbits; I would have been pretty angry if I discovered that such a vital piece of information was known but being withheld (independently of each other) for many days, both by Frodo and Aragorn. 

My assumption is that Tolkien wanted to spin-out the suspense, and not to name Gollum - but instead to let the reader piece-together the clues; and only gradually realize that someone was following the Fellowship, and whom. 

But I think he overdid it! 

To the point of generating pointlessly, and indeed dangerously, secretive behaviour that is implausible from Frodo, and even more so from Aragorn. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2023

Charles Williams - his disbelief in the devil, and his convergence with 'oneness spirituality'

I am surprised that so many self-identified Christians disbelieve in the devil; not only because there are so many biblical references, but also because a devil makes strong sense both metaphysically (in terms of an explanation for the world as a whole) and empirically (as an coherent way of explaining and predicting the specific occurrences of this world). 

I commented some time ago that a Christian who was as scholarly, influential and respected as Charles Williams; nonetheless didn't believe that the devil was real

I found this confirmed in my current re-read of his novel The Greater Trumps, where the character Sybil (who is clearly intended to be the depiction of a very-near Saint - although not convincingly to my mind) says this in her internal monologue:

She did not, in the ordinary sense, "pray for" Nancy; she did not presume to suggest to the Omniscience that it would be a thoroughly good thing if It did; she merely held her own thought of Nancy stable in the midst of Omniscience. She hoped Nancy wouldn't mind, if she knew it. If, she thought as, the prayer over, she put on her other shoe - if she had believed in a Devil, it would have been awkward to know whether or not it would have been permissible to offer the Devil to Love in that way. Because the Devil might dislike it very much, and then...* However, she didn't believe in the Devil...   

Elsewhere in the novel in several places, it is clear that Williams regards the most evil thing to be the Ego, the Self; because the characters who are depicted as doing Good are expunging their sense of self of agency, of separateness. 

This is a common trope, indeed, among many self-identified Christians through the past 2000 years - I mean that being a "Good Christian" entails a destruction of any recognition of oneself as a separate being from God - the goal is to merge with God, or at least allow God and Goodness to flow through oneself. The self is ideally to become transparent, immaterial - the self standing aside and - eventually - being discarded. 

In other words; I am suggesting that among those who regard themselves as Christian but who do not believe in the devil; it seems usual to believe that - in effect - The Ego is the devil. 

Sometimes this is even stated explicitly; but even when unstated it seems to be implicit in analysis and discussions of evil; because the attribution of evil tend to converge upon the separate and strong ego of a person - often the separated selfhood of the Christian himself is regarded as the primary evil in the world.  

This substitution of the devil by the ego in a context of the primary desire for oneness is, I think, one path by which someone who regards himself as Christian can come to deny the reality of the devil.

This fits with a metaphysical theology that all Good comes from God, and (therefore) for Men to become Good, requires that they cease to offer any obstacle to the shining forth of God's Goodness. 

When God is regarded as omniscient and omnipotent, it seems logical that Men can add - from themselves - nothing to Goodness; which is (by definition) already complete and perfect. 

Since Men can add nothing to Goodness but only obstruct Goodness by their innate evil; Men should, therefore, ideally become empty, become like conduits for the expression of divine Goodness.  

What I am getting-at here is that this is another version of my old bugbear "oneness spirituality" - the only officially- and totalitarian-approved modern spirituality - once again confusing people and masquerading as Christianity. 

I tend to think that oneness spirituality is a point of convergence both of Christians who really-believe in in a mono-omni-God with whom the Christian ought to assimilate; and those adherents of 'Eastern religions' (Hinduism, Buddhism) who believe in a more pantheistic and abstract non-personal deity - that is 'everything'. 

The conceptual gap is bridged by the soaring abstractions and infinitudes of 'Classical' Christian theology (i.e. using concepts from pre-Christian Greek and Roman philosophy - especially Platonism and Neo-Platonism). In other words; abstractions and infinites applied to God conceptually-merge the person of God into a de facto impersonal deity.   

I mean the "mainstream Christian" theology that has, as fundamental, assertions of the Oneness of The Trinity; God's supposed attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence etc.; and an infinite gulf posited between creator and created.   

What I am saying is that someone who takes seriously, and rigorously pursues the implications of, Classical Christian theology; will find that - one the one hand - he is converging towards a oneness spirituality (and the stance of 'perennial philosophy'); and on the other hand will disbelieve in the devil specifically and the operations of purposive spiritual evil more generally - and will regard Man's self/ego as the biggest spiritual problem in the world. 

Both of these are harmful in the context of the spiritual challenges for Christians in 2023. 

Firstly, because the Western Christian churches have been corrupted and enlisted on the side of evil; this implies that such a fact will be invisible to one who disbelieves that there is a 'side of evil'.

Furthermore, when the churches are corrupt, the individual Christian must operate from that which is Good in his own self/ ego - as the basis for discernment and seeking spiritual guidance. Unless there is the possibility of recognizing and committing to the Good within us, we cannot discern God's guidance from without-our-selves. 

If, instead, we are trying to dissolve our selves into the Omni-God, or into the divine-which-is-everything (it makes little practical difference which); then we are trying to destroy the only thing that might save us in an institutionally-evil world


*Note: This is a quite extraordinary sentiment for CW to put into the thoughts of a supposedly sanctified woman! To express concern that the Devil "might dislike" something we did, and that this should be considered as a reason for Not doing it! 

This suggests either that the devil is not really evil, and so ought not to be made miserable. Or else it confirms that he is being regarded by CW as so certainly unreal; that one may indulge idle fancies about his preferences, and how it might be desirable to 'keep in the Devil's good books...' The "and then..." seems to indicate that unspecified or implied bad things might happen to us, if the Devil regarded us as his enemy.

My interpretation is that Williams may here be hinting (esoterically, to his inner circle - albeit so vaguely as to be deniable) that the Devil does not exist; but that there are personal powers who get called demonic (by many Christians) who can be helpful, of treated with due respect. I would guess that this had something to do with Williams's ritual magical practices. 

Of course I cannot be sure; but we do know (e.g. from surviving letters and records of conversations) that this kind of subtle, deniable, esoteric hinting in his published writing was exactly the way he operated. 

Wednesday, 25 January 2023

Tolkien's Elves, Men and 'entropy'

Tolkien's Elves and Men can be regarded as differing, most fundamentally, in terms of how each race interacts with the fact of 'entropy' - by which I mean the inevitability of physical (bodily) change, disease, decay, and death in the mortal lands of Middle Earth. 

The Elves have many subdivisions following the 'sundering' that occurred on the Great Journey - which was aiming to take the elves to the Undying Lands of Valinor. 

At the extremes of Elf types are the Avari and the Vanyar. 

The Avari were the 'unwilling' who refused even to embark upon the Great Journey. These Elves seem to have no desire at all to leave Middle Earth, and will therefore inevitably experience the 'fading' which happens to all Elves who choose to remain in the mortal lands. 

Fading is described in terms of the progressive disappearance of the Elf's body until all that remains is an unchanging and immortal spirit. Thus the Avari elude entropy by discarding their bodies, including all for which bodies are necessary in mortal lands. 

What remains of such Elves is much like we would call a 'ghost' - either invisible for just an illusory image; and without self-awareness or the capacity to learn - but immortal in that state.  

The Vanyar are those Elves who unambiguously wanted to live in Valinor, with the Valar, for eternity (or until the end of 'the universe'). 

Since they inhabit the undying lands, the Vanyar expect not to decay or die - their bodies are not subject to disease or ageing. Indeed, their condition may approximate to changelessness - which includes that they would cease to learn, and would live lives in such complete harmony with the will of the Valar (amounting to passivity and total obedience) that they would only be creative agents in a very limited sense - only 'within' what had already been-created and not beyond it. 

(The Vanyar are therefore much like that Catholic conceptualization of the Angels in Heaven; but incarnated in everlasting bodies, and living in the presence of 'the gods', rather than the One and original Creator God.) 

We might therefore see the condition of the Vanyar as analogous with the Avari in terms of 'eluding' entropy by becoming changeless. 

And this can be seen, therefore, as the 'destiny' of the Elves as a race of humans. 

Changelessness is the 'price' that Elves pay for eternal life. 

(It may, however, be that the Elves life is not eternal but finite; bounded by the end of the universe as Tolkien often stated. On the other hand; the Second Prophecy of Mandos suggests that Elves, as well as Men, may be eternal.)

The situation for men in Tolkien's world is the same as for Christians in our world. That is; the bodies of mortal Men (living in Middle earth) are subject to entropy and will inevitably experience change, disease and decay - and mortal death of the body. 

After mortal death, the spirit separates from the body and leaves 'the universe'; with the possibility of undergoing resurrection (after the time of Jesus Christ, which came later than The Lord of the Rings) - which is an immortal incarnation (embodiment) dwelling in 'Heaven' - where entropy is absent and all that is Good will be eternal. 

It is resurrection that overcomes entropy for Men; and the final situation of resurrected Men is one in which they have everlasting bodies and become Sons and Daughters of God. 

The situation of resurrected Men is therefore one of much greater agency and creative potential than is possible for Elves. 

What is fascinating about Tolkien's contrasting of Elves and Men is that the two races develop in contrary (if not opposite) directions. Elves begin as much less subject to entropy than Men, and therefore more creative and powerful than Men. 

But Elves are less free and less creative as they develop, and eventually almost cease to change; ending as essentially passive and contemplative and with little distinction from their environment (whether Middle Earth or Valinor).   

Whereas Men are more and more subject to entropy, and with short lives; which - in many ways - tends to thwart their capacity for creativity and power. And then they die: overcome by entropy, as it were. 

After which, Men may be resurrected; and attain to an embodied, eternal state of greater agency and creativity than Elves could ever attain. 

The different destinies of Elves and Men, and the contrary direction of their developments, means that there was only a limited period when the two races interacted significantly (the First and Second Ages of Middle Earth); and it was mainly with the intermediate - and therefore more Man-like - types of Elf that Men had much to do: principally the Noldor and Sindar. 

And while Elves converge upon the Valar (the 'gods' or secondary sub-creators); Men have the higher potential destiny of Converging upon God - (the primary creator). 

So death is the 'price' that Men pay for a resurrected life that overcomes entropy; while (unlike the Elves) remaining capable of change, learning, development and creativity. 

Sunday, 8 January 2023

Some 75 years after the Notion Club Papers, the romanticism of faery is no longer enough to make a difference to our civilization

My best guess as to the central theme and destination of The Notion Club Papers (NCPs) is that it was to be about the Club re-establishing a spiritual connection between Elves and modern Men - perhaps via the intermediate civilization of Numenor. 

And I understand this to be a version of Romanticism - the Romantic Project, dating back to the middle 1700s, from which time a strand within Western civilization began to explore and advocate such things as are explored and advocated (implicitly) within the NCPs.

For example the interest in myth and 'the primitive'; 'folklore' and nation; the imagination and intuition as ways of knowing; poetry, drama, novels and music as instruments of self-discovery and development; dreams, visions, epiphanies and suchlike regarded as spiritually valuable. 

At the time the Notion Club Papers was last worked-on by Tolkien (1946) the civilization of The West, in particular its representation at Oxford University, was very different from what it has since become. Despite several generations of secularization; there was still a Christian basis underpinning much of English life (including many laws and other regulations); and Christianity had significantly revived during the Second World War. 

For instance; CS Lewis and Charles Williams were both at the cutting edge of an intellectual revival of the Church of England, and other important figures in this movement were TS Eliot and Dorothy L Sayers - who were both friends and admirers of Charles Williams. As a Roman Catholic; Tolkien could point to the tremendous influence of (not long dead) GK Chesterton and (until recently active) Hilaire Belloc; and such prestigious literary converts as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. 

It would therefore have seemed reasonable to assume that the future of Christianity in England was at least secure and perhaps optimistic. At any rate, Tolkien apparently did not feel a need to emphasize, defend, or much mention Christianity in the NCPs - my impression is that it is taken-for-granted that the Club members were Christians. 

In sum, therefore, the NCPs could be understood as about transforming Christian culture, especially in its creative and scholarly aspects (because the NCP members are creative writers, scholars and researchers of various types) by its becoming more Romantic; in particular (but not exclusively) by means of the 'enchantment' of Faery. 

What actually happened was that from 1946; both Anglican and Catholic Christianity in England (and, even more so, in Oxford) was just entering a rapid and progressive decline that rendered it quantitatively and qualitatively insignificant to public life and discourse before the millennium; and by now has led to the de facto assimilation of most Christians to the hegemonic (encompassing the entirety of the mainstream, of all 'parties) totalitarian-materialist-leftist ideology.

This makes a crucial difference to the likely effect of a restoration of Romanticism such as the NCPs envisaged. 

We know, from the revival of secular and non-Christian (especially Buddhist) Romanticism in the West, from the middle 1950s into the 1970s, that Romanticism without Christianity has failed to have a significant impact on the increasing materialism and bureaucracy of The West.    

This has also - mostly - been the fate of Tolkien's own colossal cultural impact. 

On the one hand, The Lord of the Rings is perhaps the most widely read and beloved book of the past seventy-something years - on the other hand, most of its readers and scholars are every bit as materialist, leftist, totalitarian-affiliated and modernity-assimilated as those who hate Tolkien. 

Without Christianity to work-upon, Tolkien's Romanticism - despite its apparently vast influence - has not been able to stop or reverse the adverse trends in The West; not culturally, nor (with few exceptions) personally.  

This suggests that the premise of the NCPs - that an actual re-connection between 'ancient' and Elvish influences and the modern world - would be A Good Thing; is not actually true in a society such as ours, from which Christianity (and indeed all effectively-motivated religion and transformative spirituality) has been deleted.  

So on the one hand, Christianity without Romanticism did-not survive... And perhaps (I would say) could-not survive. 

On the other hand, Romanticism without Christianity also makes little discernible difference; and operates as no more than a therapeutic or hedonic lifestyle-option within secular totalitarianism.  

In reading the Notion Club Papers, to understand its intended implication; I think we need either to project ourselves backwards into the time it was written and the assumptions of that era; or else imaginatively to inhabit an alternative present or potential future; in which we can discover in our-selves that Christianity is still a living option

Thursday, 29 December 2022

Being a Romantic - and the Notion Club Papers

[Jeremy]: Sometimes I have a queer feeling that, if one could go back, one would find not myth dissolving into history, but rather the reverse: real history becoming more mythical - more shapely, discernibly significant, even seen at close quarters. More poetical, and less prosaic, if you like.

From The Notion Club Papers, by JRR Tolkien.

It is often said that nostalgia is merely a selective memory of the past "seen through rose-tinted spectacles"; but that ignores the sometimes different quality of the past, which is captured in the quotation above. 

In other words, we mythologize our past - and the past of our tribe, culture, nation - not by leaving-out the bad stuff, but because the past actually was "more poetical, less prosaic". 

For instance; when I look back on my education, my working years, or my engagement with literature and music; I perceive a trajectory from the somewhat mythic and poetic to the historical and mundane, which was substantially to do with how I experienced life - and not just a product of the retrospectoscope through which I view them. 

And those periods of my life when, for whatever reason, my life lacked this mytho-poetic quality, lacked "shapeliness"; I both knew at the time, and recall it now. In other words, I am not nostalgic for the mundane times - no matter how 'worldly-successful' or 'pleasurable' they may have been or seemed at the time. 

And I have read enough first-person contemporary accounts of the past (memoirs, diaries, letters etc) to realize that things seemed different then from how they seem to us now. 

Regular readers will be familiar with my favoured explanation of the development of Man's consciousness as understood by Rudolf Steiner and (especially) Owen Barfield; such that both our individual development and the development of (at least Western) societies has been affected by a divine-purposive change in Men's consciousness (both individually, and on average through time).

The past has a different - more mythical and poetic - quality, because we ourselves, or past men, had a different relationship with each other and the world; such that there was not then the same boundary as we now experience between us and them, inner and outer, subjective and objective, the individual and his culture or environment. Nor the same boundary between Men on the one hand, and animals, plants and landscape. 

Then we were - to a significant extent - immersed-in all these other things and reality was different for us-as-we-were-then differently from us-as-we-are-now. And it is this immersion that distinguishes myth from history. 

I am one of those people who regard this matter as of central importance to my life, and life-in-general; and who desire to live again in a more poetic and mythic way.

In other words, I am A Romantic - and have been since my early teens (although there have been significant phases when I fought this trait of mine as strenuously as I knew how). 

It was, indeed, this Romanticism that kept me away from the truth of Christianity for so long; because Christianity-as-is does not (or does not adequately) address this problem of Romanticism - indeed, some Christian Churches and theologies make matters even worse from the point of view of draining the 'magic' from life and history.  

And it is this which drove me to seek, discover, and co-create this Romantic Christianity which I - and a few others - are expounding. Of course I regard Romantic Christianity as True-er and Superior-to other ways of Christianity - but I would not have had the long term drive to seek/ discover/ create Romantic Christianity if it had not been for the intractable trait of Romanticism in myself; and my dissatisfaction with any world-view, religion or ideology that denied it. 

Monday, 12 December 2022

Reflections on CS Lewis after reading Planet Narnia, by Michael Ward

I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in primary school - perhaps after watching a dramatized version on television; then The Silver Chair - but did not read any other of the Narnia Chronicles as a child. Indeed, I did not read them until the past decade, after I had become a Christian; and I came to the books via Brian Sibley's superb BBC Radio dramatizations

Yest, despite this very delayed, and rather gradual, path to appreciation; I now recognize the Narnia books as among the very best of their kind - and I return to re-read (and/ or re-listen) over and again; and have read several books of scholarship and analysis about them. 

Of these, Planet Narnia stands-out as the most impressive and memorable - not just for its insights into the world of Narnia, but also because it contains a great deal of absolutely fascinating and valuable information on the medieval world view, in particular the 'astrological' cosmology.   

Planet Narnia puts forward the interpretative key that each of the seven Narnia books is presided-over and permeated-by one of the seven medieval 'planets' - Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. 

I found Ward's evidence and argument completely convincing - which means that this is a remarkable and rare example of literary criticism - in exposing a major aspect of a major author's major work; that had been (apparently) completely hidden and undiscovered for more than half a century. 

I read the book a couple of years after it was published, and have just been re-listening to the audio version - and am impressed anew at the detail and thoroughness with which PN is argued. 

But this time of reading, my own understanding of Christianity has moved far away from that of Lewis - which was, pretty much, where it began; since Lewis was very important in my own conversion. 

Now, I find myself somewhat amazed, and rather appalled, at the complexity and subtlety of CS Lewis's style of Christianity, both his personal faith and his public apologetics and devotional work. 

Lewis has long had the reputation of being a plain speaker and tough arguer - yet his discussions of Christianity - of the nature of God, the nature and mission of Christ, the nature of virtue and sin, and so forth - seems to demand quite extraordinary powers of concentration, memory, and contextual scholarship. 

Now, my feeling is: This cannot be right! 

It (surely?) cannot be necessary

It (surely?) cannot be that the 'religion' (shall we call it?) founded by Jesus would really be such as to need such an apparatus of specific expertise and authority - given that God created this varied and changing world, and a multitude of extremely different individual people living in a very wide range of social circumstances...

Lewis does as good a job as anyone of 'explaining' the inexplicable aspects of traditional Christianity; but I now feel sure that the inexplicable aspects are the consequence of human misinterpretation - not a part of God's plan or Jesus's ministry.  

In other words, the 'explanations' do not really explain - they merely kick the can - when they ought to be challenging the premises. Like 'explaining' my evil by Adam's transgression, or Adam's evil by the devil, or blaming the devil's evil on his prideful rejection of God... 

None of these displacements get any closer to explaining how there is any evil At All in a creation made by a wholly-Good God; if that God is also assumed to have made everything from nothing and been omnipotent.

(The simple answer is that God is Not omnipotent - whatever that really means; and Jesus never said he was! Indeed, Christianity depends on God Not being omnipotent.)  

Or; Lewis does as good a job as anyone of the explaining how Christ is both God and Man - when God is regarded as both wholly transcendent and wholly immanent. 

Or how God lives out of time and knows all that happened and will happen - yet Man lives in time, and has free agency. Or how God is both a monotheistic unity; and also divided into three persons.  

But in the end, these are just hypnotic word webs that are attempting to enable belief in inherited incompatible doctrines.  

But how is it that incompatible doctrines were not a problem for so many centuries? Lewis himself shows us the reason - and why what once worked as Christian belief, no longer works. 

CS Lewis was indeed, as he claimed to be, a 'dinosaur' - the last of the medieval minds. He was a Man whose mind was essentially medieval - which (by my understanding) was a transitional mind between the pre-historic almost-unconscious and immersive simplicities of animism, and modern alienated individuality. 

This middle consciousness has both elements of ancient unconscious participation and also (to an exceptionally high degree, more than modern Man) the abstracting and intellectualizing tendency. 

It is, indeed, the automatic and instinctual spirituality, mysticism and supernaturalism of a mind like CS Lewis's; that enables him to embrace such logically rigorous complexities of theology - without destroying his faith. 

It was because Lewis (like the medievals) had a foot in the ancient animistic world of a universe of Beings, that he was able wholeheartedly to embrace a faith rooted in abstract reasoning. One foot in the past, the other in modernity; his mind's instinctual unconscious irrationality was strongly operative, even when he was using cold logic, discussing detached attributes and aspects, or deploying reductionistic, analytic modelling of reality.

We Modern Men find that abstraction and intellectuality deaden and demotivate; and then they become dishonest. Lacking such a foot-in-the-past and the consequent prior motivational truthfulness, then rigour dissolves into expediency (as we see with the near-total corruption of science over recent decades). 

Instead of combining unconscious rootedness with explicit rigour; Modern Man oscillates-between incoherent, vacillating emotions - and lying, manipulative modelling.

We have inherited much the same - and incoherent, off-centred - doctrines of Christianity as in Lewis's day; but have lost our roots in spontaneous tradition and common sense. 

Typical, representative, modern Man is severely innerly-de-motivated; such that he cannot resist the short-term expedient. 

But those who recognize the unsatisfactoriness of  the typical mainstream modern condition no longer have the Lewisian possibility of sustaining a serious and motivating Medieval consciousness. 

Such is Lewis's charisma, and our gratitude to him for his unequalled success as a Christian apologist in modern times; that there is a danger in trying to emulate his faith and its basis. 

However; emulation is not possible - we, now, are fundamentally different consciousnesses from Lewis; and to attempt to replicate Lewis is merely to mimic. 

And (de facto) mimicry is grossly insufficient as a basis for Christian living in these End Times.  

So we can learn a great deal from CS Lewis; but should not try to replicate and sustain his theology. Many of those who tried to do sustain Lewis's specific metaphysical and theological ideas - and his lifestyle advice -  have, so far as I can tell, failed the Litmus Test issues of our time. 

That is; rigorous, high-status, Lewis scholars and disciples often have converged with mainstream totalitarian leftism - and thereby (overall) joined sides with the powers of evil and against God. 

In other words; one can be a devoted Lewisite, and live as a Lewisite Christian - yet be an enemy of Christ!

So far, so depressing! Yet this disastrous (albeit covert) mass apostasy has a positive aspect. 

If we can recognize that someone can adhere to the letter of CS Lewis's theology and doctrines (and the same applies for all other theologies and doctrines) - yet not be a real Christian; this implies an opposite: that real Christianity is separable from metaphysics, theology and doctrine

If we can recognize that being a real Christian has independence from Lewis's specific metaphysics, theology and all the rest of it - and at the same time can recognize that the Narnia Chronicles are imaginatively-permeated with a real, various and rich Christian spirit...

Then maybe the path is clear to understanding what it is to be a real Christian independently of the classical and traditional structures that came to us via the middle ages

The path is opened to a Romantic Christianity that motivates us to adhere to the side of God and the commitment to follow Jesus Christ through the pressures and corruptions of these End Times - while also recognizing a common real-Christianity, and the possibility of genuinely-Christian alliance, across many denominations and churches. 

Understanding Owen Barfield, despite Owen Barfield's comments!

One of the difficulties about understanding Owen Barfield, is that he did not really understand himself! 

I mean that Barfield did not really understand the nature of his own philosophical work; and thereby said some misleading things about it. 

Barfield's major work was Saving the Appearances; and in his introduction to the 1988 edition of this book (which are Barfield's first published, and framing, words in the reprinted editions since then), Barfield tries to provide a helpful framework to avoid what he terms a misunderstanding, and a difficulty

What Barfield regards as the 'misunderstanding' is that "some readers have treating the work as claiming to provide a complete metaphysical theory of the nature of reality. Not so". 

(Leaving aside the weasel word "complete" - because nothing finite ever is complete...) 

But Of Course Barfield is exactly providing a metaphysical 'theory' of reality! Metaphysics is that philosophy which deals in the fundamental nature of reality; and Barfield is claiming in StA that reality is inextricably consequential of both 'chaos' and consciousness; because chaos is meaningless and unknowable without consciousness. 

Also, Barfield asserts that consciousness has changed through time; and therefore (says Barfield) reality itself (and not just perception of reality) has changed through time: "Nature itself [has] changed in the course of time in a mode not covered by the doctrines of biological evolution".

Furthermore; without consciousness (says Barfield) - there is no knowable reality - only chaos

So that from Barfield's assumptions: it is incoherent to theorize about a world without consciousness

Thus, a cosmology which - like both Big Bang and Steady State theories - speculates on the formation of a non-alive universe in the absence of consciousness is not so much mistaken as simply incoherent; as are similar speculations on the formation and evolution of an inorganic earth before the advent of Life.  

Barfield's (drawing heavily upon Rudolf Steiner's - albeit not identical-with Steiner) is indeed a fundamentally different understanding of reality than anything in the Western or Eastern mainstream of philosophy or theology. 

Therefore, whether Barfield acknowledges it or not: in StA he is indeed "doing metaphysics", and proposing a particular metaphysical description. 

Barfield claims he "tried to preserve neutrality towards all such [metaphysical] speculations, by referring to objective reality (that is to say, reality insofar as it is independent of our awareness of it)... sometimes as 'the particles' and sometimes as 'the unrepresented'. 

But this is not neutrality - because neutrality in metaphysics is impossible. 

Barfield's conceptualization of 'objective' as 'unrepresented'/ 'particles' is itself a metaphysical division and definition.  

Barfield then says: "The subject of this book is not the nature of reality; it is the evolution of consciousness". 

This translates as Barfield saying he is not doing metaphysics, but is (implicitly) doing a kind-of 'science' that he claims to be independent of ('neutral' about) metaphysical assumptions. 

So, Barfield's detailed account of the way that word-meanings have changed through human history; is claimed to be (in effect) 'empirical' and independent of metaphysical assumptions. 

But this is false, because Barfield's understanding of the implications of meaning change being located in consciousness; and consciousness being inextricably a part of reality; are excluded by the implicit and unconscious metaphysics of mainstream linguistic history. 

The changes of word meaning through history are interpreted using a very different and incommensurable significance than that which Barfield proposes - and the mainstream linguists would regard Barfield's interpretation as bizarre and obvious nonsense. 

Likewise, astro- and geo-physicists would regard Barfield's assertion that their theories of the formation of the universe and of earth were incoherent - because excluding any "observing consciousness" from such theories - to be absurd nonsense. 

Such physicists would almost certainly assert that their theories 'work' empirically, have been cross-checked by multiple mathematical analyses and physical observations - and that there is just No Problem.  

The difference between Barfield and the physicists is precisely metaphysics: each is arguing from different basic assumptions concerning the nature of reality. 

My understanding of Barfield is that he was Just plain wrong about what he was doing; just as Rudolf Steiner was wrong in The Philosophy of Freedom

Barfield claimed to be doing 'science' and Steiner claimed to be doing epistemology; but in fact both were doing metaphysics: both were (in these works) putting forward a different way of describing ultimate reality from that which was mainstream. 

This wrongness had an unfortunate effect in terms of obscuring the reader's understanding; because a convinced reader is given the false impression that Barfield and Steiner have 'proved' their arguments in a neutral fashion (which ought to be universally acceptable); rather than having provided a radically different framework for the structuring of arguments. 

Furthermore, by failing to notice that they themselves are 'doing metaphysics'; Barfield and Steiner both leave out God as a primary explanation for their understandings of reality. 

I have said before that it would be Much easier for the reader to understand Saving the Experiences if Barfield had set-out at the beginning that the 'evolution of consciousness' which Barfield describes is a divine plan, which aims at the incremental divinization of Man towards the level of God as creator.

Lacking this structuring and explanatory reference to God; Barfield's attempted-neutral description of the evolution of consciousness sounds like he is proposing a kind of 'law of nature' - a biological principle that sounds like a rival theory of the same kind as mainstream biological evolution by natural selection.   

I believe the consequences of this confusion can be seen in most of mainstream Barfield scholarship since the 1960s; and this has been exacerbated by a failure to engage with the work of Rudolf Steiner. Yet, if we begin by stating Barfield's metaphysical assumptions as such, including the presence and role of God; it really is not difficult to understand - because then its validity does not hinge on understanding and following complex, multi-step arguments or evidence. 

Thursday, 20 October 2022

Links to my reviews of Amazon Prime Rings of Power

The recent Amazon Prime series Rings of Power is advertised as an adaptation of Tolkien; but that is not true. 

RoP has nothing to do with Tolkien's world, except a few jumbled names and scraps. Therefore I have not reviewed it on this blog. 

I have, however, reviewed Rings of Power on my 'general' blog; because - although I fully expected it to be alien and subversive - I became fascinated by the sheer incompetence of the show. This caught me by surprise, and seems to have wider implications.

Tuesday, 11 October 2022

Tolkien's Elves and Men both need to trust in The One/ Eru Illuvatar/ God

In Tolkien's legendarium, Men and Elves are the same 'species', but the fate of their spirits are very different

Men die and their spirits leave the world, and go... nobody knows where. 

But Elves - whether they live on Middle Earth and fade, are killed and return to the realm of spirits, or live in the undying lands - are bound to the fate of the world. This means that Elves die when the world ends; and, what happens to their spirits is not known. 

Therefore, both Men and Elves need faith in the goodness of The One/ Eru Illuvatar, or God - who is the creator - if they are not to despair. 

Although Men's spirits leave the world, they need faith that the spirits are not simply annihilated at that point; and that whatever fate God has in store for them, it must ultimately be for their Good. 

Likewise Elves must have faith that when, eventually, the world comes to an end, their spirits will not likewise utterly perish; but that God will instead have some good fate for them in whatever unknown situation comes after the end of the world. 

From Men's perspective, the Elves will not have to worry about what happens for a long time - many lives of Men; so Man's need for faith is much more urgent if he is not to succumb to despair. 

Elves seem to love the world, get fulfillment from life, more than Men; and so can remain interested by things for longer. But sooner or later their motivation fades - and they begin to focus on the futility of merely existing while waiting for the end of the world. The threat of despair is therefore something that creeps-up on elves, slowly but inexorably. 

In the end, when confronted by the future, Elves and Men share the same ultimate, existential, need for hope based upon faith in the goodness of God. Neither have any other 'guarantee' - since neither race can look beyond their own - apparent - annihilation; and they have no dependable 'information' on what will happen afterwards.  

Tolkien himself regarded this situation as having been changed for Men with the incarnation of Jesus Christ (in an era after the legendarium), and the resultant new information ('revelation') that there would be a life beyond death: resurrection. 

How this putatively affected Elves was only hinted at by Tolkien - with the idea that Elves might not be resurrected, but perhaps rejuvenated in Men's Heaven - having been (I infer, Tolkien did not use the word) translated to Heaven (i.e. earth remade, creation cleansed of the evil taint introduced by Melkor/ Morgoth) in something like the way Roman Catholics envisage for the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

This was perhaps conceivable for Tolkien; because - although prone to sin - Elves had not undergone a theological Fall in the same way as Men. 

I find a lesson for Modern Man in all this. 

Modern Men no longer believe the revelations about Jesus Christ - they do not believe the Bible, the teachings of the church, and have rejected tradition to the point of regarding it as evil. 

Modern men have, therefore - pretty much - returned to something like the situation of Tolkien's Men. We have no knowledge of God or resurrection - but only the possibility of 'mere' Hope; a Hope based upon sheer and un-evidenced Faith in the ultimate Goodness and care of God. 

Such a Faith in such a God, can only have its roots in personal assurance, deriving from a situation of a pure act of direct inner-confrontation with reality; and the insight, intuition, sense of sure knowing which may arise in such a situation. 

Such a faith in God can provide a basis for Hope - but that Hope must be non-specific (much like that of Tolkien's Elves and Men) unless it has, in addition, more explicit knowledge of the work of Jesus Christ and the possibility of resurrection.

This is why the Holy Ghost is such a vital aspect of Christian belief; since the assumption is that the ascended Christ provided this new source of explicit knowledge, unavailable to the 'ancient' Men (and Elves) envisaged by Tolkien. 

The Holy Ghost can - it is asserted - provide those who seek His guidance with specific information about the future of Men beyond Death (i.e. resurrection into Heaven); and guidance on how to partake in that future. 

This information is available to us; but was not available to Tolkien's Men; yet the ability to avail ourselves of this knowledge is dependent-upon our prior Faith and Hope in the goodness of God, the creator - for us, as for the Men (and Elves) of Tolkien's world.  

Monday, 12 September 2022

The three ages of Tolkien in my life

Looking back over the past fifty years I have been reading Tolkien; I can perceive that my attitude to the books (especially The Lord of the Rings) falls into three broad phases. 


When I began reading, in my middle teens, I regarded LotR as, pretty much, a blueprint for how we ought to live in a socio-political sense. My attitude was that the lesson of the book was that we ought to deindustrialize substantially, and return to an agrarian society, divided into mostly self-sufficient units (i.e. a kind of feudalism), based upon a much simpler level of technology. 

Thus, my interest in Tolkien led to an interest in pre-modern history - Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Medieval. And also an interest in the 'self-sufficiency' and 'intermediate technology' movements, 'ecology', and the politics of William Cobbett, HD Thoreau, William Morris, RH Tawney, the 'distributism' of Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton, and EF Schumacher of 'Small is Beautiful' fame.  

In essence; I saw the spirit of Tolkien located in a type of society; and I hoped to live by this spirit via living in what I understood to be a Tolkienian society. I therefore read the books almost as if they were a manual or blueprint for how we ought to live. 


In younger adult life, I lost faith in both the power and goodness of politics - and realized that its direction was against the agrarian. I realized that Men were not passive products of social systems - and I developed the broadly-Jungian idea that 'the psyche' was the primary reality. 

I saw the psyche as a third realm in-between the subjectivity of the everyday and mundane mind on the one hand, and the objectivity of the material world (including society and politics) on the other hand. 

My broad conclusion was that the 'lessons' of Tolkien ought to be developed in terms of living in accordance with the collective unconscious - which I saw as an objective realm of archetypal and mythic realities that was shared by all Men. 

In sum; I saw Tolkien as the greatest modern exemplification of this mythic world; and reading him as a way of discovering and strengthening the mythic in my own life; with the goal of living an integrated life - feeling part of society and guided by the wisdom of myth. 

Romantic Christian

In middle age I became a Christian, and then more and more of a 'Romantic' Christian - under the influence of Mormon theology; and writers such as Blake, Coleridge, Steiner, Barfield and Arkle. 

Thus, from about 2009, I began increasingly to read and experience Tolkien in a different way. This new era began with my immersion in JRRT's posthumously-published and unfinished novel: The Notion Club Papers. The NCPs contains a good deal of Tolkien autobiography, and was intended as a framework and bridge between the modern world and the world of the 'legendarium' (ie. the Silmarillion annals, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings). 

The Notion Club Papers blog then began to record a new practice of reading Tolkien, and some of the other Inklings, as what used to be termed 'devotional literature' - in the same spirit that past generations might have read Milton's Paradise Lost or Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress

So, this is where I am now: in my third era of Tolkien. 

Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Did Radagast the Brown fail in his mission?

The Wizards/ Istari were incarnated Maia (angelic spirits) who were sent to Middle Earth in about the thousandth year of the Third Age to resist Sauron. They were five in number: Gandalf the Grey, Saruman the White, Radagast the Brown and two Blue Wizards named Alatar and Pallando. 

Most of what we know of the Wizards, as a group, can be found in the (mostly unpublished during JRR Tolkien's lifetime) texts collected in the chapter The Istari in Unfinished Tales. These texts include discussions relating to Radagast, and which are somewhat undecided about whether he failed in his mission - by turning aside from engagement with Elves and Men, and becoming 'enamoured' by plants and animals. 

Recently, a further discussion of Radagast, written in 1970, was published in The Nature of Middle Earth edited by Carl F Hostetter, page 193:  

[Gandalf] differed from Radagast and Saruman in that he never turned aside from his appointed mission... and was unsparing of himself. Radagast was fond of beasts and birds, and found them easier to deal with; he did not become proud and domineering, but neglectful and easygoing, and he had very little to do with Elves and Men although obviously resistance to Sauron had to be sought chiefly in their cooperation. But since he remained of good will (though he had not much courage), his work in fact helped Gandalf at crucial moments. Though it is clear that Gandalf (with greater insight and compassion) had in fact more knowledge of birds and beasts than Radagast, and was regarded by them with more respect and affection. (This contrast is already to be seen in The Hobbit 124-5. Beorn, a lover of animals, but also of gardens and flowers, though Radagast a good enough fellow, but evidently not very effective.)

This is somewhat damning of Radagast - as he is depicted as inferior to Gandalf in even his area of special expertise!

However, taking a wider perspective; I think we can make an interpretation of Radagast that gives him a great deal more credit for his activities in resisting Sauron. 

In the first place, it seems likely that when Valar sent five emissaries, it is probable that each one (or pair in the case of the Blue Wizards who are considered as a dyad) - being angelic spirits each was of different nature and abilities; and these characteristic were no doubt chosen with the mission as priority. Even though Radagast was lesser in 'stature' among the Maia than Gandalf (as Gandalf was lesser than Saruman) - this does not preclude Radagast being better suited than Gandalf to Radagast's particular intended role. 

Furthermore, each Wizard was probably affiliated with a different Vala; according to an idea developed by Tolkien in The Istari essay - which suggests that Gandalf was representing Manwe, Sauruman was of the people of Aule, and Radagast was chosen by Yavanna - whose special care was for plants and animals, and who in Middle Earth was represented by the Ents. I think we should infer from this that Radagast - despite his preference for dealing with plants and animals, and lacking confrontational courage - was especially well-suited by his nature and abilities for the task he was sent to perform. 

In other words; although all wizards were intended to resist Sauron, each Wizard had a different specialist sub-mission. I suggest that Radagast's particular task was precisely to work with animals and plants to resist the attempts of Sauron to enlist them in his plans. 

It is - after all - clear from The Lord of the Rings that Sauron had enlisted many birds and beasts in his service; especially as spies: 

[Aragorn]: If the Riders fail to find us in the wilderness, they are likely to make for Weathertop themselves. It commands a wide view all round. Indeed, there are many birds and beasts in this country that could see us, as we stand here, from that hill-top. Not all the birds are to be trusted, and there are other spies more evil than they are... The Riders can use men and other creatures as spies... Soon I became aware that spies of many sorts, even beasts and birds, were gathered round the Shire... Regiments of black crows are flying over all the land between the Mountains and the Greyflood,' he said, `and they have passed over Hollin. They are not natives here; they are crebain out of Fangorn and Dunland. I do not know what they are about: possibly there is some trouble away south from which they are fleeing; but I think they are spying out the land

[Elrond]: Soon now his [i.e. Sauron's] spies on foot and wing will be abroad in the northern lands.  

Therefore it is clear that there was value in having a wizard who specialized in building alliances among birds and beasts - and presumably also among trees and other plants - in resistance to Sauron; and in opposition to the attempts of Sauron to enlist ever-more of the natural world in his evil schemes in hostility to Men and Elves. 

And this - I think - was Radagast's special role. 

If so, it is likely that Radagast was at-least somewhat successful; in so far as many (if not most) of the living beings in the North West of Middle earth (where Radagast operated) were Not on the side of Sauron; but cooperated with the powers for Good. The Eagles are one clear example; but most of the nature encountered by The Fellowship seems mostly-uncorrupted.  

In sum: if Radagast is regarded as an emissary of Yavanna, with a mission primarily to the plants, birds and beasts (rather than Men and Elves) - then he may well have stayed true to this mission. 

So much so, that (we are indirectly informed in The Istari essay) Radagast remained in Middle Earth after the defeat of Sauron - presumably because of his deep love for non-human 'nature'; choosing not to return over the sea to dwell in the Undying Lands. 

Maybe, therefore, he is still here!

Friday, 5 August 2022

What did the Ents look like? Tree-ish Men (but Not Man-like trees)


I have never seen an accurate picture of an Ent; i.e. a picture that conforms to Tolkien's descriptions in the text of Lord of the Rings where they are depicted as large Men, much like trolls; and possible to mistake for large Men or trolls from a distance - but with tree-ish aspects. 

The problem is that this information is scattered through the text of the Two Towers; while the fact that Merry and Pippin initially suppose that Treebeard is himself a tree, seems to prejudice the reader (and illustrators) to suppose that Ents are mostly like trees (i.e. resembling Man-like trees).

This misunderstanding is then sustained by the Hourns - who are trees that (apparently) move by means of their roots coming out of the ground, and operating like many legs. 

Yet Treebeard says that - since sexual reproduction become impossible due to the 'loss' of the Ent-wives (female Ents) - Ents can become trees; and trees can become Ents, implying that Huorns are part-way through this transformation.  

Nonetheless, I think we can be confident that Tolkien saw Ents as troll-like and man-shaped; as is evident in an earlier draft of the Two Towers:

As they were gazing north, they were suddenly aware of a strange figure striding south along the east bank of the stream. It went at great speed, walking stilted like a wading heron, and yet the long paces were as quick, rather, as the beat of wings; and as it approached they saw that it was very tall, a troll in height, or a young tree... 

Theoden was silent, and all the company halted, watching the strange figure with wondering eyes as it came quickly on to meet them. 

Man or troll, he was ten or twelve feet high, strong but slim, clad in glistening close-fitted grey and dappled brown, or else his smooth skin was like the rind of a fair rowan tree. 

He had no weapon, and as he came his long shapely arms and many-fingered hands were raised in sign of peace. Now he stood before them, a few paces off, and his clear eyes, deep grey with glints of green, looked solemnly from face to face of the men that were gathered round him. 

Then he spoke slowly, and his voice was resonant and musical.

From Pages 29-30, The War of the Ring; The History of Middle Earth (1997), Volume 8 - edited by Christopher Tolkien. 

Assuming that Tolkien mind-picture of Ents did not change from this earlier conception, I think we must conclude that Ents should be Man-like enough to be, initially, mistaken for some kind of large Man or Troll from a distance. 

None of the illustrations or animations of Ents that I have yet seen conform to this requirement of being mistake-able for a Man-Troll; which suggests that Tolkien's text is widely misunderstood. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2022

Why did Tolkien come out of the Great War without suffering pessimistic disillusion?

It is characteristic of those intellectuals and officers who wrote about the Great War of 1914-18, that they experienced a permanent disillusion leading to the attitude epitomized by Robert Graves's autobiography "Goodbye to all that". 

In other words, the typical effect of the Great War was some combination of a rejection of tradition generally but especially Christianity; the embrace of hedonism - especially sexual, but also drinking and smoking, jazz etc.; socio-political leftisms of various types - communism/ socialism, fascism, pacifism, vegetarianism, 'green' ideas etc; an intense, tragic and paralyzing, yet guilty, nostalgia for the care-free privilege and security of the Edwardian era; and all underpinned by a bleak combination of philosophical materialism and hopeless nihilism. 

But, as John Garth makes clear in Tolkien and the Great War, this did not apply to Tolkien. He was deeply affected by the war, his trench experiences, and especially the deaths of so many friends (i.e. all but one of his closest friends) - yet Tolkien was not permanently embittered nor disillusioned by the War, nor was he impelled to adopt the above-listed 'typical' literary responses. 

What made Tolkien immune to this existential aspect of the war? I think the answer is quite simple; and it is that Tolkien had a deep and powerful Christian faith. 

In contrast, from what I can tell, those who experienced the disillusion of the Great War either practiced a shallow and merely conventional Christianity, that rapidly and permanently collapsed under the intense and sustained psychological and physical pressures of trench warfare... 

Or else they were not Christians at all, and the war confirmed their pre-existent conviction that the reality of life was nasty, brutish and short - and the only valid response was to live for today oneself, and agitate for a more peaceful, prosperous and secure society in future. 

Many of the most disillusioned men were intensely artistic and aesthetic people, intensely political and reformist in outlook, and 'romantically' dedicated to a life of intense personal relationships. But they failed to learn from the fact that none of these - nor all together - were able to cope with the stresses and sufferings of the Great War. 

Instead of noticing this failure of their ideals - instead of noticing that their own disillusion proved that their ideals were illusions -  they doubled-down on their ineffective strategies... And have continued to do so in the many decades since. 

The failure of secular ideals taught the failure of trying to live without religion.

And something analogous applied to mainstream Victorian/ Edwardian Establishment Christianity: it had been tested, and it had failed the test. 

The failure of mainstream Christianity taught the failure of the churches. 

Things could have been otherwise... 

Tolkien, as so often, showed the proper and effective way forward - because he was both a Romantic and a Christian

I think the same applies to this era. 

The mainstream churches have been taught that they have failed in the face of crisis; the leftists have been taught that their ideals are incoherent and based on lies, propaganda and coercion. 

We know what has failed - now we need to seek what is both good and strong. 

Sunday, 26 June 2022

Review of The Great Tales Never End: Essays in memory of Christopher Tolkien (2022)

The great tales never end: Essays in memory of Christopher Tolkien. Edited by Richard Ovenden & Catherine McIlwaine. Bodleian Library Publishing: Oxford, UK, 2022. pp. 231. 

I feel enormous gratitude to Christopher Tolkien (1924-2020) for the extraordinary work he did in editing and making available his father's unpublished works, and the drafts of his published works. These have vastly enhanced by enjoyment, and depth of appreciation, of JRR Tolkien over the past several decades. As Tom Shippey puts it in this volume:

It may be said without any qualification at all that no author has ever enjoyed a better or better-qualified literary executor than Tolkien found in his son Christopher.

Yet, although I 'know' and like his literary persona as well as almost anybody; I have until now been able to discover very little about Christopher's life. The Great Tales Never End at long last provides some of the key information I sought. 

My main criticism of this volume is, indeed, that there is not more focus on Christopher's life, and I would have liked more detail about the work he did in the decades before he began to edit his father's unpublished papers. 

I would also have appreciated extra in the way of memoirs of Christopher from friends and relations. TGTNE gives us a poem and a short memoir from sister Priscilla; but I would have enjoyed a lot more of this type of material (which could have been supplied by several of the contributors to later chapters). As things stand, Christopher's real-life personality is still rather obscure to me.  

The book takes the loose 'form' of a Festschrift - with work by eleven authors. It opens with a biographical introduction, timeline and bibliography of Christopher's life by Catherine McIlwaine. This was excellent, and included exciting quotes from thus-far unpublished correspondence; although I would have wished it several-fold longer!  

The information here confirms what I had previously heard but in confidence, and was implied by some remarks in a memoir; that Christopher's academic career was hampered and delayed by his third class bachelor's degree, when a first class was usually expected and required (and might lead swiftly to a permanent academic position). The unexpected failure to attain 'a first' is here explained by depression and ill-health following a failed love affair. 

Christopher then took the longer route to academic security of obtaining a BLitt degree, the research for which led to his only solo book - an edition of Heidrek's Saga. After which he published very little, according to the bibliography (although Google Scholar mentions a paper omitted here, called The Battle of the Goths and the Huns, in Saga-Book of 1953-7). 

As long ago as 1973 I myself studied The Nun's Priest's Tale in the excellent edition that Christopher produced with fellow ex-Inkling Nevill Coghill. It was an inspiring volume, which I have kept all these years - covered, as it now is, by my micrographic schoolboy pencil annotations.

Indeed; Christopher's academic reputation seems to have been based on a reputation for excellence as a teacher. He was a 'lecturer' (presumably on fixed-term contracts) for several years before being elected a Fellow of New College, Oxford in 1963 (at the rather late age of about thirty-nine). He remained in this secure and prestigious post until 1975 (aged about fifty one) when he resigned to work on editing his late father's works. 

From that point onwards, starting with his father's translation of 'Sir Gawain', and for the next 45 years - Christopher certainly 'made up for lost time' as a prolifically publishing scholar! 

In the end, Christopher Tolkien lived to complete his self-imposed task with The Fall of Gondolin in 2018 having been responsible for twenty-five books (according to the bibliography here); all of interest and importance to lovers of Tolkien; many of them containing the fruits of intense study and deep thought.

I shall now focus on particular aspects of a few of the chapters of TGTNE which made a particular impact on me. 

Vincent Ferre presents a detailed analysis of Christopher Tolkien as 'a writer' - whose role (especially in The Silmarillion of 1977) was sometimes required to go beyond 'normal' editing; to include selection from very different versions, rearrangement of passages, and composition of linking passages of prose (although presumably Guy Gavriel Kay - his helper for The Silmarillion - should also be credited with some of this). This gave me a new insight into what Christopher actually did, his process; in relation to the materials he had to work from. 

I took from Verlyn Flieger's chapter a fresh realization that the poetic description of the beginning of the world - as described in Ainulindale or Singing of the Ainur - comes to be reflected in what was originally the final words of The Lord of the Rings outside of Bag End (later moved to the Grey Havens) - where  "Sam heard suddenly the sigh and murmur of the sea on the shores of Middle Earth". 

The significance is that, slightly to paraphrase what the Silmarillion tells us: in water there yet lives the echo of the Music of the Ainur; so that later Men still hearken to the voices of the sea, but know not for what they listen. In a nutshell: The Silmarillion legends and LotR constitute "one long saga" - an arc from creation itself, to the eternal echoes of creation. 

John Garth's chapter reinforces the importance of this concept to Tolkien by describing the process of his meticulous earlier re-dating of this section of Lost Tales - which locates the Music of the Ainur as among the very earliest examples of Tolkien's creative flowering. 

Another example of the process of literary scholarship is in the chapter by Carl F Hostetter, who illustrates four examples of just how Christopher Tolkien - and himself - work on JRRT's primary manuscripts to provide vital information on dating; and therefore the compositional sequence, of drafts. This sequencing has been especially important in the case of Tolkien's draft material; since it often changed radically; spanning years, or sometimes decades, of composition. 

I was fascinated by Stuart D Lee's chapter on the 1955-6 BBC Radio dramatization of The Lord of the Rings; which used the letters between Tolkien and the BBC, drafts, and annotated scripts to provide a background to these - long lost - audio-broadcasts.  I was particularly struck by Tolkien's comment on the accents that he believed should be used to distinguish the characters. 

It was pleasing to see my own inferences confirmed that Merry and Pippin should not have 'rustical' accents, because they were "two young hobbits of the highest birth in the land". Tolkien suggested that the genuine rustic accents (e.g. for Sam or Butterbur) ought to be characterized mainly by the 'burred' pronunciation of 'r'. 

And further that elves (and other high folk) should 'trill' their 'r's in all positions of the letter (but not as much as do the Scots); whereas the dwarves should use a guttural 'r' from the soft palate (more like the Northumbrian dialect). 

Aside; I noticed that in 1956 the part of Ioreth (the wise woman of Gondor) was played by the young actress Prunella Scales, who later married actor Timothy West - who (some sixty years later) was the editorial voice of Christopher Tolkien himself in the recent audiobooks of Beren and Luthien and The Fall of Gondolin! (Their son Samuel West reads the actual texts.) 

Tom Shippey's chapter is titled King Sheave and the Lost Road; and discusses the especially powerful linked-concerns of Tolkien of a divine/ faery land in the west across the ocean; the once-existing sea-path to that land which is now lost but might be found again; and the idea of a 'higher/ nobler' Man (or Men) who came from the West by boat; bringing (for a while) gifts of good government, peace and prosperity in harmony with the gods' will. 

Shippey argues that the King Sheave character of (?) legend was seen by Tolkien as related to Jesus Christ in some spiritual fashion - perhaps as a partial vision of Jesus for the then-pagan North? 

Yet, as Shippey says, although this group of ideas haunted Tolkien through his life, and although he several times tried to incorporate it into his imaginative fictions (for example in Lost Tales, The Lost Road, The Notion Club Papers, references to Earendil and the Great Wave in The Lord of the Rings, and the published poems of Imram and Looney/ The Sea Bell) - in the end Tolkien never succeeded in finding a satisfactory narrative form that would capture this deep emotion. 

I hope have said enough to indicate that there is a lot of 'good stuff' in this enjoyable, albeit heterogeneous, volume. 

At its recommended retail price of forty pounds Sterling; TGTNE is perhaps too costly for the general reader; but this is presumably due to its specialized nature and probably modest audience; as well as to its superb quality as a hardback volume - with good paper, stitched binding, and very impressive maps and colour plates. 

But if you are sufficiently wealthy, Tolkien-obsessed, or can get hold of a library (or secondhand, or review) copy of The Great Tales Never End; you will find a great deal of inspiration, valuable information, and plenty of fruitful novel perspectives; concerning both Christopher Tolkien and his father.

Tuesday, 7 June 2022

Legolas and Gimli were - ultimately - wrong about Men

There is a brief yet marvelous conversation in The Lord of the Rings, when Legolas and Gimli walk together through Minas Tirith and talk of the race of Men. 


'We will come', said Imrahil; and they parted with courteous words. 'That is a fair lord and a great captain of men,' said Legolas. 'If Gondor has such men still in these days of fading, great must have been its glory in the days of its rising'. 'And doubtless the good stone-work is the older and was wrought in the first building,' said Gimli. 'It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.' 'Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,' said Legolas. 'And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.' 'And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,' said the Dwarf. 'To that the Elves know not the answer,' said Legolas.


I have long regarded this as one of the most significant passages in the LotR; yet now I realize that while the exchange gives a correct understanding of Men as it seems from the perspectives of Elf and Dwarf - the Elf-Dwarf perspective is restricted to Men in this world

Elves and Dwarfs have an existence in both life and after death that is - so far as they know - wholly of this world, this 'planet'. Their lives are therefore bound-up with the life of 'the earth'. 

Tolkien links this to the great arts and crafts of these races. Elves and Dwarves can achieve higher standards of work than Men because they both care more about this world, are wholly invested-in this world; and the permanent link to this world means that their interest and commitment to their work does not fade. 

Men are relatively much more fickle, easily distracted, more readily bored than either Elf or Dwarf; and therefore Men's work, even when it starts-out very well, is less invested-in and tends to decline. And ultimately this is because Men's souls leave this-world after death 

Knowing this innately, Men feel - and behave - like 'visitors' to the world. Visitors are not so much 'at home' as permanent residents. 

For Tolkien's Men, and for us - this world does not feel like home, and is not enough

Consequently, Men are less engaged with the world, and with their work - they do not take this-world as seriously as Elves and Dwarves - and for Men there is a tendency to become dissatisfied, to daydream and lose focus on the work at hand; and to aspire after something beyond the world... 

To understand the perspective of Men, therefore, we must take into account Aragorn's words on his deathbed: "Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory." 

For Men, but not for Tolkien's Elves and Dwarves, this mortal life is a phase and a preparation; and can be a temporary prelude to something greater and eternal. 

Therefore Legolas and Gimli's understanding is incomplete, and they cannot comprehend the fate of Men as including something that lies beyond this-world. 

Gimli seems to regard Men as 'merely' shorter lived, less serious and less skilful Dwarves! Legolas balances this with approval of Men's capacity to bounce-back after disaster defeat and to start over again - in a way that Elves - burdened by their long lives and accumulated memories - cannot.  

Tolkien did not wish to make the fate of Men any plainer than the 'negative' statement that their souls left this world after death. At the time of LotR, the salvation brought by Jesus Christ was imagined to be a long way in the future; not known by revelation, yet perhaps vaguely intuited...

But Men such as Aragorn who trusted  The One (Eru Illuvatar - the prime creator) already knew that there 'must be' some very good reason why Men died and their souls left this world; which was why mortality was called The One's Gift to Men.

Even the Valar could not take this form of death from Men; albeit afte the fall of Morgoth, the Valar extended the lives of Numenorean Men several-fold compared with their earlier ancestors.

Yet even this life extension - which was kindly intended, as a reward and to allow for greater (more Elvish, or Dwarf-like!) levels of skill and achievement in this world - backfired and led ultimately to Men of Numenor desiring the unending life-in-this-world of the Elves and Valar; and to their ultimate corruption and downfall. 

Tolkien's lesson, overall, seems to be that Men are what they are - not second-rate elves or Dwarves! - and Men have their own distinctive destiny.

And 'what Men are' includes a perspective larger than that of Elves and Dwarves: a perspective that ought-to extend beyond the death of the body, and beyond the circles of this world. 

Thursday, 14 April 2022

The Colin Duriez biography of JRR Tolkien

Colin Duriez. JRR Tolkien: the making of a legend. 2012. pp 248. ISBN-10: 9780745955148; ISBN-13: 978-0745955148 

Because I have been reading Tolkien for so many decades, and therefore have felt the greatest impact from rather specialized and scholarly books such as Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle Earth, Verlyn Flieger's A Question of Time, and John Garth's Tolkien and The Great War - I have until recently rather tended to pass over the biographies aimed at a first-time reader; and it is this this area that author Colin Duriez excels. 

I have known that Duriez was a very knowledgeable and personable individual in the realms of 'Inklings studies', often appearing on TV and movie documentaries - and approved of him in a general sense, but without having made much of an effort to read his stuff! 

A few years ago I enjoyed his 2003 account of the friendship between Tolkien and Lewis; and last year read his 2015 book on The Inklings - which favourably surprised me by its usage of a different range and emphasis of sources than those used by Carpenter and Glyer. 

In other words, as well as providing the general and first-time reader a more accessible, briefer and more readable volume than the more 'academic' scholars - Duriez also provided a different and complementary account of the Inklings from the other books; which made it both enjoyable and well worth the attention of even someone like myself who is familiar with most of the primary sources.  

I therefore decided to try reading Duriez's biography of JRR Tolkien - taking advantage of the fact that it was available as an audiobook. 

Again, as with his Inklings, I found the work thoroughly enjoyable, and sufficiently different in its use of sources and angle of approach, to provide a fresh perspective. Duriez gives us what seems to me the best-integrated account available of Tolkien's childhood and early adult years, leading up to his major books - which this being the most foundational era of his life. 

The Duriez biography has an affectionate and enthusiastic basis, which raises it above the snipings and subversions of Humphrey Carpenter (Carpenter seems subtly designed to poison the mind of the reader against Tolkien). 

It was also refreshing that Duriez is an explicitly Christian writer, which I regard as essential for a rounded understanding of Tolkien and his significance; but one who refrains from pushing this at the reader, or 'using' Tolkien for apologetic purposes. 

Especially if you have never yet read a Tolkien biography; I would therefore recommend Duriez as the best first-time, initiatory Tolkien biography I have yet encountered.

The Place of the Lion audiobook; my favourite of Charles's Williams's novels now available in a reading by David Pickering

The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams is one of my favourite novels, which I have read multiple times over a span of some thirty-five years. 

It is also - I believe - the work which, when they encountered it in 1936, triggered both CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien to write fantasy for adults - Lewis's Space Trilogy, and Tolkien's Lost Road/ Notion Club Papers which fed into the increasingly-adult Lord of the Rings. 

Of these; PotL most-resembles That Hideous Strength and The Notion Club Papers; as being about the breaking-into mundane life of profound and threatening spiritual realities. Place of the Lion has an appealing 'mundane setting', with several pleasant and likeable characters, and a high spirited overall feeling - as well as plenty of both physical and spiritual peril. To me - PotL is by far the most wholesome of Charles William's novels.  

Therefore, for most people, if you are intrigued by what you know about Charles Williams, and you want to try something by him; Place of the Lion is probably the best place to start. 

And for those who, like me, appreciate hearing literature read aloud - there is now an audio-version of Place of the Lion which includes an informative introduction by CW's biographer Grevel Lindop, and is narrated by actor David Pickering. 

Pickering's particular contribution is that he is able to make clear and comprehensible those parts of the text where the reader is most likely to lose the thread - as the reader's eye skips too quickly and lightly over important points. 

For example, when I first read this book, I found the critical first scene - when The Lion  makes his appearance - difficult to grasp; because there Williams makes a distinction (that turns out to be vital) between a Lion (implicitly here meaning a male lion) and a Lioness. But by vocal-acting (i.e. careful emphasis and intonation) Pickering is able to distinguish and keep separate these creatures, and to bring-out CW's intended significance.  

As with any good reader; the audio version brings-out interesting and surprising aspects of the story that I hadn't previously noticed. No matter how many times you have already read Place of the Lion, I think you will find that listening will probably add to your appreciation. 

Note: Apocryphile Press have also produced several other audiobooks of CW's novels, and a wide range of his written works.