Monday 26 September 2011

A note on Hobbit government


Hobbits were not Men (or, at least, they were a very distinctive race of Men - long separated) - in particular they were much less status-seeking than men, and less aggressive. A different species naturally has a different form of government.

Despite the apparent 'anarchy' of the Shire at the beginning of Lord of the Rings; overall, I think that Tolkien advocated a religious monarchy, somewhat on the Byzantine model - Gondor under the Kings (before the Stewards) was the nearest thing in the Third Age - and the link between Gondor and Constantinople is explicit in Tolkien's private writings (although the religion in Gondor was extremely vestigial), but Numenor was a more exact parallel.

In other words, Numenor/ Gondor was a monarchy that united spiritual and secular leadership - in which God chose the King, and the King represented God to his people.

Divine sanction was revealed in LotR by Aragorn's 'miracles' of healing - and healing of a type only he could achieve (curing the Black Breath of the Nazgul King).

The authority of the King was absolute, except that he must not go against the will of God (implicitly) - and it just happened to be the King Aragorn's judgment and will (for the good of his subjects) that he left The Shire to govern itself (subject to protection from the King's Men).

A good, kind King would have regarded Hobbits rather as we regard children or mentally-incompetent persons - creating for them a protected environment where they can conduct their own games safely.

But Hobbits could not, and probably should not, be integrated into the world of Men - there could only be some kind of parallel Hobbit society - else they would have been enslaved by bad men.

(I would *guess* - no supporting evidence that I know of - that the Rangers had for centuries been preventing this from happening in Bree, while they were also protecting the Shire Hobbits from invasion).


Wednesday 21 September 2011

Abel Pitt as Adam Fox


I have made only sporadic attempts to 'identify' the list of Notion Club Paper members (listed on pages 159-160) with real life Inklings, and others have already done so.

Indeed the striking thing about the Notion Club is how un-like the Inklings they are: no central Lewis character (no central character at all), lacking a Warnie character, and nobody with the peculiar impact of Charles Williams.

Nonetheless, sometimes I have tried to follow the associations in Tolkien's mind which may have led to the names and brief descriptions on the members page.

That is the fun of it: to 'get' an in-joke, and by such means to understand the workings of Tolkien's mind.


Thus, in the bath this evening, I recognized Notion Club member Abel Pitt as a play on real life Adam Fox: and (from Google) I discover that Jason Fisher has already made this connection.


The fictional biography of Pitt runs:

Dr Abel Pitt. Trinity. Born 1928. Formerly Chaplain of Trinity College; now Bishop of Buckingham. Scholar, occasional poet. 

The obvious clue is that Pitt, like Fox, is an Anglican clergyman, both were scholars and occasional poets - but the real Fox was Dean of Divinity (at Lewis's college of Magdalen), a much more elevated position than Chaplain.

Abel is Adam's son in the Old Testament; but what link is there between Fox and Pitt?


My guess is that coal/ col links Pitt and Fox - a coal-pit is where coal is extracted while a colfox (a fox whose ears and tail are tipped with coal-black) appears in Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale).

The joke would presumably be that Adam Fox was best known for publishing a book length poem called Old King Coel.

If so, this is an interesting example of Tolkien's philological high spirits that he embedded such fancies in his story, and illustrative of the characteristic scholarly foolery of the real life Inklings that he would expect them to get the joke.


Tuesday 20 September 2011

The lesson of Numenor


(Of course there is no single lesson to derive from the Numenor myth; a true myth is not an allegory but a sub-creation with a life of its own.)


The Numenoreans were given peace and plenty, they were freed from bodily suffering and illness, they were given a beautiful and safe place to dwell, their intelligence and skill were enhanced, they had the friendship and help of the high elves.

Their life span was extended about threefold, so they would have enough time to bring their schemes to fruition.

But they remained Men: mortal men. And for all their enhancements they had the faults of men.


What did they do - what did they make of their opportunities?

For a while they were satisfied to live well - enjoying the simple things of human life enriched by disinterested learning, art, and religion - and faithfully accepted death when it was due...

Then they became scientists and technologists, almost matching the high elves in their ingenious devices, the greatest mariners the world had seen, the greatest military power...

for a while.


But soon they got bored, felt constrained, wanted a change, wanted power and to dominate, wanted the worship and subservience of lesser men - wanted all this and nothing less than than this; here, now and forever.

Wanted perfect satisfaction of all their desires: Good and evil. Wanted permanent worldly gratification.


They rejected beauty for power, rejected truth and freedom for propaganda and totalitarian coercion, disbelieved in the virtue of the one God and his Valar - eventually, in a final rapid spiral down into the pit, embraced the worship of 'the dark lord' Morgoth because they believed he could grant them their desires.

Sensing their own degeneration and decline, ignoring argument, refusing repentance,the Numenoreans built a massive armament and assaulted the gods by force, to take what they wanted - to be gods on earth - and were destroyed in a cataclysmic remaking of the world.

In grasping at gratification of all their desires, they embraced destruction: nihilism.


Numenor is modern man, conceptualized as being enhanced in both individual and social capability but failing to use these gifts for spiritual purposes; and instead pursuing more and ever more personal and material goals, never satisfied yet insatiable - grasping at more life, more power, more pleasure; at first with energy and zeal, then with fear and exhaustion, finally with despair and insane self-hatred...


Repentance and renewal was possible for Numenor at any moment up till the last - the gods and the One held back their justice until they had no choice but to act - but repentance was blocked by pride.

The Numenoreans were insane, having embraced insanity by incremental steps, until - I guess, perhaps - the clearing of illusion at the very end. At the very end when utter failure was obvious and imminent, it is likely death and destruction, annihilation, was chosen.

Chosen on the same basis that Denethor (one of the last true Numenoreans) described in his despair:

"...if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated. (...) But in this at least though shalt not defy my will: to rule my own end."

Thus is pride the strongest of sins, thus is damnation chosen at the last.



Saturday 10 September 2011

Humphrey Carpenter and Tolkien


I have been re-reading Humphrey Carpenter's authorized Tolkien biography, which I have read many times before - but not for quite a while.


Although more than 30 years old, Carpenter had access to private papers (such as diaries) which has not been granted to anyone else; and the biography therefore remains essential, indeed definitive.

HC also edited Tolkien's letters (with Christopher Tolkien) - an exceptional job of work; and published the definitive study of The Inklings (very enjoyable, but deeply flawed by permeating assertions of the triviality of the group).

In sum, the Tolkien connection launched Humphrey Carpenter on a successful career as a man of letters, and he naturally became regarded as a Tolkien and Inklings expert (which indeed he was) - yet he never seemed comfortable in this role, and he is most memorable for his carping and sniping remarks than his for his insights or enthusiasm.


Carpenter's greatest achievements in the Tolkien biography are technical: he is completely in command of the information and imposes shape on it, he compresses a lot of facts into a small span, and he does this with an easy and readable style.

And, as it turned out, HC became (more or less) a professional biographer, turning his hand to a wide range of subjects, always producing something factual, well-organized, understandable and readable (and doing so remarkably quickly).


But there are problems.

The main is that Carpenter was no more than lukewarm about Tolkien's work, and as a person was not on Tolkien's wavelength. Tolkien was a reactionary even among reactionaries - but HC was a very mainstream, flexible, left-liberal intellectual pundit - often to be heard on the radio as a presenter or interviewer, comfortable in  the fashionable world of The Arts.


Humphrey Carpenter was highly competent and professional, but he didn't really have anything distinctive to say - or rather his own views were simply those of his class and time, hence come across as shallow and predictable.

(For instance HC wrote Secret Gardens a 'group biography' about the authors of children's stories, terribly disappointing, a book which harped on the note that the characteristic feature of children's book authors was that they never grew up...)

The HC Tolkien biography is therefore always at its weakest when it moves away from facts to their interpretations.


Like many or most modern biographers, Carpenter tries to explain enduring adult traits in terms of childhood events: distinctive childhood events are causally linked with distinctive adult traits.

e.g. HC asserts that the death of Tolkien's mother left JRRT a pessimist. This sounds reasonable, but is nonsense; HC has no way of knowing any such thing, and there is no 'scientific' evidence for a link between maternal death and pessimism and plenty of exceptions (not least CS Lewis).

Then again - due to his being deeply leftist in assumptions - HC tries to explain things which should be assumed.

For instance, Tolkien's delight in all-male company in The Inklings is normal in global and historical terms, and it is the modern tendency for mixed sex groupings at work and in leisure which is a first time experiment.

Mystifyingly, much is made of Tolkien's 'ordinaryness' - and HC tries to excuse this, or explain it. The solution to the mystery is probably that moderns have developed an expectation that 'writers' should have sensational biographies - but it is precisely this 'post-romantic' expectation which is at fault, and there is no reason at all why writers should have vivid lives (and many reasons why they should not).


These faults in Carpenter stem, ultimately, from his insufficient sympathy and liking for Tolkien.

The mammoth labour of working with difficult primary sources, the years of note taking, the difficulties of collation, the relentless focus on a specific individual - all this will swiftly become a hated drudgery - a job of work - unless sustained by genuine interest and affection; a commission done for money and career is just not the same thing at all.


The process of writing a full scale, official biography of somebody whom you do not actually love therefore tends to produce in writers a growing resentment against the biographical subject; which leads to petty (or not so petty) acts of revenge - or at least to using the subject as a means to advance the biographers career (by false emphasis and distortions (rather than trying to write the best possible biography).

The most extreme example is Lawrance Thomson's biography of Robert Frost; and Humphrey Carpenter's Tolkien and Inklings books are very mild by comparison - but there is animus at work, albeit in the background.


The Inklings biography has distorted scholarship for decades because it continually asserts that the Inklings were nothing but a group of Lewis's friends who met for a while. This is contrasted with the straw man (apparently derived from a writer called Charles W Moorman III) of a group of homogeneous and selected people self-consciously and strategically engaged on some activity such as Christian evangelism.

Both alternatives are false. Carpenter's Inklings biography is absurd in its self defined task of writing a book about nothing but the ephemeral and trivial; a book trying to prove there is nothing to write a book about!


Carpenter regards the Inklings primary concerns as either absurd or mistaken, and simply cannot believe that serious people could believe or want what Tolkien, Jack Lewis or Williams believed or wanted - but if he did believe it then he would loathe it.

So HC can therefore only explain-away or excuse or ignore the core features of Tolkien, and of Lewis and the other Inklings.

And after he has done this, there is indeed not much left: just a group of Lewis's friends meeting to entertain each other. Nothing more. Silly to mention it really...


On the other hand, people such as myself recognize and want to understand what was going on in that last generation of strong and distinctively British Christian spirituality and major literary achievement.

Williams remains enigmatic, but Tolkien and Jack Lewis are towering giants that are for many moderns our main link with a lost world of honesty, beauty and virtue; the world of myth; the world of real Christianity.


But for Humphrey Carpenter this was not the case. He was a pleasant and likeable personality; a well adjusted member of the intellectual and arts elite; he was clever, hard-working and efficient; but not a man of great insight, nor of heroic stature, nor of great integrity.

And HC was a man whose motivations, life and ideology were essentially hostile to Tolkien and the other Inklings.

So despite his crucial contributions, Carpenter's position among Tolkien scholars is modest: and the real exemplars are deep and non-mainstream writers with a positive personal affinity with Tolkien, enabling them to attain to major interpretations and insight - Christopher Tolkien, TA Shippey and Verlyn Flieger.


Monday 5 September 2011

Tolkien and Women - a word


The word is 'unspoiled'.


I am immensely grateful for the two volume JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide by Scull and Hammond - however, unsurprisingly perhaps, the authors prefer to judge Tolkien by current standards of political correctness rather than the opposite.

(In this they follow the lead of Humphrey Carpenter in his official biography of 1977; whenever Tolkien's views differ from Carpenter's - Carpenter as representative of modern liberal opinion - the un-argued assumption is that Tolkien is wrong.)


For instance, from Tolkien's letter to his son Michael of 6-8 March 1941, Scull and Hammond quote the section: "Before the young woman knows where she is... she may actually fall in love. Which, for her, an unspoiled natural young woman, means that she wants to become the mother of the young man's children, even if that desire is by no means clear to her or explicit..."

Scull and Hammond then comment: "Today (in the West) few would suggest that all young women desire motherhood and cannot be happy otherwise..."

They refer to 'all' young women and miss-out the word 'unspoiled'.


It is perfectly obvious that Tolkien (along with almost everyone who lived up until 1965, and still at least 80 percent of people alive today) would have regarded the majority of modern young women today as 'spoiled'. And therefore Tolkien is perfectly accurate in his generalization.


Later in the letter Tolkien says: "you may meet in life (as in literature) women who are flighty, or even plain wanton ... women who are too silly to take even love seriously, or are actually so depraved as to enjoy 'conquests', or even enjoy the giving of pain - but these are abnormalities, even though false teaching, bad upbringing, and corrupt fashions may encourage them. Much though modern conditions have changed feminine circumstances, and the detail of what is called propriety, they have not changed natural instinct."


Tolkien is often regarded as being obviously mistaken in his view of women on the evidence that most modern women are unlike the women Tolkien describe.

But Tolkien was not mistaken.

Tolkien simply regarded most modern women as having been spoiled by false teaching, bad upbringing and corrupt fashions.