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.


Michael Dyer said...

Marvelous video by the way. The best review of Tolkien is that joyless socialists hate him.

Owen said...

Fascinating! It's interesting what you mmention the difference between one's inner perception and the outer perception of others - my father mentioned this very situation recently.

Someone had told him he was living a boring life, seeing as he indulges in no hedonism whatsoever and enjoys solitude and quiet craftsmanship. But of course Father's inner experience is intense, variable, and curious.

It seems that materialist hedonism dulls all consciousness, whereas spiritual pursuit sharpens every moment of inner and outer perception. Perhaps that's the difference between metaphysical beliefs - the belief in total ultimate pointlessness kills that attentive, open, child-like outlook.

Believing that everything has meaning restores it. If everything means something, everything is worth paying attention to. And if reality is ultimately loving, we need not fear acknowledging all truth, even if that's painful.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Michael and Owen - thanks for the comments!

Anonymous said...

"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."

I haven't tried the attractive silent-movie experiment, yet - or simply rewatched this, in a while, but my memory is of a sense of that quick-wittedness being so in - action and 'play', that while exceptionally alive he was not simply open, or in a certain sense 'unselfconscious' or 'unguarded'. I think the whole Simone de Beauvoir passage illustrates this, richly (for example). He seems very Gandalfian to me! Another memory is, what a wasted opportunity for lots more detailed generous open interviewing of him!

David Llewellyn Dodds

C.W. Bradley said...

In one of his letters, Tolkien mentioned W.H. Auden's review of The Return of the King where Auden says "The difficulty in presenting a complete picture of reality lies in the gulf between the subjectively real, a man's experience of his own existence, and the objectively real, his experience of the lives of others and the world about him. ... I cannot observe them making choices, only the actions they take and, if I know someone well, I can usually predict correctly how he will act in a given situation."

Tolkien disagreed that he could usually predict the behavior of others.

So, interestingly enough - despite his unusually vivid experience of life - J.R.R. Tolkien did not view himself as an "aristocrat of consciousness"; he did not deny that other people might have equally as interesting lives as seen from the inside.

Another reason why he is such a likable and admirable person.

Lauri Stark said...

When Tolkien starts to speak at around 2:45 mark, it reminded me of "Rowley Birkin" in the Fast Show. Old academic gentlemen mumbling in their chairs. Now, Tolkien for sure wasn't so unitelligible but his speech had the comedic effect because of this association.

No disrespect though, the man is my hero.