Sunday 12 June 2011

Is reward more dangerous than punishment?


From The Letters of JRR Tolkien - letter number 131 to Milton Waldman, 1951:

The Downfall [of Numenor] is partly the result of an inner weakness in Men - consequent, if you will, upon the first Fall (unrecorded in theses tales), repented but not finally healed.

Reward on earth is more dangerous for men than punishment!

The Fall is achieved by the cunning of Sauron in exploiting this weakness. Its central theme is (inevitably, I think, in a story of Men) a Ban, or Prohibition.


If it is indeed true that reward on earth is more dangerous for men than punishment, then this is a truth which has been lost from our culture.

I take it that 'reward on earth' means material goods, worldly pleasures.

If it is true, then we are in big trouble, and have been in big trouble for several generations - since for us there is nothing that is real except 'on earth', and indeed for us there is no such thing as 'reward'.


We don't even think of earthly happiness as a reward because in modern culture we don't believe there is anybody or any-thing to do the rewarding; we don't believe in God, we don't believe that the universe cares about what we do.

We regard happiness as simply the natural state of things.

So, if we personally are not happy at this moment, if anybody is unhappy ever, then this can only be because it is someone's fault.

Since happiness is regarded as spontaneous, unhappy people must have been made unhappy - ultimately by other people.


For our culture the contrast with 'reward on earth' is not reward in heaven (we don't believe in heaven), nor even anything to do with reward (we don't believe in rewards), and certainly not in hell (hell is a wicked joke); but the opposite of reward on earth is simply 'misery on earth'.

Modern culture has no higher value than comfort.


We moderns cling to the comforts of life like the devil-worshipping Numenoreans, but not heroically - our elites are anything-but heroic.

Rather than be deprived of the comforts of life, our elite want the 'right' to be killed quickly and painlessly.

So this is what we have come to! A culture focused upon the process of dying - not death as a state (we don't believe in that), but merely on the process of dying.


Ours is a very different state from Numenorean hubris - who determined to conquer the gods and achieve eternal life (because life for them - on their earthly paradise, with their enhanced powers of mind and body - was such delight).

We have killed the gods, hence rendered each and every life meaningless, purposeless, alienated - so we ask 'nothing more' than that life feels pleasant, right up to its end.


Of course, logically, we ought to be killing ourselves sooner rather than later; why put it off? - do it while we can still implement our choices for ourselves.

But somehow, we don't believe our own nihilism to that extent.

Saturday 11 June 2011

How Tolkien could/ should have published The Silmarillion


JRR Tolkien died in 1973 leaving The Silmarillion unfinished; and a book of that name was published just four year later in a version made by Christopher Tolkien, assisted by Guy Gavriel Kay.

The 1977 Silmarillion achieved internal consistency, and consistency with The Lord of the Rings, but at the cost of being (in my opinion) an artistic failure.

It was a massive disappointment to me at the time, and I still prefer never to read it - and I get the feeling that many Tolkien lovers agree with this evaluation.


JRR Tolkien failed to publish the Silmarillion during his lifetime precisely because he could not achieve the twin objectives of artistic success and consistency with the Lord of the Rings.

One or the other had to give way - and with the 1977 Silmarillion it was artistry which gave way...

But since 1977, Christopher Tolkien has acknowledged the problems with the 1977 Silmarillion and has made available a treasure trove of his father's work relevant to the Lord of the Rings, including Unfinished Tales and twelve volumes of The History of Middle Earth.


Within these 13 volumes there are works of superb artistry, but in many literary forms; and varying states of finish and completeness; and defective in consistency with each other and (even more) with The Lord of the Rings.

Yet as Christopher Tolkien states in the introduction to volume one of The Book of Lost Tales:

...beyond the difficulties and the obscurities, what is certain and very evident is that for the begetter of Middle-Earth there was a deep coherence and vital interrelation between all its times, places, and beings, whatever the literary modes, and however protean some parts of the conception might seem when viewed over a long lifetime.


So, in principle, Tolkien might have chosen to publish The Silmarillion as a compendium of various modes of writing, varying in finish and completeness and of various fictional provenance - held together by some kind of editorial apparatus.

This would, I think we can now perceive, have been greatly preferable.

We might have had all the most beautiful and suggestive parts of the History of Middle Earth presented as translations of the fragmentary survivals of a pre-historic age, from widely varying times and by many different hands - some good copies, some misunderstood or garbled, some defectively transcribed by various hands - but each piece having some intrinsic artistic value, providing some valuable extra detail, making some distinctive moral or aesthetic point, or deepening the underlying transcendental reality of the whole.

The editor might have made various suggestions for harmonizing the mutual inconsistencies of these histories with each other and with The Lord of the Rings (which could have been presented as almost entirely authoritative - since that was how the public regarded it, by that time).


This mode of presentation might sound fanciful, but it was (e.g. according to TA Shippey, in Road to Middle Earth) almost exactly how Tolkien envisaged presenting his legendarium to the public when he began it (Tolkien's 'mythology for England' idea, a body of writings which could - in principle - be continued by other hands than his).

And there is evidence that he did at various times actually begin the process of doing this: not least during the 1945-6 era when writing the Notion Club Papers, and then again in the mid 1960s when he created some remarkable, deliberately 'garbled' versions of the Numenor legend called (by Christopher Tolkien) The Drowning of Anadune and published with the Notion Club Papers in volume nine of the History of Middle Earth.


The Drowning of Anadune was an artistically fine piece of work (especially considering it was an unrevised draft), something which could stand alone as a story; envisaged as being written by men long after the fall of Numenor and after the departure of the elves.

It was done in the mid 1960s (that is, after the Lord of the Rings had been published, which had included a 'definitive' outline of the history of Numenor) contains many 'errors' of the type which might plausibly have been expected under such circumstances: most strikingly that the Elves and the Valar are conflated into a single category of immortals.

But the Drowning of Anadune contains much vivid detail, and striking writing - better in overall effect, in my opinion, than the dry annalistic style of the equivalent Akallabeth in the 1977 Silmarillion).


Maybe, sometime, someone will be able to take the artistic option to publishing a version of The Silmarillion: that is to present 'the best of' Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle Earth in a reading version with minimal but helpful (pseudo) editorial apparatus; a version that maintains the fictional history, and sustains the sub-created secondary world.

But it will always be a matter for regret that JRR Tolkien did not do this himself.


Wednesday 8 June 2011

Lowdham and Jeremy's 'research' expedition


From The Notion Club Papers, pages 266-8 (re-paragraphed):


'Well,' said Jeremy, 'we stuck to the west coasts as much as we could, staying by the sea, and walking as near to it as possible, when we did not go by boat. Arry is an able seaman, and you can still get small sailing craft in the West, and sometimes an old sailor to help who can still handle a boat without petrol.

'But after our wreck we did not sail again till we got round to North Devon. We actually crossed by boat from Bideford to South Wales in July, and then we went on to Ireland, right up the west coast of it by stages.

'We took a look at Scotland, but no further north than Mull. There seemed nothing for us there, no feel in the air at all. So we went back to Hibernia.


'The great storm had left more traces there than anywhere, and not only in visible damage. There was a good deal of that, but much less than you would expect, and it did not interest us so much as the effect on the people and the stories that we found going about.

'People in Galway - well, for the matter of that, from Brandon Hill to Slieve League seemed to have been pretty well shaken by it, and were still scared for weeks afterwards. If the wind got up at all, as of course it did from time to time, they huddled indoors; and some would begin to trek inland.

'We both heard many tales of the huge waves "high as hills" coming in on the Black Night. And curiously enough, many of the tale-tellers agreed that the greatest waves were like phantoms, or only half real: "like shadows of mountains of dark black wicked water". Some rolled far inland and yet did little damage before, well, disappearing, melting away.

We were told of one that had rolled clean over the Aran Isles and passed up Galway Bay, and so on like a cloud, drowning the land in a ghostly flood like rippling mist, almost as far as Clonfert.


'And we came across one old man, a queer old fellow whose English was hardly intelligible, on the road not far from Loughrea. He was wild and ragged, but tall and rather impressive. He kept pointing westward, and saying, as far as we could gather: "It was out of the Sea they came, as they came in the days before the days".

'He said that he had seen a tall black ship high on the crest of the great wave, with its masts down and the rags of black and yellow sails flapping on the deck, and great tall men standing on the high poop and wailing, like the ghosts they were; and they were borne far inland, and came, well, not a soul knows where they came.

'We could get no more out of him, and he went on westward and vanished into the twilight, and who he was or where he was going we did not discover either.


'Apart from such tales and rumours we had no real adventures.

'The weather was not too bad generally, and we walked a lot, and slept pretty well. A good many dreams came, especially in Ireland, but they were very slippery; we couldn't catch them. Arry got whole lists of ghost-words, and I had some fleeting pictures, but they seldom fitted together.

'And then, when we thought our time was up, we came to Porlock.


'As we crossed over the Severn Sea earlier in the summer, Arry had looked back, along the coast to the south, at the shores of Somerset, and he had said something that I couldn't catch. It was ancient English, I think, but he didn't know himself: it faded from him almost as soon as he had spoken.

'But I had a sudden feeling that there was something important waiting for us there, and I made up my mind to take him back that way before the end of our journey, if there was time. So I did.


'We arrived in a small boat at Porlock Weir on Saturday, September 13th. We put up at The Ship, up in Porlock itself; but we felt drawn back shorewards, and as soon as we had fixed our rooms we went out and turned westward, going up onto the cliffs and along as far as Culbone and beyond.

'We saw the sun set, dull, hazy, and rather grim, about half past six, and then we turned back for supper.

'The twilight deepened quickly, and I remember that it seemed suddenly to grow very chilly; a cold wind sprang up from the land and blew out westward towards the dying sun; the sea was leaden. We both felt tired and anxious, for no clear reason: we had been feeling rather cheery.

'It was then that Arry turned away from the sea and took my arm, and he said quite clearly, and I heard him and understood him: Uton efstan nu, Treowine! Me ofthyncth thisses windes. Mycel wen is Deniscra manna to niht.

'And that seemed to break my dreams. I began to remember, and piece together a whole lot of things as we walked back to the town; and that night I had a long series of dreams and remembered a good deal of them.'


'Yes,' said Lowdham, 'and something happened to me at that moment, too. I began to see as well as to hear. Treowine, that is Wilfrid Trewyn Jeremy, and I seemed to have got into the same dream together, even before we were asleep.

'The faces in the hotel looked pale and thin, and the walls and furniture only half real: other things and faces were vaguely moving behind them all. We were approaching the climax of some change that had begun last May, when we started to research together.

'Anyway, we went to bed, and we both dreamed; and we woke up and immediately compared notes; and we slept again and woke and did the same. And so it went on for several days, until we were quite exhausted.


'So at last we decided to go home; we made up our minds to come back to Oxford the next day, Thursday.

'That night, Wednesday, September 17th, something happened: the dreams coalesced, took shape, and came into the open, as you might say. It seemed impossible to believe when it was over that years had not slipped by, and that it was still Thursday, September 18th, 1987, and we could actually return here as we had planned.

'I remember staring incredulously round the dining-room, that seemed to have grown strangely solid again, half wondering if it was not some new dream-trick. And we went into the post-office and a bank to make sure of the date!

'Then we crept back here secretly, a week ago, and stayed in retreat until yesterday, conferring and putting together all we had got before we came out of hiding.'


Comment: I love this section of the  Notion Club Papers.

There has been a great storm, caused by the spiritual dream connection established by the Notion Club between the fall of Numenor and modern times. Lowdham and Jeremy stagger out into the great storm, having taken on the personae of characters from Numenor - and disappear for several months.

The above is an account of their activities.


Why do I like it so much? I think the idea of two friends roaming the British Isles seeking... something: some breakthrough: they will know it - only - when they find it. They go to places where they have a hunch they will find it, and monitor their own states, especially their dreams...


It is rather like the children's game of seeking a hidden something, where the clue is 'getting warmer' as you walk towards the hiding place, 'getting colder' as you walk away from it.

I imagine that, if you really got stuck, this would have to be the way forward, the way to proceed.

I have never done this like Lowdham and Jeremy as a geographical quest, but it pretty much describes my personal reading quest when I got stuck mentally, philosophically, in the early 2000s.

But it took more than one summer vacation to find what I blindly sought.  


Saturday 4 June 2011

TCBS – Inklings – Notion Club


Tolkien loved clubs, but the first and most influential was the TCBS (Tea Club, Barrovian Society) formed in 1911 at King Edwards School in Birmingham. The story has been told by John Garth in his superb book – Tolkien and the Great War (TGW), 2003.

There were four core long-term members: Tolkien, Christopher Wiseman, RQ Gilson, Geoffrey Bache Smith (GBS); plus Vincent Trought who died from an illness in 1912. Gilson and Smith both died in the 1914-18 war.

The club began as a purely recreational and convivial group but (TGW p137) ‘Somewhere along the line the TCBS had decided it could change the world (…) Tolkien had told them that they had a ‘world shaking power’ and (…) they all believed it’.

And, of course - as it turned-out, and in ways unanticipated - Tolkien was perfectly correct.


So, how did the TCBS hope to change the world?

‘Smith declared that, through art, the four would have to leave the world better than they found it. Their role would be to drive from life, letters, the stage and society that dabbling in and hankering after the unpleasant sides and incidents in life an nature (…) to re-establish sanity, cleanliness, and the love of real and true beauty in everyone’s breast.’ (page 105).


Gilson: [In a vision…] “I suddenly saw the TCBS in a blaze of light as a great moral reformer (…) England purified of its loathsome insidious disease by the TCBS spirit. It is an enormous task and we shall not see it accomplished in our lifetime.” (page 105)


Tolkien: “the fairies came to teach men song and holiness”. Song and holiness: the fairies had the same method and mission as the TCBS. (page 107).

Tolkien: “What I meant (…) was that the TCBS had been granted some spark of fire – certainly as a body if not singly – that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world; that the TCBS was destined to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down its several lives in this war.”


So, the TCBS was a club devoted to the transcendental virtues of Truth, Beauty and Virtue – perhaps especially Beauty and Virtue. They were to teach song and holiness…

What of Tolkien’s later clubs – The Inklings and the fictional Notion Club? Were they too devoted to song and holiness?

I would say yes. But not explicitly, and not wholly.

The TCBS was refined from a larger and more frivolous club following disillusionment with the way that conversation was becoming superficial, glib, and facetious. It was only the core four who were the idealists.

Among the Inklings there was, really, only Jack Lewis and Tolkien who were idealists in the TCBS sense – and probably Tolkien more than Lewis. For the other members the Inklings were more of a stimulating social group.

But for Tolkien, I sense that the Inklings retained at least a residue of his youthful hopes as epitomized by the TCBS – and that this came through in a more purified form in the Notion Club where there was, again, a core of serious activist idealists surrounded by a larger group of pleasant, convivial but somewhat facetious types.


What of Charles Williams? Was he not part of the core? I tend to think not. Contrary to what some people say, Tolkien was certainly very fond of Williams while Williams was alive (he turned against him more than a decade later – probably as a result of discovering the extent of Williams involvement in occult magic, or perhaps his philanderings).

But Williams was not engaged in the same project as Jack Lewis and Tolkien – the aim to “rekindle an old light in the world”.


At some point both Lewis and Tolkien became aware that they were not going to be able to “re-establish sanity, cleanliness, and the love of real and true beauty in everyone’s breast” – but only in the breasts of a few. Lewis described himself the last of the almost-extinct dinosaurs in his Cambridge University inaugural lecture in the early 1950s, and Tolkien’s valedictory lecture at Oxford a few years later has a similar elegiac tone.

Tragically, England as a nation was not - after all - going to be purified of its loathsome insidious disease by the TCBS spirit.

Fortunately, like the fairies, the works of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien continue to teach many individual men song and holiness - in England and around the world.


Thursday 2 June 2011

The Question of Pengolod - Superb Numenorean Fanfiction


I have no idea whether The Question of Pengolod by the pseudonymous Tyellas is well known among Tolkien fans - but if not it should be:

This is a really good novel (I have read it twice, slowly and with relish) - constantly interesting, frequently deep - and set in Numenor at the time when explorations of Middle Earth were just beginning.

The novel is written so as to fit seamlessly and correctly into the Tolkien Legendarium.

It is almost like finding a lost work by the man himself.

There is a particularly beautiful and moving section concerning the midsummer ritual of Erulaitalë on the mountain Meneltarma. This scene had a significant impact on me, and my perspective on life.


The web site also contains some really excellent essays, such as this:


However, as the author clearly and politely labels - so that it can be avoided by those who wish to avoid it - the web site also contains a fair bit of 'slash' fiction, if you know what that is. This kind of thing will (ahem) not appeal to everyone - to put it mildly.