Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Review of Tolkien's Lost Chaucer by John M Bowers (2019)

JM Bowers. Tolkien's Lost Chaucer. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 2019. pp 310.

When I first read-through the Chronology volume of Scull and Hammond's JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide (2006); I was astonished by the 'saga' of Tolkien's involvement in trying to co-write a (basic!) textbook for students entitled Selections from Chaucer's Poetry and Prose, to be published by the Clarendon imprint of Oxford University Press (OUP) - because this attempt extended from 1922 up to 1951, and he had still not finished it!

Indeed, Tolkien eventually handed-over (very reluctantly) his notes to the OUP and, after a period of trying to find another author or re-launch the project, the book was never published. The proofs and manuscript copy languished in the basements of the OUP for some fifty years until rediscovered through the offices of Professor Bowers - leading to this book. 

Thus, JM Bowers has written this new book about this extraordinary episode; which illustrates Tolkien at something likes his extremes of fascinating scholarly inspiration and thoroughness on the one hand; and maddening, obtuse inefficiency and ineffectiveness on the other - all compounded by a stubborn refusal to admit defeat and allow somebody else to do the job (until it was too late).

This book would be appreciated by two main kinds of people: those who are intensely interested by the way Tolkien thought and worked as a writer; and those who are interested by Chaucer. But most appreciated by those who are, like me, keen on both! As such, there is - especially in the earliest chapters, a great deal of worthwhile and important material here. I found myself talking to the family about what I was reading; which is always a good sign!

There is also significant material about Oxford University and Oxford University Press in the middle of the twentieth century; which, again, is something that has long interested me. For example, chapter three is about 'Four Chaucerians': Walter W Skeat, Kenneth Sisam, George S Gordon and CS Lewis. I was particularly pleased to find out more about that rather shadowy, but oft-present, person of Sisam; who was variously Tolkien's tutor, a competitor for the Anglo Saxon Professorship that Tolkien (improbably!) won, and his editor - both successfully as in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight of 1925, and unsuccessfully - as here; and that colossus of British philology: Skeat.

When one looks at Middle English, as I do, Skeat seems to have been everywhere; if not first, then definitively. And Bowers presents a pretty convincing thesis that Tolkien suffered a long term sense of rivalry and inadequacy when measuring himself against Skeat's vast, towering contributions (more than seventy books!). There are some striking examples cited where Tolkien gives minimal acknowledgement to Skeat, despite relying very heavily on him; and others when Tolkien makes too much of rather minute disagreements with Skeat's decisions about editing and etymology, seemingly in order to assert his independence and superiority. 

The most interesting aspects of this book for me were the account of the history of the 'Clarendon Chaucer', and the very detailed accounts of Tolkien's editorial work on the text and glossary and his notes for Chaucer; during which I picked up quite a lot of fresh knowledge about these vital but neglected literary skills: compounded of hard work, knowledge and creativity. Here we see Tolkien, often in first draft, and in the process of thinking-though various matters of judgment and interpretation.

On the negative side; I found some parts of the book tedious. There is way, way too much assertion of parallels and influences between details of Chaucer's writing and details of Tolkien's writing; and a whole chapter that compares aspects of Chaucer's and Tolkien's lives and personalities; and their relationships with their sons.

Many of these comparisons I found forced and unconvincing. Especially far-fetched to me was the idea, pursued across 14 pages, that Tolkien was rewriting and correcting The Pardoner's Tale - a simple and cliched parable about greed - throughout The Lord of the Rings. Even if such influences (whether unconscious or conscious) were true they seem to be trivial. These numerous instances I found to be a significant flaw in the book.

However, the main text ends delightfully by describing how Christopher Tolkien, in effect, completed one aspect of the Clarendon Chaucer; by writing the notes and glossary for The Nun's Priest's Tale in the wonderful Harrap edition of 1959 that I studied with such delight for my 'O-Level' (16-plus) exams. I still have the copy, covered in hundreds of minute pencilled annotations; and it was this book (and the excellent teaching of Nigel Hamilton, a Durham graduate who was grounded in Tolkien-style philology) that led to my lifelong enjoyment of Chaucer in the original language.

And led, therefore, to my reading of this book! 

Monday, 13 July 2020

Why was Tolkien averse to France and the French Language?

That Tolkien was averse to the French Language, and indeed things French in general (especially food), is a frequent theme; after which the various biographers and interpreters try to suggest some specific reason why this should be the case: why Tolkien should have developed such an extraordinary characteristic...

But there is no specific reason necessary, beyond that Tolkien was a normal, patriotic Englishman; among whom such an aversion is normal and unremarkable.

The ordinary Englishman has 'always' had a thing against the French; and this was only amplified by having them as 'allies' in both 20th century world wars. Aversion to the French was as common among World War I and II veterans as was an admiration-of, and friendliness-towards, the Germans.

A pervasive (but mostly unspoken) dislike of Frenchness is just normal among the English lower classes; including the non-professional middle class, from which Tolkien emerged.

There are many reasons for it - for example the Norman Conquest imported a Frech-speaking ruling class, leading on to centuries of cultural division, destruction and oppression. And France was an old (often primary) military enemy and political threat (or rival) for many centuries up to Boneparte.

Then there is the association between France and radicalism generally; such that those English who are keen on Leftism, Feminism, and sexual license have always been keen on France. (These are the same people who want England to Remain in the European Union, which is French in origin and spirit.)

Those who find it strange or sinister that Tolkien was French averse are mostly upper-class and/or progressive English - for whom to be Francophile ("the food, the fashion, the sheer style") is a natural as their complementary (and more visceral) despising of Englishness. This description covers nearly all of those people who would be inclined to publish books about Tolkien.

...Or else they are Americans; who just don't understand.

(They may instead be Scottish or Irish; for whom the French serve as just another stick with which to beat the English.)

What is perhaps surprising is that Tolkien qua Oxford Professor did not adopt the Francophilia of his new tribe. But Tolkien's retaining of natural, patriotic, 'common folk' Englishness, was a sign of that same integrity that made him the genius he was.

Monday, 22 June 2020

Tolkien, the late-developer, with reference to photographs (stimulated by re-reading Tolkien at Exeter College, by John Garth; 2014)

I have just re-read Tolkien at Exeter College: how an Oxford undergraduate created Middle Earth by John Garth - a 64 page illustrated pamphlet, published by Exeter College, Oxford in 2014. It is enjoyable and well worth reading; since it puts a microscope onto this important and transitional period of Tolkien's life (complementing the same author's Tolkien and the Great War).

What strikes me is that Tolkien was very much of a late developer. This is obvious from his undergraduate career; he started at Oxford aged 19, and the impression from his first couple of years of college life is of an immature, almost compulsively-sociable young man; who joined a large number of dining, conversation and sports clubs; worked very little; engaged in rowdy, destructive, even criminal 'japes'; and spent a lot more money on entertainment, eating and drinking than he could afford - significantly more than the other young men with Exhibitions and Scholarships spent.

It was not until he changed his course from Classics to English, that Tolkien found his vocation, and began to focus his efforts on learning and working. Furthermore, he focused his friendships away from casual acquaintance with dozens, down to fewer and closer relationships; especially with the TCBS members from his schooldays (GB Smith at Oxford; RC Gilson and C Wiseman at Cambridge), and the re-awakening engagement with his future wife Edith.

But I would like to discuss photographs. In Humphrey Carpenter's 1977 official biography there is indeed a whole chapter called Photographs Observed; but HC does not mention what strikes me just now.

Which is that in all his early photography, from his teenage right through to the early twenties, Tolkien had a singularly characterless, expressionless face - at least as revealed in photographs. There seems no disernable trace of his genius, nor even of an interesting person!

The narrowed eyes stare into the distance - but in a way that seems vacuous rather than visionary!

It might be objected that these are just photographs, and that nobody looks very lively in these old posed pictures. Yet the fact is that most of Tolkien's colleagues look much more distinctive, interesting, characterful than he did!

Of course these were a talented bunch of young men, and many of them were killed in the war (fully half of his matriculating class; overall about 20 percent of the entire college) before they could demonstrate that they might be even greater geniuses than Tolkien...

For example, Colin Cullis, in the second picture, was Tolkien's room mate and a member of most of his clubs, and held a higher academic award than Tolkien (a Scholarship, to Tolkien's Exhibition). He has a poetic and sensitive-looking face; with intent eyes. But Cullis was laid low with a serious heart condition, missed the war from ill heath and died in the 'Spanish Flu' of 1919.

Nonetheless, having made all these caveats I am in no doubt that Tolkien was a singularly blank-looking young man, especially when contrasted with the more familiar characterful and appealling old man he became. This fits with his extravert, sensation-seeking, drifting way of life.

Presumably the transition to an internally-driven genius began to evolve in his young adult life or later; perhaps related to getting married, having children, taking responsible jobs...

There is, however, a picture taken in his later 20s when a Reader or Professor at Leeds, where he still seems only 'partially-formed'! And even by the time of this formal picture of 'the 1930s' (aged about forty), although Tolkien has developed a much more intent and eagle-eyed expression, yet he still seems a bit blank and 'vacant'!

It was not until Tolkien's late forties when we start to see that 'twinkle' in the eye that I regard as characteristic:

What do I conclude? Simply that Tolkien's facial appearance broadly matches-up-with and tracks the strengthening and deepening of his literary powers; and this came after middle age. Surely this is what we would expect, after all?

It is perhaps reasonable to conclude (albeit rather lamely!) that these and other photographs confirm that Tolkien probably could not have written his greatest work, until the later-life years when - in fact - he did write his greatest work!

Note: The photos above are merely illustrative ones that I could find on the interweb. My case is argued on the basis of scores of photos I have in various books.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Review: John Garth, The Worlds of JRR Tolkien (2020)

John Garth. The Worlds of JRR Tolkien: the places that inspired Middle-Earth. Frances Lincoln, London: UK, 2020. pp 208

John Garth is one of the best and most important writers on JRR Tolkien. This is his first full-length book since the landmark volume Tolkien and the Great War of 2003; so I knew I would enjoy it.

From the title, and the fact that it is a large format, really beautifully-produced, hardback volume; I supposed The Worlds of JRR Tolkien might be dominated by the pictures, maybe even be something like a superior 'coffee table' book? I supposed that I might be able to read it in an hour or two... I could not have been more wrong!

This book is absolutely packed with information, a considerable amount completely new to me; analyses, comparisons, discussions, perspectives...

For example, the chapter on 'Craft and Industry' is a fresh examination of the Birmingham links; clarifying that the city was originally composed of thousands of small workshops, making 'toys' of a very hobbit-like kind: buckles and buttons and the like. Tolkien's Grammar School bulidings (now demolished) were one of the great examples of Victorian Gothic revival. And, in general, it would seem that Birmingham and its environs had many positive aspects to contribute to the assimilated childhood and youth experiences of Tolkien, upon which he mainly drew in his writing.

Another stunning chapter was entitled 'The Land of Luthien', and this focused upon maps. There is enough inspired analysis in this chapter to make a whole book. I was particularly gripped by the multiple diagrams where Garth superimposes Tolkien's Lost Tales, Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings maps onto the modern geography of the British Isles (sometimes altering scales). He does this several times, demonstrating what we get from various possible identifications of specific Middle Earth places with specific British cities (e.g. Hobbiton and Oxford) or rivers (e.g. Lhun with Severn).

Other chapters focus on the sea and coastline, mountains, rivers and lakes, towers, warscapes, and - of course! - trees, woodland and forests!

So in broad terms; this book is about the influences of Place on Tolkien's work. It can immediately be seen that this is an entirely appropriate subject matter; because Tolkien is, perhaps above all others, a creator of places. Influences are traced in both directions: from the Tolkien's important places to their possible usage in his works; and from the striking places in Tolkien's works, looking back to possible real locations and experiences that may have contributed to them.

Throughout, Garth manages to maintain the 'right' tone. On the one hand he acknowledges that this is a serious study, about a writer who for many people (including myself) - is The most important of modern fiction authors. On the other hand he maintains a lightness of touch about the activity - allowing himself to speculate (and report the speculations of others) even when these are somewhat wild and loose.

In the event, the book took me several days of intense reading - the process interrupted frequently by setting it aside to think; and by reading out passages, showing pictures, and expounding 'fascinating facts' to my family. 

The Worlds of JRR Tolkien is clearly a labour of love; a considered product of thought; fuelled by a deep appreciation of Tolkien and his works. You could buy it as a handsome gift, because it is an exceptionally fine volume: built to last. But anyone who engages with the text and illustrations will discover greater depths and deeper fascinations; and find this to be a major resource for the serious Tolkien reader. 

Friday, 19 June 2020

Gandalf should not have shown mercy to the unrepentant Saruman

I have always been troubled about the attitude shown toward Saruman by first Gandalf then Frodo, at the end of the Lord of the Rings.

Saruman is a corrupted wizard (a goodie turned baddie) who is the second most important villain in LotR. He is defeated by a combination of the Riders of Rohan and the Ents; and, after being offered and refusing a chance to repent and reform, he is imprisoned by the Ents in the tower of Orthanc.

However, after only a few weeks (and after the prime evil leader Sauron has been defeated and destroyed) Saruman is allowed by the chief Ent (Treebeard) to leave the tower and wander free.

In other words, Treebeard shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and lifts his punishment.

When Gandalf discovers that Saruman has been released, he believes that Treebeard has been hoodwinked by Saruman's almost magical rhetorical skills; and that releasing him was a mistake.

However, when Gandalf and a group of the Fellowship accidentally meet Saruman later in the journey, Gandalf does not make any attempt to recapture Saruman; but allows him to continue his wanderings.

In other words, Gandalf shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and lifts his punishment.

Saruman goes to the Shire and accelerates the process of enslavement, torture, killing, looting and environmental destruction which he had set into action shortly after Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin had left on their quest. When the four hobbits return to the Shire they need to fight and defeat Saruman and his gangs of ruffians; and in doing so several hobbits are killed and others injured.

So, Gandalf's mercy has by this point led to considerable death among hobbits and destruction of the Shire (plus even more death among the ruffians - who are first offered and refuse a chance to repent, surrender and leave without molestation).

Even after all this, Frodo offers Saruman a further chance to repent, which he refuses. Then Frodo shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and does not impose punishment.

Saruman then stabs and tries but fails to kill Frodo, after which Frodo again shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and does not impose any punishment.

Eventually Saruman is killed by his servant Wormtongue, who is slain by the other hobbits before Frodo could stop this.

The result of Frodo’s last acts of mercy was the death of both the unrepentant Saruman, and the on-the-verge-of-repenting Wormtongue.

My feeling is that while Gandalf and Frodo are obviously just in offering Saruman repeated opportunities to repent, and that in their hearts it is right that they forgive Saruman; they are both at fault for showing Saruman a mercy (a reprieve from just punishment) which he did not deserve and which led to great harm. I mean, Gandalf and Frodo's repeated acts of mercy led to harm to others, although not to Gandalf and Frodo.

I am also troubled that Saruman - unlike his mass-slaughtered and mass-imprisoned minions (which included men, as well as orcs, wolves and other perhaps intrinsically-evil creatures) - was hardly punished for his wicked deeds.

Such punishment would have been deserved, and it could perhaps also have brought Saruman towards a realization of his wickedness. To let him wander free did none of this.

I wonder how these acts of mercy would have seemed to the men of Rohan, for example. Saruman simply walking free at the end of these terrible wars; having lied, betrayed, corrupted - not to mention having unleashed orcs on women and children... and so on!

Why should Saruman not be punished?

My interpretation is that Gandalf and Frodo were - understandably - exhausted; and for that reason behaved wrongly in showing mercy to Saruman.

They had both, in fact, from perfectly understandable exhaustion lapsed into a lazy and immoral attitude of pacifism - which is at root a kind of pride, pride in one's own superiority, a reluctance (born of exhaustion) to go through the psychological struggles and compromises of judgment, punishment etc).

Indeed, it was wrong for Gandalf and Frodo to have taken it upon themselves to judge in this matter - since both were (at this point in the story) merely biding their time and settling their affairs prior to leaving Middle Earth. Both had done their duty, succeeded in their primary tasks, and neither had an eye to the future of Middle Earth.

Therefore, the right thing for Gandalf to have done would have been to step aside for Aragorn to make a judgment (or to send Saruman back to the King Aragorn for this purpose); the right thing for Frodo to have done was to step aside for Sam, Merry and Pippin to make a judgment - or perhaps also to refer the matter to King Aragorn (imprisoning Saruman and Wormtongue in the meanwhile).

The whole business illustrates for me a confusion between forgiveness and mercy which is very common.

People seem to assume that to forgive somebody also entails showing them mercy - such that a person who is forgiven is not punished.

This is surely completely and utterly wrong!

Universal forgiveness is quite simply a duty, which everyone must strive to achieve - but universal mercy would be wicked, catastrophically wicked.

It is a gross misunderstanding to imagine that wrong deeds ought never to be punished, and that punishment is only done from resentment.

What should have happened (surely?) is that Gandalf, and Frodo, and the Riders of Rohan and everyone should ideally have forgiven Saruman; but that Saruman should have been punished - and punished severely, up-to and perhaps including execution of his earthly body (as an angelic spirit Sauman's soul was presumably immortal within the life of the world).

In my opinion, the repeated mercy that Gandalf and Frodo showed towards Saruman was at best inappropriate soft-heartedness and at worst a kind of 'aristocratic' lenience - whereby rulers are (from a sense of solidarity) more considerate and merciful towards each other than they are to the common people.

Did Tolkien intend to imply this kind of interpretation?

I am not at all sure - but I would not be *too* surprised if he did; wanting, at some level, to show us mistaken mercy borne of exhaustion as being yet another of the many ill effects of the war of the ring.

Note: Originally published 7th September 2010 at Bruce Charlton's Notions. 

Further Note: If Saruman deserved to be let go free to do evil 'in a small way'; how about if Sauron had been captured instead of killed (supposing that the destruction of The Ring hadn't dissolved him into smoke)? What kind of justice would that be? 

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

How many Mars Bar-adjusted pounds does the Lord of the Rings cost, then and now?

 A hobbit holding some Mars Bars

When the Lord of the Rings was first published in the middle 1950s, its UK cost was 1 Guinea - and a Guinea was 1 Pound and 1 Shilling (a Pound being 240 old-pennies and a Shilling being 12 old-pennies); so a Guinea was was 252d (d = old-pennies).

All three LotR volumes cost 3 guineas = about 3.2 pounds. Nowadays, the three volume paperback costs about 25 pounds from amazon.co.uk including delivery. So, the raw cost of buying a new three volume LotR has increased from the 1950s to now by about Eight-fold (25/3.2 = 7.8).

By contrast the price of a Mars Bar (MB) has increased from 5d to 60p, and 60p would have been 144d. Therefore the cost of a Mars Bar has increased (1950s-now) by about Twentynine-fold. (144/5 = c28.8)

Therefore, to adjust for UK inflation since the 1950s to now, we need to multiply current prices by twenty-nine.

(Why Mars Bars? Well, the Mars Bar is 'officially' (i.e. according to an article in the The Financial Times) a Standard; and a (sort-of) acknowledged unit of inflation-adjusted cost. This means that we can standardise the 'real value' of money c. 1955 by correcting for the inflation of Mars Bar prices - that is by multiplying current price by twenty-nine*. )

Therefore, the equivalent (MB-adjusted) cost of LotR at the time it was published was about 93 pounds (approx = 29 X 3.2 pounds).

Of course, for that high price, one was getting a beautifully sewn hard-backed book to last a lifetime, instead of a glued paperback that will probably fall to pieces in about a decade.

The point is that 93 pounds would nowadays be A Lot to pay to buy a copy of a novel, and way beyond what people (especially teens) would normally pay for a book. Therefore it is not at all surprising that the LotR took quite a while to become well known and widely read in the UK.   

The first UK paperback was an omnibus edition of all three books - which was not published until 1968. However, this version was minus the appendices (except for an excerpt about Aragorn and Arwen). It sold for 30 Shillings - or 1.5 pounds.

By 1970 the Mars Bars had apparently increased in price to 6d - so we can use a twentyfour-fold inflation adjuster; then we get an MB-adjusted price of 36 pounds for the 1968 omnibus paperback edition.

At the time I first read LotR that single-volume-paperback was the only 'affordable' option for a teen - and very steep even so.

Because the paperback was incomplete, I wanted to buy The Return of the King, in order to get the appendices; and this was only available in hardback. But by 1970 the hardback had nearly doubled in price (to 1.95 pounds) since it was published.

So the MB-adjusted cost of a single volume of the hardback at the time I began reading the LotR in 1972 would be something-like forty-seven pounds. (1.95 X 24 = 46.8). No wonder I didn't buy it...

This shows what poor value was the UK paperback in the early 1970s, and how the restrictive practices of bookselling had - by the 1970s - made UK books relatively more expensive in 1968 than they were in the 1950s. Although I recall that, in addition, Unwin's Tolkien books were noticeably more expensive than most.

From all this it is easy to see just why it was in the United States that Tolkien first became popular, with the UK lagging far behind. Books have always been cheaper in the US than the UK - despite usually being better made; perhaps due to more competition and to the larger market?

And furthermore while the UK had to wait until 1968 for an incomplete paperback; the US had a (pirate) Ace paperback of the complete book from 1965, selling at 2.25 dollars for all three volumes (75 cents per volume)  - which would (with about 2.5 dollars to the pound, at that time) have been equivalent to less than 1 Pound, half the price of the UK paperback omnibus version.

*Note: Alternatively, we could express the cost of buying the Lord of the Rings - then and now - in Mars Bars (MBs). At the time of publication the cost was 151 MBs (756d/5) and this has now gone down to 42 MBs (2500p/60).

PS: I got the idea for this from Tom Shippey, who calculated the relative cost of LotR - then and now - but (characteristically) using the price of a pint of beer as his adjustor. I felt this could be improved (economically, albeit less amusingly) using the FT-approved Mars Bar Standard.

PPS - 16:32h - Commenter dearime tells me that Mars bars were 5d in the 1950s (and I believe him!) so I have recalculated on that basis, and again on the basis that an MB was 6d by 1970. 

Saturday, 6 June 2020

Review of Tolkien and the Silmarillion by Clyde Kilby

Tolkien and The Silmarillion by Clyde Kilby. Lion Publishing, Berkhamsted, Kent, UK. 1977 pp 89. (US edition, 1976.)

This is a hardly-known, slim, minor, but fascinating contribution to the writings about Tolkien. Its centre is an account of the summer of 1966 which the author spent meeting with the seventy-four year old Tolkien a few times per week, ostensibly to provide him with informed and enthusiastic secretarial assistance to get The Silmarillion ready for publication.

Clive Kilby was extremely well suited to the job - being a scholar of English literature, and the man who ultimately established the Marion Wade centre at Wheaton College, Illinois (a mecca for Inklings scholars).

As he candidly admits, Kilby's mission failed completely and he was unable to move Tolkien even an inch towards completing his task; indeed it soon became apparent that Tolkien was not really even trying to make the Silmarillion ready for publication; devoting his attention and spending his time on almost anything else rather than this. The Silmarillion was finally prepared for publication by Christopher Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay in 1977; the same year as this book was published. 

Kilby's secondary task (given him by Rayner Unwin, Tolkien's publisher) was to get him to finish the introduction to the modern translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; which needed only a few more days work to be ready but had been stuck at this point for many years. Kirby also failed at this - and Tolkien announced ("almost triumphantly") at the end of the summer "Well, I didn't write it!" (The book was finally published posthumously by Christopher, in 1975.)

Kilby's book made no kind of impact - probably because it was from such a small publisher; and partly because its speculations about the Silmarillion seemed to be rendered obsolete by the long trailed publication of The Silmarillion itself, in 1977. Similarly, the memoir snippets about Tolkien which Kilby provides, were also swept away by Humphrey Carpenter's official biography, also in 1977.

The special value of Kilby's book, and why it still remains well worth reading (if you can get hold of a modestly priced copy) is the 28 page chapter Summer with Tolkien. This I would rate as the best concentrated account I have ever read of what Tolkien was like as a person - in his old age. Kilby had (and Warnie Lewis confirms this, in his diaries) a very sweet and direct nature, with that nice kind of (as it seems to English people) boyish naivete characteristic of some grown-up American men.

So, there are some really good descriptions of Tolkien's appearance, behaviour, manners, mode of speech - and the conversational topics that interested him. Kilby provides a specimen day where he lists, in order, the subjects into-which Tolkien led the conversation:

1. Fan letters, and how T replies to them; 2. Annoyance at an article on T in the Saturday Evening Post; 3. Declaring the birch outside to be his totem tree; 4. How he and Mrs T were annoyed with WH Auden for reportedly making the remark that T's home was 'hideous' in a meeting of the T Society in the US; 5. His dislike of the covers on the Ballantyne paperbacks - and (on publishers more generally) that he was both annoyed and gratified by the Ace paperbacks pirate edition of Lord of the Rings; 6. That he was pleased with the Japanese edition of The Hobbit; 7. Discussing Mrs T's chronic illness; 8. K asks if anyone has asked to write a biography, T says yes and discusses his worries at inner motives being misrepresented; 9. His intention to write a book on the Second Age of Middle Earth, especially Numenor; 10. T showed K some old manuscripts of his work, with evidence of much re-working.

In general; Kilby commented (what the above list confirms) that Tolkien did not seem much interested in working on The Silmarillion, had lost track of much written material among a chaos of manuscripts, and seemed to have forgotten some things he had written (often some decades earlier).

In sum, this little book contains plenty to enjoy, and contributes an unique perspective to understanding the delightful, frustrating, complex and contradictory character of JRR Tolkien.

Back to the Notion Club Papers; connections with the current spiritual war

 By Afalstein

I am currently on an all-round diet of Tolkien - Reading The Notion Club Papers for the nth time (and dipping-into other things); and listening to the audiobook of Christopher Tolkien's thematic edition of the Beren and Luthien texts (2017).

Coming at the Notion Club Papers this time, I am much aware that Tolkien was writing this as a spiritual exploration, he was trying to solve some pressing personal problems by writing them. Instead of working these out in real-life conversations with the Inklings; he chose to do so through the the Notion Club - which were fictional-fantasy Inklings.

And then he would read what he had written to the actual Inklings, presumably to gather reactions; and return to do more Notion Club - all through the first half of 1946 until he again took-up The Lord of the Rings, never to return again to the NCPs.

What Tolkien was concerned by, was something that 'obsessed' him all through his writing life - which was the 'frame' of his fantasy.

The NCPs open with Tolkien's alter ego Ramer (one of his two alter egos in this work - the other being Lowdham) having just read a science fiction story about another planet to the Club; and being criticised for the clumsiness and perfunctory, unconvincing nature of the 'framing device' for travel to and from this planet - apparently in a spaceship of some kind.

Tolkien himself needed a way of relating, of explaining, the link between his stories and the modern world. 

After considering various possibilities, the consensus is that some kind of mental travel is the best possibility - either telepathy or in a trance or dream state. A psychic link needs to be established between a human body here-and-now, and other times and places. This was actively being considered by Tolkien as the basis for linking his 'Middle Earth' (Arda) writings with modern Oxford - in which case the NCPs would have been, in effect, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings and/or The Silmarillion.

But in a larger sense, which soon becomes apparent; Tolkien is writing more generally about the relation between his imaginative fantasy and the modern mundane world. The Club's discussions branch off into considering how - as imagination goes back - history turns into myth. And it is clear that the mythic way of thinking is regarded as being of great value. Indeed, the projected NCPs seem to be about re-establishing the link between myth and modern life.

Following the telepathy/ trance/ dream line of thinking; this link is established by members of the Notion Club themselves, as a consequence of their conscious and purposive brooding on this theme. In effect, because they regard it as important and as possible - the Notion Club are able to bridge time and space in their own minds, thereby opening a 'channel' through which myth can re-enter modernity.

This at first happens by the storms that led to the drowning of Numenor, breaking-through to sweep the British Isles from West to East (Ireland bearing the brunt of it, but Oxford also severely affected).

What impresses me with the NCPs this-time-round, is that Tolkien was saying that thinking is real - and that purposive, conscious, sincere thinking has an effect on the world - primarily a spiritual effect, but also a physical effect (albeit something of a minor disaster in terms of wind and floods).

Also, I am appreciating the way that the Notion Club are engaged in a kind of intuitive searching. They don't know exactly what they are looking-for, nor do they know where or how to find-it. So they try this, and that - and follow hunches to see whether they lead to anything.

Ramer and Dolbear being by means of trances and dreams; and in the second part Lowdham and Jeremy extend this to a physical search for... clues and connections; travelling by boat and on foot in Ireland and the West coast of the mainland of Britain.

I am finding all this is encouraging me in my current efforts, as described recently. Because The Notion Club Papers is - in one sense - 'about' the need to combat the deathly, dead-ly materialism and reductionism of modern society; to combat it consciously and purposively (and effectively) by our minds, our imaginations.


Friday, 17 April 2020

Plans A, B and C for destroying the One Ring: Providence and freedom in Lord of the Rings

In Paul Kocher's Master of Middle Earth (the first first-rate work of literary criticism that Tolkien attracted) there is a superb chapter that discusses the inter-relationship between individual choices and the working of divine providence.

It is indeed a recurrent theme throughout the story. It is clear that the individual protagonists have real decisions to make, and that these decisions are genuinely free and not pre-determined; equally it is clear that there is a divine will at work shaping events in the direction of Good.

Providence seems to have a first-choice Plan; which, if the best choices are made, will give the best overall outcome; but has back-up plans (Plan B, Plan C etc.) that can be tried sequentially to get the same main result - but at the probable cost of worse collateral damage.

(No matter how many plans have failed - God does not give-up on us - his children; he is not limited to Plans A-Z but will patiently continue to shape the situation for our eternal good regardless of how many people have made the wrong choices.) 

Thus, the actual destruction of the One Ring was probably Plan C.

Plan A probably involved Gollum repenting at or before the scene on the stairs of Cirith Ungol where he sees Frodo and Sam peacefully asleep (this plan would also entail Sam not calling Gollum a sneak when he woke to see Gollum stroking Frodo tenderly, but interpreted as him trying to steal the ring - so Sam shares this blame).

Then Frodo would maybe Not have been stung by Shelob nor captured by the Orcs. How the ring would then have been destroyed is not made clear in the text (although Tolkien later speculated on this matter in one of his published Letters) - but perhaps Frodo and/or Gollum would have made a voluntary sacrifice.

Plan B included that Frodo should cast The Ring into the cracks of doom, voluntarily (or, at least, Not claim it for his own); but it was Plan C by which the job was accomplished. Plan C was sub-optimal; and entailed the destruction of Frodo's appetite for life, tipping him into a chronic and worsening melancholia. Because Frodo did not succeed in voluntarily casting-away the ring, because he tried to claim it; he was plagued by regret for its destruction. 

This is not a matter of blaming Frodo for his failure, since carrying the ring to Mordor and destroying it was a task beyond his power, and Frodo knew this; yet continued anyway. It was, indeed, a task that could only be accomplished with the aid of providence.

Nonetheless. moral choice is real and consequences are real, and Frodo made the wrong choice; and this carries an inevitable consequence - which is inevitably sub-optimal.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Why I will miss Christopher Tolkien

JRR the father with his arm around Christopher, with whom he had a specially empathic relationship - that lasted until this week

Christopher Tolkien died a couple of days ago, which marks the end of an era - the last person who participated in the core Inklings meetings; the writing and discussion group that met in the evenings to read works in progress and have discussions stimulated.

CT was probably the person I would (in a theoretical way) most have liked to get to know, as a friend, for long and detailed discussions - because there was so much that only he could have told. But I do feel as if I knew him; because I have read so many of his words, in so many different situations relating to his Father's work.

I always enjoy and appreciate (and re-read) those parts of the History of Middle Earth which Christopher contributed; starting with Unfinished Tales of 1980 (which I happen to be re-reading currently) and continuing up to The Fall of Gondolin (which was published in 2018, in which he said his goodbye).

(I leave aside the 1977 Silmarillion as somewhat of a failure, in which he had not hit his straps as an editor; and which lacks his authorial voice.)

Christopher brought a remarkable (and unexpected) extra dimension to his Father's work, which is probably unique in the history of literature; since it is exceedingly rare to combine such knowledge, talent and dedication with deep sympathy and an apparently complete absence of ego.

Christopher's vast output of his father's posthumous primary writings, and of commentary and scholarship, seems to be motivated entirely by filial love; and this is what makes his achievement so beautiful.  

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Frodo (not Sam) [nor Gollum] is the hero of Lord of the Rings

Naive first-time readers of The Lord of the Rings regard Frodo as the hero.

Sophisticates, who have read the book a few times, or read the secondary literature; regard Sam as the hero - noticing that the point-of-view switches to Sam not long after the Fellowship is broken, Sam has the last words in the book; and that Sam is indeed heroic in multiple ways - especially in fighting Shelob and rescuing Frodo while alone.

(Some weird people - who are profoundly out of sympathy with Tolkien, and haven't read LotR carefully - regard Gollum as the hero, because... well, you know the kind of stuff.) 

However, Ultra-sophisticates such as myself (!) realise that Frodo was the hero all along!

Why? Well, because the book is primarily about the destruction of The One Ring, and Frodo is the only character whose primary priority is the destruction of The Ring. This is not vitiated by the observation that Frodo was unable purposively to complete his task - the fact is that he gave the job his everything.

Most important job, gave it everything: Frodo is the hero.

By contrast, Sam's priority is Frodo - and when he temporarily tries to put The Ring first, and leaves Frodo for dead - he deeply regrets having done so, and berates himself for having failed to stick by his proper task.

(Gollum is the person who actually destroys the ring, but does so by accident - assisted by providence; so he isn't the hero.)


Monday, 30 December 2019

A Middle Earth Traveller - by John Howe (2018)

A Middle Earth Traveller: sketches from Bag End to Mordor. John Howe. HarperCollins, 2018. 192 pages, large format.  

John Howe has become the best artist to illustrate Tolkien. Not only scense and characters from the major works published in Tolkien's lifetime and posthumously, but he has extended imaginatively into subjects that were only hinted-at in the extensive Legendarium.

Howe has been illustrating covers for, I think, more than 25 years - and these were always good; but over the decades Howe as become a better artist and has gone ever more deeply into Tolkiens world; assisted by being one of the two artists (the other was Alan Lee) to work on the design of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies.

I already have several earlier books including Howe's Tolkien work, but Middle Earth Traveller reaches a new level of quality, interest and sheer generosity. It includes colour paintings finished drawings, and hundreds of pencil sketches; of landscape, people and artefacts.

I say Howe is the best artist to illustrate Tolkien because he is the best at figure drawing, portraiture; and this comes from his very fluid and fluent line. I presume this has developed from the vast workload undertaken during the movie making process, when he was needed 24/7 to make multiple last minute changes to the set, costume, props etc.

In addition - from his own passionate engagement with Tolkien's world - Howe has made (it seems) many thousands of extra sketches extending beyond what was needed for the movies (and commissioned illustrations), and noting features of suitable landscapes.

What I get from this book (including the extensive explanatory texts) is a sense of genuine personal engagement and love of the subject matter; combined with accuracy and skill. The book is jam-packed with good stuff, and represents excellent value for money - whether as a present (which is how I got mine) or for yourself.  

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Love among the Inklings

To what extent were the Inklings a group bound together by Love? The answer is; to a much greater extent than is usual for such intellectual groups composed of colleagues with common interests (e.g. Christianity, literature, the imagination, myth); and with common purposes (writing, socio-political renewal, Christian revival).

Indeed, I would say that the fact that the Inklings was a loving group was what raised it above other superficially similar intellectual groupings. 

At the centre of the Inklings was CS Lewis - who, of course, wrote on the subject of The Four Loves (1960), a man with a genius for friendship, and who genuinely loved his friends. Jack Lewis attended all the meetings, which were held in his rooms; he was driving force that kept them going. And after the evening meeting of the true 'Inklings' dissolved, Jack maintained an extended convivial conversation group for more than another decade, lunchtimes at the 'Bird and Baby' or (opposite) Lamb and Flag pubs.

Of those inklings whom Lewis loved, first was his brother Warnie, second was his student friend Owen Barfield. Then came JRR Tolkien. And in all of these instances, the love was mutual.

Finally, there was Charles Williams...

As always with Williams, the friendship with Lewis is not straightforward. There is no doubt that Lewis loved Williams; but I doubt whether this love was reciprocal - indeed, I have never seen any reference anywhere to suggest that Williams actually loved Lewis as a friend. Respected, yes. Enjoyed the company of, yes. But I am not confident that - after his youth and young adulthood - Williams loved any man.

This is not, perhaps, unusual; because few men can develop robust and lasting loving friendships with other men after early adulthood; and in this respect Lewis was exceptional. 

But with Jack, Warnie, Barfield, Tolkien and Williams we have the core of the Inklings; and at the centre of this web of loving relationships was Jack. He truly was the heart of the group.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

The human condition and the Riders of Rohan

One of the loveliest, most skilful and poignant passages of Lord of the Rings is easily skimmed-over; coming on the journey of Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli; as they ride between Fangorn Forest and the Golden Hall of King Theoden in Rohan.


At the foot of the walled hill the way ran under the shadow of many mounds, high and green. Upon their western sides the grass was white as with a drifted snow: small flowers sprang there like countless stars amid the turf.

'Look!' said Gandalf. 'How fair are the bright eyes in the grass! Evermind they are called, simbelmynë in this land of Men, for they blossom in all the seasons of the year, and grow where dead men rest. Behold! we are come to the great barrows where the sires of Théoden sleep.' 'Seven mounds upon the left, and nine upon the right,' said Aragorn. 'Many long lives of men it is since the golden hall was built.'

'Five hundred times have the red leaves fallen in Mirkwood in my home since then,' said Legolas, 'and but a little while does that seem to us.'

'But to the Riders of the Mark it seems so long ago,' said Aragorn, 'that the raising of this house is but a memory of song, and the years before are lost in the mist of time. Now they call this land their home, their own, and their speech is sundered from their northern kin.' Then he began to chant softly in a slow tongue unknown to the Elf and Dwarf; yet they listened, for there was a strong music in it.

'That, I guess, is the language of the Rohirrim,' said Legolas; 'for it is like to this land itself; rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains. But I cannot guess what it means, save that it is laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.'

'It runs thus in the Common Speech,' said Aragorn, 'as near as I can make it.

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?

They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?

Thus spoke a forgotten poet long ago in Rohan, recalling how tall and fair was Eorl the Young, who rode down out of the North; and there were wings upon the feet of his steed, Felaróf, father of horses. So men still sing in the evening.'


Here Tolkien shows what Fantasy Fiction can do, because the Rohirrim are 'us', the readers - especially if we are English; since Rohan does not just represent a version of our Anglo Saxon past; but is also the race of beings from-which modern Men have mostly descended. We thus see ourselves - ordinary Men - through the eyes of wizard, elf; and Aragorn, who is a Numenorean Man (part elf) and with doubled lifespan - who has served, disguised, in the cavalry of Rohan as a young man.

The Men of Rohan are (apart from their Kings) an illiterate society, whose lives are probably among the shortest in Middle Earth, and whose culture is carried orally - by story, poem and song. They seem child-like to the other races; being impetuous in their bravery, yet they are moody and easily daunted by superstition. They have a clarity and directness of morality, based on the warrior code of personal loyalty. Their short lives are intense and highly coloured; but they do not cling to life; preferring to die in battle and thereby going (they believe) to the halls of their fathers to meet the other courageous dead.

There is thus a sense in which the other races, including the higher Men of Gondor both envy and look-down-on the Men of Rohan - and the unselfconscious nobility they achieve in the recklessness and panache of their cavalry charge against the besieging forces around Minas Tirith make perhaps the highest point of sheer wonder in the entire work of Lord of the Rings - Tolkien mentioned that the horns of the Rohirrim at dawn was perhaps his own favourite moment.

The Men of Rohan have the virtue of their own simplicity; they live for such moments; and to die in such a moment is their greatest wish - if that is what the fates decree.


And there stood Meriadoc the hobbit in the midst of the slain, blinking like an owl in the daylight, for tears blinded him; and through a mist he looked on Éowyn’s fair head, as she lay and did not move; and he looked on the face of the king, fallen in the midst of his glory, For Snowmane in his agony had rolled away from him again; yet he was the bane of his master.

Then Merry stooped and lifted his hand to kiss it, and lo! Théoden opened his eyes, and they were clear, and he spoke in a quiet voice though laboured.

‘Farewell, Master Holbytla!’ he said. ‘My body is broken. I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent. A grim morn, and a glad day, and a golden sunset!’

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

John Fitzgerald on Charles Williams

John Fitzgerald has posted a wide-ranging review of Lindop's biography of the Inkling Charles Williams (my own stab at the business is here); continuing the ongoing and fascinating project of trying to attain an overall evaluation of this most contradictory and elusive of literary figures.

Monday, 29 July 2019

Tom Bombadil and Final Participation

If you don't already know them; I would highly-recommend The Letters of JRR Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter (1981) which are absolutely packed with fascinating and deep reflections.

In Letter 144 (25 April 1954) Tolkien makes a thought-provoking comment about the presence of Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings, and his importance to the story - which hits home on a matter I have been reflecting about over the past few years; the matter of the ideal form of human society, and (therefore) the nature of Heaven:

The story (of LotR) is cast in terms of a good side and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. 

But if you have, as it were, taken a 'vow of poverty', renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing; then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. 

It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. 

But the view of Rivendell [i.e. the Council of Elrond] seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.

I cannot, nowadays, shake the thought that it is the true goal of our Christian destiny to 'renounce control' in much the way that Bombadil represents; and that kingship, moderated freedom with consent; and an ideal of the control of the better over the worse - are all mortal expediencies that do not reflect the reality of Heaven.

What is more, the traditionalist ethical ideal epitomised by agrarian (pre-industrial) societies such as all those depicted in LotR (with the exception of the Ents and the Woses of the Druadan forest - since even Bombadil has a garden), seem more and more like mortal expediencies representing a phase in Man's development. The era of 'moderated control with consent' seems like an historic phase now receding.

Such ideals; which we see so inspiringly realised in the High Elves, Numenorean Men of Gondor, and even the Dwarves of Moria - are characterised by great arts and crafts, songs and poetry, courage and nobility, lore and knowledge... All of these ideals have been fading for several or many generations; and there seems waning support - and growing hostility - towards the requisite institutional basis of such a society (royals and nobles, guilds and professions, hierarchy and ritual, apprentices and canons).

In Barfield's terms, traditional society in LotR represents the evolving phase bridging between the unconscious immersive life of Original Participation (Ents and Woses) and the modern, disenchanted, materialist world termed the Consciousness Soul.

This evolution from Original Participation to the Consciousness Soul can be seen in terms of incrementally increasing control. As control increases, and in order to enable control; Man has become detached from nature, from The World; and regards living Nature as merely Things; so much material to be manipulated. Somehow, we have never been able to stop this tendency for increasing control at any intermediate or optimal level; once begun the quest for greater control seem to feed upon itself.

All moderating of the raw greed and lust for domination is, dissolved to mark the triumph of the bad side, ruthless ugliness, mere power and - inevitably - destruction. The spirit of Morgoth, Sauron and Saruman has already prevailed at the highest levels of authority, and the program is being rolled-out with accelerating velocity.

What lies beyond, and after this mortal life, is Final Participation, which is similar to what Bombadil represents. Final Participation is a renunciation of control - in contrast with Original Participation when control was neither sought nor even possible.

Voluntary renunciation of control power, domination, manipulation comes after the fullness of control has been either been grasped or else at least comprehended. My feeling is that this is what Bombadil represents; my notion is that at some point Bombadil had the possibility of power, domination and control - and chose to renounce it.

The tough aspect is that this is also a renunciation of much that we value most - such as arts, crafts, science, canonical accumulation of texts and the like. It is, in a genuine sense, a voluntary renunciation of civilisation.

In a sense this is an impossibility, just as pacifism is an impossibility in time of war (or, as pacifism is dependent upon that which it repudiates). Nonetheless, despite impossibility; what I think we have - at present, here and now - is the situation in which there is an irrevocable and cumulative loss of faith in those compromises (moderated controls) upon which civilisation depends - there is a mass withdrawal of 'consent'.

On one side this process is being encouraged, top-down, with evil motivation, by those who seek the destruction of civilisation because they believe it will lead to the self-chosen damnation of souls. This is Tolkien's bad side.

On the other side - which constitutes most of the good side; this top-down dismantling is opposed by (broadly) well motivated persons traditional religion and reactionaries of various types. However, it seems likely to me that the society they are fighting For (their positive goals, their alternative to the destructions and inversions of top-down evil) cannot happen.

'Moderated control by consent' is an earlier phase (the long transition-between Original Participation and the Consciousness Soul); a phase now gone, now not genuinely wanted, now irrecoverable. I feel that we either have been, or will be, called-upon to move beyond the incipient or actual absolute totalitarianism of the Consciousness Soul - move on to a Bombadil-like renunciation of power and the desire for control.

In Final Participation we are called-upon to take delight in things for themselves without reference to ourselves, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing; we are called upon to participate in creation directly in thinking - and not via arts and crafts and science.

This will come beyond death, because it is the nature of Heaven. The still-open question is whether it is meant also to come before death; or whether in this world it is impossible to actualise, and instead an ideal that we affirm even as we are overwhelmed by the worldly triumph of control.

Note added: The special sin of elves, notably the high elves, and especially the Noldor; is a clinging possessiveness, the desire to attain a perfection in creation and then hold it, static and unchanging. Feanor fell into this when he made the Silmarils; and it was for this that the Three Rings were made; and it was this that Elrond and - more extremely - Galadriel used the elven rings. This is the elves version of the desire for 'total control' that is more obviously seen in the evil tyrants such as Sauron. However, the elves were also driven by this desire to create some of the most beautiful 'things' - such as the Silmarils and Lothlorien - although, in a deep sense, the beauty derived from the One and the Valar, who made the original light, the Two Trees, the natural beauties of Middle Earth etc. My point is that there is always a double-edged quality even about the greatest 'material' creation.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings - 1978

 The paperback version I owned until it fell to pieces from frequent use

I first read Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings more than thirty years ago, and have re-read it and consulted it many times since. It was a very important book in establishing the identity of the Inklings in the public mind - and it has many virtues.

In most chapters, Carpenter is able to weave a tremendous amount of information into a fascinating (mostly) triple-threaded narrative; principally of CS Lewis and Charles Williams with a fair bit of Tolkien - but less emphasis on JRRT because Carpenter had published the authorised biography just a year earlier.

My favourite chapter is a really wonderful recreation of an Inklings evening during the 1940-44 period attended by Jack and Warnie Lewis, JRR Tolkien, 'Humphrey' Havard and Charles Williams. Carpenter achieves this by using a framework mostly derived from Warnie Lewis's diaries and adapting passages from then-published writings and other projects that were being worked-on by the participants during this period.

Aside from this chapter; it is Charles Williams who brings out the best of Carpenter - with a very sympathetic and inspiring depiction of Williams - of a kind which can never again be possible since the sordid revelations of Grevel Lindop's full and detailed biography. Carpenter reveals Williams as - above all - a really interesting person and writer; and that is perhaps the biggest favour he could have done for him.

I well remember that the first thing I did after reading The Inklings (while I was living as a don in Durham Castle and living a very 'Inklings' life while studying for a Masters research degree in English) was to read through everything by Charles Williams I could get my hands-on. Or, at least, attempt to read through them, which I found to be rather more difficult than I expected. Nonetheless, it was the start of a very long and detailed engagement with Williams, which continues.

And there are sketches and details about a wide range of others more or less closely associated with the Inklings; to make up a delightful tapestry or cross section of middle twentieth century intellectual and literary life in England. 

Forty years down the line, however - with all that has been published on the Inklings since, and with my now perspective of being an elderly Christian - I can see that there are many and fundamental faults in the book. These only partly derive from Carpenter's relative lack of material - this shows itself especially in the many (albeit mostly small, but cumulatively distorting) factual errors relating to CS Lewis's biography.

The main problem is that Carpenter was a young man; atheist, left-wing and very 'mainstream',  'trendy' and debunking in his perspectives and evaluations - in sum, just about the worst possible angle from-which to evaluate the Inklings! Consequently, when Carpenter steps-back from the narrative to reflect on the group or the individuals, there are some insidiously dreadful passages, especially in reference to CS Lewis!

Most importantly is the chapter entitled 'A fox that isn't there' in which he attempts to prove - by increasingly elaborate, tendentious and self-contradicting reasoning - that the Inklings was nothing more than a group of Jack Lewis's friends enjoying convivial evenings.

This assertion has since been conclusively refuted by several people since - notably Diana Pavlac Glyer, in The Company they Keep (2007); which establishes by detailed and specific documentation the large extent of mutual interaction of the Inklings considered as writers. And this blog has been, for the past decade, accumulating evidence that the Inklings also had an extremely important, indeed growing, role of a spiritual and social nature.

Throughout, Carpenter is an exponent of Bulverism in simply assuming the wrongness of views that were not then fashionable in Carpenter's circle, and trying to explain them in terms of disordered psychology.

For example, on pages 206-7, Carpenter lists several of CS Lewis's conservative views concerning taxation, private education, the badness of egalitarianism, and his Christian ultimate-indifference to the threat of nuclear destruction from The Bomb. Carpenter then implicitly assumes we share his belief that these are obviously wrong and proceeds (in terms dripping with the unearned condescension of an upper class, privately-educated, narrowly-experienced, pseudo-rebellious son of a bishop): 'These views are perhaps more understandable when one remembers that [Lewis] was brought up in middle-class Belfast society, where constant vituperation was poured upon the then equivalent of the Left... and when one realises that such things did not interest him very much'.

In sum, it seems obvious now that in evaluating the nature and importance of the Inklings, Carpenter discovered only what he wanted to find - and overlooked that of which he disapproved. Indeed, the book as a whole seems like an attempt to establish that the Inklings are of significant interest only to those with a gossipy fascination with the internal sociology of Oxford University: apparently hoping to put the Inklings into a box marked 'Trivial'.

All of which may seem a fairly extraordinary negative motivation for a biographer, but it is one that has been common since Lytton Strachey - and which perhaps reached its peak with Lawrance Thompson's attempted assassination of Robert Frost's reputation. Carpenter went on to do similar hatchet-jobs in, for example, Secret Gardens (about children's literature authors) and The Angry Young Men (about Colin Wilson and his circle).

Yet, in the end, Humphrey Carpenter failed in his attempt to throw the Inklings into the dustbin of irrelevance; because overall the book had the opposite effect of its intent - awakening for many, such as myself, a long-term and intense fascination with a 'group of friends' who were also, in reality, so much more than merely that.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Master and Mister - The Shire 'class system'?

At the beginning of the Lord of the Rings (LotR) - and despite the absence of a King - the Shire is divided into Gentry and commoners. The Gentry get called Mister, while the commoners get called Master, by their first names, or by occupational titles.

So we get Misters Baggins, Took, Brandybuck and Bolger - all Gentry; and commoners such as Master Sam Gamgee, and the Farmers Maggot and Cotton.

What is interesting is that the Hobbit Family Trees in the Appendices, show that the Shire Gentry intermarry pretty exclusively - so that the Frodo, Merry, Pippin and Fatty Bolger are all inter-related (and with the Boffin family, such as the 'extra' Folco); but not related to Sam. And Merry marries Fatty Bolger's sister; Pippin marries Diamond 'of Long Cleeve' - thus, presumably another of the landed Gentry.

But Sam (regardless of his achieved heroic status, fame and wealth) marries a commoner (Rose Cotton). And Sam stays Master Gamgee, despite becoming the Mayor; which suggests a distinction between the elected positions such as Mayor, and the hereditary positions such as Thain (held by the Tooks at the time of LotR) and Master of Buckland.

Indeed the Thain and Master are essentially titled aristocracy. Pippin and Merry are heirs to these premier lordships, and therefore perhaps the two highest status young Hobbits in the Shire.

However, while Sam remains Master Gamgee apparently up to his death; we can see that at least two of his children become Gentry - Elanor marrying Fastred 'of Greenholm' and the first Warden of Westmarch - a western extension of The Shire equivalent to Buckland in the east. Goldilocks marries Faramir, Pippin's son, and therefore becomes wife of the Thain - the Shire's premier aristocrat.

The upwardly-mobile Gamgees illustrate that The Shire is a class society, but does not have a caste system.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Your story of discovering Tolkien and Lewis

William Wildblood tells an unusual and interesting story about how he came to read Tolkien and Lewis as a child:

I was a bookish child and two of my grandmother's sisters, both regarded by the family as rather dotty (which they were), came to my rescue. It was they who every birthday and Christmas from the age of 8 until about 12 gave me The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and most of the Narnia stories. I devoured these avidly and when my parents died I recuperated my early hardback copies from their house and I still have them. In this way it was basically two slightly eccentric old ladies, one of whom, Viola, was a tipsy poet constantly in debt who sold the family portraits to finance a whiskey habit while the other, Ursula, started her adulthood by running off to Paris with the actor Claude Rains before moving to Italy and ending up after a divorce super-devout and going to mass every day at Westminster Cathedral, who injected some imagination into my prosaic childhood. The more responsible members of the family, fond as I was of them, did not. Perhaps there’s a moral there somewhere.

Readers are invited to contribute their own analogous accounts of discovery...

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Prologue - Concerning Hobbits - First impressions on reading Lord of the Rings

I have previously written a post on the impressions created from reading the beginning of Chapter One of Lord of the Rings; and I would guess that many or most readers (such as my wife) always begin there, skipping the Prologue - Concerning Hobbits. But I didn't, and plenty will read the Prologue first and and on every re-reading; so it is well worth considering how the start of the Prologue 'sets-up' the coming experience of reading LotR. I will give my impressions of what is being signalled in the first three paragraphs.

This book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history. Further information will also be found in the selection from the Red Book of Westmarch that has already been published, under the title of The Hobbit. That story was derived from the earlier chapters of the Red Book, composed by Bilbo himself, the first Hobbit to become famous in the world at large, and called by him There and Back Again, since they told of his journey into the East and his return: an adventure which later involved all the Hobbits in the great events of that Age that are here related.

Many, however, may wish to know more about this remarkable people from the outset, while some may not possess the earlier book. For such readers a few notes on the more important points are here collected from Hobbit-lore, and the first adventure is briefly recalled.

Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favourite haunt. They do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skilful with tools. Even in ancient days they were, as a rule, shy of ‘the Big Folk’, as they call us, and now they avoid us with dismay and are becoming hard to find. They are quick of hearing and sharp-eyed, and though they are inclined to be fat and do not hurry unnecessarily, they are nonetheless nimble and deft in their movements. They possessed from the first the art of disappearing swiftly and silently, when large folk whom they do not wish to meet come blundering by; and this art they have developed until to Men it may seem magical. But Hobbits have never, in fact, studied magic of any kind, and their elusiveness is due solely to a professional skill that heredity and practice, and a close friendship with the earth, have rendered inimitable by bigger and clumsier races.

That first paragraph firstly provides a 'hook' for those who have come to LotR from reading The Hobbit, by promising more stories and information about Hobbits. It then immediately sets up the idea that both this forthcoming book, and The Hobbit itself, are based upon a real historical text called The Red Book of Westmarch.

So from the very beginning (unless we count the author's Foreword), the LotR is being presented as true.

In case this was uncertain, the third paragraph makes clear that not only did Hobbits exist in the past, but that some are still alive - very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today. And goes on to explain why - although Hobbits still live among us (at least, those of us who live in England, as he later states); they are shy and well able to avoid being seen or heard.

There follows a very interesting and suggestive section on magic - which is a topic seldom discussed explicitly in the main text of the LotR (except at the Mirror of Galadriel). ...this art [of disappearing swiftly and silently] they have developed until to Men it may seem magical.. The statement seems designed to suggest that at least some of the 'fairies', prone to disappear as if by magic, that Men have met over the centuries are Not, after all, truly magical beings, but instead Hobbits.

Then we are told that Hobbits have never, in fact, studied magic of any kind. I missed the implications of this comments for many years; but it suggests that the 'magic system' of the Lord of the Rings is one that could, in principle, be learned by Hobbits, and therefore presumably by Big People/ Men, given sufficient 'study'.

In other words we are told that Hobbits are not magic, but the reason given is not the obvious one that Hobbits can't do magic, but simply because they have not studied magic.

I find this surprising; because - on the face of it - the only magic we encounter among the Free Peoples of Middle Earth is among wizards (who are angelic Maia),  Tom Bombadil, the elves (and mostly the High Elves such as Galadriel), the specifically Numenorean Men with half-elven ancestors (e.g. Elrond, Aragorn, Denethor), and some dwarf technology is perhaps also magical. But we apparently see nothing magical from Hobbits, nor from 'ordinary' Men such as those of Bree and Rohan, or the 'ruffians'.

Yet there are hints... In the Hobbit, Bard seems to use a magical arrow to kill Smaug. And there are several hints (eg from Elrond, in his Council) that The Shire has had (as well as the vigilant Rangers) a kind of 'magical protection', perhaps based on the goodness and innocence of (most of) its inhabitants (this may explain the relative weakness of the Nazgul when they are in The Shire).

And there are also hints elsewhere that the decline of Shire Hobbits into narrowly materialistic cynicism exemplified by Ted Sandyman and his father; but immediately present even in The Gaffer and his cronies in the first main scene. I feel that this attitude may be related to the almost unresisting fall into collaborationism (by most hobbits) during The Scouring.

Significantly, the Druedain (Wild Men) are magical, as made explicit in the background facts and short-story printed in Unfinished Tales. Since these are meant to be the remnants of ancestral 'hunter gatherer' Men - perhaps as Men originally were before meeting elves and being taught various arts including agriculture; this suggests that Men (and therefore, presumably Hobbits) once were magical. And this may serve as the basis for later men (and Hobbits) to be able to 'learn' magic.

One Hobbit who does 'learn magic' is Frodo - who becomes a visionary and a prophetic dreamer after he is named 'elf friend' by Gildor. Of course, this is a consequence of an elvish blessing, and perhaps the effect of the One Ring - but it shows the capacity of the Hobbits to 'learn' magic.

In sum - the first three paragraphs of the Pologue tell us the the Lord of the Rings is real history about a real race of Hobbits, and also that magic is a real part of that history. It inserts Hobbits into folklore (sightings of very small men, who then disappear) and tells us that Hobbits are still with us now. And it (very indirectly) hints that 'magic' may also yet be possible, for those prepared to notice and learn.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Video interview with Bruce Charlton: The vital relevance of The Inklings

Keri Ford has done a half hour video interview with me on the subject of The Inklings, including many subjects such as the development of this blog, the spiritual meaning of The Inklings, and their importance for the future.

Thanks to Keri for this opportunity to expound my opinions in this medium for the first time!

Friday, 17 May 2019

The first enchantment of Lord of the Rings

Ever since my first reading, the episode when Frodo, Sam and Pippin meet the High Elves (led by Gildor Inglorien) in the Shire, walk with them, and are given an outdoor feast at Woody End, has been one of my very favourites in the book. I now perceive that I have been responding to the first enchantment of the story, as experienced by the protagonists.

For Sam and Pippin, this is the first time they have met elves at all; for Frodo, it is implied this is his first meeting with High elves; those elves thousands of years old, who were born in the undying lands and dwelt with the gods - and who regard themselves as exiles in Middle Earth.

The enchantment is perceived in the beauty of the singing, the language, and the light (reflected starlight and a glow like that of the not-yet-risen moon) that surrounds the elves as they walk through the Shire.

At first the elvish conversation is rather superficial, indeed more than a little facetious and condescending (since elves tend to regard mortal hobbits as children); but quite quickly a tone of seriousness enters, as the elves realise that the hobbits are being pursued by Nazgul, and therefore 'great matters' are afoot.

The feast is permeated with a magical quality - the food and drink are better than mortals can contrive; and an act of enchantment is performed by Gildor on Frodo, which has the immediate and permanent effect of making Frodo into an elf-friend (a change that is immediately visible to The Wise) and a prophetic dreamer.

I find the combination of The Shire - an 'English' countryside very familiar to me from childhood - and elvish magic to have irresistible appeal.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Many Mansions: Charles Williams, Modernity, and the Mass - guest post by John Fitzgerald

There is much to be gained, I feel, in reading and reflecting on the work of Charles Williams in the midst of the political, social and cultural turbulence of our times. His concepts of co-inherence, substitution and exchange form, to my mind, a razor-sharp riposte to both the atomised individualism of the free-market right and the divisive identity politics of the liberal left.

 The individual, first and foremost, is sacrosanct for Williams. Personhood, for him, cannot be subsumed into the collectivities of race (Fascism) or class (Communism). But this by no means makes Williams an individualist. The person is a unique, unrepeatable being with a high and holy calling. But he or she is not a random, free-floating agent, shorn of ties to the past and future and operating in a sealed off, customised bubble of the self. No. The individual, in a society which genuinely aims at the Good, forms part of an organic whole, grounded in history and oriented towards the Divine. Through participating in a deep-rooted project which transcends the individual self, men and women are saved from alienation and despair and given purpose and direction. In service we find our freedom - a wider, more comprehensive good, which neither obliterates nor idolises the individual self, but allows what is unique and unrepeatable in each of us to flourish and shine.

Everything co-inheres for Williams, not just the political and social realms, but the whole universe. There is no boundary between the living and the dead and the natural and the super-natural (or 'arch-natural' as Williams called it). We are all interlinked and interconnected. The dead pray for the living as the living pray for the dead, and the natural and arch-natural worlds form one and the same reality.

This is what Williams depicts in his poem Taliessin on the Death of Virgil (from his 1938 collection Taliessin Through Logres), where those who have drawn sustenance from Virgil's poetry down the centuries save him from post-mortem oblivion and guide him towards salvation:

In that hour they came; more and faster, they sped
to their dead master; they sought him to save
from the spectral grave and the endless falling,
who had heard, for their own instruction, the sound of his calling.
There was intervention, suspension, the net of their loves,
all their throng's songs:
Virgil, master and friend,
holy poet, priest, president of priests,
prince long since of all our energies' end,
deign to accept adoration, and what salvation
may reign here by us, deign of goodwill to endure,
in this net of obedient loves, doves of your cote and wings,
Virgil, friend, lover, and lord.

Virgil was fathered of his friends.
He lived in their ends.
He was set on the marble of exchange.

There is a marvellous outpouring of gratitude here for one who gave so much to so many but now lies helpless - a mutuality, reciprocity and relationally which we in the contemporary West would do well to tune into and put into practice. But even if Williams' ideas were successfully transposed to the political and social spheres, it would still (one imagines) take decades to reorientate society from today's dominant materialist paradigm to this generous, all-encompassing vision of the visible and invisible working in tandem for the common good.

The buffered, 'secular self' of post-Enlightenment modernity acts as a brake on human flourishing. In denying the reality of the arch-natural it cuts us off from the Divine and stifles our potential. It serves as a limit rather than a liberation, and for meaningful change to occur, in either the individual or the corporate realms, this reductionist barrier has to be dismantled.

This is where Williams comes into his own as an unveiler of the sacramental nature of reality and the deep pattern of meaning and purpose woven into creation. This quality is embedded in everything he wrote - novels, theology, literary criticism and poetry - but I want to single out in this brief essay the way he portrays the Mass in his poem Taliessin at Lancelot's Mass (the concluding poem of Taliessin Through Logres) and the final chapter of his novel War in Heaven (1930). The Mass is especially important because natural elements (bread and wine) become imbued with arch-natural significance and there is a profoundly Williamsesque intertwining of levels. Taliessin at Lancelot's Mass paints an evocative picture of solidarity between the living and the dead and a renewed sense of purpose and direction after the passing of Arthur. Logres is broken and has sunk into Britain, but that is a minor detail in this great poem of reparation and fraternity, which gathers the whole Arthurian community - living and deceased - in thanksgiving for what has gone before and in anticipation of the restoration, at the appointed hour, of God's holy kingdom. It is a poem which encourages us to see further than the premises of a materialist science allow and to feel ourselves part of a wider community of seen and unseen presences:

In the ritual before the altar Lancelot began to pass;
all the dead lords of the table were drawn from their graves to the Mass;
they stood, inward turned, as shields on a white rushing deck,
Between Nimue of Broceliande and Helayne of Carbonek ...

Then at the altar We sang in Our office the cycle of names
of the great attributed virtues; the festival of flames
fell from new sky to new earth; the light in bands
of bitter glory renewed the imperial lands.

At the end of War in Heaven, the legendary Grail Priest and King, Prester John, celebrates a Mass of the Holy Grail (or Graal, as Williams calls it) in thanks for the rescue of a four year old boy, Adrian, the son of Lionel and Barbara Rackstraw, from black magicians who also aimed to destroy the Grail itself. Those attending the Mass - the Duke of the North Ridings, for instance - become aware of other presences around them:

The Duke leaned forward a little in perplexity; he saw the forms with which he was acquainted, but here and there, only always just to one side or in some corner, he seemed to see other forms. They had vanished in a moment, yet they had been there. He had caught certain of the faces which he knew in the great gallery of the ancestors in the Castle, and other faces more antique and foreign than these, a turbaned head, a helmed and armoured shape, outlandish robes, and the glint of many crowns. They had vanished, and he saw Adrian plunge to his feet and go to the celebrant's side. And clear and awful to his ears their voices floated.

Then comes a moment of radiant luminosity when the veil of perception is lifted, time and space are transcended, and Lionel, Barbara and the Duke are shown a world of three-dimensional grandeur and depth, as in C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle, when, in the final chapter, the protagonists see all the countries in all the worlds, including Narnia and England, jutting out like spurs from the towering mountains of Aslan's country:

He (Prester John) stood. He moved his hands. As if in benediction He moved them, and at once the golden halo that had hung all this while over the Graal dissolved and dilated into spreading colour; and at once life leapt in all those who watched, and filled and flooded and exalted them. "Let us make man," he sang, "in our image, after Our likeness," and all the church of visible and invisible presences answered with a roar: "In the image of God created He him: male and female created He them." All things began again to be. At a great distance Lionel and Barbara and the Duke saw beyond Him, as he lifted up the Graal, the mixing universe of stars, and then one flying planet, and then fields and rooms and a thousand remembered places, and all in light and darkness and peace.

'The privileged place of encounter,' wrote Pope Francis in 2015, 'is the caress of mercy of Jesus Christ on my sins ... It is thanks to the embrace of mercy that one feels like answering and changing, and from which a different life can flow.' This is undoubtedly true, particularly on a personal level, yet I feel we also need a sense of the vast array of spiritual forces lined up on our side - the serried ranks of angels and archangels and the Communion of Saints, who watch over us and encourage us at all times.

There have been novels and films aplenty, over the years, about the demonic influences pressing against us, but little concerning the powers for good who work invisibly for the salvation and transfiguration of individuals and nations. This is precisely the kind of awareness we need at this time - a breaking open of the small, empirical self and a growing consciousness of the all-embracing pattern that holds us, nurtures us and makes us active participants in a meaningful universe.

A happy, fulfilled society should be a partnership between those here now, those gone before us, and those yet to come. But such wide-ranging vision will always feel beyond us if we cannot perceive the spiritual reality that surrounds and enfolds us. 'In my father's house are many mansions,' says Christ in St. John's Gospel. There is no-one better, for where we are now in history, at pointing the way to these mansions than Charles Williams.

I am sure that as time goes on people will feel increasingly trapped and boxed-in by the bureaucratic, technocratic cage of hyper-modernity. I hope and pray that their search for an 'off-ramp' leads them to Charles Williams and that his collapsing of borders between the natural and arch-natural worlds gives them the hope, sustenance and clarity of vision that they need. Williams' finest hour, perhaps, might be just around the corner.

John Fitzgerald blogs at Deep Britain and Ireland