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 √Čarendel 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 √Čarendel 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 √Čarendel 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.