Saturday 20 July 2024

When Gandalf was beardless...

A young Gandalf, perhaps? 

From "The Istari" [i.e. "the wizards") chapter of Unfinished Tales (1982) we know that Gandalf's name was derived from an Old Norse name list, having the presumed Icelandic meaning of approximately "elf with a staff"; and this is supposed to be a translation into modern English of the Common Speech word of the Men of Northwestern Middle Earth. 

Tolkien explains: "Gandalf was not an elf, but would be by Men associated with them, since his alliance and association with them was well-known."  And also because Gandalf was observed to have lived many lives of Men. 

We also learn that "Men perceived that [wizards] did not die, but remained the same (unless it were that they aged somewhat in looks)..."


From The Nature of Middle Earth, 2021 - in the chapter "Beards"; we discover "the fact that the elvish race had no beards". 


Putting together elvish beard-less-ness which was presumably obvious to Men (who, the "Beard" chapter says, all had beards except for the Numoreans and those of other elvish descent such as Aragron and Imrahil); with the fact that Gandalf had been given the name of "elf" with a staff; it seems we must infer that Gandalf had no beard at the time he was given the name Gandalf

Probably the characteristic Gandalfian beard was one of the signs by which men observed the Wizards had "aged somewhat in looks"? 


Thursday 27 June 2024

Tolkien plus something-else made me a Romantic

Before reading JRR Tolkien's Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings at age 13, my attitude was that of a mainstream, down to earth, science and adventure orientated kid. I was very much a "materialist", and externally focused and driven. My favourite reading was Biggles and war memoirs of fighter pilots

Post Tolkien I became - although I did not know the term - a Romantic. 

Although I did not for some decades set aside the scientistic, rationalistic side to my character; my deepest hopes and fears were romantic. From then onwards, compared with nearly everybody I knew or met, I seemed to have stronger ecstasies and hopes, and also a stronger tendency to existential angst and melancholy - in general a tendency to brood on The Human Condition (but especially as it applied to me). 


Just on the cusp of my adolescence; Tolkien's work gave me strong and sustained glimpses of "higher things"; and it was my experience of a world of engagement in a living and conscious reality, where there were depths of purpose and meaning not just among human beings but other sentient beings, and all through nature and beyond (e.g. in mountains, rivers, the sea...)... A world and state of mind where both beauty and evil were sharper and realer.


It seems to me that part of being and staying "a romantic" is ecstatic experience of in inner and imaginative nature. 

It is this experience of heightened consciousness that - by its contrast with the mundane quality of everyday life; and also by its unsustainability, its brevity - apparently creates the typically "romantic" mind-set and life. 


However; it soon dawned upon me that nearly everybody I met seemed to lack either the capacity or desire (or both) to have ecstatic romantic experiences. 

Some lived life, apparently, always behind a transparent wall of exclusion of such experiences, self-control exerted against such loss of control. This would include "Normans" and those who emulated them or wished to ally with them. It would also include the classic respectable middle classes, and the (self-consciously, ostentatiously) down-to-earth working classes. 

Their appreciations seemed at second-hand, "as if", undercut by a safety-net of irony and facetiousness; consequently, although such people got miserable, that misery had a mundane not existential quality.

The mass of other-people whom I encountered either could-not, or (for some kind of defensive reason, perhaps regarding it as childish, ignorant, a sign of weakness, or low status) would-not allow themselves to have these experiences. 


In conclusion: two things at least were required for the unique life-transforming effect that Tolkien had upon me: one was the special quality of Tolkien's work; and the second was my (partly innate, partly chosen) latent romantic nature - which was probably enhanced by my stage of psychological development. 

 

Saturday 22 June 2024

Charles Williams's false ideal of the mathematical impersonality of love

Mrs. Anstruther opened her eyes and met Pauline's. She smiled. "My dear," she said, "I've been meaning to ask you something for the last day or two." Pauline thought it might be the hot afternoon that gave the voice that effect of distance; it was clear, but small and from afar. The words, the tone, were affectionate with an impersonal love. Pauline thought: "She might be talking to Phoebe"—Phoebe being the maid—and at the same time realized that Mrs. Anstruther did so talk to Phoebe, and to everyone. Her good will diffused itself in all directions. Her granddaughter lay in its way, with all things besides, and it mingled with the warm sun in a general benediction.

**

As if in a last communion with the natural terrors of man, Margaret Anstruther endured a recurrent shock of fear. She recalled herself. To tolerate such knowledge with a joyous welcome was meant, as the holy Doctors had taught her, to be the best privilege of man, and so remained. The best maxim towards that knowledge was yet not the Know thyself of the Greek so much as the Know Love of the Christian, though both in the end were one. It was not possible for man to know himself and the world, except first after some mode of knowledge, some art of discovery. The most perfect, since the most intimate and intelligent, art was pure love. The approach by love was the approach to fact; to love anything but fact was not love. Love was even more mathematical than poetry; it was the pure mathematics of the spirit. It was applied also and active; it was the means as it was the end. The end lived everlastingly in the means; the means eternally in the end.

From Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams, 1937.  


Love is regarded as the primary value of Christianity; yet that statement leaves it unclear what is meant by love, and indeed by Christianity. 


Speaking from my personal understanding; I regard it as a profound error when Christians strive to assert of love that it is ideally impersonal, universal, unconditional, impartial... I mean the error that love is best to be understood by abstract metaphors drawn from mathematics, physics, astronomy, and the like. 

Charles Williams was certainly very prone to asserting this perspective - as illustrated above by descriptions relating to Mrs Margaret Anstruther; a character in the novel Descent into Hell, who is pretty-clearly intended to represent Williams's idea of a modern saint: a genuinely wise and good person. 

In this novel and elsewhere; Williams frequently referred to his ideal situation as mathematical, a geometric pattern; characterized alike by precision and abstraction. But in this respect, except for his emphatic and stark rhetoric, Williams was not at all unusual among the main-stream of theologians from very early in Christian history. 


Indeed; Williams's attitude seems to me the normal and mainstream Christian theologian's view that ideal love - i.e. the love of God for all of creation - is necessarily impersonal. 

This due to the assumption that God as Creator is of an utterly different nature and quality than any created thing; and because of God's attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and God's unchanging/ unemotional character (immutable and impassible); therefore it is supposed that love (like God) is best to be understood using impersonal metaphors such as mathematics, geometry, physics etc.

As I say; in contrast I regard love as necessarily personal; including ideal love, and God's love. 

I believe that such notions as universal, unconditional, impartial love are false importations from outwith Christianity - whether the pre-Christian Greek (e.g. Pythagorean, Platonic, Aristotelian) and Roman (e.g. Neo-Platonic, Stoic) philosophy (in the case of ancient Christian theologians); or from oneness-belief/ aspirations of (Western understandings of) Hinduism and Buddhism in the case of theologians of the past century plus. 


I believe abstract ideas of love are harmful to Christianity here and now. However; I do not think that such false theology did much harm in the past, in the pre-modern era. 


The reason is to do with the development of human consciousness; and the rather gradual but progressive loss of what Barfield terms Original Participation. I mean, that Mankind began having a natural and spontaneous, and largely unconscious, immersion-in the world of the divine and of spirits. But that Men have gradually (over centuries, and millennia) become more self-conscious, and more separated from this divine-spirit world; until now the separation is very nearly complete (except in early childhood). 

(This modern separation from the spiritual and divine - and from participation in The World - is sometimes called alienation.)  

This separation is also a development of the potential for freedom. But separation means that Men now need to make a conscious and active choice of beliefs, and we cannot (do not) unconsciously benefit from an implicit knowledge of God and Creation (and God's Will). 

In different words; Men used to find-themselves automatically aligned with divine creation and God (to a significant degree); whereas now Men find themselves alienated from creation to the point of denying the reality of creation and God.


What this meant was that in the past Men could hold all kinds of false beliefs, including the falsehoods of mainstream Christian theology; without coming to significant harm - whereas nowadays, because our theology is actively and consciously chosen - false theology is harmful; and indeed nearly always leads out of Christianity. 

As for Charles Williams; he was regarded by several influential intellectual Christians (especially adult re-convert authors such as CS Lewis, TS Eliot, Dorothy L Sayers, WH Auden; but also a significant following of "disciples") as an exemplary and inspiring Christian writer - and indeed person.  

IMO: For all William's many flaws; this informed positive evaluation of CW as Christian and theologian deserves considerable weight.  

On the other side; a knowledge of CW's biography (including autobiographical writings) suggests that he found his own religious understanding to be deeply unsatisfactory - indeed tragic to a degree only a hairsbreadth away from despair (and apostasy)... Yet, a hairsbreadth away (i.e. CW remained Christian, and continued to hope).

 

William's religion was rigorously derived from his theological assumptions - far more rigorously so than for most theologians. 

Yet, even among the mass of not-rigorous Christians, assumptions have consequences; and I believe that the assumption that Christian love ought to be impersonal, mathematical, has taken a terrible toll on the faith of individual people... Causing variously disbelief, confusion, disgusted rejection, and opening the door to assimilation of "Christianity" with the abstractions of Satanic totalitarianism.   

Therefore, what was (only just) possible for Charles Williams - i.e. to have a false understanding of love and yet be Christian - is probably not possible for those born several generations later and in our grossly-corrupted civilization. 

We (here and now) must be clear and explicit that love is personal and inter-personal - and that God is a person, and of the same kind as ourselves - else we will (sooner or later, whether acknowledged or denied) not be Christians

 

Wednesday 22 May 2024

Why the evil of the One Ring cannot for long be resisted by anyone At All

It is striking that the possession of the One Ring is rejected by even the most good and most powerful characters of The Lord of the Rings. 

Gandalf decisively rejects the idea of being given The Ring with mingled horror and almost panicked fear; Galadriel is tempted but triumphantly allows herself instead to decline in power and prestige, departing from Middle Earth rather than take The Ring; Elrond does not even allow himself to consider the idea - Aragorn likewise (Tom Bombadil seems completely uninterested, so the question does not really arise.) 


What is striking is that it is made clear that the corrupting evil of the One Ring cannot ever, under any circumstances, be long resisted by anyone who could and would be able to use it - and this is true no matter how strong and noble their nature and intentions really are. 

This is a powerful conclusion; because it implies that nobody is, or could be, good enough to resist evil - and on the surface it seems to imply that evil always has the upper hand in the spiritual war. 

If the One Ring is indeed so strong that the best and highest are susceptible - then there seems to be no ultimate hope for good. 

Evil seems decisively more powerful, and must eventually prevail... 


But closer examination shows that that this would be a mistaken analysis. When somebody has taken the One Ring to use it, and then tries to resist its corruptions; we are not dealing with two distinct sides of Good versus evil - but are instead already inside the realm of evil; from which position resistance is actually attempting to hold-a-line for lesser-evils against greater evils; but all this happening after the side of evil has been-joined.


The reason why nobody is strong or good enough to resist the One Ring is that by claiming The Ring they have already chosen not to resist its power

Anyone who claims the One Ring has - by that act - opened the door to evil, and invited it inside.  

After that point - with the enemy already loose inside the castle keep - resistance will fail sooner or later. 

 

Tuesday 7 May 2024

What did Sauron do with the three recovered Dwarf Rings?

Apparently, Sauron reclaimed three of the seven dwarf rings (the other four seem to have been destroyed by dragon fire).

Sauron later offered to give one to Dain II Ironfoot, King under the Mountain; as reward for helping find Baggins the Hobbit. 

But Sauron may have been lying. 


After all, the dwarf rings "didn't work" as Sauron intended. They failed to subordinate the dwarvish race to Sauron's will. 

Instead; the dwarf rings seemed to increase greed and covetousness (already archetypical dwarvish vices), while making it easier to accumulate treasure by trade. That is: If a ring-wearing dwarf traded in lead, he would become wealthy in lead; likewise for silver, gems, or gold. 

As the possessor of "the last of the seven" to be un-re-claimed by Sauron; Thorin's grandfather Thror, said to his son Thrain: the ring needed gold to "breed" gold. 


So, what did Sauron do with the three dwarf rings he re-possessed? 

I see three possible options:

1. Sauron kept and guarded the three dwarf rings, to ensure that nobody else could get hold of them; in particular so that no dwarf could become wealthy and powerful enough to threaten (or, at least, to interfere-with) Sauron's plans.   


2. Sauron intended to use the three remaining rings as bargaining chips to buy the cooperation of dwarves

This is implied by Gloin's account of Sauron's messenger offering to give Dain (King under the Mountain) one of the dwarf rings as a reward for helping to find Bilbo and the (One Ring) rings that he allegedly had "stolen". 

If Sauron's messenger was speaking the truth, then at least one of the remaining three rings was still available for this purpose. 

However, there is no reason to assume that Sauron's messenger was speaking the truth! It may have been that Sauron had zero intention of ever returning any ring. It may be that Sauron would have broken his promise...

Thus; if Dain had indeed cooperated with Sauron, and the hobbit ring-bearer had been found and the One Ring captured by Sauron; then it seems likely that Sauron would just have broken the "deal", and simply kept the dwarf ring.


3. A third possibility is that Sauron would be able to reclaim the power that he had invested in the three recovered dwarf rings, by means of destroying the three rings in some particular magical procedure.

This assumes that if Sauron knew how to put some of his innate power into a ring, he would also know how to get that power back again in process of destroying that ring. Presumably; because he had access to the hottest fires in Middle Earth in Mount Doom, what was technically possible to Sauron may not have been possible to anyone else.  


My best guess is that this third option was the most likely: i.e. that Sauron had, by the War of the Ring, already boosted his own power somewhat, by reclaiming much of what power he had put-into each of the three dwarf rings that Sauron had re-possessed. 


Note: The above information derives from The Lord of the Rings, especially Appendix A:III, and The History of Middle Earth Volume XII: The Peoples of Middle Earth


Tuesday 30 April 2024

Nicol Williamson's abridged audio Hobbit (1974)


There are (officially) only two (!) complete recorded readings of The Hobbit (Rob Inglis and Andy Serkis) - all the rest have cuts, thereby (almost-inevitably) removing some of my personal favourite parts. 

Of these condensed Hobbits; my favourite is that of Nicol Williamson; who loved Tolkien's works, and carefully edited the text himself; so that it is mostly shortened by very large numbers of small cuts: leaving-out innumerable little phrases and joining passages - rather than the usual (because much easier) practice of deleting whole major chunks of text. 

(By contrast; Martin Shaw's excellent narration astonishingly leaves-out Thorin's deathbed reconciliation with Bilbo!)

Furthermore, Williamson was - at his best, such as here - a genuinely inspired actor. His Hamlet in the 1969 movie is overall the favourite I have encountered (and I've seen many versions of this greatest of all Shakespeare's works); and his Merlin in the movie Excalibur is deep, brilliant, and unforgettable. 

The characters are clearly distinguished by dialect and pitch: e.g. dwarves deeper voiced and with Yorkshire accents, elves lighter in tone and with Received Pronunciation. Smaug speaks like a "peppery" senior officer in the British Army; while Gollum - being a thief - is naturally Welsh (;-p)  

Here, Williamson narrates with absolute commitment and detail, and with beautiful phrasing; avoiding that "on autopilot" quality, with false emphases and mispronunciations, that is all-too-common among audiobook readers; who work under extreme pressure of time, and with little chance for preparation - and who are at root "busy professionals" doing a job - rather than doing what for Williams was clearly labour of love. 

The soundscape and background music, of a medieval type, enhances the reading. I can't discover much about the musicians, except that Bob Stewart, the renowned psaltery player, was involved.  

The original multi-LP vinyl version of The Hobbit, must have been a treasure to possess - as such things often were in that era of "concept albums", with art work, booklet etc. 




Sunday 21 April 2024

Tolkien gave a lecture about The Notion Club Papers in Stonyhurst seminary, March 1946

Oronzo Cilli has found a description of a lecture JRR Tolkien gave at the Roman Catholic boarding school of Stonyhurst, in Lancashire (where his son John had been a member of staff); on the evening of 31st March 1946 - the day before leaving after a week's working holiday. 

The description was made in a register by someone who attended the lecture; who reports that Tolkien said he had been working on The Notion Club Papers since 1945 (fitting with the chronology established by Christopher Tolkien).  

The lecture was apparently on Part One of the NCPs as published in The History of Middle Earth, Volume 9; and included reading from the work-in-progress, since the report notes:

The book was a clear skit on, the well know publications of Mr. H. G. Wells. Mr. Wells in his books has often portrayed life in the planets and the means of getting there by specially constructed rockets etc. Professor Tolkien in his book has stressed more the mental side than the material and has marked his characters to reach the planets by means of the mind.

The use of "skit" demonstrates the humorous nature of this early part of the work, at this point - and how it was received by the audience. 

The report also notes that Tolkien: "was scarcely audible to most of the people in the House" - an oft-complained-of deficiency!

As often happens, the Question and Answer session seems to have drifted off-topic!

In the questions that followed, it was plain to see that some members of the house had missed the whole point of the paper, because the majorities of questions put were irrelevant dealing with the psychological aspect of dreams rather than the actual book itself. 

A separate notice in the Stonyhurst college magazine adds: 

This meeting was chiefly remarkable for question time, where the discussion turned mainly upon dreams and was the occasion of interesting confessions by members of the audience, although we would have been spared these self-revelations had more of the listeners grasped the real point at issue.

While the reporter was apparently rather irritated by the nature of the Q&A, it is understandable that the strange accounts of dreams and "remote viewings" in this part of the NCP, might attract more interest than the, rather technical and professional, discussions of the nature of science fiction travel!


Wednesday 27 March 2024

Review of Tolkien's Faith: a spiritual biography by Holly Ordway (2023)

Word on Fire publishers deserve congratulation for producing such a handsome and well-made volume

Holly Ordway. Tolkien's Faith: a spiritual biography. Words on Fire: Washington, DC, USA. 2023. pp 480 total: 365 pages of text, plus appendices and index; plus 72 photographic plates. 


The publication of Tolkien's Faith is a significant event, because it provides substantially more information on JRR Tolkien's biography than has existed before about an aspect of his life - and work - that he himself often stated to be of prime importance. 

It also provides a properly contemporary Roman Catholic context for his religion - which may be almost as valuable for modern Catholics as it is for non-Catholics; since the Church of Tolkien's childhood, youth and mature adult life, was a very different environment than it began to become during the last decade of Tolkien's life. 

This divergence of practices from the Catholicism of Tolkien's prime has continued over the past half-century - so that a good deal of information and explanation is now needed to help modern people understand what being a devout Roman Catholic actually meant for Tolkien and his generation.


Where this book really makes a difference is in understanding Tolkien's later childhood and youth, in that vital period between the death of his mother - when he and his brother were orphaned - and going up to Oxford. 

This period has been well covered (especially by John Garth, in Tolkien and the Great War) in terms of his experiences at King Edward's school in Birmingham. But Holly Ordway brings a new dimension to the non-school aspects of the Tolkien' brothers'life, who were in the very unusual situation of being orphans raised by a guardian, Father Francis, who was a priest at the Birmingham Oratory. 

Ordway describes the history and nature of the Oratory - about which I had previously been very hazy. It was founded by the famous Church of England ("Tractarian") to Roman Catholic convert John Henry Newman - who later became a Cardinal, the founder of University College, Dublin; and later still has been canonized. Father Francis had been a colleague of Newman - so Tolkien had a personal link to the great man. 

The Oratory itself was not a monastic institution, but encouraged each of the Fathers to develop his individual talents and vocation, while aiming at an atmosphere of friendship and mutual support among the 15-20 priests in residence. Therefore the Tolkien brothers had the tremendous benefit not only of Father Francis's personal love and (generous) support; but they also had a surrogate family among the Fathers - with whose devotional life the boys were intimately involved. 

That this upbringing was meaningful and important to JRR "Ronald" Tolkien, and regarded with affectionate gratitude, is evidenced by the fact that he maintained lifelong and close personal contact with Father Francis (who often visited the Tolkien family, and went on holidays with them); and also the Oratory itself - which ran a boarding school where all three of JRRT's sons were later educated.  

 

The focus on Tolkien's faith brings-out a very important aspect of his character which I had missed: forgiveness. 

While it has long been known that Tolkien blamed his relatives for ostracizing his widowed and impoverished Mother (and therefore the two boys) after her conversion to Roman Catholicism. For instance, during the months when Tolkien's mother Mabel lay dying, only one relative visited her: even Mabel's parents apparently refused to see their dying daughter!

Ordway points-out that this trauma did not prevent the later development of warm and lasting relationships between Ronald and these same relatives in later years. In other words; despite that he (very reasonably) regarded them as at-fault; Tolkien forgave his relatives, and showed no sign of harboring continued resentment against them.   


This insight is typical of Holly Ordway's strengths as a biographer and scholar - her eye for the significant detail that reveals character, or sheds light on a question. 

An example is the section on Lembas, or waybread. She describes how, before Lord of the Rings, the English word "waybread" was only used to refer to the English meadow and garden plant called Plantago major or plantain. 

(We used to play with a type of plantain as children, in a competition we termed "spuds", and that is similar to "conkers" - whereby each child would try to use one plantain to swipe-off the black flower-seed-head from another.)


Waybread makes sense in the context of LotR as "food for a journey", but "waybread"  is also the semantic equivalent of the Latin word viaticum (provision for a journey - i.e. the metaphorical journey of death); which is a term for the Blessed Sacrament (i.e. the Bread of Holy Communion) when given to a dying person. 

Ordway then describes how the wheel has now turned full circle! The Oxford English Dictionary currently records not just Tolkien's use of "waybread"/ lembas in Lord of the Rings; but also notes that waybread is today being used as a term for The Eucharist - with the first illustrative quotation being from a letter by Tolkien!


Despite the rich detail throughout, there were a few omissions that might be addressed by future biographers. 

One is the matter of Tolkien's apparently intense interest in "paranormal" or supernatural phenomena, which is mentioned in some accounts of Inklings meetings, and evident in The Notion Club papers. Phenomena such as ghosts, psychometry, lucid dreams, previsions of the future and visions of history, and auditory hallucinations of unknown languages. Some of these were confirmed by Christopher to be based on personal experience.  

There is much discussion of marriage in Tolkien's Faith; but I suspect, there is more to be said on this matter. Tolkien's own marital difficulties during middle age have been known in general terms since Carpenter's biography of 1977; but the specific nature of these difficulties and the consequences remains unreported (so far as I know).

Furthermore, given Tolkien's strict and orthodox Catholic beliefs on the subject; I presume that Christopher Tolkien's divorce and re-marriage must have been a very difficult matter for JRRT to cope with - but nothing at all is mentioned of this matter.   


So - there is (of course!) significant work still to be done on the faith and spiritual life of JRR Tolkien. 

One pregnant suggestion made by Ordway is that Tolkien's physical, and secondarily psychological, health seems permanently to have been damaged by the prolonged and severe "trench fever" that affected him during the Battle of the Somme and throughout the rest of the war. I am sure she is correct about this - there seem to be many references in letters and the Chronology (made by Hammond and Scull) to weeks long spells of debilitation and prostration. Here is a subject for further and detailed study!

In the meanwhile; this biography by Holly Ordway is a major, indeed definitive, contribution to understanding the Christianity of a man who has turned-out to be perhaps the most widely-influential English Catholic of the twentieth century. 


Friday 1 March 2024

Notice of the expanded - but underwhelming - "new" edition of selected Letters by JRR Tolkien (2023)

The main benefit of this new, expanded, version of the original 1981 selection of The Letters of JRR Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien; is that it induced me to "read the whole thing" again, from beginning to end, without skipping (except for a few paragraphs of technical linguistics). 

And the main benefit of this thorough re-reading (probably the third) was to realize how much I had forgotten of this indispensable gem of Tolkien's secondary literature. I really ought to have gone through the volume again, long before now; and for making me do it, I am very grateful to the 2023 edition!

If you are going to read any "Tolkien scholarship", then the Letters should be one of your first choices. 


But it has to be said that - following a gap of more than forty years between the first and second edition - this new collection is distinctly underwhelming. This because the new edition is in its essentials qualitatively the same as the old edition: qualitatively the same, although quantitatively larger. 

The reason behind this sameness is given in Chris Smith's Foreword to the revised edition; which is that the 2023 Letters are, in effect, the Zeroth  (i.e. 0th) Edition of the 1981 Letters - that is, the 2023 Letters are the 1981 letters before cuts were made by Carpenter and Tolkien, to bring the volume down to a publishable size.   

What we can now say is that the process of cutting the Zeroth edition down to the published 1981 Letters was very well done, because so little of substance was lost. Which (unfortunately) also means that there is not much that has been gained by making available this 40-plus-year-old selection of Letters. 

Indeed, I found it hard to locate many of the expansions, short of continually comparing the two editions (which would have destroyed the pleasure of re-reading). There are quite a few new letters, mostly to family members, labelled with a, b, c, etc appended to the numbers, in the correct Chronological position (and without, therefore, disrupting the established Letter numbering scheme).  

But many of the 2023 expansions were extra paragraphs added to the 1981-published letters - and the decision was made Not to indicate these expansions in the text (or anywhere) - so that they can only be discovered by a comparison of editions.

Such a lack of editorial explicitness adds to the impression of laziness in preparation of this not-really-new edition of Letters. 


My points is that - although the 2023 edition is certainly better than the 1981 edition; the new selection does Not address the core deficiencies of the 1981 selection. I am thinking, in particular, of the lack of any specific reference to Tolkien's psychological and marital difficulties. It was understandable and proper that such references were excluded when Tolkien's children were still alive, but now they have all died it is overdue that these were articulated explicitly in print.

In particular I was disappointed to discover no new letters to cover the 1945-6 period of Tolkien's "nervous breakdown" after he took up the Merton professorship, and during which he was writing The Notion Club Papers. 

This was when (apparently) Tolkien and his wife Edith seem to have (informally-) separated for some weeks, and JRRT went off to live with Christopher in an hotel. 

I regard this as important in the history of Lord of the Rings, since it was only afterwards that writing of LotR was resumed after a long break.

This crucial period is covered by a distinct gap in the published Letters - whether because none were available, or because they have been excluded, I don't know. 

I suppose (eventually....) time will tell. Perhaps this information is being held back for a desperately needed new authorized biography to replace/supplement Carpenter's unsympathetic, indeed semi-hostile, biography of 1977. In the meanwhile, new letter 38a to son Michael from 1940 provides confirmation of the significant and sustained marital problems of Ronald and Edith's middle years - and that these were explicitly known to at least the older boy children. 


In sum; the 2023 Letters are in every way better than the 1981 Letters; yet... without really adding anything-much substantive to what was already known. 

So that, overall, the 2023 Letters of JRR Tolkien represent a pretty enormous lost-opportunity to publish a genuinely new edition, rather than what is, in effect, an older-than-old edition!


Tuesday 27 February 2024

The elvish strain in Mankind, and the motivation of Men and elves

For JRR Tolkien, "elvishness" is a quality that first entered Mankind by heredity from the rare "interbreeding" of Men with Elves; especially Beren and Luthien, Tuor and Idril and Aragorn and Arwen - but perhaps also from one or more unions of Men with Silvan (i.e. "lower") elves such as happened in Dol Amroth. 

After which, the "half-elven" strain was transmitted in part by a kind of heredity (which is not strictly genetic); and also by close-association-with and even the love of elves - via the phenomenon of "Elf Friends". 

Indeed, this second "associational" rather then hereditary elvishness seems likely to have been the most important; since it seems very unlikely that all the Numenoreans (for instance) were actual descendants of Beren, Luthien, Tuor or Idril - most seem to have been members of three particular Elf Friend tribes or clans. 


I find it fascinating to consider what spiritual realities lie behind Tolkien's elves, and their relationship with Men; and my speculations have recently been fuelled by reading-though a fascinating and wide-ranging book called Red Tree, White Tree by Wendy Berg - who was a disciple of Gareth Knight; later (with her husband) becoming leader of the Gareth Knight Christian magical group, after GK retired. 

Berg puts forward many and various speculations on the subject of "faeries" including a detailed consideration of Tolkien's elves; also folklore, and the whole range of Arthurian literature - which she interprets as being, ultimately, "about" faery/ Men relationships.

In particular, she regards faeries and Men as two distinguished-sides of an original-whole; and of the two sub-species of "human" as having been sundered in the remote past - and with, therefore, the long-term implicit goal of becoming re-unified - despite the many problems such a destiny will entail. 

(Problems such as are, for Berg, the principal subject of Arthurian romance.)  


My thought was that elves and Men can be distinguished in terms of motivation. 

Elves/ faeries value and are more immersed in creation, and therefore live in harmony with the natural world; but, on the other hand, elves tend to become passive, contemplative; and instead of contributing to the world, they tend to try and preserve the past, and to stay the workings of time. 

Men are more self-conscious of their distinction from nature, and selfishly tend to impose their will on creation and respond to temporary impulses; yet this heightened self-consciousness and distinction from nature is also the basis of freedom, and can motivate Men to contribute personally to divine creation.  


In Owen Barfield's terms - Elves/ faeries are prone to yearn for the immersive unconsciousness of "Original Participation"; while Men are prone to the alienation and despair of the "Consciousness Soul".

And the hope for a re-uniting of faery and Men; is the hope of combining the best of both: combining the free creativity of Men with the harmony-with-divine-creation characteristic of elves. 

Tolkien regarded elves and Men as both "human"; yet as separate creations, and therefore eternally distinct. Berg takes the different stance of understanding elves and Men to have been two directions in which humanity grew after an original unity in the Garden of Eden.

However we may model or literalize the explanation; there does seem to be a true insight and wisdom in this business. 


It seems probable to me that this ideal harmony and union cannot be achieved - except temporarily and in a limited fashion - in this mortal life and on this earth. 

Yet the distinction of motivations has validity as a way of conceptualizing the ideal state of both elves and Men towards which we may aspire. 

And also a warning - on both sides - of the hazards of a divided and partial consciousness.   


Saturday 17 February 2024

A joke quoted by JRRT

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


Mother discovered her small daughter drawing.

"What are you drawing, darling" said she.

"I am drawing God." 

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

"Well they will now."


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


Sunday 11 February 2024

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

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

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

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


Sunday 4 February 2024

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

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

Except for one thing. 

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Thursday 1 February 2024

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



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

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

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

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

.....

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

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

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

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

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

.....

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

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

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

***

Note added from comments: I think it is pretty definite that the basic history of this "dream" episode of the NCPs is based on the Anglo Saxon Chronicles [https://www.gutenberg.org/files/657/657.txt] e.g (note the second paragraph): 

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

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

Friday 26 January 2024

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

 

Monday 22 January 2024

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

 

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



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


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

Wednesday 20 December 2023

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Of course such Men wanted what Jesus Christ offered! 

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

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

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


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

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

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


Friday 24 November 2023

Numenor and the insufficiency of mortal life in this-world

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

And Tolkien's answer is: No

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Saturday 18 November 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

  

Thursday 9 November 2023

Experiencing spiritual contact with JRR Tolkien via The Notion Club Papers

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

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

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


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

But typically such an interaction has been conversational... 

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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


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

I found this with William Arkle. 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

***


Note added 10th November 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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