Saturday 24 March 2012

The 'meaning of life' according to Tolkien


From Smith of Wootton Major - extended edition edited by Verlyn Flieger - Suggestions for the ending of the story page 81.

This is Tolkien reflecting on his draft of SoWM

I have edited this slightly for punctuation:


When the Smith comes home after surrendering the star, should any more be said about what became of him?

In [an] earlier draft it is said that he could go back to Fayery, for the mark of the star that had been on his brow was still visible to the folk of Fayery; but he could not go deep in, nor ever visit any new place or see any new thing that he had not already seen. 

(This has significance, of course; a time comes for writers and artists, when invention and 'vision' cease and they can only reflect on what they have seen and learned.) 

But that is not the whole point of the tale. Which includes sacrifice, and the handing on, with trust and without keeping a hand on things, of power and vision to the next generation. 

Also another point is that the visions of imagination are not enough; they are only pictures and imaginations. 

When wisdom comes, the mind - though enriched by imagination, having learned or seen distantly truths only perceptible in this way - must prepare to leave the world of Men and of Fayery.


Note: This passage brings-out the deep unity of Christian thought between C.S. Lewis and Tolkien -  the idea of the Good things of mortal life as being a matter of 'pictures and imaginations' that serve as distant and evanescent glimpses of eternal truths; which must be loved and learned-from yet renounced, let-go-of. The wise man must love the Good things of this world, yet consent voluntarily to leave this world; yet not from weariness or despair but in hope that the soul may attain utter fulfilment and satisfaction in the next. This hope comes from revelation, but is properly directed and strengthened by the pictures and imaginations of sub-creation.



Wurmbrand said...

I understand your need, as expressed at the 26 March 2012 entry for the Miscellany, to withdraw from media.

I hope this withdrawal will not be so absolute as to end this blog. I'm not aware of any other blog that ponders Tolkien as a "staretz" in this way. There are blogs that quote Tolkien in support of their Christian beliefs, and that is fine, but none (that I know of) that seem persistently to encourage close attention to his writings and private letters, "table talk," etc.

Moreover, much of the writing on Tolkien approaches him while carrying baggage of unsound thinkers such as Joseph Campbell.

It is probably in part due to the influence of this blog that I now read a little of Tolkien or Lewis etc. every day. The habit has become so ingrained that I probably would have difficulty falling asleep if I neglected it. I see that as a good thing. (Of course this is not in place of reading the Bible, the traditional version of the Book of Common Prayer, etc.)

Bruce Charlton said...

Dale - thanks very much.

No - I am not intending to change anything about this blog.

But the NCPs is a very much smaller scale thing than the Miscellany. NCPs has only about 20-30 page views per day; most postings don't get any comments, when comments do arrive they are often 'late' and therefore there is no need for me to check my e-mails 8 times a day (or whatever) as I must do to keep on top of the Miscellany comments.

Indeed, aside from you, Troels and just a few more, there are no regular commenters.

This blog was intended to stimulate interest in the NCPs - however it has completely and utterly failed to do this - and I now believe the reason is that the NCPs are simply not interesting to anybody except a handful of strange folk such as myself who return again and again to them.

Today I have finished read Tolkien's WP Ker lecture on Sir Gawain - this has been a real treat because I had not read it before; I thought that it was the same text as the introduction to JRRT's translation of Gawain, whereas it is an entirely different piece.

As a result I have been looking at my two Middle English editions of Gawain, with Tolkien's version open as well - checking some key stanzas with much pleasure and profit!

My other 'on going' JRRT activity is listening to the whole LotR read-out by Rob Inglis (audio book) - that has been going on for the past 8 weeks or so, and I am up-to the meeting between Frod, Sam and Faramir.

Absolutley wonderful to hear it read so so carefully and without any skipping possible - and absorb it at such a measured pace - a few pages a day...

Wurmbrand said...

With regard to this present blog entry, I am reminded of the compendium of the Elder Zosima's life and teaching in Book 6 of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.

Some of the material is presented as being the staretz's parting reflections prior to his repose. He speaks of the importance of sacred memories. It's almost as if he says that childhood can and should have memories of a near-Faerian perception of the world and wandering therein. He speaks of humble things -- a priest reading Bible stories to the children, of experience of the natural world, etc. Readers today will be struck by how exceptional such experiences are for the modern child cocooned in technology and separated from his father and mother and often from animals too.

Zosima isn't saying that parents should seek consciously to invent, construct, such memories for their children, in the sense of designing something, but just that the child's memories of wholesome, "ordinary" things can nourish him throughout his life and perhaps help him to hold back from some bad actions.

One thinks of an English literary tradition that encompasses everything from Traherne's meditations to Dickens's evocations in David Copperfield, etc. I think there is some of this also in Sergei Aksakov's Days of Childhood, etc.

It seems to me that one of the truths that may come across to children, and older readers too, from the traditional fairy tales and also from Smith of Wootton Major, is the paradoxical way in which the natural world is, and is not, home for man.

On the one hand it answers so wondrously well to the needs of the child's soul, especially when it is shared, sometimes, with a parent who knows how to be quiet and listen. This world is stricken, through man's fall, but it still however dimly reflects or echoes its original beauty.

On the other hand, it is not our final home. The child will come to feel his apartness from it.

Smith's Faerian wanderings, I'm trying to say, are something like the imaginative experience that a child may have of the natural world if he is allowed entrance therein.

A wise parent will know that there are times when it is appropriate to impart some "natural history" knowledge to the child, e.g. maybe saying something about how hibernation works, but the focus will not be unduly "scientific." I should think that much of what the parent should impart would be names -- of wild flowers, constellations, trees, birds. Let us remember that Tolkien said his favorite book, in his teen years, was a field guide to British wildflowers!