Monday, 30 December 2019

A Middle Earth Traveller - by John Howe (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Love among the Inklings

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

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

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

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

Finally, there was Charles Williams...

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

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

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

Thursday, 29 August 2019

The human condition and the Riders of Rohan

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

John Fitzgerald on Charles Williams

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

Monday, 29 July 2019

Tom Bombadil and Final Participation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 22 July 2019

Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings - 1978

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 10 June 2019

Master and Mister - The Shire 'class system'?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 7 June 2019

Your story of discovering Tolkien and Lewis

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

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

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

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 19 May 2019

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

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

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

Friday, 17 May 2019

The first enchantment of Lord of the Rings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 13 May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Fitzgerald blogs at Deep Britain and Ireland

Thursday, 9 May 2019

The temporary breakdown in Tolkien's marriage in 1946?

I remember when I first read Humphrey Carpenter's 1977 biography of JRR Tolkien, that it heavily hinted at some unspecified marital problems of a fairly serious type; and I have been waiting for the past several decades to learn about these in more detail.

I now feel that these can be pinpointed to a period in late 1945 to early 1946.

I have located this significant marital disharmony at the exact same that Tolkien seems to have had a 'nervous breakdown', with enforced absence from work; although I am unsure of the direction of causality.

Overall, I suspect that it was Tolkien's nervous breakdown that caused, or exacerbated, the problem to the extent that that he and Edith decided to spend some time apart, while he recovered his state of mind.

There seems to have been a build up of problems with Tolkien speaking about this to Warnie Lewis in December 1945, and period of separation in March-April of 1946 which Tolkien called a rest-cure. This had Christopher and his father living in a pub, while Edith and (presumably) Priscilla went to Bournmouth.

This time apart (variously described as ten days or three weeks) seems to have been helpful; and I don't know of any other periods when separation was needed.

I have always assumed that the nature and chronology of the Tolkien marital problems was known about for sure by some Tolkien scholars who have had access to unpublished material, including Humphrey Carpenter; but had not been made public presumably due to the sensitivities of living people.

Is any reader able to confirm or refute my inferences on this matter? If you would rather not make your response public, then I can be emailed at the address in the sidebar.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Tolkien and reincarnation

Although reincarnation is firmly excluded from his devoutly practised Roman Catholic Christianity, as being Not True; Tolkien seems to have had a spontaneous and intuitive belief in the reality of some version of the very-broadly-defined possibility of deceased souls (or significant aspects of them) returning in different bodies.

This seems the likeliest reason for the repeated occurrence of reincarnation - not only in his fictions, but also in remarks he made in private life.

In his fiction; elves are able to reincarnate if killed - although this is only made clear in posthumously published material; Glorfindel being an example. He was himself killed while killing a Balrog at the fall of Gondolin, and he returns to Middle Earth to dwell with Elrond and perform the role of saving Frodo's life at the Fords of Bruinen.

In his posthumously-published writings (The History of Middle Earth sequence, edited by Christopher Tolkien) we find Tolkien grappling with the logistics of elvish reincarnation. But this seems like a surface concern with the logic of the system - underlying which is Tolkiens intuitive conviction that elves do reincarnate. Since elves are a type of human, both being 'children of Illuvatar' and interbreeding, the implications are obvious. 

Among Dwarves, the primal ancestor Durin is known to have reincarnated seven times - although the  details are unclear, it seems that this really was the soul of Durin reappearing after having died. It seems to be implied that Durin is an unique instance among Dwarves; however it establishes the principle of possibility. 

Arwen is also a sort-of reincarnation of Luthien; who had become a Man and died - although Arwen cannot have been a literal reincarnation for that reason (she must have had a different soul). In this respect Arwen resembles several characters among Men who seem to be 'throwbacks' to earlier ages; by a process that is not reincarnation but shares some aspects. For example, Denethor, Faramir and (especially) Aragorn are 'pure' Numenoreans, that have - by some non-genetic heredity - been born in a later age, separated by many generations from similar forbears.

In Real Life, Tolkien sometimes stated profound convictions of a similar kind in relation to modern Men. In particular, he sometimes expressed a belief that each person has an innate real-language, which may differ from any language he had actually encountered (see scattered refs in JRR Tolkien's Letters, 1981. Edited by H Carpenter and C Tolkien). This conviction is given more detail, while being lightly fictionalised, in the discussions of The Notion Club Papers (published in The History of Middle Earth, Volume 9).

Furthermore, in regard to himself (and presumably validated by an inner, intuitive, sense of knowledge) Tolkien stated that he inherited (but he did not seem to mean 'genetically', but by some other mode of inheritance) some very specific traits from his mother's side of the family (the Suffields). These include a special affinity with the West Midlands of England, and the historical languages of its Old- and Middle-English dialects (see Letters).

(Tolkien seems to have regarded his Tolkien and Suffield ancestors rather analogously to Bilbo's Baggins and Took ancestors - in both cases the surname was misleading, and the maternal line was primary.) 

There are other example; but I think there is enough here to conclude that Tolkien was fascinated by the mysterious, spiritual ways in which personal characteristics were transmitted down generations. And that he probably believed that it was possible - even if it did not happen often, or 'nowadays' - for a soul to be reborn with a new body.

And further, that Tolkien found this to be a fascinating and attractive possibility - so much so, that he risked - and attracted (Letters 153) criticism from his co-religionists by expressing these beliefs.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Tolkien (the movie) - 2019

The new Tolkien 'biopic' movie was rather frustrating. The first half was extremely good; not least in its ambition - there was a real attempt to make the movie about friendship, language, Tolkien's love of Edith and other similarly important things. This was done in a highly creative way, resulting in a film unlike any other I have seen.

The whole atmosphere and style was original and enjoyable; and some of the scenes - especially of the school and the boys' 'club' were really delightful. The plot was only loosely based on reality, but the spirit was really quite authentic.

The makers even manged to illustrate Tolkien's particular way of making and exploring languages in a highly effective and enjoyable fashion.

So the 'set-up' was very good, and I was beginning to hope that this might be a first rate movie.

But in the second part of the movie, it pretty much fell to pieces - notably in a fantasy nightmare Battle of the Somme sequence which was implausible, boring and embarrassing.

But in general, the narrative lost its grip, the plot strayed further and further from reality (including what all Tolkien lovers had been dreading - the obligatory false-fabricated homosexual intrusion; albeit mercifully understated and brief). The ending looked very anachronistic, felt perfunctory and was unsatisfying.

Overall, Tolkien (the movie) was worth watching, and there is plenty of evidence that it was an ambitious and sincere attempt at producing a story loosely-based on Tolkien's early life and most passionate motivations. But it is easier to begin well than to end gratifyingly; and this movie began well and then fizzled-out.

Note: The definitive account of Tolkien's early life in the period covered by the biopic, is Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth - which is undoubtedly one of the very best books ever written about Tolkien.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Fantasy assists in the evolution of Creation - Tolkien speaks, and then obfuscates...

The respected Inklings scholar David Llewellyn Dodds (who I am lucky to have as a regular commenter here!) has noticed an extremely important phrase that Tolkien devised for the second draft (Manuscript B) of his Essay On Fairy Stories - which is cited on page 247 of Tolkien on Fairy Stories edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A Anderson (2008).

I will give the paragraph leading up to the phrase. Note: There is an opened bracket which is not closed:

But the presence of the Greatest does not (in God's Kingdom depress the small. Redeemed Man is still Man. Stories and Fantasies still go on, should go on. The Gospels have not abrogated Legends: they have hallowed them. As they have not abrogated motherhood, or fatherhood, or supper. Horses have been ennobled by Pegasus: and still may be. For all we know, indeed we may fairly guess, in Fantasy we may actually be assisting in the evolution of Creation.

In Fantasy we may actually be assisting in the evolution of Creation.

This is a clear indication that Tolkien regarded the proper use of imagination - specifically in his own (and other people's) 'subcreation' of Fantasy (such as Fairy Stories) to be a participation in the ongoing divine work of creation.

In other words, Tolkien is saying that subcreation is part of Creation; and this implies that subcreation is not something that merely happens inside people's minds or brains; but that subcreation actually changes 'objective reality' in a permanent fashion.

But of course, Manuscript B of the essay On Fairy Stories is 'only' a draft - and the wording was changed for the final text - as published variously in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947), and republished in Tree and Leaf, The Monsters and the Critics and other collections. I will first put the Manuscript B sentence, then the equivalent sentence from the final draft, as given on page 79 of Flieger and Anderson, 2008, ibid:

MS-B: For all we know, indeed we may fairly guess, in Fantasy we may actually be assisting in the evolution of Creation.

FINAL: So great is the bounty with which [Man] has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. 

Having MS-B in front of us for reference, I think we can see that, Tolkien does not necessarily change the substantive meaning of the sentence - but he does make its meaning much less clear.

Indeed, the final and published version looks rather like obfuscation - a deliberate concealment of meaning! Because it is not at all clear what 'the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation' actually means.

'Multiple enrichment' is clear enough, albeit rather imprecise; but 'effoliation' is a word so obscure that it is not listed in my Longman's Dictionary nor even in the two-volume Shorter Oxford Dictionary. According to some sources, it is an archaic term that means something rather like 'defoliation' - the removing or falling-off of leaves from a plant.

However, the full Oxford English Dictionary defines the obsolete verb effoliate as 'to open into leaf' with a citation from the 1671 Anatomy of Plants by Nehemiah Grew (see discussion in comments below). So, this was an archaic term, known to only a handful of lexicographical experts, and discoverable only by those with access to major libraries... so, why would Tolkien use it in these circumstances?

At the very least, we could infer that in placing the word effoliation at the climax of his conclusion, the penultimate sentence of the whole essay; Tolkien was not aiming at being clearly understood! Quite the opposite.

A further significant change is in altering 'Creation' with a capital 'C' to lower-case 'creation'. With the capital, Creation implies divine making, without it... well the situation is ambiguous - it might refer to divine creation, but it might instead refer to any other kind of human creative activity.

On the one hand, to enrich Creation would be to participate with God in his handiwork; but to enrich creation might be merely to add to the stock of human arts and crafts.

Furthermore, the phrase 'assisting in the evolution of Creation' deserves notice. The evolution of creation implies change in Creation through time, and implies that Creation really does change - that God's Creation is significantly different now from the past. And the word 'assisting' suggests that this evolved difference is partly due to a positive contribution from Man.

This apparently implies that Man has (by Fantasy) added-to the goodness of God's Creation. But by dropping 'assisting' and 'evolution' from the final version; these potentially heretical implications are deleted. 

It is up to the reader to interpret what was going on here; but my understanding is that Tolkien believed what he wrote in Manuscript B (as do I!) - and was quite deliberately (by using an extremely obscure term in an unconventional way) throwing-up clouds of concealing dust in the final and published version - presumably an act of self-censorship, perhaps done in order to avoid accusations of unorthodoxy, or even heresy.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

For Tolkien, Subcreation is a type of real - objective - creation

When, in the essay On Fairy Stories, JRR Tolkien discusses Subcreation, which is what he terms the world-building Faerie fantasy he was then engaged upon in Lord of the Rings; he does so in an explicit relationship to the primary creative activity of God.

What an extraordinarily audacious comparison! - especially from a devout and traditionalist Roman Catholic. Just think! Tolkien is comparing his writing to God's creation of... everything. And not just comparing, but asserting that his writing is a subtype of the same general activity.

This suggests that Tolkien did not regard his writing as 'merely' something that could entertain; and even attributing a educational and inspiring effect seems insufficient to account for 'Subcreation' if it is being assumed that this occurs only in the minds of Men and is temporary.

The activities of the Notion Club (written about 1945-6), with their fictionalised Inklings personae seem to confirm that Tolkien - covertly, inexplicitly - likely regarded imaginative, truthful writing as potentially having an objective effect on the real world.

The Notion Club are engaged in a variety of Subcreative activities - writing stories and poems, and engaging in types of meditation and lucid dreaming. And the effect is to create a physical link with the drowning of Numenor - such that the massive storm is 'channeled' through this imaginative-link into the modern Atlantic, where it assaults the West coast of Ireland and Britain, causing damage and flooding even in Oxford.

The question is whether this was 'only' fiction, and 'not really true' from Tolkien's point of view; or whether perhaps he was using fiction to present his deepest beliefs in a way that avoided any suspicion of conflict with the official Roman Catholic theology which he whole-heartedly affirmed.

I am confident of the latter - I think there is a great deal of evidence consistent with Tolkien using the Notion Club Papers to reveal, at a remove, some of his most heartfelt convictions. This also seems confirmed by some of the comments by Tolkien concerning the Lord of the Rings, in letters to readers written after its publication.

Tolkien believed, therefore, that it was possible for fantasy to be truth-full, and for this truth to have 'real world' and objective effects - working via the minds of Men, but not confined to the minds of men.

And this is what he meant by the term Subcreation. 

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Review of The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

I have recently finished my fourth or fifth read-of/ listen-to The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson (published in 2013) - which has taken its place as one of a handful of children's fantasy books that I genuinely love (others in this select group being The Hobbit, Narnia, Wind in the Willows, and The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander).

The Thing about The Rithmatist is that it is technically unfinished; as the book was intended to be the first of a trilogy. And in reality is never can be finished - at least not in the same fresh carefree style of this first volume.

Brandon Sanderson tried to write a second volume, but apparently got blocked by worries/ threats relating to political correctness - he calls them sensitive topics - apparently about writing about a re-imagined history of Native Americans. If there is one thing that absolutely blocks writing in a fresh and carefree way, it is trying to be sensitive about the 'concerns' of evilly-motivated Leftist activists...

So even if the trilogy gets completed in terms of plot and event, it cannot now be done in the style of the first volume (not least due to a seven plus year gap in which Branderson has published a very large number of other works).

Luckily, The Rithmatist works just fine as a stand-alone volume. There is a lot of humour, likeable characters, adventure and peril - set in a 'clockpunk' universe with a highly original yet convincing hard-magic system, based on animated chalk pictures (!).

It has, like Tolkien, a wonderful sense of 'depth' to the story - with all kinds of convincing hints of a deep backstory; including serious religious elements - since, unusually for a modern fantasy - there is a very Christian-like religion at the heart of the story (Sanderson is an active Mormon).

Best of all, The Rithmatist has a Good Heart; it is a warm and humane book - as must be all those books that I really cherish. 

Saturday, 13 April 2019

The name Lowden in the Notion Club Papers - a dissent from John Garth

John Garth has speculated that the name Lowden - of the character in the Notion Club Papers - was derived from a place name near Nottingham, England - as follows:

I happened to be showing [my mother] a map of the area just east of Nottingham. This is the location of the village of Gedling where Tolkien was staying when he wrote ‘The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star’. Rather randomly, my mother read out the name of a neighbouring village, Lowdham. L-O-W-D-H-A-M: the distinctive spelling matches the character’s surname, though no one seems to have made the connection between the two until now. I’m told by Andrew H. Morton, author of the excellent focused study Tolkien’s Gedling 1914, that the village of Lowdham would have been a pleasant spot, just the right distance for a Sunday walk from Gedling. So Lowdham of the Notion Club not only speaks Tolkien’s memory of the 1914 Éarendel discovery, but is named for the immediate area of the poem’s composition. It’s also worth noting that on the fake title page Tolkien drew for ‘The Notion Club Papers’ (Sauron Defeated 154), the date of publication is 2014. Surely here he was thinking consciously, as we are now, of the centenary of Middle-earth, and identifying its beginning as the poem he wrote on 24 September 1914. The light of Éarendel shines throughout the external history of Middle-earth as surely as it shines through the internal history, going from the Two Trees all the way to Frodo’s star glass.

Since this speculation has been repeated elsewhere, I think it is worth recording my dissent from this derivation which I noted in the comments, but which did not elicit a response:

Against this is the fact that the *earliest* spelling was Loudham, with a ‘u’ – emphasizing the idea that he was ‘loud’ (like Dyson). You may be right but I had always (vaguely) assumed that re-spelling Loudham with with a ‘w’ was just adopted to make the name less crudely ‘Dickensian’ (i.e. the novelistic convention by which people’s names reflect their distinguishing characteristic).

My point is that the spelling Lowden came after the spelling Loudham (as mentioned by Christopher Tolkien in the Introduction, page 150) - so that it is the origin of Loudham that needs explaining, not Lowdham. And therefore that the place near Nottingham has nothing to do with the case.

On the other side - and supporting Garth's original argument, as a philologist, it is possible that Tolkien was going by the sound of names rather than by the spelling; and on that basis there is 'no difference' between Lowdham and Loudham.

However, I think it is unlikely and that Loudham was named as a joke on the (original) 'loudness' of voice and personality that was a defining characteristic of Hugo Dyson - the Inkling who Loudham was intended to reference, in the earliest drafts. But that as the Notion Club character developed and became deeper and more significant (and quite different from Dyson), the 'corniness' (or over-obviousness) of such a name became inappropriate, and was 'disguised' by respelling it.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Why is Paul Kocher's Master of Middle Earth (from 1972) 'still' one of the best books about Tolkien's work?

Paul Kocher's Master of Middle Earth is one of the handful of very best works of Tolkien scholarship - 'yet' it is by far the earliest; published in 1972 during Tolkien's life, and before The Silmarillion (1977), before the biography, letters, chronology and the many posthumous volumes edited by Christopher Tolkien.

This is an interesting fact; because it demonstrates something of the nature of genuinely great literary criticism. It clearly shows that the limiting factor on the quality of literary criticism is the person writing it - his ability and motivations. This turns out to be more important than the person's access to 'material'; and it explains why the 'age of the internet' and a massive increase in the accessibility of information has done Nothing Whatsoever to expand the quantity of high-quality literary scholarship.

From the evidence of this book (I have not yet read any of his other writings) Kocher was clearly an exceptional man - intelligent, thoughtful, and deep. Furthermore, he writes from a shared Christian perspective, he shares Tolkien's assumptions more fully - I think - than any other of the major Tolkien scholars and critics. 

Master of Middle Earth has a density of insights that is outstanding, yet unobtrusive, elegant. He seems never to be merely summarising, there is nothing perfunctory - nothing for the sake of appearances. Everything said seems to have a reason and importance. Thus a slim paperback of 200 pages manages to cover a great deal of ground.

And like all the best critical writing, it is worth reading for its own sake. The chapter on Cosmic Order is one of the best discussions of providence and free will that I have seen anywhere; and indirectly a clarification of the deep and fatal flaw of our modern materialist society that rejects creation and tries (but fails) to live coherently in an accidental and purposeless universe. The chapter on Aragorn has all kinds of wisdom about the nature of goodness, heroism and authority - as well as being a wonderful account of the character and his development.

This book was written immediately after Kocher retired from a distinguished academic career, mostly at Stanford; and seems to have been written for pure love, and from a very personal engagement.

Freed from working responsibilities; he is unselfconscious about ignoring literary convention and consensus. So that Kocher greatly admires Tolkien the poet; and attends closely to his three longer, free-standing works - Imran, the Homecoming of Boerhtnoth..., and the Lay of Aotrou and Itroun (still hardly known). And on the other hand, he doesn't much like The Hobbit; and is mostly critical of its faults - deploring the way that it gets linked with the Lord of the Rings.

The permanent value of Kocher's book reminded me why the very best of old scholarship, biography and criticism - Samuel Johnson or ST Coleridge on Shakespeare, for instance - is never superseded by the most recent and comprehensive work.

The older writers are, nearly always, wiser, more intelligent, and better motivated - and write for the amateur enthusiast with general interests. Whereas the moderns are nearly-all lesser individuals; writing for professional advancement; seeking to impress appointment and promotions committees; and wanting approval from the peer review cartels that award prizes and honours. 

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Noel Appleby - the average, archetypal hobbit

Two of my favourite scenes from the movie version of Lord of the Rings involve the actor Noel Appleby (credited as Everard Proudfoot) playing an un-named hobbit whose archetypal character frames the action of the film between the arrival of Gandalf and the return of the four hero hobbits after the quest.

Watch from 3:40:


This is really excellent directing and acting; because these little scenes carry a great deal of weight.

Due to the story cuts involved in making the screenplay - these brief visual statements were needed to illustrate what the average hobbit thought about wizards, magic and the like at the beginning.

And, at the end, Mr Appleby had to show - quickly and effectively - that life in The Shire had not been at all affected by the War of the Ring. (In the movie version, not the book). And that Frodo, Pippin, Merry and Sam were regarded as just a bunch of prodigals returned; whose clothes and manners all-too-obviously showed our Everyman hobbit that the 'heroes' had developed much too high an opinion of themselves.

As Tolkien himself said - and embodied in the text - most hobbits would be pretty uninteresting to live among. Sam was the closest of the four adventurers to the average type; but his character was raised and ennobled by his fascination with elves and wonders - and his aspiration for 'higher things'.

Take that away - and you get Everard of the Proudfoots... or should I say Proud-feet?

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Secret cult of the White Hand (Tolkien-themed surreal-satire)

A simple household candle... or is it?

Few have yet noticed the sinister resurgence of those who revere the name of Saruman.

I became aware of the problem some years ago when a shiny black pillar was erected near to my place of work, and I realised it was a coded reference (a 'dog whistle' as it were) to the Tower of Orthanc. All easily deniable, of course - indeed the pillar was topped by a signpost - yet the dark sympathies were obvious to the sensitive eye, trained by years of being the unacknowledged victim of microaggressions.

We all know that Saruman was the Worst Person Ever; but to hear these cultists, he was a man 'ahead of his time', with 'some good ideas'. 'At least he was aiming in the right direction', they will say - pleading that the man was 'misunderstood'.

That, at least, is as far as they will go in public; but in private it's another matter. There is, indeed a covert Neo-Orthanc party; meeting in shady corners of the internet and seedy corners of our universities. Here, in what they imagine to be 'private', some of the more extremist (or perhaps just more honest?) will exchange their real feelings about their hero.

For these fanatics, Saruman's only 'fault' was that he happened to be on the losing side; and was defeated by an unsavoury colation of tree giants and reactionaries. But so far as his visionary politics goes? Well, that they believe was wholly A Good Thing.

They will cite his advanced ideas on destroying the 'Nordic' races, such as the Rider of Rohan, and replacing them with his mixed Master Race of the Urak Hai - who blended (according to these misguided but dangerous cultists) 'the best' qualities of Dunlander Men and Orcs. Hence the symbolism of the severed White Hand and the cloak of 'many colours'...

If you have been unaware of all this, then I am sorry to disturb your peace of mind; but it is necessary to know what is going-on if we are to resist, and hopefully, defeat it.

Once you realise, you will see the signs everywhere, crudely disguised - not only (albeit most explicitly) white-ish hands in various positions and poses; but black shiny long things, things with shifting colours, endless visual references to their hero's hat (pointy triangular things), or his soothing seductive voice (soothing, seductive things)...

The reason I raise this is that me and some mates have started to organise riots and beatings of people we suppose to be in some way connected with the Neo-Orthanc tendency. We have a cool name - Antisar - and there seems to be no shortage of money to pay for our costumes, bike lock batons and coach rides to city centres.

Some foreign guy with a funny accent always foots the bill and is very encouraging - although the single red eye in the centre of his head is disconcerting until you get used to it.

Don't worry about getting into trouble: we all wear masks or headscarves (I told you it was cool!) and nobody ever makes us take them off.

Nor will you be ignored; the mass media are always there before we are, and they are always on our side and can relied upon to conceal any (rare) instances when brothers or sisters get over-enthusiastic or indiscriminate in a good cause.

Remember: when it comes to Neo-Orthancs, they are everywhere and they are evil; and anyone who hates them is therefore, by definition, Good.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Fantasy is a literary genre

From about fortyfive years of experience, since I read Lord of the Rings (LotR), I agree with Tolkien's opinion (offered in On Fairy Stories) that fantasy is essentially a literary form.

After I read LotR, I tried to repeat or extend the experience by seeking in other art forms. At that time, there was not much material (that I could access, anyway) but I eagerly looked at such posters and pictures I could discover - including those by Tolkien himself.

But I found almost all of them unsatisfactory; and of those I did like (such as the work of Pauline Baynes) I would not say that they added to my experience of the books, or increased its depth - it was more a matter of taking the edge off my hunger. Tolkien's own pictures are often very good, but not in the sense of amplifying what he had done in the books. None of them looked like the real places (or people).

I have always found the musical side unsatisfactory too. My search began with medieval and folk music; and while I did develop a taste for these forms, I could never find anything which I felt fitted into the world of LotR - nothing that could have been perfomed in that world. Since then this has not changed. I never find that any musical setting genuinely fits the world of the book. Although I really enjoy Howard Shore's music from the movies (and own CDs of both the soundtrack and orchestral suite) - this is quite separate from my experience of the books. Certainly I cannot imagine Shore's music actually being sung or played in Middle Earth. The same applies to the way that songs are performed in audiobooks, and audio dramatisations adapting the novels; they may be good, but never 'fit'.

As for the matter of visual dramatic adaptation itself - again it is different. When Middle Earth is visually depicted in a movie or drama, the primary and specific fantasy element is closed-off rather than deepened. The LotR movies are about as good as movies can be - but there is a great gulf between fantasy in movies, and literary fantasy.

Literary fantasy is capable of much greater depth and active-power than movies - because reading a fantasy is (potentially) a collaboration, while watching an movie is (mostly) a passive and immersive experience. Now, clearly many people read novels as substitute movies; and want to be 'drawn in' and pulled along'; they call a desirable novel a 'page turner' and are desperate to reach the end and know what happened.

But the best novels, and the best fantasy, is much more than that; which is why we always want to re-read the best work, and engage with it/ think about it rather than 'lose ourselves' in it. I am, of course, aware that there are many/ most people who never re-read - but there are many/ most people who simply 'consume' LotR; and at most have fantasies 'about' it, or 'based-on' it - rather than getting from it the special quality that fantasy offers. And there are people who have that kind of 'exploitative' relationship to all books.

The kind of ideal, active engagement I am talking of is almost sure to be personal and idiosyncratic; it can't be manufactured, and it must be based on a spontaneous affinity between the reader and the work (and its author). There are likely to be only a few books that evoke this kind of reading, for most readers - and the great bulk of our reading is on a lower level, and for lower motives.

But if we do have this relationship with a book - and I suppose it would be the ideal kind of relationship which both author and reader seek - then we perceive the basic unsatisfactoriness of other art forms, when it comes to the genre of fantasy.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Charles Williams and the avoidance of Glastonbury

I am currently reading a book called The Avalonians by Patrick Benham (2nd edition 2006); which is about the people involved in the spiritual re-awakening of Glastonbury in the late 19th, early 20th century.

On particular series of events kept reminding me of Charles Williams's novel, War in Heaven (written 1926, published 1930) - which is about the Holy Grail (spelled Graal) turning-up in England and being pursued by various characters.

I shall try to summarise what happened in real life. In 1898 an English doctor, John Goodchild, bought a strange glass cup in Italy, and was guided by visionary experiences to conceal it in a well in a field Glastonbury. His hope was that it would be found by three maidens and would initiate a rebirth of the feminine aspect of Christianity.

in 1906, the cup was indeed discovered following a vision revealing its whereabouts experienced by Wellesley Tudor Pole. He sent two maidens (two sisters surnamed Allen) to seek it, they found it - and the cup ended up in Clifton, Bristol where it was venerated by a number of people, in a brief, priestess-led, Christian sect.

Tudor Pole regarded the cup as having been possessed by Jesus, and as a kind of physical version of the spiritual grail. He tried to get the cup evaluated and dated by various experts; and in 1907 the matter was taken in hand by Archdeacon Wilberforce (reminding me of the Archdeacon protagonist in War in Heaven), who invited all kinds of nobles and intellectuals to his house to view the cup and try to ascertain its provenance - the cup was later passed around several experts (also including mediums and occultists) with rather contradictory and inconclusive results.

This was supposed to happen in secrecy, and the process was by invitation only; but one of the participants seems to have 'gone to the newspapers' (specifically the Daily Express) and stories claiming some version of  'the Holy Grail has been found in Glastonbury' were investigated and splashed all over the English press in the summer of 1907.

At this time Charles Williams was 20 years old, working in the Methodist Book Room in London, commuting from his home in St Albans; where there was a large scale historical pageant at which he got to know his future wife Florence. Did Williams hear this press coverage of the (or at least 'a') Holy Grail being discovered in Glastonbury, and apparently taken seriously by some contemporary experts (plus some mystics) as being suitably ancient? And did he put some press-derived version of this story into memory, to be adapted and reused some nine years later when composing the early version of War in Heaven?

This led me to notice a further striking thing, an all-but omission from Charles William's published work on the Grail, and indeed on historical Christianity; which is that he seems to have no interest in Glastonbury.

This omission seems striking to me, since the many both Christian and Arthurian legends and histories that twine so luxuriantly around Glastonbury seem - on the face of it - to be exactly the kind of thing that would fascinate Charles Williams. The 'myth' that Joseph of Arimathea brought the Grail to Glastonbury was very well known; and at times many people regarded it as the resting place of Arthur and Guenevere.

Furthermore Williams seems not to have had interest in (or contact with) the Christian esotericists who were during Williams's life associated with the place (e.g. Wellesley Tudor Pole, Dion Fortune, and composer Rutland Boughton who wrote an opera The Birth of Arthur).

In short, Williams's neglect or avoidance of the subject of Glastonbury strikes me as More Than A Coincidence - but I have no explanation for it.

Any suggestions?


Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Galadriel and Eowyn Tolkien's exceptional women, and why they 'work' for him (but seldom for other authors)

There are two 'dominant' women characters in Lord of the Rings, Galadriel and Eowyn. Three generations of readers testify to the fact that they 'work' narratively - and in this respect they stand-apart from the many thousands of dominant women characters that have become such a tiresome cliche in recent decades (in fiction, on TV, at the movies - and in 'news' stories) who strike the reader as contrived, incoherent, preachy - mostly just plain Unconvincing.

Aside from Tolkien's far greater skill, the main reason why Galadriel and Eowyn work and so many others fail is that G & E are both presented as exceptional.

Galadriel is second only to Elrond as the most dominating person among the free people's of Earth; and she even has a kind of priority over Elrond in being older, having been born in Valinor - and therefore having the greatest personal 'magical' power (and from being his mother-in-law!).

However, Galadriel is presented as exceptional. Within the Lord of the Rings this exceptional nature is implied by her being the only women of the White Council, and among a handful of the most beautiful women of all time. Further, in the Unfinished Tales and Silmarillion it is emphasised that she was even more exceptional; in being a woman of 'Amazonian' stature and strength - similar in combat ability to all but the very greatest elf warriors.

But Tolkien never asserts that this makes Galadriel typical of 'women' - on the contrary she is an unique phenomenon, and marked out as such from birth. She is the female complement to Feanor - both High Elves who attained god-like stature due to their attributes.

By contrast, modern authors generally imply or actually assert that exceptional women such as Galadriel are numerous - either in actuality or in potential; or would be numerous, if not oppressed; or should be normal if women were properly motivated - by which they mean pursuing success in the public realm rather than in the family context.

Galadriel is indeed married to Celeborn, and had a daughter. This merits analysis. Celeborn is officially the ruler of Lothlorien (one of only two large elf kingdoms, the other being Mirkwood) - and described (in LotR) as the greatest of the elves of middle earth; because he is a Sindarin elf, born in middle earth - but as such of lesser wisdom and authority than the High Elves. He is a member of the White Council, along with other Sindar such as Thranduil of Mirkwood (who he outranks in age and experience, and because of his wife), and Cirdan the shipwright - but while Galadriel defers to Celeborn in public, she is clearly a personage of greater stature than her husband.

Anyway, Galadriel is married and a mother - and the greatest female power in history; and there is no other like her among the Children of Illuvatar.

What about Eowyn? She is a warrior, who does the great feat of slaying the Nazgul's flying beast; then (after Merry has made her sword effectual) the Witch King and Chief of the Nine; one of the greatest heroic feats in the entire history of Middle Earth. Clearly, an exceptional woman - and she is an ordinary mortal Man, and her success is in the realm of pure fighting, which is a masculine domain.

However, it is neither implied nor claimed that Eowyn is the match of the male Riders of Rohan in strength or swordcraft - as she could not have been; and her great feat was not the product of her being a great warrior, but the product of amazing courage fortified by her love for Theoden; a feat perfomed to protect her uncle and adoptive father.

Courage, yes indeed; but also a desperate, reck-less disregard of her own life. Because - like many and probably most real-life exceptional women, women of genius - Eowyn is (until she loves Faramir) somewhat crazy. So she is Not presented as a 'role model' or template for how 'women in general' ought-to live - indeed when healed in body and spirit; Eowyn quite explicitly abandons her life as shield maiden, and man-in-disguise.

So, what can we learn? In Tolkien as in real life, there are exceptional women of high attainment in the public realm - and also that such women are exceptional, they are rare. Furthermore, when they are mortal Men (not semi-divine elves), such women are often somewhat crazy, extremely odd - and recognised as such.

So there are real warrior queens, like the English national heroine Boudica (Boadicea); and like Boudica they are often damaged, crazed persons. There are also rare and exceptional women who are truly great political leaders - like Queen Elizabeth I - but she was also an extremely strange person, and by no means a model for women-in-general.

There are many women genuises, especially in literature; but again they are rare and (almost always) somewhat crazy, in one way or another.

(Don't take my word; try for yourself - First make a list of the best-ever women literary authors - novelists, essayists and poets (there aren't any great women playwrights); and then evaluate them biographically for craziness, chaos, weirdness, extreme eccentricity etc.)

So Tolkien's ability to include powerful and exceptional women who accomplish greatly in traditional realms of masculine attainment - and to do so absolutely convincingly in narrative terms; is simply that Tolkien knows such women exist, but he never tries to pretend that they are anything but exceptional.

Tolkien does not try to pretend that such women ever have been, are, could be, or should be, anything other than very uncommon.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

The problem of professional fantasy writers - the author-editor system

The greatest fantasy fiction has been written by 'amateur' authors such as Kenneth Grahame, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien; and therefore the fact that the fantasy publishing genre has grown to become a significant money-making activity has set a ceiling on quality, even as it has massively amplified the quality.

Admittedly that quality ceiling among professional authors is a high one; yet it does exclude the truly great work. The exception which proves this rule is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, the only first-rate work of fantasy in recent decades - and one that was written by a first time author over a period of a decade.

Harry Potter may also be regarded as first rate at its best, albeit the quality is uneven and the series sags in the middle; and JK Rowling became professional, famous and wealthy during the writing. I do not think it is known for sure how much of the superb last volume (Deathly Hallows) was composed early in the gestation of the series - but even if DH was mostly conceptualised from the start, actually producing it under such unprecedented intensity of publicity and expectation was an astonishing achievement.

There are some obvious reasons why professional fantasy does not scale the highest heights. One is the volume of production needed to make a living as a writer: the continuous pressure of time. Another is that there is never very much work of the first rank, so that when a genre expands it almost inevitably does so by the increase in somewhat lower quality work.

But a significant fact is the publication system of author-editor collaboration - which the fantasy genre inherited from science fiction (and, I think, other high volume genres - and magazines such as the New Yorker). The author prepares a first draft, which he then 'turns-over to a professional editor, who then works on the text with the author; detecting errors, pointing-out weaknesses and omissions, making suggestions about structure - often at a very fine level of detail. This process may be repeated several times.

This author-editor system acts as a quality control mechanism and also increases 'efficiency' by allowing the author to concentrate on what he does best - which is seldom the kind of detailed and prolonged critical examination of his own creative work.

By contrast, the old system had no editor (although sometimes the author's agent would perfom some of the activities of a modern editor) - the author interacted with the publisher directly, and the 'quality control' was done by the author (and whatever method the author chose) and was official only at the level of the typesetting and proof-reading (where, for example, spelling was checked, and sometimes altered to the publishers standard form).

Grahame's Wind in the Willows is inconsistent to the level of gross incoherence - a modern editor would never have allowed such a hodge-podge to be published; yet the book is unsurpassed in children's literature. CS Lewis's fictions were mostly second draft and published unchanged. The Narnia Chronicles are riddled with errors - but that does not stop them from being first rate. Tolkien did his own editing for Lord of the Rings, which he hated doing - and greatly damaged his efficiency; but he did a superb job with his own work, and of course he produced one of the great books of all time.

As a strong generalisation; to be a professional author, a writer must be efficient. But mandatory efficiency is the enemy of human accomplishment at the very highest level.

Quantity comes at the cost of quality - but in a complex fashion. The lowest quality is filtered-out, average quality may rise, and the limit on quality is detectable only by the exclusion of genius.

Any system that increases efficiency will prevent first-rate accomplishment. It is as simple as that; and confirmation can be found in most areas of creative human endeavour - including science, medicine, teaching and scholarship.

Note: However, music may be an exception - at least up to the advent of Romanticism. Most of the greatest classical composers up to Beethoven were professionals, were highly productive - and they were efficient. I'm not sure why - but music often is an exception to other rules of creativity; perhaps because it depends so much upon sheer technical skill.