Sunday, 5 August 2018

Depictions of the Inklings, by the Inklings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Faramir, Boromir and Providence in Lord of the Rings?

From The Council of Elrond, Boromir speaking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 27 July 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what does this section of the poem mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 9 July 2018

Reading The Notion Club Papers - again...

About forty pages in, and enjoying it more than ever!

It begins with a kind of hobbit - talk section; perhaps the nearest thing to a transcription of an Inklings meeting that exists.

Then moves onto the most self-revelatory material ever published from Tolkien - in the mouth of his alter ego, Ramer.

Wonderful stuff! If you haven't yet read the NCPs, why not try? They can be found in volume 9 of The History of Middle Earth: Sauron Defeated (1992).

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Reading Tolkien's character from his face - viewing Tolkien in Oxford (1968) with the sound turned-off...

There is an interesting (and flawed) half hour documentary about JRR Tolkien that was made in 1968 - see link below; and I was watching it with the sound turned-off, and focusing on Tolkien's face (as one does...). This turned-out to be a surprisingly interesting and enlightening experience!

Tolkien was in his mid-seventies at the time of this production; but most of the 'faces' being interviewed were young Oxford students, aged around twenty years. What was extraordinary was how animated this old-man Tolkien was - how mobile and expressive his face; and how much more so than the faces of the young people.

Tolkien is extremely engaged by his environment, alert to the surroundings and the interview situation; his face showing what he feels from moment to moment, with sudden changes in emotion very obvious, and quick smiles, laughs and an impish humour.

Tolkien comes across as exceptionally alive and open, quick-witted, unselfconscious, unguarded and spontaneous - especially considering that he knew he was being filmed and recorded for television.

What I want to emphasise is how unusual this is; what an unusual man Tolkien was. This ought not to be any kind of surprise, because geniuses always are unusual people - one way or another. And how his personality, his nature, was - of course - exactly what was needed to write what he did.

There seems to be no barrier between Tolkien's emotional life and its expression; many of the other people interviewed have faces like masks; there is a public persona, and the inner life is both shielded and blocked.

This perhaps needs emphasising in light of the impression from Humphrey Carpenter's official biography that Tolkien's external life (after the First World War) was dull and uneventful... Well, that clearly did not apply to Tolkien's own experience of his life. We can see this.

What is clear from watching Tolkien is that his moment-by-moment response to being-alive was - at least sometimes, and probably even more so when young than in here in his twilight years - one of tremendous vividness, and power.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Solving Tolkien's flat-earth versus spherical-earth problem with the help of Owen Barfield

[Jeremy - in The Notion Club Papers, by JRR Tolkien]

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

If you went back would you find myth dissolving into history or history into myth?... Perhaps the Atlantis catastrophe was the dividing line?

Tolkien had a problem with his legendarium: the First and Second Ages took place on a flat earth; but at the drowning of Numenor (i.e. the 'Atlantis catastrophe'), and the advent of the Third Age (and the time of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings) the world became a round: a sphere. By this change - which was accomplished by direct action of The One/ Eru/ Iluvatar - the undying lands (Eressea and Valinor) became qualitatively separated from the mortal lands (Middle Earth); so that only the enchanted ships of the Grey Havens could get from one to the other - ordinary ships that went West just came around the globe to reach the other side of the Middle Earth land mass.

But this change in planetary geography due to the Numenor/ Atlantis catastrophe was also the dividing line between a magical-enchanted world of the elves; and the mundane world of Men. The Third Age was a transitional phase between these, during which the High and Grey elves left Middle Earth, and the 'magical Men' of Numenor faded and were diluted into being like the mundane men of Middle Earth (although in LotR we meet several of the very few-remaining 'pure' Numenoreans such as Aragorn, Faramir and Denethor). 

In the Fourth Age (our Age) the elves have all departed or faded into invisibility; the Men have lost all their magic, and the world is disenchanted - lacking contact with, or belief in, elves, or the Valar. (Presumably the Ents and the Dwarves have gone extinct, or concealed themselves.) Hobbits, as a type of mundane Men, are said to remain, but hidden.

Tolkien was never happy about the mechanics and implications of this flat-to-round earth transition; and he kept tinkering with the 'cosmology' until shortly before he died; even (astonishingly, in his seventies) planning at one point to rewrite the entire Silmarillion as a round-earth mythology, involving enormous changes - quite beyond then-resources of Tolkien's time and energy.

Yet there was a possible solution to this problem - and it was one that had been worked-out in detail by Tolkien's fellow Inkling Owen Barfield.

I shall describe this in a moment - but it needs to be made clear that Barfield's solution was never an actual possibility for Tolkien, for many reasons. Barfield was essentially CS Lewis's friend, and Tolkien and Barfield had never been close - probably they spent very little time together outside Lewis's presence. Furthermore, Barfield did not enjoy Lord of the Rings, indeed he apparently was unable to finish reading it. And then, although both were strong Christians, there was a denominational gulf between the two - since Tolkien was a devout traditionalist Roman Catholic and Barfield a heterodox Anthroposophist-Anglican.

Barfield was, indeed, a philosopher with so radical and original a metaphysics that few - even of his admirers and scholars - have been able fully to grasp and explicate the sheer scope of what he assumed, argued and asserted.

For Barfield consciousness was primary, and 'matter' was merely a secondary 'condensation' from pure consciousness. Furthermore consciousness 'evolved' - which means it changed by a process of developmental unfolding; in accordance with the divine plan to enable Men incrementally (and over many thousands of years, and multiple incarnations) eventually to attain to god-hood.

The aimed at divine mode of consciousness was what Barfield termed Final Participation: 'final' because it was divine, and 'participation' because it entailed becoming co-creators with God. Because consciousness was primary, Final Participation happened in thought, in thinking. God thought the universe into existence, this thought was objectively real; and if man attained to this level of consciousness, each Man (in harmony with God's purposes) would become a participant in this creation.

And, because consciousness is primary, for Barfield there was no reality apart-from consciousness. What we perceive (what know by our senses, and by reasoning from sensory data) is all we know of anything. There is an indescribable stuff (what Barfield terms the unrepresented) that exists independently of our perceptions of it; but perceptions can only be understood with concept,s, by thinking - so we know nothing about this unrepresented reality.

We only know what we think, and our thinking is a product of our consciousness, and our consciousness can change qualitatively.

What we regard as objective facts are actually 'Collective Representations. In other words, beings with the same quality of consciousness, perceive the world in the same way, and therefore usually come to regard the world as consisting of data which they suppose to be independent of consciousness. When everybody perceives a tree, then people tend to assume that what is really there is a tree; when actually 'a tree' is a concept that is absolutely dependent on consciousness. 

(It can immediately be seen how alien this way of understanding would have been to Tolkien, even if he had known and grappled with it - which he would have been unlikely to do; probably regarding it as pride-full and blasphemous.)

If Barfield's understanding of the evolution of consciousness was applied to the Numenor/ Atlantis Catastrophe, we would understand it to be a qualitative change in consciousness, imposed upon the inhabitants of the world by The One. It was consciousness that changed, primarily; and as a result, the world became perceived as spherical instead of flat.

(It is not a matter of whether the earth 'really had been' flat, or not; but that such a question is meaningless - since there is no 'really' which is independent of consciousness. To the Second Age consciousness of elves, men, dwarves, Sauron, orcs etc; the new form of consciousness perceived the world as round. And there is no going-behind this perception.)

So, the drowning of Numenor really was, as Jeremy of the Notion Club Papers suggested, a 'dividing line' - in which the era of enchanted myth changed-into the era of mundane history. The change was instantaneous; but the working through of this change took some thousands of years.

(Such a Barfieldian perspective also explains how Tolkien's legendarium is real: really-real, not just applicable fiction! It is real because it is 'about' consciousness; it is a way of 'representing' consciousness and its development, under divine shaping.)

So where does that leave Modern Man, in our Fourth Age - which Barfield sometimes called the Age of the Consciousness Soul? Well, we are of course disenchanted, can no longer perceive the elves or the gods; indeed we deny the reality of any God at all. Whereas the enchanted world of Tolkien's First and Second Age was one where most things were alive and conscious and in communication to some degree (a residue of this remained in the Third Age, in Lothlorien - preserved by Galadriel's ring)  for mundane man, everything is dead: indeed Man understands himself to be dead, and consciousness to be an illusion or epiphenomenon of material processes. Because only matter is real, and matter is experienced as un-alive...

But this is incoherent, insane; it is not a viable form of consciousness: it is consciousness turned against itself. It simultaneously claims to know, while denying even the possibility of knowledge. It claims to discern meaninglessness, to know exactly that which is un-knowable (i.e. to know with certainty how things really-are, independent of that consciousness which knows). 

We need to move into a Fifth Age of Middle Earth; in which we can begin to know that consciousness is primary, and to know that consciousness and reality are indivisible.

This was not a matter that Tolkien addressed in any of the work published during his lifetime - but it is a special appeal of the Notion Club Papers that Tolkien comes to the very edge of this matter; which is a thing that can be done in high fantasy.

In a nutshell, we can - if we choose - regard the Notion Club as a fantasy version of The Inklings; and the unfinished text as the start of a process by which these Fantasy Inklings would, in the course of the full narrative and as its climax, solve this most important of all the problems facing modern materialistic Man.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Tolkien's How and Why problems in 'framing' his Legendarium for a modern audience - reflections on re-reading Interrupted Music by Verlyn Flieger (2005)

As Verlyn Flieger clarifies in her 2005 book Interrupted Music; Tolkien had two main problems in providing a 'frame' within-which to present his entire Legendarium (Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Adventures of Tom Bombadil and material from his unfinished Silmarillion). These can be summarised as clarifying How and Why the reader has these stories in his hand...

The How refers to the provenance of the text; that is the process by which a story or history from a remote (and fictional-mythic) past came-down the many generations to reach JRR Tolkien, who is presenting it to the modern reader. Starting with the 'Lost Tales' from the late World War I period, Tolkien tried many explanations.

One idea was of an ancient mariner who visited Fairyland, heard and brought back the stories - sometimes he also participated in the subsequent history; these original manuscripts were translated from Elvish into some other language such as Old English, and handed down between scribes and in libraries in a normal historical fashion - Tolkien being the latest translator and adaptor.

Another idea was that a  modern man - or several people - visited the undying lands in a dream or meditative trance - and brought-back the material. He, or someone else expert in ancient languages, was then inspired by such dreams to learn and translate the ancient languages.

In the end, Tolkien actually framed Lord of the Rings with an apparatus which presents his material as being derived from a book called The Red Book of Westmarch, which is a collection of translations from Elvish legends heard by Bilbo i Rivendell; plus the diaries of Bilbo Frodo and Sam and some other material such as a book on the herblore of the Shire by Merry. Somehow, a copy of The Red Book came down the ages to Tolkien who (somehow) translated it, and used the material to write his various books.

There are some holes in Tolkien's eventual, actual solution to the How problem - but on the whole it seems to work satisfactorily for most readers; although Tolkien was not altogether happy with it, and he kept 'niggling' at it through the editions of The Lord of the Rings and his introductory words to The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.

The Why is a much more difficult problem - and Tolkien never really got further with solving this problem than the lecture On Fairy Stories - which provides a general justification for Fantasy fiction, rather than a specific reason for why his own legends were important. In particular, Tolkien was never able to explain something important to him - which is why his stories were specifically important for England.

There is, in fact, an answer to this Why problem - and I am sure that Tolkien knew exactly what that answer was, but was (for various reasons, good and not good) reluctant to use that particular answer.

The answer is to refer to divine destiny, and to imply or assert that the mythic text that came across many generations to emerge into modern times in the form of Tolkien's books were enabled to do so because modern people need them. In other words that God made it possible; that God preserved and protected the knowledge; and made modern people able to get access to it. For example, God provided the intuitive insights to modern scholars that enabled them to translate ancient lost languages, and to correctly fill-in gaps in surviving texts, and to do so with sufficient literary quality to engage and influence modern readers.

Of course, such a claim would mean making explicit reference to Christianity - putting Tolkien's books into an explicitly Christian frame; which he was clearly reluctant to do. It would furthermore have entailed Tolkien putting himself forward as an instrument of divine destiny (a mere instrument, as he humbly understood it) - which he was willing to do in private among friends, but not in public; because the mainstream atheistic public would surely have regarded such a claim as insane, idiotic or arrogant.

But we ourselves can, if we wish, frame Tolkien's work in this fashion - and I certainly do!

Note: Verlyn Flieger's Interrupted Music is well worth reading for its detailed and accurate scholarship - although it is significantly flawed by fairly frequent intrusion  of mainstream academic deference to political correctness and materialism - 'virtue signalling' and reductionism (eg. repeatedly and wrongly stating that Frodo's mental state at the end of LotR is Post Tramatic Stress Disorder; and that LotR is essentially about war: A War Book). This prejudicial and corrupting leftism crept into this author's later work; as happened to almost-all authors over recent decades; except in some instances when the work was explicitly - non-liberal - Christian.) 

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Good and evil in Tolkien

One of the most ridiculous statements made by those literary modernists who dislike Tolkien, and especially The Lord of the Rings, is when they state that the characters are divided unrealistically and simplistically into Good and Evil. Yet, in reality, the opposite is the case - corruption of Good is extremely common, and there are several important examples of repentance of evil.

Starting with The Hobbit - the dwarf leader Thorin becomes corrupted by greed and resentment. On his deathbed he repents and apologises to Bilbo. This is somewhat like Boromir, whose desire for the One Ring gradually masters him, and he tries to take it from Frodo by force; before confessing and repenting to Aragorn as he dies.

Aragorn is an example of a good character who resists corruption; Gandalf and Faramir are others. However, each of these is 'paired' with another who is corrupted. Gandalf is one of three wizards we meet, of whom Saruman has gone over to the side of evil - and refuses to repent although given three opportunities; while Radagast has abandoned his duty and mission to become a 'neutral' in the war.

Faramir is the steadfast brother of corruptible Boromir; and the returned King Aragorn's corrupted twin is Denethor, Steward of Gondor and Boromir's father - who succumbs to despair, compounded by envy of Gandalf and refusal to recognise the legitimacy of Aragorn and yield his power.

When we first meet Theoden, King of Rohan, he has also been corrupted into despair and dishonesty by Saruman's tool Wormtongue; but Theoden repents and remakes himself, to die a noble death in battle - thanks to the tough but compassionate intervention of Gandalf.

Among the hobbits, there are also pairings: the good Baggins's with the corrupt (and pretentious, Frenchified) Sackville-Baggins's (of whom, Lobelia is redeemed through her courage in face of the ruffians); and, Sam with the anti-Sam: Ted Sandyman. Frodo is, tragically albeit temporarily and understandably, corrupted and broken by the ring, at the last moment - taking it for himself; only being saved from the terrible consequences by the providential intervention of Gollum. Frodo repents but is unable to escape his guilt, his mortal life is blighted, and he requires healing in the undying lands. In this respect Frodo is contrasted with the uncorrupted Bilbo, who voluntarily gives-up the ring (as does Sam); and (like Sam) lives-out a long and happy life.

What is lacking in Lord of the Rings is any significant characters who are evil, at the start of Lord of the Rings, and repent before the end (albeit most of the book takes place in a single year); although Gollum gets very close; as does Wormtongue (after the scouring of The Shire) - but neither can set aside their resentments.

And this is - unfortunately - true to life. Once someone has thoroughly sided with evil, it is very unusual for them to repent and reform. In LotR the nearest I can think of, is groups such as The Dead, from the Paths of The Dead - who broken their oath to Isildur and fought for Sauron, but removed their curse by helping Isidur's heir Aragorn; or the Dunlanders - who are defeated in the Battle of Helm's Deep, and are surprised by their decent treatment by their enemies, the men of Rohan.

But those who falsely complain about the division into good and bad characters are in reality complaining about the clear distinction between good and evil sides.

These are indeed distinct - and mainstream atheist modernists dislike and disbelieve this clarity; much preferring ambiguity over what is good and evil; or superficial good being actually evil; or all the characters being self-seeking hedonists and cowards; or the characters divided between witty, intelligent evil ones that we admire, and dumb, gullible good ones that we pity or despise...

From a perspective where there is no God and all morality is arbitrary and expedient (or hypocritical), Tolkien's critics are correct; which is why correcting their ignorance has no effect on their opinion of Tolkien's work. Likewise, the ignorant criticisms of of those who suppose that Tolkien's characters speak in what strikes them as a ridiculous 'Hollywood' fake medievalism; do not change their minds when confronted with evidence of Tolkien's extreme subtlety of linguistic register, and (surely obvious?) deep scholarship concerning real archaic forms and words.

So, I am never surprised by those who dislike and do not enjoy Tolkien. There are 'good reasons' of individual preference why anyone may not enjoy anything - not matter its quality.

However, given the generality and depth of corruption among modern intellectuals (perhaps especially academics); the fact that so many literati hate a work that contains so many convincing and moving depictions of goodness and repentance, is only to be expected.

Note: There is a much wider range of corruption on display in The Silmarillion - where we see the fall of the elves greatest scholar and craftsman, Feanor; and several other once-great elves who fall to despair, lust, anger, pride etc. Taking Tolkien's fiction overall, there is, indeed, a pattern of the very greatest being those who are most deeply and terribly corrupted to evil: Melkor, was the greatest of the Valar, Turin Turambar was the greatest warrior of all-time, Al-Pharazon was the most powerful Man ever, Saruman was the greatest wizard, Denethor was the most powerful Man of his age... Indeed, there is a clear tendency that those who have the greatest accomplishment are most greatly tempted - the Noldorian elves and the Numenorean Men being the clearest examples. The result is, typically, a polarisation among the great.

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.  



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.