Saturday 8 January 2011

Curing the 'vulgarization' of England - from Smith of Wootton Major


As I infer and guess, the basic situation in The Notion Club Papers is that of Smith of Wooton Major; as explained by Tolkien in the essay which describes the back-story and is published in the (marvellous!) extended edition of 2005 by Verlyn Flieger.

The basic situation is, therefore, a 'vulgarized' Oxford, England, Western Civilization - a society out-of-contact with Faery: in more general terms, a society out-of-contact with myth.

Hence vulgar, coarsened, materialistic; without depth, meaning or purpose

The action of the Notion Club throughout the novel, I speculate, would have been aimed at restoring this contact between Faery and England; and indeed I speculate that the climax of the novel would have been precisely this re-establishment of contact.


From Tolkien's essay about SoWM:

"The crafts of Wootton, on which their present prosperity was based, actually owed their fame and commercial success in the beginning to the special skill and 'artistic' quality which contact with Faery had given to them.

"But the commercial success had for some time begun to have effect. The village had become comfortable and self-satisfied. The artistic quality of its products was declining, and to some extent also their traditional manual skill, though this had not yet affected their market

"But the village was in a danger which it did not see: a dwindling of its prosperity, which would not be maintained for ever by 'good name' and established connexions with eastern customers, nor by mere industry and business acumen. If the thread between the villagers and Faery was broken it would go back to its squalid beginnings.

"The vulgarization of Wootton is indicated by Nokes. He is obviously a somewhat extreme case, but clearly represents an attitude fast spreading in the village and growing in weight.

"The festivals are becoming, or have already become, mere occasions for eating and drinking. Songs, tales music dancing no longer play a part - at least they are not provided for (as is the cooking and catering) out of public funds, and if they take place at all it is in family parties, and especially in the entertainment of children. (...)

"History and legend and above all any tales touching on 'faery', have become regarded as children's stuff, patronizingly tolerated for the amusement of the very young.

"This situation is evidently one that has aroused the concern of Faery. Why? It is plainly shown that Faery is a vast world in its own right, that does not depend for its existence upon Men, and which is not primarily nor indeed principally concerned with Men.

"The relationship must therefore be one of love: the Elven Folk, the chief and ruling inhabitants of Faery, have an ultimate kinship with Men and have a permanent love for them in general.

"Though they are not bound by any moral obligation to assist Men, and do not need their help (except in human affairs), they do from time to time try to assist them, avert evil from them and have relations with them, especially through certain men and women whom they find suitable.

"They, the Elvenfolk are thus 'beneficent' with regard to Men, and are not wholly alien, though many things and creatures in Faery itself are alien to Men and even actively hostile. Their good will is seen mainly in attempting to keep or restore relationships between the two worlds, since the Elves (and still some Men) realize that this love of Faery is essential to the full and proper human development.

"The love of Faery is the love of love: a relationship towards all things, animate and inanimate, which includes love and respect, and removes or modifies the spirit of possession and domination. Without it even plain 'Utility' will in fact become less useful; or will turn to ruthlessness and lead only to mere power, ultimately destructive.

"It is probable that the world of Faery could not exist without our world, and is affected by the events in it — the reverse being also true. The 'health' of both is affected by state of the other.

"Men have not the power to assist the Elvenfolk in the ordering and defence of their realm; but the Elves have the power (subject to finding co-operation from within) to assist in the protection of our world, especially in the attempt to re-direct Men when their development tends to the defacing or destruction of their world.

"The Elves may thus have also an enlightened self-interest in human affairs." (...)



As scholars and writers, the Notion Club would have been aware of the necessity for human contact with Faery (i.e. with myth) in order that their work (as well as their lives) may be profound, imaginative and ennobled - and rise above mere 'utility'.

The means by which the club would restore contact with myth would, I assume, be the usual ones employed by Tolkien and of which hints exist in the incomplete and surviving NCP text: by a quest, by a hero who is an 'elf friend', and by a 'messenger' between Faery and the mundane world (certainly a human messenger, and probably an elven messenger as well).


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hm. An interesting theory, though the way the papers were constructed seems to indicate that any such connection would have been private, within the club.

It might be better to say that the Papers show men rediscovering the mythic past through dreams. It's not so much about discovering something IN the world as something that used to be there.