Saturday, 16 June 2018

Tolkien - first picture of his genius


The cover of John Garth's pamphlet 'Tolkien at Exeter College' gives us the first picture of JRR Tolkien (in 1914) in which his genius is apparent... or, more exactly, a picture that is consistent-with some key aspects of Tolkien's genius.

The inset circular photograph of young Tolkien is a blow-up of the larger group photo; where Tolkien is situated at the extreme right of the back row.

What does this photograph tell us. That Tolkien had arrived late for the photo-shoot, and in some unorthodox fashion - since he could easily have been sat on the step in the front row on the left, where there is space; but he ended up standing apart from the main group - indeed setting himself apart from the main group.

Having squeezed himself into the photo at the back, Tolkien chose to stand apart from everyone else, leaning from the top step; almost hanging by his right hand from the trunk of a cultivated tree, with his left hand enclosing the bark affectionately. The face is difficult to read, but seems to proclaim confidence and a kind of defiance.

This the the photograph of a self-motivated nonconformist, a man ploughing his own furrow, listening to inner  - not a 'poseur' because, being at the back, nobody could see what he was doing; he was not showing-off, not making-a-point by his unorthodox stance (unlike like some of the chaps slouching in the second row!).

Tolkien's position and pose was an unconscious expression-of, rather than a public assertion-of, his independence and inner motivation.

Of course there is a lot more to being a genius than what we can see in this photograph, but some of the essential components are there, on display, aged 22.

 

Monday, 11 June 2018

The root of The Problem with the 1977 Silmarillion

John Garth (in Tolkien and the Great War - pages 279-80) puts his finger on the root of The Problem of the 1977, single volume Silmarillion; which is that when Tolkien was re-drafting stories, he did not work from the original text of the stories - such as we can now see presented in the later edition of Lost Tales; but instead he worked from a summary of the stories that he had prepared in 1925 for an old school teacher to whom Tolkien sent some of his work.

This created the basic character of the Silmarillion from then onwards - which is precisely that it reads like a Summary - not like 'the real thing'; everything is at a distance, and I am not engaged by it.

Or, to put it another way, the sections (except perhaps the first creation myth) are essentially 'annalistic' in style - rather like the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, or indeed the Appendicies of Lord of the Rings....

This, in itself, need not have been so damaging, except for the way that the 1977 Silmarillion is presented. The 1977 Silmarillion is without any feigned historical frame, implicitly presented as a arc-ing story; and implicitly as within-universe - yet without any context.

In sum, the 1977 Silmarillion is not presented as the (feigned historical) 'annals' of the legend, but instead as-if the sections were a kind of novel.

As I've written before; this could, in principle, easily be set right by a different presentation of the Silmarillion material.

The Silmarillion legendarium can never have the kind of 'mass appeal' of The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings; but I believe it could and should be made available in a 'within-universe' form similar to the Appendices; a form that is both more accessible, and less 'universe-hostile', than the detached and scholarly presentation of The History of Middle Earth.

 

Sunday, 10 June 2018

John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War (2003) - my audio book mini-review


Powerful and profound

One of the half-dozen best books ever written about Tolkien; and indeed one of the best books about friendship, war, and the formation and nature of a genius. 

This audio version is well read by the author, who has a rare gift for speaking poetry. 

Listening to Tolkien and the Great War moved me to tears more than once, despite that I already owned and knew the paper version - this brings an extra dimension.  

*

Note:

If you only read three books about Tolkien; this should be one of them (and Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle Earth (1982) should be one of the others.)

It is not just a wonderful biography of Tolkien; it is just one of the best (of many hundreds) of 'biographies' that I have read.

Tolkien and the Great War is not a full account of Tolkien's entire life; instead it operates in the sub-genre of specialised biography that focuses on a particular time and aspect of a person.

This focuses on the forces that shaped 'John Ronald's formative life in childhood, at school, as a university student, in the army and shortly afterwards; the thirty-ish years before he became the more familiar scholar and author 'Professor Tolkien'.

Close attention is given to Tolkien's early poetry (until his middle twenties he intended to become 'A Poet', and even submitted a volume of poetry hoping for publication); and the Lost Tales stories - which were later - albeit at some cost of concreteness, vividness and humour - shaped into the more familiar 'Silmarillion' narrative/s.   

One special fascination of the Lost Tales is their biographical applicability; the way that characters, places and incidents derive-from and map-onto Tolkien's life and reading. On the one hand this is a mark of their immaturity and rawness; on the other, it is what makes them worth our attention nowadays; above and beyond them being 'early drafts' of more achieved later works.  

My own special interest in Tolkien and the Great War is that it helped me to understand, actually to feel, the deep motivations of Tolkien's creative writing.


Thursday, 7 June 2018

Tolkien and The Machine


Melko's Machine-dragons invading Gondolin, by Roger Garland, as described in the Lost Tales and based on his personal experience of seeing the first tanks at The Somme


JRR Tolkien was hostile to what he termed The Machine - by which he meant some physical or social contrivance to attain an end directly; at the cost of being a mere model of reality, which is to say partial and distorted.

Exponents of The Machine in Tolkien's reality began as early as Melko in the Lost Tales (who later became Melkor-Morgoth), the late and corrupt Men of Numenor (who used magical technology to conquer Middle Earth, and to invade Valinor), and Saruman (with his mind of 'metal and wheels'). The One Ring is itself a Machine - promising the user a coercive short-cut to his desires

Tolkien was intensely suspicious of machines of any degree of complexity - his Shire Hobbits 'did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom'. Even the simplest of Machines, such as a bow and arrow, introduce new temptations (the ability to kill at a distance, and impersonally). 

Yet he recognised that even these simple machines could be a 'slippery slope' to evil. The greatest craftsmen of the Noldorian High Elves, Feanor (who made the Silmarils, the Palantiri, and invented elvish script) and Celebrimbor (who made the elven rings, but who aided Saruman in ring-lore) - were to a greater and lesser extent corrupted and seduced by the Machine.

Another Machine is bureaucracy (including the military) - the narrow specialisation and coordination, by coercion and bribing, of individuals to attain a single imposed purpose: this was what Saruman did first in his Empire and later to the Shire Hobbits. 

Even learning itself (and Tolkien was a professional scholar) is a Machine, and can corrupt - Saruman seems to have been corrupted mainly by studying 'the arts of the enemy' - initially in order to understand and better fight him.

I think Tolkien would, if pressed, even have regarded such Machines as writing and books, music and art, as fraught with peril, in the hands of Men. the High Elves love of such this-worldly things is so intense as to be corrupting, as the strive to stop change, never to forget, sinfully to hold on to that which ought to be let-go-of...

In sum, I think Tolkien regarded The Machine as a temporary mortal contrivance to go beyond Man's natural capacities, and therefore always corruptible.

The Machine is always incomplete and distorted, and Machines will be superseded in Heaven where Man will be raised to attain directly and wholly that which can at present only be approximated by insufficient contrivances.


Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Qoheleth Resources for your Inklings collection!


I've mentioned Richard Johnson's second-hand mail-order bookshop Qoheleth Resources before; but it is worth emphasising that this is a superb place to go for your Inklings needs.

In the past couple of weeks he has sent out his Inklings lists (available free on request) with probably several hundred books, magazines, CDs and casettes; all reasonably priced, and many a real bargain.

As well as picking up hard-back replacements for my tattered and disintegrating 1970s editions, replacing losses and the like; I always find something Inklings-esque that is new - indeed unheard-of - and that I want.

And for a beginner to build an Inklings collection from scratch; Qoheleth would be unbeatable.

Add to this that Richard is a Christian, a scholar, and a gentleman - and what could be better!

(Most of his books are indeed on Christian themes.)

He answers individual requests in a personal and helpful way.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Superversive Inklings - Notice of a new blog

Superversive Inklings

This is going to be run by L Jagi Lamplighter (author of the on-going Rachel Griffin series of fantasy novels). One of my essays is featured, and I hope others will appear there.

BTW: The word 'superversive' was made to be the opposite of 'subversive'.

 

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Who is the 'coolest' background character in Lord of the Rings?

I guess that everybody has their favourite? Mine is Imrahil - the Prince of Dol Amroth...

What man, and what a place that is!

beyond, in the great fief of Belfalas, dwelt Prince Imrahil in his castle of Dol Amroth by the sea, and he was of high blood, and his folk also, tall men and proud with sea-grey eyes. 

last and proudest, Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth, kinsman of the Lord, with gilded banners bearing his token of the Ship and the Silver Swan, and a company of knights in full harness riding grey horses; and behind them seven hundreds of men at arms, tall as lords, grey-eyed, dark-haired, singing as they came.

foremost on the field rode the swan-knights of Dol Amroth with their Prince and his blue banner at their head. ‘Amroth for Gondor!’ they cried. ‘Amroth to Faramir!’ Like thunder they broke upon the enemy on either flank of the retreat

at their rear the banner of Dol Amroth, and the Prince. And in his arms before him on his horse he bore the body of his kinsman, Faramir son of Denethor, found upon the stricken field.

Tirelessly Gandalf strode from Citadel to Gate, from north to south about the wall; and with him went the Prince of Dol Amroth in his shining mail. For he and his knights still held themselves like lords in whom the race of Númenor ran true. Men that saw them whispered saying: ‘Belike the old tales speak well; there is Elvish blood in the veins of that folk, for the people of Nimrodel dwelt in that land once long ago.’ And then one would sing amid the gloom some staves of the Lay of Nimrodel, or other songs of the Vale of Anduin out of vanished years.

from Dol Amroth came the harpers that harped most skilfully in all the land

Very much an aspiration, but much too cool for the likes of me... I am not worthy! 

(Note added - my son points out that what I was asking-about was really concerning a 'background' character - rather than the 'minor' character I originally wrote in the title... So I've changed it.)

Monday, 21 May 2018

Re-reading the Lindop biography of Charles Williams

I have been re-reading the biography of Charles Williams by Grevel Lindop, published in 2015, and which I reviewed at the time. I was surprised to notice that it was as much as three years since I read it; because since then I don't think I have seriously read (or re-read) any of Charles Williams's works - it seems that the biography all-but finished-off Charles Williams as a significant writer, for me...

Re-reading makes clear why. I find it an almost-literally painful experience to read this biography - except for the earliest chapters, concerning CW's childhood and youth. Once Williams has married, and had an unloved/ disliked son; and has engaged with the Rosy Cross ritual magic group, and especially when he begins his tedious and disgusting relationship with Phyllis Jones - he loses me.

The documentation of a recurrent, addictive, unresisted (indeed rationalised and celebrated) cycles of manipulative and exploitative, sadistic/ psychologically-vampiric relationships with young women - on the excuse that these energised the writing of poetry - is another seedy and sickening aspect. It is actively unpleasant to dwell in this 'world', I find.

And, in general, I find Williams to be a wholly dishonest person - in all the writings and all the reports of interactions, there is a person of total self consciousness; who never did a spontaneous action, never spoke or wrote an unguarded word...

Now, of course, this is a disease; it was (to some extent) a dispositional, inbuilt thing - but one can see that these vices were deliberately, effort-fully, developed and strengthened by Williams (especially by his use of magical rituals) - and always with the excuse of needing to do so, to write poetry...

In considering Charles Williams, everything hinges on the poetry... Yet I find the poetry, essentially, worthless - in the sense of not being poetry at all; and performing no essential function; doing nothing distinctive or indispensable...

I consider it to be contrived, pseudo-poetry; concocted from a talent for verse, and pretence. In this it is not unusual; because I consider very nearly all modern and modernist poetry to be of this kind - indeed almost everything that puts itself forward as highbrow poetry for the past century... real poetry is extremely rare (even among the output of real poets).

CW is an example of a very common post-romantic phenomenon - someone who wants to be a poet - but cannot discern poetry, therefore cannot know that they are not a poet (or else deny what they know: that they aren't) - there is a dependence on the evaluation of others.

Throughout his life, by the evidence or multiple letters, Williams never knows whether his work is any good; he cannot tell whether he has written well or not - he cannot discern poetry, which is the basis of being a poet (and a critic, for that matter).

(Astonishingly, CW seems never to have mentioned in print the best living Eng. Lang. poet of that era: Robert Frost. Since everybody knew all-about Frost at that time; this can only mean Williams was unable to discern Frost's poetic greatness.)

Most of CW's published poetry is off-the-cuff doggerel; some is deft rhyming; but his most prestigious poetry - in Taliessin Through Logres - was (Lindop reveals) an editorial collaboration with Ann Ridler... No real poetry can be an editorial collaboration, and this is not real poetry but a simulacrum in the modernist style (which is, itself, only very seldom and peripherally capable of real poetry).

As for CW's literary criticism - it is undermined by this same lack of discernment. More specifically, Williams is unable to detect the presence or absence of that special lyric quality that defines and distinguishes poetry. Probably this is linked with Williams being 'tone deaf', insensitive to and unable to hear music as music; or know when he was singing accurately - because, at root, poetry is song.

So, I am saying two things here; the first is that Charles Williams was overall not a good writer (not a poet at all); and secondly that this was related to an extremely deep and continuous pretentiousness, insincerity... dishonesty.

Lindop makes clear what was scattered throughout the previous biographical information - Charles Williams was a man who played roles all the time, with everybody, including himself - and if there was a real CW - a CW who was communicating-directly and spontaneously, a CW who dropped the pretence - then nobody ever seems to have seen it; nor does it ever appear in his writings.

It is also clear that Charles Williams was a man who suffered - all the time, hour by hour and day by day (you can see this in the photographs, back to childhood); and for that I feel very sorry. But how did he deal with it? It seems to me that in his twenties, Williams chose a path of play-acting, power-seeking, pleasure-seeking, and palliation; he tried to distract himself from himself,and from the human condition, by pathological busyness, pathological socialisation, strategies of self-indulgence... and this negated any possibility of genuine achievement as a writer, and indeed genuine friendship...

There were plenty of people who regarded themselves as good friends of CW, but nobody who CW regarded as a good friend. Everybody seems to have been hoodwinked by him, in one way or another - because he hoodwinked himself; how life was an endless process of hoodwinkings, 24/7.

Thus I return to my conclusion of the original review: the main interest of Charles Williams is the effect he had on others; and ultimately this reduces to the many ways that other people projected-onto him - saw in CW and his play-actings and writings what they wanted or needed.

Thus Charles Williams's best work is something of an ink-blot - there are potentially fertile ideas outlined, hinted-at; but never actually-actualised in the text. His characteristic ideas such as Romantic Theology, Exchange, Substituion...are interesting ideas, which he fails to develop interestingly. For example, he made romatic theology into a far-fetched system of symbolism; he made exchange and substitution into a quasi-bureaucratic system which he dictatorially imposed on his followers.

My favourite of his works, the novel The Place of the Lion is like this. It is a great idea for a novel - I've read it several times; but the reader has to make the novel out of the ideas... it isn't achieved. The novel is technically inept (at the level we find it hard to know who is speaking, and what is happening), and the climactic and key passages don't come-off. Yet, for Lewis and Tolkien this book was exactly what was needed when they came across it, and they were able to complete the novel in their own minds, in line with its aspirations, in a way that stimulated their own imaginations.

But it is no accident that Charles William's reputation essentially died with the man.


Sunday, 6 May 2018

Tolkien and fandom


When I first became interested in JRR Tolkien in the middle 70s, there was not much attention paid to him by the British mass media - but when there was, there was always some reference to the popularity in US college campuses, and to phenomena such as the 'Gandalf for President' lapel button, and graffiti along the lines of 'Frodo Lives'. Then The Lord of the Rings (LotR) movies in the early 2000s triggered another - much larger - wave of mass-, and the social-, media fandom.

When I consider the phenomenon of Tolkien popularity represented by the Gandalf for President button, I can find no relationship at all between that and what I value in Tolkien or LotR, with what is actually-in Tolkien; indeed the joke political slogan is the antithesis of what the LotR represents ex-plicitly, im-plicitly and every kind of plicitly... Saruman for US President/ Sauron for UN President would make a great deal more sense.

In their way, 'fans' of Tolkien are sincere; and may expend a great deal of time, money and effort in their fan activities. Yet, in the end it gets the participants nothing-at-all - it corrupts Tolkien rather than learning from him.

Fandom - but its appetite for novelty, and it mass nature, always corrupts; and always corrupts in the direction of prevalent mainstream ideology: whether that be 60s hippiedom, late 70s environmentalism, or - since the 80s and increasingly - the various facets of the sexual revolution, political correctness and 'social justice'.

Instead of learning-from Tolkien; it is quite normal for fans to read-into Tolkien whatever happens to be the current nihilism, hedonism, materialism, atheism... somehow fans find in Tolkien exactly what they seek - or else try (in effect) to 'teach' Tolkien about feminism, socialism, radical sexuality... whatever - for example via the vast mass of fan fiction (including 'slash' fiction) that quite explicitly inserts this kind of stuff into Tolkien's world.

Other fandoms are closely analogous - revealing that this is a property of fandom rather than being related to specific authors or their work. In Harry Potter, another work of Christian fantasy with traditional values at its heart; the main fan website was initially obsessed with the 'shipping' (romantic relationships between) the main characters, in all possible and inconceivable combinations. Later the web pages and fandoms were quite explicitly and systematically enlisted for a check-list of current social justice campaigns, such as agitation for same sex 'marriage' legislation. And the fans duly complied, with apparent enthusiasm and zeal.

Or Brandon Sanderson - I recently attended a talk, reading and book signing done by Sanderson; which was packed with hundreds of fans who turned-out and paid money to be there... and I say fans, because in the Q&A session every single one of the couple of dozen questions was related to the most trivial, ephemeral and superficial aspects of his work. There was not one single interesting, insightful, or challenging question asked by this mass of people; not the slightest indication that the novels were anything other than depictions of magic systems and 'cool' personalities.

Sanderson is an active Mormon, and all of his work is permeated with a serious consideration of religion and spirituality; both on the surface and as underlying structure. But it was clear that for Sanderson's fandom this was of sub-zero interest - invisible and irrelevant. 

The phenomenon of fandom is therefore at best trivial and fashion driven, there being more in common between fans (regardless of what they are fans-of) than between fans and the subject of their fanaticism. Fandom is corrupting and destructive of whatever is good in the authors and works that get caught-up by it; and in its advanced form, fandom embodies subversion and inversion of whatever is specific and distinctive in its subject matter; the aim being to reinterpret and rewrite it in line with currently-dominant, top-down, manipulative social campaigns that ultimately emanate from (and are funded by) the global Establishment elites.

So the phenomenon of fandom is a product of evil purpose; and has a malign influence all-round. No wonder that the elderly Tolkien was so confused and appalled by its first stirrings in the 1960s, and by the 'Gandalf for President'-type expressions.

Journalists thought that this was 'ungrateful' of him, because masses of fans led to more sales and more money in Tolkien's pocket.

But Tolkien was not a 'professional author' - he wrote from the heart and for the highest motivations. And he realised that fandom had nothing to do with him or his work; but on the contrary was the attempted obliteration of his work, the attempt to harness his books for a dark agenda.


Thursday, 3 May 2018

Tolkien as a 'spiritual father' - the experience of author Vox Day (Theodore Beale)


I have been let down by all of my heroes and role models. Not some of them. Not most of them. All of them. Except one.

I was taught to save by my father. When I bought my first house, he very generously wanted to help me and even offered to contribute something to the down payment. I declined when I found out that I had more money in the bank than he did. He joked that his companies were his savings account; we all know how that turned out.

I was taught character, courage, and taking responsibility by my grandfather. Towards the end of his life, having exhausted his resources on caring for my grandmother, he walked away from the beautiful, twice-mortgaged house he had owned for three decades and left it for the bank.

I was taught leadership and personal sacrifice by my uncle. After attaining fame and great power, he was awarded an important position at one of the most corrupt organizations in the world. He did not resign from it when its crimes were revealed to the public.

I revered Umberto Eco for his great learning and his intellectual insight. When I read Belief or Nonbelief, his debate on religion and God with Carlo Maria Martini, the Roman Catholic cardinal of Milan, I was astonished and bitterly disappointed by the shallow, superficial, and petty nature of his arguments.

I admired and looked up to one of my father's friends of more than thirty years. I considered him to be the epitome of a good, smart, successful, civilized man. I could not believe it when my father asked him to be a character witness at his trial, and he demurred for fear of how it might look and what people might say.

I always considered The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius to be the philosophical gold standard and Aurelius himself to be an exemplary man. Then I read more human history and realized that his son and successor was Commodus, and that he had uncharacteristically failed to prepare an adequate succession plan for the empire over which he ruled.

I cannot tell you how many authors I perceived to be great, only to learn that they were charlatans, conceptual plagiarists, plodders, experts in literary sleight-of-hand, learned historians rather than brilliantly original creators, and in some cases, the apparent beneficiaries of a sprinkling of pixie dust by a flighty passing muse.

Do I look down on any of these men because they lacked the perfection that I naively perceived in them? Do I reject their teachings? By no means! To the contrary, their failings only served to teach me that they were mortal men, not demigods, and that I, too, can hope to surmount my own failings and character flaws. They remain my heroes and my role models today, I merely see them in a more mature and realistic light that shows their strengths in contrast with their weaknesses.

The fact that your heroes are not perfect does not make them any less heroic. It actually makes them more heroic, because their failings are a glimpse into the struggle they faced, every day, with the manifold temptations of a fallen world.

Who was the one hero who never let me down? JRR Tolkien. I loved his books deeply and passionately from the time I read the first page of The Two Towers, and everything I have since read of his, and everything I have subsequently learned about the man has only given me more cause to admire him. One reason that it takes me so much longer to write Arts of Dark and Light than other fiction and non-fiction is that I am always striving to write something I consider worthy of Tolkien's influence, and of which he would approve if he were ever to read it.

**

I found the above piece resonated with me - not so much because of being 'let down' by nearly everybody, but because of the warm-hearted and graceful tribute to JRR Tolkien - the recognition of his rare integrity and goodness. This is a major factor in Tolkien's influence among serious and long-term readers.

For me, Tolkien was a major part of my Golden Thread. Before I became a Christian this was the case, and Tolkien was a major factor in my becoming a Christian - interesting, mainly by some of the posthumous pieces in History of Middle Earth and a fanfiction inspired therefoem.

The idea of regarding Tolkien, and the Inklings more generally, as spiritual advisors is very much the root and inspiration of this blog.


Sunday, 29 April 2018

The Music of the Ainur - A guest post from John Fitzgerald



And thus was the habitation of the Children of Ilúvatar established at the last in the Deeps of Time and amidst the innumerable stars.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

*******

There are a wealth of creation myths to be found in the world, both now and throughout history. The best known, perhaps, is the one given in the Book of Genesis. But every religion has a creation myth, as does every mythology. There are scientific creation myths too, the Big Bang being the most obvious example, a transposition into scientific language of what other creation myths use poetry or stories to convey.

This multitude of accounts offer different approaches to the same mystery. They tackle the big question - why is there something instead of nothing? Viewed this way, all creation myths are worthy of respect. They are all laudable, all noble attempts at translating into human terms an act of creation on such a spectacularly large scale that it defies our minds' ability to comprehend it. None of us were there, after all, 'in the beginning', so it's impossible to say with the degree of certitude required in a court of law, for instance, that one myth is true and another false.

What I would say, however, is that some myths feel truer than others, and that what feels true for one person might feel less true for another. This sense of truth - this 'inner compass' - could well be subjective, therefore, coloured by our ancestral past and our religious and cultural upbringing. But that is no reason to distrust or disbelieve it. Quite the reverse. That very subjectivity is what makes it most real and true for us as unique, unrepeatable individuals. It connects us with the deepest part of our being, that secret chamber where the still, small voice points the subjective self towards the objective truth of God. Our deepest desire, as Ignatian spirituality emphasises, is also God's deepest desire for us.

The creation myth which speaks most powerfully to me is undoubtedly J.R.R. Tolkien's, Ainulindalë: The Music of the Ainur. Ever since I first read The Silmarillion at school in the 1980s, I have wished that this was the official Christian creation story. The Genesis account, if I'm honest, has never sparked my imagination or inspired any deep thoughts or feelings, whereas Tolkien's myth energises me on all levels. This, I believe, is due to the simple fact that Genesis is a Jewish creation myth, and I am not Jewish but Anglo-Irish. When I say this, I don't mean any slight on the Jewish people, who were and are a remarkable race who bring so many good things to the world. But the fact that Tolkien was attempting to write what he called 'a mythology for England' speaks volumes here. His writing is geared towards the European (and particularly British) imagination in a way that the Old Testament, through no fault of its own, is not. Maybe on some level Tolkien saw a gap where a native creation myth should be, and Ainulindalë is his attempt to fill it.

Some might find the high, remote style of Ainulindalë off-putting, perhaps, but there's a spaciousness and depth to the writing, I feel, which brings a real sense of the timeless and archetypal to the page. There's a warmth and musicality at work as well which tempers the text's severity and brings an extra dimension to a narrative which might otherwise come across as somewhat dry and abstract.

Ilúvatar, Tolkien's creator God, fashions the Ainur first of all, mighty angelic intelligences, 'the offspring of his thought.' He proposes a musical theme and commands the Ainur to take it up and develop it. They respond in some style, making a music so beautiful that Tolkien says it will not be equalled until the end of the world. As the music proceeds, however, it is marred by the discordant motifs introduced by Melkor, the most powerful and gifted of the Ainur. He wants to bring in his own ideas, rather than those suggested by Ilúvatar. There is a clash, and many of the Ainur become disheartened and lose their way. Ilúvatar introduces a second theme, which is spoiled again by Melkor's innovations. Undeterred, Ilúvatar launches a third theme, and this time, no matter how hard Melkor strives for mastery, he cannot drown it out. On the contrary, his discordance is taken up into the wider music and becomes part of that very theme which Melkor is trying to undermine. Ilúvatar brings the music to a close and shows the Ainur what they have created with their voices. They see the newly-minted Earth spinning in the void and the unfolding of its history. 'Behold your Music!' says Ilúvatar. 'This is your minstrelsy; and each of you shall find herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added. And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory.'


There are echoes of other creation myths here, of course, most notably Aslan's singing Narnia into existence in The Magician's Nephew and the Gaelic story known as The Earth-Shapers or The Shining Ones. In the Irish tale, it is the Earth itself that does the singing. Unformed, mis-shapen, and tormented by primordial monsters (a little like those in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft), the Earth dreams of beauty and expresses its longing in the form of a song which reaches the ears of Brigid, 'the keeper of the sacred flame', who resides with the other Lordly Ones in Tir-na-Moe. Brigid convinces her brethren to descend with her to the Earth and save it from its distress. They bring with them the four Hallows - the Sword of Light, the Spear of Victory, the Cauldron of Plenty, and the Stone of Destiny. With the aid of these sacred objects, they drive back the monsters, heal the wounded Earth, and create a fresh, new world.

Evil is active in each of these three creation myths (as it is in Genesis, of course) - the fallen angel, Melkor, in Ainulindalë; the corrupted queen, Jadis, in The Magician's Nephew; and the primal monsters in The Shining Ones. Tolkien's depiction of evil is subtly and skilfully done. Melkor falls by degrees - from frustration at not being able to use his talents the way he wants, to a fixation on following his own way rather than Ilúvatar's, to a flat-out refusal to countenance the good and a determination to destroy not just Ilúvatar's music but the whole new world the Ainur are labouring to build.

It didn't have to be this way. It remains a mystery what greatness Melkor might have achieved had he chosen to use his gifts as Ilúvatar intended. He falls into the trap of thinking that 'his way' and 'Ilúvatar's way' are different and that Ilúvatar wants to thwart and stymie his potential. Nothing could be further from the truth. Melkor's deepest desire for himself and Ilúvatar's deepest desire for him are one and the same thing. But through pride and arrogance, Melkor turns his face from truth and sets out on a path of destruction - of the world around him, of others, and ultimately of himself.

It is a futile endeavour though. Ilúvatar's third theme shows us that the machinations of evil only serve in the long run to give rise to new and undreamt of forms of good. Ilúvatar hides the Flame Imperishable in the secret heart of the world. Melkor searches for it, but in vain. He is looking in the wrong places - in self-promoting fantasies of power, glory and domination. But we can find it. All we need do is stay true to ourselves and our creator. It's easier said than done, of course, but we should remember that the final destiny of men and women - 'the Children of Ilúvatar' - is hidden even from the Ainur who sang the world into being and is known to God alone. 

This tells us that the work of creation is still ongoing and that we have a special, as yet unknown, part to play in its unfolding. We are called to become co-creators with the Divine. Nothing less than that. We are not there yet, perhaps, but the grandeur and suggestiveness of J.R.R. Tolkien's creation myth (together with the whole of his oeuvre) certainly helps point the way.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Barfield's understanding of the necessity for the completion of Romanticism

Barfield's understanding of Romanticism as an uncompleted destiny is of primary importance to an integrated view of The Inklings. Barfield articulated this very clearly in Romanticism Comes of Age (1944) as well as subsequent books; but none of the other Inklings seems to have understood or been-persuaded-by the argument.

(Probably they were put-off by the fact that Barfield drew much of his understanding from Rudolf Steiner, and referenced Steiner's work frequently. Because although Steiner was certainly a genius of world historical importance (Barfield seriously and coherently compared him with Aristotle); he was also wrong about most things, most of the time - and in a peculiarly gratuitous and overwhelmingly prolix fashion.)

In a nutshell, Barfield saw Romanticism as a necessary but unfinished, indeed corrupted, development of human consciousness. Therefore, he saw the only viable option for modern Man as the completion of this change.

What happened to Romanticism, according to Barfield, was that it arose in the late 1700s and initially was taken forward very promisingly in practical terms by Wordsworth and Blake in England and Goethe in Germany; and was very fully theorised by Coleridge... but that it was soon diverted into modernism - that is metaphysical materialism/ positivism/ reductionism/ scientism - in the forms of varieties of atheism, political radicalism and sexual revolution. 

By contrast, although both Tolkien and Lewis embodied Romanticism in much of their work, and were anti modernism in all the forms described above - they advocated and adhered a return to pre-modern states: Traditionalism.

In sum, rather than moving-through Romanticism to a new form of consciousness (along the lines theorised by Coleridge); Tolkien and Lewis attempted to fuse Romanticism and Tradition, or perhaps to use Romanticism as a means for returning to Tradition.

The completion of Romanticism is therefore still an uncompleted project! Indeed, the whole issue has proven to be very difficult to discuss at all. Coleridge never succeeded in making himself understood by anybody! - arguably until Barfield himself brought together and interpreted many scattered passages (e.g. especially in What Coleridge Thought, of 1971).

It is no mystery to me why the project of Romanticism remains uncompleted - to complete Romanticism requires:

1.  A rapid (not incremental) and wholesale (not partial) replacement of fundamental metaphysical assumptions concerning the basic nature of reality.  And...

2. This task must be done actively, voluntarily and explicitly by each person as an individual.

By contrast, the modern prevalent perversion of Romanticism (i.e. atheist, materialist, leftism) was introduced incrementally, unconsciously, by mass influences and in a top-down fashion; such that the whole system of modern Western thinking is commonly unrecognised and denied, is incoherent and self-destroying, is dishonest and relativistic.

Could Tolkien and Lewis have followed where Barfield was leading? It is hard to imagine - since they would need to be convinced of the impossibility of Traditionalism and also of the possibility, and goodness, of completing Romanticism. They would need to acknowledge that Romanticism was, in its original impulse, not merely a 'reaction' to industrialism and materialism; but an embryonic new form of consciousness. Romanticism-completed would (even without Steiner) also have struck at the particular self-definitions of Tolkien and Lewis's different, but in this respect similar, definitions of Christianity in terms of creeds, institutions, and authority...

Tolkien and Lewis would therefore surely have found it difficult to distinguish between Barfield's suggestions for a completed-Romanticism and the modernism they opposed root-and-branch. Nonetheless, we can - looking back on the Inklings and perceiving them as a spiritually-coherent group who themselves had a destined role to play in the development of Western consciousness - ourselves do the work that Tolkien and Lewis could not, and would not have done. Which is to complete Romanticism with the help of their imaginative literature.


Monday, 12 March 2018

Review of The Flame Imperishable by Jonathan S McIntosh


Jonathan S McIntosh. The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St Thomas and the metaphysics of Faerie. Angelico Press: Kettering, Ohio, USA. 2017. pp xv, 289.


For about a year, from late 2009 into 2010, about a year after I became a Christian - I was 'smitten' by the 'Thomist' philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas (and intending, probably, to become a Roman Catholic via the Anglican Ordinariate route).

I had already encountered 'Thomism', in the work of GK Chesterton, and EF Schumacher's Guide for the Perplexed - and most significantly in After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre who convinced me that the philosophy of Aquinas was the only rigorous, coherent, comprehensive system of metaphysically-rooted philosophy that had ever been devised. My Aquinas binge of 2009-10 confirmed that opinion from a mainstream Christian perspective...

Since that time I have travelled to an almost opposite extreme - first via the less-rigorous but more intuitively-satisfying Platonism of Eastern Orthodoxy; then to the almost-unknown, almost-totally unappreciated, and almost-opposite world of Mormon theology - where I have solidly set up residence for the past five-plus years (as a 'theoretical Mormon' - but not a member of the CJCLDS).

This, then, is my background with respect to Thomism: one of great respect, past enthusiasm and a partial knowledge (which never got so far as to read Aquinas himself in any quantity - just excerpts; but mostly books-about Aquinas).


In The Flame Imperishable, Jonathan McIntosh argues that JRR Tolkien's work was written from a background in Thomistic philosophy - which Tolkien absorbed during his childhood, especially; and furthermore that Tolkien's major work in the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion was written such as to be compatible-with the basic principles of Thomism.  

This, McIntosh proves! - at least to my satisfaction; although I was already inclined to assume this was true before I read his book.

The Flame Imperishable is uncompromisingly a scholarly monograph - closely modelled on a PhD thesis; with the characteristic virtues and limitations of such a form. That is, it is thorough, impartial (presenting many sides of each argument in some detail; its conclusions are expressed with due reservations; and its language and structure are subordinated to these formal imperatives.

Which means the text is dense, incremental, even-toned - and, in sum, not at all an easy read! On the other hand, its appeal goes somewhat beyond the interests of professional scholars. I can, for example, think of quite a large number of Roman Catholic bloggers and authors who have a great interest in Tolkien's work - and these would certainly find that The Flame Imperishable added depth of understanding to their engagement with Tolkien - and probably too with Aquinas.


For me, the book was hard to get-into because my own metaphysical assumptions are so very different from those of Thomism - so that after reading not many sentences I would often turn aside and write notes from my own contrasting assumptions. In other words; McIntosh is right about Tolkien - but not about me! - and therefore reading it took on aspects of a debate.

In the end, speaking personally as a person who is fascinated by metaphysics and thinks-about it every day, and thinks it is the most important single thing for the modern world! - I found this book was an education, a stimulus to clarify my own philosophical ideas; and yet also a confirmation that I personally was correct in rejecting Thomism; whose baseline assumptions seem to me (the more I dwell upon them) so unnatural, so counter-intuitive, and such as to lead to what I would regard as reductio ad absurdum in some very important places. 

But Thomism still is, and probably always will be, the most rigorous of comprehensive systematic philosophies - and if that is your priority, then you probably ought-to know more about it. So long as you are prepared to work through slowly, you could (I think) learn Thomism from The Flame Imperishable, via your existing interest in Tolkien*.


*Note: An alternative, or preliminary, would be Ed Feser's Aquinas of 2009; which well communicates the intellectual excitement of such a wide-ranging - indeed all-including - philosophical system. 



Sunday, 18 February 2018

If WW II was an allegory of Lord of the Rings...

A first version of the following post appeared a couple of years ago, and proved popular among some people - including Fantasy author L Jagi Lamplighter. I though I'd re-run it, lightly edited and slightly expanded...

In his Foreword to the 1966 Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was at pains to emphasise that the book was Not an allegory: in particular it was not an allegory of the 1939-45 World War:

The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.

We could, inverting Tolkien's point, play with the idea of what would have happened in WW II if it had followed the lines of LotR...


**

The One Ring = The Atom Bomb

Sauron = Hitler
Mordor = Germany under National Socialism

Saruman = Stalin
Isengard = Moscow

The Free Peoples = USA and UK



The plot would focus on the destruction of the Atom Bomb (and implicitly all knowledge required to make it) by a small team of English patriots led by George Orwell, who infiltrate Germany and destroy the evil research establishment which is making the A-bomb.

The team are 'helped' by a slimy little creature called Mussolini, who gets them into the lab but intends to seize the death weapon for himself.

The climactic end would be the death of Mussolini; killed when the ready-for-use bomb prototype explodes in his face as he tries to steal it. A chain reaction speads through Nazi HQ and Hitler and his Nazi-Nazguls are caught in the conflagration, ending the National Socialist regime.

Orwell and his 'batman' servant Monty are airlifted from the blazing ruins at the last moment. 

Europe comes under the rule of the restored King Albrecht - the exiled Duke of Bavaria, and heir to the United States monarchy. He had been given the throne by popular acclaim during the course of the war, and is now ruling from his palace in Richmond, Virginia.

The Holy Roman Empire is thus restored. 


En route there would be the destruction of the Soviet Union, the restoration of the Tsar, and the exile of Stalin.


After Moscow is obliterated by enraged Finns wearing Mech suits; Stalin makes his way to England, where he is welcomed by the quisling Communist Prime Minister, Konni Zilliacus. Stalin swiftly invites foreign mercenaries, takes over in a secret coup, enslaves the native English and manages to pollute or destroy much of the countryside before Orwell and his English patriots return and raise a successful counter-revolution.

After the scouring of England, the defeated Stalin is stabbed by his creepy deputy Lavrentiy Beria - who is immediately executed by a mob of pitchfork-wielding rustics (despite Orwell's protests...).


England repudiates industrialisation, is demilitarised, sealed against immigration, and made into a clan-based dominion ruled by benign hereditary aristocrats - under the personal protection of King Albrecht.


Orwell, traumatised and made consumptive by his wartime experiences, sails West toward the sunset in a small boat and eventually arrives in... Ireland; where he ends his days peacefully as a subsistence crofter...


(No wonder Tolkien cordially disliked allegory, 'in all its manifestations'...)

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Tolkien and Giants


Tolkien included Giants in several of his stories - although not in The Lord of the Rings - despite their appearance in The Hobbit. This was natural, since there is abundant evidence for the historical reality of Giants - including in Britain, where they were the first inhabitants. Giants are, understandably therefore, probably more evident and important in the oldest English history/ legend/ folklore than elves, dwarves or dragons.  

How to discover more about such matters? Well, Geoffrey of Monmouth had access to a now-lost book of the deep and mythic history of Albion - a book which, I imagine, would have provided almost exactly what JRR Tolkien felt was missing from his country's culture - 'a mythology for England'.

Our modern Geoffrey - Geoffrey Ashe, the Greatest Living Englishman - made a really excellent job of filling this gap with his Mythology of the British Isles of 1990.

Ashe uses Monmouth's book as a skeleton, fleshed out with all other available and relevant sources to provide a clear and concise mythical account at the start of each chapter, followed by scholarly commentary and footnotes.

If someone extracted the mythical sections, and arranged them sequentially; when imaginatively-illustrated and published as a unity, this could make a wonderful Child's History of Albion.

The first Geoffrey - of Monmouth - clearly influenced Tolkien who draws upon it often (as have so many hundreds or thousands of other writers for many centuries - including Shakespeare, via Holinshead), but the 'flavour' of his great book was not really to Tolkien's taste. It is, indeed, over-filled with bloodthirsty battles, intrigues and deceptions. But then, so are the Norse Sagas...

Nonetheless, Monmouth's is our best annalistic source for mythically imaginative hints of deep truths from our island's story; hints that may intuitively be developed into real myths.

And our contemporary Geoffrey has made from it an even better resource for modern fantasy writers.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Tolkien nods - the introductory description of Arwen

I am currently reading aloud The Lord of the Rings, as a bedtime book; and am again absolutely delighted by it. I find every scene, indeed almost every sentence, to be effective and beautiful.

But yesterday I came across the introductory description of Arwen - as observed by Frodo at a feast in Rivendell; and I realised explicitly something which has nagged at me ever since I first read the book. In his writing at this point, Tolkien fails to communicate the beauty of Arwen.

*

In the middle of the table, against the woven cloths upon the wall, there was a chair under a canopy, and there sat a lady fair to look upon, and so like was she in form of womanhood to Elrond that Frodo guessed that she was one of his close kindred. Young she was and yet not so. The braids of her dark hair were touched by no frost, her white arms and clear face were flawless and smooth, and the light of stars was in her bright eyes, grey as a cloudless night; yet queenly she looked, and thought and knowledge were in her glance, as of one who has known many things that the years bring. Above her brow her head was covered with a cap of silver lace netted with small gems, glittering white; but her soft grey raiment had no ornament save a girdle of leaves wrought in silver.

So it was that Frodo saw her whom few mortals had yet seen; Arwen, daughter of Elrond, in whom it was said that the likeness of Lúthien had come on earth again; and she was called Undómiel, for she was the Evenstar of her people. Long she had been in the land of her mother's kin, in Lórien beyond the mountains, and was but lately returned to Rivendell to her father's house. But her brothers, Elladan and Elrohir, were out upon errantry: for they rode often far afield with the Rangers of the North, forgetting never their mother's torment in the dens of the orcs.

Such loveliness in living thing Frodo had never seen before nor imagined in his mind; and he was both surprised and abashed to find that he had a seat at Elrond's table among all these folk so high and fair. 

*

It should be noted that Tolkien does a great job of communicating the beauty of Goldberry, and Galadriel - and the special appeal of Eowyn. It is only Arwen where he fails.

I recall, when first reading the book back in 1973, being astonished by the appearance of Arwen to marry Aragorn after the ring had been destroyed - having entirely forgotten about her and who she was; and being even more astonished that Eomer could regard her as more beautiful than Galadriel (in his discussion with Gimli) - since I had a very clear impression of Galadriel's beauty, and none at all of Arwen's.

(By comparison, if Goldberry had turned up at the end of the story, I would certainly have remembered her. Not least because I had a clear picture of her in my mind.)

I think it can easily be seen how the passage on Arwen, which I quote above, fails: she is introduced as looking like Elrond - who is a male; the writing tries to describe her beauty by negatives (young yet not so, hair touched by no frost, grey eyes like cloudless night, flawless skin...); there is too much point by-point description of her features and clothes, without ever putting the 'pieces' together...

And, there is no impression of the effect Arwen has on those around her. The hobbits are stunned by Goldberry's beauty; and the Fellowship almost paralysed by that of Galadriel... Here we have a brief, ineffective paragraph on what Arwen does not look like - then we are off into history and background information.

So, here is a very rare, and yet narratively important, place where Tolkien nods, or lapses. It causes a structural fault in the book - small but significant.

Why here? Most likely because Arwen was a visual reincarnation of Luthien, and Luthien was based on Tolkien's wife Edith - and Tolkien was (understandably) perhaps somewhat impaired in his ability to evaluate his own writing objectively (i.e. for its effect on the reader) when it came to writing about his own wife.


Sunday, 28 January 2018

One of the most interesting books I have ever read... My Amazon (mini-)review of Sauron Defeated

Sauron Defeated: The End of the Third Age (comprising The History of the Lord of the Rings, Part Four; The Notion Club Papers; and The Drowning of Anadune). Being the Ninth Volume of The History of Middle Earth. J. R. R. Tolkien (Author),‎ Christopher Tolkien (Editor). Houghton Mifflin; Boston &NY, USA. 1992, ix, 482 pages. 

This book has three great strengths:

1. Two versions of the delightful Epilogue to the Lord of the Rings. This was the original ending of LotR, and remained so until an advanced stage in the book's production; and Tolkien seems always to have wished it had remained in place but was persuaded to delete it by some of his friends.

2. The Notion Club Papers - an extremely important unfinished novel by JRR Tolkien in a 'modern' setting but with much reference to space and time travel. This was written in the middle of composing the Lord of the Rings, so has Tolkien at the height of his powers. Also, there are many coded clues to Tolkien's own deepest, and secret, beliefs.

3. Several alternative version of the history of Numenor, with a lot of extra (and more vivid) detail than can be found in the LotR or Silmarillion.

Without exaggeration, and speaking as a long term Tolkien fan, this is one of the most interesting books I have ever read.

(NOTE: If this review from 2011 encouraged a single extra person to read Sauron Defeated, I will count it worthwhile.)

Monday, 11 December 2017

Why I am somewhat neglecting this blog...

Because I am doing a lot of posting at the Owen Barfield Blog - in preparation for writing a book based upon it.

But I will continue posting here, and soon, about the non-Barfield Inklings.


Monday, 4 December 2017

Charles Williams the (conversational and moral) chameleon

Charles Williams was clearly many things to many people, and the recent biography by Grevel Lindop has made clearer and more explicit the nasty and exploitative side of his charecter.

Yet the same man was regarded as an extraordinary, inspiring, sustaining spiritual leader and teacher, an almost saintly figure for his spiritual knowledge and wisdom, by CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, TS Eliot, Dorothy L Sayers and others of similar depth and substance - who knew Williams well over a long period.

How can we make sense of this?

I think there are two assumptions necessary. The first is that Charles Williams was essentially a conversationalist; that he was at his best and gave his best in person and in conversation.

The second is that - precisely because he lived so deeply in human interaction -  Williams had chameleon attributes, taking on the 'colour' of his social context to an extreme degree.

The chameleon aspect came-about because his conversations were mutual not monologues: they were profoundly interactive (at an intuitive level); therefore necessarily very different when Williams was in conversation between different persons.

When Williams was in (deep) conversation with good Men such as Lewis and Tolkien, this brought-out the best in him. In the presence of good Men, therefore, Williams became himself an exemplar of goodness - this capacity in him was brought to the front. Lewis and Tolkien spoke with Williams many times, at length, deeply and over a span of six (intense, war) years - they knew him very well, and they knew that he was of great goodness.

But when Williams interacted with less-good people; and/ or people who sought him out for what they could get from him; and people whom Williams sought out for sexual or magical-power reasons - then the fact that Williams lived so deeply and interactively in his conversations brought-out his bad qualities with similar power that Lewis and Tolkien, Eliot and Sayers, brought-out the good.

This is not to exonerate Williams from his (seemingly unrepented) exploitativeness, but to explain its possibility as a consequence of both his strength, and his limitation.

And it is to clarify that the Inkings and others were not mistaken when they judged Williams to be a great Christian thinker and teacher: Williams was this - but he was not only this.   


Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Infiltration, subversion and inversion of Tolkien

We live in a world in which all major institutions have been corrupted by New Leftism (political correctness) - and have now been substantially turned-against their original functions to 'converge' on being sub-divisions of the single, linked, totalitarian bureaucracy.

Tolkien is, of course, one of our greatest champions in opposition to this long-term trend - yet the professional interpretation of Tolkien is (of course) not exempt from these larger social trends; especially insofar as Tolkien's works have become the subject of study in universities and colleges; institutions that function as trail-blazers and standard bearers for the very worst evils of secular (anti-Christian) modernity.

Thus we come to a very extreme example of the phenomenon - a new book of academic essays called Tolkien and Alterity - 'alterity' being one of those tendentious inventions meaning 'otherness' in the New Left sense of anything other-than what Tolkien personally was: a married Christian family man, dedicated to his English ancestry, with a strongly traditional Roman Catholic sexual morality.

So the title means, in effect, Tolkien interpreted as anti-Tolkien.

The titles of the book chapters say everything needed:

Tolkien: A Bibliographical Essay on Tolkien and Alterity.
Race in Tolkien Studies: A Bibliographic Essay.
Revising Lobelia.
Medieval Organicism or Modern Feminist Science? Bombadil, Elves, and Mother Nature.
Cinema, Sexuality, Mechanical Reproduction.
Saruman’s Sodomitic Resonances: Alain de Lille’s De Planctu Naturae and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Cruising Faery: Queer Desire in Giles, Niggle, and Smith.
Language and Alterity in Tolkien and Lévinas.
The Orcs and the Others: Familiarity as Estrangement in The Lord of the Rings.
Silmarils and Obsession: The Undoing of Fëanor.
The Other as Kolbítr: Tolkien’s Faramir and Éowyn as Alfred and Æthelflæd.

On careful consideration (for 10 milliseconds); I shall not be purchasing a copy - especially considering the standard price of a hundred dollars (minus one cent) for 270 pages...

The only consolation is that Tolkien and Alterity will (very probably) only be read-through by one or two individuals who are professionals in this specialised domain of 'scholarly' discourse; and bought only by academic librarians who are spending other-people's money... 

(Sadly, one of the chapters is authored by Verlyn Flieger, who is now 84 years old and has written some of the very best Tolkien criticism and scholarship ever. I don't know what this specific essay is like - but her presence in this volume apparently confirms my observation that advancing age nowadays is more likely to be an incremental succumbing to the prevalent evil insanity than it is to be associated with 'conservatively' standing-against the foolishness and wickedness of ephemeral and evil dominant trends. Hence the large numbers of youth-emulating elders - often pierced, tattooed and plastically surgeried - that I see round and about nowadays.)  

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Inklings depicted in the Bird and Baby



This is a painting by Martin Macgregor displayed in the Eagle and Child ("Bird and Baby") pub in Oxford, and sent me by Keri Ford.

It isn't exactly what I was hoping for in an Inklings group portrait because the group is situated in the Bird and Baby pub rather than Lewis's rooms, and is a contrived formal portrait (done by re-painting photographs - which I recognise) rather than an actual meeting-in-action.

Also, it isn't exactly what I was hoping for because it is situated in the Bird and Baby pub rather than Lewis's rooms, and is a group portrait (done by re-painting photographs - which I recognise) rather than an actual meeting-in-action.

Strictly, in the early and most important years, The Inklings was the group that met in the evenings in Lewis's rooms to read-out and discuss their writing; rather than the bigger and looser lunchtime social-conversation grouping that met at the Eagle and Child, and also at the Lamb and Flag on the opposite side of the street. These lunchtime meetings continued for a decade for more beyond the end of the evening-reading group; indeed, into the time after Lewis moved to Cambridge University.

So - I think there is still need for a 'proper' picture of the core-Inklings in-action in situ!

Monday, 30 October 2017

Romanticism Comes of Age by Owen Barfield (1944) - From East to West

The first essay in Owen Barfield's 1944 collection Romanticism Come of Age is named From East to West - and it is one of the clearest, and most exciting, statement's of Barfield's basic field of concern: that is, the imagination. Here I will summarise the argument of the first four-and-a-half pages.

Barfield's thesis, and this is something of which he has convinced me, is that The Romantic movement was the start of something that was intended (by divine destiny) to be the next - and indeed final - qualitative stage in the evolution of human consciousness towards the divine mode of thinking.

Romantic artists such as Shelley, Beethoven, Byron and Wordsworth felt a creative-power in themselves in a way, and to a degree, that was new in human experience. However, this powerful feeling was never explicitly articulated - and because of this, the Romantic impulse was thwarted.

More exactly, the Romantics were clear that their sense of creative-power implied a new freedom - which appeared in a distorted, perverted, materialistic form to drive the French Revolution - and also a new emphasis of Beauty. Shelley stated that truth must be poetic - and not, therefore, abstract and dry, like the typical 'science'; Keats equated Truth with Beauty, and stated that he was certain only of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination.

Yet, for all their (correct, according to Barfield - and I agree) emphasis on the new possibilities of Freedom (more exactly human agency) and Beauty; the Romantics lacked an ultimate, metaphysical explanation of the basis of these assertions. In other words, although The Imagination was hailed as vital; it never was explained in what sense Imagination was True - in what sense imagination was a form of actual knowledge.

The Romantics should have explained why imagination was indeed a kind of knowing. That they did not, was what Barfield termed the tragedy of Romanticism; the lack of which led to the collapse of Romanticism into its present status as merely a kind of diversion, a superior form of 'Rest and Recuperation' (R&R) whose pragmatic role is now merely to keep-us-going in an increasingly materialist, reductionist modern world typified by globally-linked bureaucracy and the mass media.

In essence, Romanticism gave us Freedom and Beauty - but left Truth to unreformed, materialistic 'science' - where it throve for a while, but has by now died for lack of broader context - as professional science has become nothing-more-than a vast generic, careerist bureaucracy, that is not even trying to attain Truth.

For Barfield, the crux of this tragedy was specifically-located in chapter thirteen of ST Coleridge's Biographia Literaria (1817), at the point where the author postponed (and, as it turned-out, abandoned) his incipient attempt to do exactly what was needed - in a concise and explicit form. This crux has been subjected to deep analysis in Barfield's later work - especially the book What Coleridge Thought (1971) - in the course of which Barfield recovers the scattered fragments of Coleridge's 'lost' solution to the problem of imagination from the corpus of his writings.

However, Barfield is able to announce that Romanticism has, indeed, come of age, and has achieved its philosophical completion, in the work of Rudolf Steiner. This happened via Goethe - who did not articulate philosophically but instead lived the fullness of Romanticism - the answer being made explicit and public in the years between Steiner's Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception of 1886 and The Philosophy of Freedom of 1894. Steiner made Goethe's implicit-lived-answer into exactly the concise, focused and explicit philosophical account that the original Romantics failed to provide.

However, for various reasons (mostly bad, some understandable) Steiner's answer has been ignored by the mainstream - and Western Society continued as if it never had happened. In one sense, Barfield's life was spent in trying to revisit this lost-moment when Romanticism failed to ask and answer the necessary question. Barfield compares this with Sir Percival/ Parsifal's failure to ask the right question at the right time in the Quest for the Holy Grail - it took a long time and a lot of suffering before the question could again be asked, and this time answered.

For Barfield, the period of suffering would include the terrible 20th century he lived-through (with its materialism, atheism, totalitarianism, world wars and international mass exterminations) and - no doubt - the current 21st century with its pervasive nihilistic despair and mandatory insanity in all Western societies.

But now we have Barfield to add to Steiner; and the answer is there for anybody prepared to make the effort first to understand it; and then to begin to practise it. The destiny of Romanticism can now be completed, imagination and science can be synthesised - and can become our way of life.
  


Friday, 27 October 2017

My new Owen Barfield Blog

I have started compiling a new blog dedicated to Owen Barfield. This will consist of a selection from my essays, posted in chronological order to date (i.e. appearing in reverse chonological order from the top down) - and then will be continued by further themes. 

I have been studying Barfield's work with great intensity for more than two years now (after a previous decade of more leisurely consideration); and have come to regard him as the most important spiritual philospher of the twentieth century.

By 'most important' I mean in terms of his being the only writer of whom I know that has identified the most important conceptual issues for modern man, and - more importantly - describing what we should do about it.

What makes Barfield unique is that he not only made a correct diagnosis of what ails us (this is not unusual), but he also prescribed an effective treatment.

I have attempted to summarise Barfield's core work as follows:

Owen Barfield's nature and achievement is usually under-sold by a partial, and therefore misleading, summary; that states Barfield's goal was to prove by evidence that human consciousness had evolved; and that this evidence was provided mainly via 'philological' investigations into the changing meaning of words.

Of course Barfield did this - but he did so much more, and this achievement served a much bigger purpose than usually realised.

The problem is that the above description sounds like an essentially academic type of activity - and therefore of interest mainly to academics - presumably those concerned with the meanings of words.

But in fact; Barfield was writing for everybody and for all time - and his core concern was nothing less than the divine destiny of each individual person and of all people collectively.

Barfield's immediate relevance is profound; it is to solve the core problem of modern times - which is 'alienation': i.e. the deep sense of meaninglessness, purposelessness, and isolation from people and things.

The understanding which makes this possible is that history, the present and the future can be understood as aiming-at both consciousness and freedom (where consciousness means awareness of our thinking and our selves, and  freedom refers to free will, or human agency).

Barfield's scheme is that humans began as conscious-but-not-free; and we evolved - evolved in the sense of changing by unfolding according to a (divine) developmental plan - to become free but not conscious (which is where we are now, in modern times - unaware of meaning, purpose, relation) - and we ought-to-be aiming at the condition where we are both self-aware and fully-conscious - engaged with (and participating-in) reality as free agents.

Even more briefly, humanity began as conscious, became free; and is destined to become both - simultaneously.

So Barfield 'in a nutshell' is so much more than a scientist-philosopher of language and its change; he is a thinker about the most fundamental problems.

And Barfield is not merely an analyst of problems: he proposes real, coherent, and clear answers to these most fundamental problems.


Roots and branches of reading Lord of the Rings, aged 14

Reading the Lord of the Rings (LotR) aged 14 was probably the most significant abstract (non-personal) event in my life. It led to many changes of interests - some of which I describe below; but I have been reflecting on what it was that led-up-to LotR. Or rather, to The Hobbit - since it was the Hobbit which first grabbed me, and moving-on LotR was a consequence of The Hobbit.

An incomplete list of the life-dominating interests which stemmed directly from the transformative effect of Lord of the Rings would include (but not be restricted to):

1. History, and historical novels - especially English history
2. Traditional agriculture, and the idea of self-sufficiency
3. Medieval, Tudor and Folk music
4. Learning and reading Middle English literature
5. Appreciation of landscape - especially woods and streams
6. Folklore, myths and legends
7. Other fantasy books
8. Literary biography and criticism (via exploring this in relation to Tolkien himself)
9. Utopian politics - William Morris type agrarianism
10. Environmentalism - what was then called 'ecology'.

But what led up to The Hobbit. I had enjoyed fairy stories as a child (mostly Andrew Lang's collections named after various colours) - but not especially. I had read and enjoyed a couple of Narnia books, but not enough to complete the series.

Indeed, aged 12-13, most of my reading was about aeroplanes and war - especially the second world war. I read a lot of the Biggles stories (by Captain WE Johns) and then memoirs of various famous pilots, and of specific operations... I think my favourite books were 633 Squadron by Frederick E Smith and The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill. All a very long way away from Tolkien...

I had heard of The Hobbit a few years before, and been played a tape of a little bit of it - and been intrigued by the 'fairy tale for adults'; but not enough to read it.

What really got to me read the Hobbit was my then infatuation with Progressive Rock music - e.g. Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Hawkwind and - especially - Tyrannosaurus Rex featuring Marc Bolan on guitar and vocals, and Steve Peregrine Took on bongos and other percussion... Bolan was fascinated by faery and magic - and transmitted this to me - it was looking for 'more of the same' that was what got me to read The Hobbit.

A particular friend of that time, called Roy, was the decisive factor: he had access (via an older brother) to LPs of progressive rock, and he had also read and loved both the Hobbit and LotR; so it is Roy who was the real key.

We lost touch not long after, and - if he is alive and remembers me at all - I don't suppose he has any idea how massively and permanently he changed my life!

Monday, 16 October 2017

The nature of Tolkien's Subcreation

I have found it difficult to understand exactly what JRR Tolkien meant by Subcreation in his essay On Fairy Stories. Indeed, I think that it is probably not possible to produce a coherent account of Subcreation within Tolkien's own (Roman Catholic) theology.

Of course many RC Tolkien commentators have tried to do exactly this - explain how Subcreation works within the official theology of the Catholic church; what I am saying is that I have found all such attempts to be incoherent, hence unconvincing.

The problem (as I see it) is to produce an account of Subcreation that applies to Tolkien's own work and is both genuinely 'sub' and also genuinely 'creation'.

The way I envisage it is in terms of my own understanding of metaphysics - in particular the way that Primary Thinking relates to ultimate and universal reality.

So, there is, first of all, the original act of creation by God.

This original creation can be described by Men, and it can be imagined - but these are essentially secondary and indirect communications, prone to distortion and selectivity - they can't really be distinguished as creations.

But the reality of original creation is directly, universally and continuously accessible to men in the activity of Primary Thinking. When we think in this Primary mode, the thoughts are not 'in our heads' (nor located in our personal minds) - but instead we personally participate in the universal realm of reality; and we think with the same thoughts as were original in creation (however, only a minuscule proportion of such thoughts, and only perceived from our own distinctive and partial perspective).

In this universal realm, all is true and all is wholly Good - because divine. But this realm is not fixed, but rather it is a living, dynamic, and evolving-growing realm; and Men are sometimes able to contribute to it.

We can therefore participate in this realm - initially by knowing it directly, but also potentially (in so far as our thinking is divine) by contributing to it  - and this I regard as Subcreation.

So, Subcreation is significant because it is an actual, universal and permanent contribution or addition to the 'content' of the universal realm of creation; which we personally may access by Primary Thinking.

A genuine act of human Subcreation is therefore an act that adds-to the totality of original creation - such that, from then onwards, any Being that is participating in the universal realm may (in principle) be able to discover the content of Subcreation.

So, if Tolkien is regarded as a genuine Subcreator - then his work has not only been present in the world of human communications, but also has affected, permanently, the ultimate and universal world of reality and truth. Such that any person who is participating in that universal realm, and who is mystically in-contact-with God's original creation; may also potentially discover the truth and reality of Tolkien's permanent contribution to that realm.

Whether JRR Tolkien actually attained to this fullness of Subcreation (I judge that he did; but others may disagree) - this is an account of possible Subcreation which is both Sub (to original creation, which came first) and also a genuine act of Creation, when evaluated by the highest and eternal standards.



Wednesday, 23 August 2017

In his writing style, CS Lewis was essentially a sprinter/ short-middle-distance dasher (but Tolkien was built for marathons)

It is well known that CS Lewis wrote quickly, and revised very little.

But there are limits to what can coherently be achieved (with full and characteristic style) using this kind of writing method.

Lewis produced scores of first rate essays - done in a few hours each; and their coherence relies upon their being completed in a single burst of inspiration. But this does not scale-up indefinitely. Lewis was able to write up to the length of a short novel in this way - but when the piece didn't come out 'right first time' then he was never able to make the book cohere.

With the Narnia stories - those that were done in a draft have an effortless cohesion, while those that gave him some trouble - Prince Caspian and The Magician's Nephew - lack that spontaneity and fluidity.

That Hideous Strength is an excellent work, perhaps Lewis's best? - but it is a sum of rather distinct parts: it does not cohere well, it feels somewhat 'cobbled-together'; because it was considerably too long for Lewis's Mad Dash method.

The Screwtape Letters are similar; the book is a wonder, and I love it - but it is a loose collection of essays, not a unified whole.

It is noteworthy that the one book that Lewis really loathed writing (although it is very good!) was his contribution (on sixteenth century, non-dramatic works) to The Oxford History of English Literature. Like nearly-all academic texts, this is more like a mosaic than a thesis - and runs at about 700 dense pages. This was such a chore that he typically referred to his working on it as Oh Hell! (from its initials OHEL).

As a clincher, Lewis's most well-integrated long fiction is Till We Have Faces (making a paperback of about 350 pages), and this was written over an extended period. But TWHF is essentially a collaboration between Lewis and his wife - Joy Davidman, who apparently did a great deal of detailed editing work on the manuscript. Consequently, the book has a non-Lewis style, and reads as if by a different writer (which it was).

So, it seems that Lewis's strength was also his limitation. Because he wrote quickly and with concentration - he was very prolific (and indeed his letters, of which he wrote many per day, are of an extremely high, publishable, standard) - but when he could not finish a book satisfactorily in a single burst of rapid writing extending over not-many-weeks maximum; he was never able to achieve the spontaneity of style and effortless integration characteristic of his shorter works.

Lewis wrote and published far, far more good stuff than JRR Tolkien; but he never could have written a book of the length, complexity and excellence even of The Hobbit - never mind the Lord of the Rings...

Tolkien could 'hold' a work in his mind for months, years, decades... but the timescale Lewis was comfortable with was more on the level of hours, days or weeks - and then he wanted to move-on to some other project.


Saturday, 12 August 2017

Reimagining CS Lewis's That Hideous Strength

I am currently halfway through listening to the excellent audiobook version of CS Lewis's That Hideous Strength ('THS'), read by Stephen Pacey (who played Del Tarrant in the excellent 1970s BBC Sci-Fi series Blake's 7).

From a perspective and through a lens derived from CS Lewis's best friend Owen Barfield; I can imagine a revised version of THS, in line with my understanding of our situation some seventy years on from the publication of THS in 1945...

One major difference would be that Lewis has his heroes (the St Anne's fellowship) essentially passive in their obedience to orders coming from the 'angelic' helpers. Nowadays, we would not receive these orders. We would have-to work things out for ourselves, as best we could. Or, more exactly, we would need to develop the spiritual perspective and abilities which would enable this working-out. We would need to develop what Barfield termed Final Participation.

Final Participation is something which can only come from the choice and will or each of us, as individuals. It cannot be conferred upon us - indeed the essence of it is that we are free and agent. Final Participation is precisely a personal, experiential effort-full thing. We need to look-within to seek god-in-us, to find our divine self - and to become aware of this.

Here and now - we aren't going to be able to wait or hope for leadership; probably we will be literally on-our-own: alone... at least in many practical respects. This because our current situation is not a recapitulation of monasticism or the like; the destruction, subversion and inversion of groups is at the heart of the evil of our modern condition.

A modern THS would perhaps be about the good characters, the heroes of St Anne's, individually and dispersed. About moral choices made alone and in the context of an overwhelmingly large and powerful Establishment of Evil that is not recent (like The NICE in THS), but has been in place and in control for at least two generations.

The angels ('eldils') would not be perceptible in the necessary state of consciousness of Final Participation; they would not visit, we could not see them - and neither would we hear them speak in words; not even words formed in our minds. Instead, angels would communicate directly by joining their thinking with ours.

However, we - in our thinking - would always be free and agent - in control. Hence we could block contact with the angels, if we chose. And we could not (merely) open our minds to them. Rather, we would actively be thinking is such a way that we could share in their thoughts, and they in ours.

How could help come? In defeating a vast and powerful evil Establishment, clearly help is essential. THS had the Original Participation magic of Merlin, and direct and miraculous aid from the eldils/ angels. What might we have, now?

Well, it would be imperceptible to direct observation. It would be behind the scenes - by synchronicity. Natural phenomena (rain, wind, sun, tides, earth movements...) would - 'coincidentlally' - favour Good and be hostile to evil.

Enemies would be repenting (as the situation clarifies) and changing sides, ceasing to do their evil duties, turning to sabotage the evil plans.

There would be events of exceeding improbability - actually miracles, but always explicable in terms of chance. Perfect-Storms of 'luck' - both good and ill 'luck' - good fortune for the Good and adverse chance for the evil. Cumulatively piling-on, and on.

(These being proximal consequences of distal and subtle angelic interventions; behind-the-scenes changes of arrangements; altering small upstream occurrences to generate large downstream effects...)

How about our own personal strength, motivation, will - and love? How could these be sustained when we are on-our-own? I assume there will be positive-feedback reinforcements of such things. As the situation develops, evil becomes clearer, becomes un-masked. Because evil is a trial of our strength and a mode of spiritual development; it may be like exercising in a gym - immediate effort being rewarded, some time after, by greater strength.

The key and core is motivation; the guiding principle is honesty; and the goal is love (towards which we are pointed by the discernment of the heart; which knows truth, beauty and virtue - and their opposites).

We must be self-sufficient in terms of motivations; but this is only possible through the gift of repentance from Christ. Trial and error will get us where we need to be; but only when error is acknowledged and repented.

The war is between those who acknowledge and experience the spiritual world, the immaterial world, the world of God; and those who don't. Between those who know we are all children of God and destined to become free; and those who believe themselves and everyone else to be evolved automata subject to rigid determinism alleviated only by randomness. Between those who take ultimate responsibility and look to god-within; and those who hope for external intervention for rescue.

The happy ending of a new THS would be very happy indeed! A world of free, agent, people affiliated in loving families and with close friends; a world therefore open-ended, of creativity. Not a utopia; but an active, developing, expanding, deeply-rewarding world of perpetual interest, challenges, increasing awareness and understanding - making, doing and thinking.