Thursday 10 December 2015

Tolkien's Tree - a collage

Made from pieces of bark retrieved from the remains of 'Tolkien's Tree' - his favourite Pinus nigra found in Oxford's Botanical Gardens,

and damaged in a storm of 2014, such that it had to be cut down.

And so I paid homage...

Saturday 28 November 2015

What kind of elf would you wish to have been? What kind would you actually have been?

There are many types of elf:

And many specific elves mentioned by Tolkien:

Just for fun: 

1. Which type of elf would you most wish to have been - and/ or which specific elf do you most admire?

2. Which type of elf do you think you actually would have been - if this is different - and/ or which specific elf do you most resemble?

Note added, my answer:

It is, of course, tempting to want to be one of the highest elves - the Noldor - like Galdriel, of Glorfindel, because of the super powers. But somehow I never have.

Most of the time I wanted most to be a Silvan elf - probably one of the anonymous elves of Lothlorien; for whom life was simply a cycle of days filled with simple pleasures such as living in tress surrounded by beauties of nature, poems, singing, food and drink.

But in reality I think I would have been one of the Sindar - a Grey Elf - neither as wise and mighty as the High Elves, nor as simple and care-free as a Wood Elf - but in-between; knowing only middle earth, but with a latent irresistible desire to migrate to the undying lands that could be triggered by a mere sign of the sea.

I might therefore actually been one of the minor Sindar courtiers of the Elven King in Mirkwood - living undergound (which I would not have liked) enlivened by hunting and fighting in a forest under constant threat from dark things; and waiting... 

Monday 16 November 2015

The Lord of the Rings is not a Trilogy

Obviously it isn't 

It is just a novel (usually) published in three volumes: a three volume novel. 


1. It is nearly-always called a trilogy.

2. It led to (nearly) all of the fantasy novels since Tolkien being called - but not actually being - trilogies.

That's it, really...

Saturday 7 November 2015

The nature of Charles Williams's failure to repent adultery

“I might almost have been capable of repenting, but as it would lead nowhere, I decided not to.” (p. 247, note 784). According to Grevel Lindop (p. 246) this has something to do with Phyllis Jones (by then, Mrs. Somervaille), and the two preceding sentences are “I was provoked by a temptation to wish that nothing had ever happened. And that surprised me.”

Cited by Davil Llewellyn Dodds from from The Third Inkling by Grevel Lindop, quoting a letter of 15 February 1935 to Anne Bradby (later, Mrs. Ridler) in the comments to a post at The Oddest Inkling blog.

This passage seems significant to me as evidence of a refusal to repent - but the argument that Williams failed to repent does not hinge on it.

My understanding of repentance is that it is not so much about feelings (and certainly not about feeling guilty or ashamed - although these feelings may be helpful), and certainly it has nothing to do with Christians sinning any less than other Men, nor is it about repentance being an effective way of improving behaviour - as it is about acknowledging God's law as Good, and admitting the failure to live by it.

In CW's case it would be saying that what he was doing with Phyllis (and the others) was adultery and wrong.

Even though the extramarital infatuation helped him write poetry, and even if he was not capable of stopping himself from continuing in his adultery, and even if repentance “would lead nowhere” in terms of behavioural change – Williams ought to have repented, he must be clear that adultery is against God's moral scheme.

Williams probably could not gather the strength to break his addiction, just as many drug addicts cannot - but that is not the Christian problem: humans are weak, and Christ did not come to save perfect Men but to save sinners (including far worse sinners than CW - whose transgressions were trivial in the scheme of things that includes murder, rape, theft etc).

When Williams says that repentance is futile because it “would lead nowhere” he is making a profoundly wrong statement – because repentance is not about worldly effectiveness; but about eternal effectiveness – repentance is nothing less than the difference between salvation and damnation: for a Christian repentance is the most important thing of all (CS Lewis certainly understood this).

So Williams certainly could and should have refrained from defending adulterous infatuation - even if in a hard-to-understand and roundabout way - in his writings on Romantic Theology including The Figure of Beatrice.

It is this considered written defence of his own personal sins that I would regard as Williams's most grave failure to repent; because he did not need to write it, indeed he went to considerable efforts to write and publicize it; and the fact that he nonetheless did write it meant that he was not merely sinning (everybody does that nearly all of the time) but was promoting sin in public discourse, by denying it was sin and instead saying it was a virtue - that is, by failing to repent.

See also my review of The Third Inkling

Thursday 29 October 2015

Charles Williams on TV - a review of Lewis

Saturday 24 October 2015

Charles Williams's underlying personal misery and despair as a 'reductio ad absurdum' of his theological convictions

In her Introduction to The Image of the City, a collection of essays by Charles Williams, Anne Ridler states that 'At the centre of Williams's teaching lies this dogma, that the whole universe is to be known as good.'

She then goes on to describe how Williams lived in a state of underlying misery - that he said he would have declined the gift of life, if offered; that he had a death-wish, that he did not hope for eternal life but would prefer everlasting unconsciousness, that the world lived in a web of distress, that the life of young people was hell... and so on,

The question is how Charles Williams went from a core conviction that everything is good, to a life of such total distress.

I think the answer is quite simple, which is that Charles Williams really believed, really lived by, the idea that reality was outside time, that all times were simultaneous - that what applied now applied forevermore. He was a profound Platonist - in believing that time, change, decay and corruption were superficial - the reality was time-less, unchanging.

Many, many Christians have said such things throughout history - but few have really believed them: Charles Williams was one of the few - and he was intelligent enough to find the implications inescapable and deeply contradictory.

If Life is good - and this is Life - and real Life is eternally itself... then this must also be good - and it seems terrible.

In my understanding, Charles Williams was a victim of the poison of what might be termed Classical Metaphysics in Christianity: the kind which says that life IS good - always has been and always will be. Most people are too emotionally shallow or too lacking in philosophical rigour to feel what Charles Williams felt as the implications of mainstream, standard, Christian theology.

Williams could never find reassurance, or relief from this state; because he was correct - the implications flowed from the assumptions; and the implications were tragic. The life and resurrection of Christ was, by this account, tragic - as revealed in Williams's most heart-felt essay The Cross where he concludes that the thing, the only thing, which makes the underlying reality of a good universe to be bearable, is that God also and voluntarily submitted to its justice and suffered its agonies when he became Christ.

If that is not despair - it is a mere - unconvincing - whisker away.

And how often, how usual, has been this tragic interpretation of Christianity the prevailing emotion among the deepest thinkers?

And what a contrast this has been to the un-philosophical and optimistic 'Christianity' of Christ himself, of countless 'simple' Christians, and the 'good news' of the gospels.

The difference is, I think, quite simple - and it is related to time. the simple, commonsense Christian - the non-Platonist, the non-philosopher - naturally regards Christianity as being about a future state of good - not an eternal good, in which all times are and will be equal.

So 'simple' Christianity is about God as an aim, not about good as an actuality; and Christian hope has been based on faith that the state of good will happen, not that good has already happened.

Sophisticated Christian theology superficially seems to be positive and optimistic in its claims of Heaven being here-and-now-and-always because of the un-reality of time - but its philosophical implications are dark, miserable and pessimistic (and difficult/ impossible to square with the good news of Christ) - in that ultimately things can never be better than now. And if, as is the case, we cannot see this now, then there is no reason to assume things can ever become better.

This is a false distortion of the plain Christian message of hope based on the optimistic conviction that time is real. Because time is real - that is linear, sequential; things that seem bad now may really be bad (we don't need to assume that bad-seeming is 'in reality' good), but bad things really can get better than they are now, and the Christian faith is that we know by revelation  that things really will get better.

In sum, Charles Williams is a better, a more rigorous, a more honest philosopher than most Christian theologians - and he lived and experienced the consequences of his theology. Since these consequences were so dark and despairing, the life of Charles Williams in relation to his theology makes a reductio ad absurdum of Classical Theology: i.e. the consequences of Classical Theology demonstrate its erroneous assumptions.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Charles William's Romantic Theology: valid innovation or sophisticated rationalization?

I regard Charles Williams's idea of Romantic Theology/ Positive theology/ via affirmativa as true, important and fruitful: his most significant theological work.

But in the detailed working-out (post Phyllis Jones) Williams seems to become bogged-down, and fatally to confuse the idea; by trying to justify his own failure to live properly by something which is actually quite simple.

In other words, it seems clear to me that a Christian Romantic Theology can only be about aiming for monogamous, faithful, creative marriage - and Williams's hyper-complex/ obscure attempt in The Figure of Beatrice to work into it the possibility or even necessity for later extra-marital infatuation/s, was never remotely coherent intellectually speaking - while being all-too-obviously self-serving in light of biographical revelations.

I was re-reading yesterday the strange early pages of Descent of the Dove (1939) when Williams talks about an experiment or 'method' (which sound like Tantric sex) that he asserts was part of early Christianity; of 'using' (using is exactly what it sounds like) sexual stimulation - e.g. a man sleeping alongside, embracing, some attractive young woman, short of consummation - in order deliberately to arouse lustful emotional energies, which may then be redirected into religious devoutness...

This practice is described as 'dangerous with a kind of heavenly daring' and its rejection by The Church is described in terms of pandering to the 'weaker brethren'; and instead preaching the safe, implicitly dull and mediocre path of 'monogamy and meekness'.

Well, we now realize that Williams had been doing exactly this kind of thing (but with a more sado-masochistic flavour) for many years, and this continued until he died. However, Williams's usage was explicitly directed towards writing more or better poetry, rather than to activate Christian zeal - which difference, I would have thought, eliminated all historical defensibility from his actual practice.

Or was Williams conveniently deceiving himself by conflating his poetry writing with Christianity - or was this equation indeed reasonable?

Did Williams regard himself as one of the 'weaker brethren' who tried but failed to use a hazardous but powerful religious practice in his own life; someone who unfortunately succumbed to the dangers of this activity? The passages in Descent of the Dove seem far too positive about the practice for this to be the case.

Or did Williams in contrast regard himself as a successful practitioner of a valid Tantric Christian path?

It certainly seems to be the latter - since he showed no signs of repenting the Phyllis Jones affair or any of the other more causal and mechanical versions of it; but instead was publicising, advocating and justifying these practices (or, something with methodological similarities - if different purposes).

I infer Williams regarded his multiple and planned experiences of 'Tantric' sex as positive, perhaps necessary; and as something which other people ought also to be adopting...

Yet for all these tangled deceptions and self-deceptions; I believe that Williams's Christian insights cannot (or at least should not) merely be dismissed - not when so strongly endorsed by authoritative figures including the most important Anglican lay thinkers and writers of his era -  CS Lewis, TS Eliot and Dorothy L Sayers (also WH Auden) - all of whom were friends and knew Williams and his work in great depth.

Such dilemmas abound in studying Charles Williams, and when trying to achieve an overview of the man and his work!

Monday 19 October 2015

Mini-review of The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams

When I came to read Charles William's novels, I was expecting to like best The Greater Trumps - partly because I had a sort of fascination with the idea of Tarot cards; no doubt dating from a self-consciously 'trendy' teenage children's series which had one of the very best theme original theme songs I know - together with some shockingly dated graphics...

But, sadly, I have not enjoyed this novel - despite several attempts to read it. I have just finished the latest - which was the first time I have succeeded in getting through the whole thing, in order, without skipping.

It is always difficult to be accurate about why I don't like a novel - but the short answer is that I do not find much to like here. I find the style pretentious, sloppy and turgid (some paragraphs of purple description extend over more than two pages), the plot is unconvincing and rather dull, and I dislike each and every one of the characters!

Furthermore, I think the book's depiction of 'Good', notably in the character of Sybil, but also Nancy, is, actually, bad - Sybil is not only smug and tedious, but she is not what I would regard as a good person at all! Her 'forgiveness' is so quick and glib that it seems much more like frivolous insensibility - she seems more like a Pollyanna-robot than a Saint.

I particularly dislike the insistent and recurrent symbolism of 'hands' which comes out on almost every page (or so it seems).

It was an effort to finish the book, and even more of an effort to keep track of what was going-on.

My rating? Two stars, from a maximum of five.

Friday 16 October 2015

Romantic theology: Charles Williams versus the Mormons (Mormons win!)

I first came across the idea of a Positive (as well as a Negative) Christian theology in the writings of Charles Williams - he also called it Romantic Theology and the Via Affirmativa or the path of affirmation of images. The general idea was that Christian theology had typically been a path of negation, denial, asceticism, celibacy - but that there was also a (neglected) path focused on romantic love, art and poetry, richness of imagery etc. Williams regarded these as equal alternatives.

But it is hard to see how they could be equal, since they are so different - alternatives, yes, but in real life one or other of such vastly different paths is surely to be preferred; one or another must become the focus of societal aspiration and organization - one cannot aim both at being a celibate, solitary ascetic hermit or monk; and also at being a husband and father engaged with 'the world'.

Charles Williams knew (so far as I can find) nothing about Mormonism - and he would likely have found it to be boring or unpleasant if he had known anything - but Mormonism has for a long time been advocating and practicing something pretty close to Positive Theology: a Christian 'way' focused on marriage, family and engagement (and with no tradition of monasticism or the eremitic (reclusive) life.

Fundamentally I believe there are very different aspects of human psychology at work behind the positive and negative paths. The negative path aims at the relief of suffering, and the positive path at making life more fulfilling.

To feel the desire for the Christian negative path seems to me a desire to escape the sufferings of this world and live, instead, in a state of static bliss - absorbed in a permanent communion with God (who is, in essence, an abstract entity about which nothing positive may be asserted): doing nothing, simply being.

In the negative path, Love is seen as a sameness, a fusion of wills, the loss of barriers and all strangeness.

And there is no sex - indeed there are no sexes: maleness and femaleness are lost.

To desire the positive path is to wish that the best things in life be amplified and sustained - it also stems from the concern that static bliss would (sooner or later) become boring; and the conviction that the only thing which is not, ultimately, boring is actual, real, other-persons.

The dyadic goal of Mormon salvation can be seen in this light - the ultimate bliss is not the state of an individual soul in permanent communion with God, it is a man and woman in a permanent and divine Loving relationship at the centre of a network of loving relationships including God the Father and Jesus Christ (who are solid persons).

The difference between this version of the positive ideal and the negative ideal is profound - because in a permanent and eternal dyadic and sexual relationship between husband and wife, there would not be a desire for fusion and sameness but rather a delight in fundamental and complementary difference.

Sexual difference, and sexuality, both entail difference - a you and a me: not communion nor fusion nor loss of self nor consciousness. Instead a perpetual delight that 'we' are not the same, but 'fit together'. There needs to be the perpetual possibility of being delight-fully surprised; which means that there can never be full communion. Indeed if communion is full, it renders void the separateness and necessity of the dyad.

If a husband and wife become one, they stop being husband and wife.

There is indeed a desire for surprise, for open-ended possibilities. Once static bliss is put aside as a goal; it becomes essential that eternal life be interesting, rewarding, creative and (in some sense) progressive or evolutionary - changing, growing, developing without end-point or end. Otherwise - if life were static, or merely cyclical - it would become predictable and boring, and we would prefer a state of blissful loss of self.

It seems to me that Heaven must either be mostly like either the Negative or Positive ideal and that God would have a preference between these goals for Man - but I do not see why Heaven would have to be exclusively the one or the other.

So I see the Positive Way as primary, and God's first wish for us, and the basis upon which eternal life and Heaven are organized. But I see the Negative Way as an option available (on Earth and in Heaven) to those who - more than anything - wish to escape from suffering and hope to lose-them-selves in blissful communion with the divine.

Charles Williams descriptions of Positive Theology are at least difficult to understand, and probably fundamentally incoherent - this is because Positive Theology is metaphysically Pluralist - or at least implies this; while Charles Williams was very much a Monist who sought always to reduce apparent dichotomies (e.g. Good and evil) to unity. 

If relationship is an ultimate goal and possibility, then there must be at least two irreducible entities to have the relationship - because if Man and Woman can be reduced to one, and Man with God can be reduced to one, then reality is One; and Positive Theology merely an indirect and off-route means to the same end as that which Negative Theology aims-at directly: viz oneness. 

So Mormons - as pluralists - are the true Romantic theologians; and Charles Williams was fundamentally and ineradicably confused!

Wednesday 7 October 2015

The not-so-reactionary political views of the Inklings - Robert Havard ('Humphrey') was somewhat left wing

The new biography of Charles Williams by Grevel Lindop stated that Williams was broadly left wing in his attitudes - having discovered evidence to support this interpretation. Lindop also stated that Williams was the only left wing Inkling.

But, I realized that although we know that Tolkien and the Lewis brothers were right wing, and indeed very reactionary - I knew nothing of the political views of the other 'core Inkling' of the Charles Williams (1939-45) era - Robert Havard, often nicknamed 'Humphrey'.

Since I am fortunate enough to have e-mail contact with two of Robert Havard's sons - John and Mark (aka Colin), I decided to investigate this - and discovered that while Havard would certainly be regarded as 'right wing' by modern standards - which have moved a long way leftwards; Havard did have some left wing views, and voted for the Labour Party in the 1945 General Election.

Quotations from e-mails dated 5 October 2015. 

John Havard: I would have said that father was basically rather right wing by modern standards.  He had strong views about “back street” medical practices and educated all us children privately, though I do remember him complaining that we all came out somewhat snobbish, and we were all rather surprised to hear that he had voted for Atlee and the Labour party in 1947.

[Editorial correction - 1947 should be 1945. This was the most radical left wing government in British history - nationalizing all the major industries and services, as well as introducing the National Health Service, expanding state education, and creating a wide range of state social security and pensions schemes.]

He did not often talk about party politics and I do not remember ever hearing how he voted in subsequent elections.

My question: "Did your Father adhere to the traditional Roman Catholic values in relation to sexuality? e.g. about abortion, divorce, extra-marital sex, homosexuality?"

John Havard: I would have said “yes” to all your questions, as was typical in the 50s and later. Mark explained [see below] that his support for Lewis’s civil marriage to a divorcee was originally a convenience to enable Joy Davidman to stay in the UK.

Mark Havard: I know he voted for Labour in 1945 (getting Churchill out of office) because I ran into a certain amount of flack about it from the other boys at Gilling Castle at the time.
I know he welcomed the NHS [National Health Service, 1946-7] but became somewhat disillusioned by its bureaucracy toward the time he retired.

When I was up at Oxford between 1956 and 1959 at St Benet's Hall, he and I would take a walk together and have tea once a week. We discussed a lot of things but I don't have a clear memory of discussing politics very much.

In religious matters he was much more liberal than Tolkien -- remember when Lewis had his first, registrar, marriage to Joy Davidman,  -- he got our father to be a witness and he agreed because he saw it as a an act of friendship and a purely civil and legal not a religious matter. He told me Tolkien's conscience would never have allowed him to do that.

My general impression is that both as a scientist and a human being, he was somewhat left of centre and never had the same animus against the modern world, unions, technology, etc. that Tolkien and Lewis did. I have no idea how he voted in any elections after 1945, but I am fairly certain he was never an across the board Tory. I suspect he took the issues of the day election-by-election and voted accordingly.

I believe that this new information on both Charles Williams and Robert Havard's political views  puts a different perspective on the Inklings than has previously been the case.
No doubt because of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis being the most famous and best documented of the Inklings, and their well known conservative views and dislike of modernity, it has been usual (especially from the time of Humphrey Carpenter's group biography The Inklings in 1979) to regard the Inklings as a 'reactionary' group; and this is how I myself have regarded them.

But this is probably an error. If the core Inklings of the heyday of 1939-45 were Jack and Warnie Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams and Robert Havard - then two out of the five were broadly 'liberal' left wing in their politics. 

There was indeed a 3:2 right wing/ conservative majority, but it was hardly overwhelming. Indeed, the range of political views among the Inklings seems to be about as broad as the range of Christian views.

If we want to regard the Inklings as the last great reactionary writing group in England - as I have sometimes suggested - then we now need to be clearer that we are only really talking about Jack Lewis and Tolkien - probably supported by Warnie; which is not really much of a 'group', when you think about it!

Saturday 3 October 2015

Review of Charles Williams: the third Inkling by Grevel Lindop

Grevel Lindop. Charles Williams: the third Inkling. Oxford University Press, 2015. pp xx, 493.

I should say upfront that this is an excellent biography, taking its place as the premier resource on Williams and providing a great deal of new material - including everything I personally most wanted to know about Williams but had previously been unable to discover.

It is well-written, clear, memorable and consistently gripping - such that I read the whole thing, cover to cover, in about thirty hours of nearly solid attention (of course I needed to eat and sleep!)

I have been reading Charles Williams (known as CW), off and on, since 1987 - including everything of a biographical nature that I could lay my hands on. He is one of the most difficult personalities I have ever encountered - and I am still not sure what I think about him.

But this new biography has, at last, answered all my significant questions - I feel that now, for the first time, I have been given everything I need to form a judgement both on the man and his work. But this will probably take a while - because there is a great deal to absorb, assimilate and evaluate. 

One of the first problems about Williams is - why should we be interested in him at all?

I, like most people, came to him via my interest in JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis- specifically Humphrey Carpenter's group biography The Inklings (1979). The problem is that none of CW's work is really a masterpiece - or, at least, not generally regarded as such; and all of the best work is difficult (for modern readers).

Lindop states that his reason for being interested in CW is that he regards Williams as a great poet on the basis of his last two collections Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. But I do not: I find TtL to be over-edited and artificially-contrived, and while I find TRotSS to be more fluent and effective, I don't much like it.

My reason for interest in CW is his status as a Christian - he was, indeed, one of the four main Christians of the mid-twentieth century Anglican revival; which was the most recent significant Christian revival in England (the others were CS Lewis, TS Eliot and Dorothy L Sayers, who were all friends and very strong admirers of Williams). So, specifically I have the highest regard for some of the novels and his theology.

Williams was also quite a successful playwright on Christian themes - however, he is never performed nowadays (What never? Well... hardly ever), and I personally cannot get much from reading his plays.  He was a critic of good repute - did a great mass of hack work as a biographer, anthologist, writer of introductions and journalistic reviews... Much of this is very good, but not enough to make him stand-out. 

So, I think Williams will survive either as a Christian writer, or as a poet. This biography is essentially of Williams the poet - since Lindop is neither a Christian nor especially interested by Christian theology.

And whether Williams is regarded as primarily a poet or a Christian turns-out to make a very big difference - because Lindop reveals clearly and unambiguously, for the first time, the extent to which Christianity and poetry were at war in Williams's life - and in particular, the extent to which Christianity was sacrificed to poetry.

I may as well get to the point straight away. While I knew that Williams was in love with Phyllis Jones, and that he had a warped kind of interaction with Lois Lang-Sims, and that there were other rather vague rumours about ritual magical-sadism with others - the sheer extent of Williams's activities along these lines was never before clear to me. I did not realize - for example - that CW had had intense love relationships with both his main biographers Anne Ridler and Alice Mary Hadfield.

Lindop quotes extensively from the correspondence between CW and Phyllis Jones, and I never before realized how sexual was the relationship. Indeed, in my interpretation, it was primarily sexual - albeit the sex was not consummated. The relationship indeed seems deeply maladaptive - in that it was a case of mutual dependency of a very common sort: both were mostly unhappy and frequently wretched in the relationship, but neither could find the willpower to break away.

It was essentially addictive - Williams was addicted to the sexual frisson and seductive teasings of the young women - she gave him energy; Phyllis was addicted to the attention and worship of the older, clever, creative man - he made her feel special.

In other words, despite the hundreds of thousands of words of soaring rhetoric, philosophy and theology which Williams associated-with and attributed-to his relationship with Phyllis - the relationship seems to be fundamentally pathological, a delusion, a self-deception, a fake.

(Phyllis comes across as very much the histrionic kind of woman; who is easily bored, has rapid and wide moods swings from ecstasy to abject misery and back, craves attention from men, and uses flirtation and display to get it; who enjoys psychodrama, and especially being competed-for and 'fought over' by multiple men, whom she takes-up and drops, but never lets-go-of - she strings them along for years with promises and hopes.)

To summarize the problem for those of us who most value Charles Williams the Christian: it seems that he strategically used the role of confidante and spiritual adviser for young women to 'groom' them into gratifying his desire for ritualistic petty sadism - he did this in order to become sexually excited, and then he used this excitement to write poetry. This was done, or attempted, time and again with multiple women.

In general, it seems the sadism was, as I said, petty - involving stuff like slapping with pencils and rulers on the palms, back, or buttocks; or some pinching. There was quite a bit of master-slave type play acting, including by letter and telephone; and an authoritarian/ bullying element in his advising and teaching.

In general, it seems that the young women did not much object, and most remained on good terms with him, often very good terms. Of course they may be others we don't know of - indeed I would expect that there would have been many young women who must have been appalled, frightened or disgusted at the turn of conversation from this previously kind and charming and spiritual man; who immediately fled, and left no trace on the records.

Nonetheless, whatever the young women felt personally about being sexually used as poetry-stimulants; there is no doubt that this kind of behaviour was dishonest, manipulative and categorically un-Christian.

The evidence presented by Lindop is consistent with Williams's assertion that he engaged in this ritual sadism with attractive young women mainly in order to write poetry.

And for whatever reason, it worked - it achieved its goal. (Williams thought of it as a magical process, to do with the generation and transformation of sexual into creative energies).

So this was the poetry-Christianity trade-off to which I referred. In order to write poetry, or better poetry; Williams deliberately, strategically, repeatedly behaved in an un-Christian manner.

Lindop also provides new evidence about Williams's Christianity - and I see links between Williams theology and his long-term affair with Phyllis Jones and also the felt-need for ritual sadism.

For the fact is that Williams did not repent these activities - indeed he specifically states at one point that he did not repent the extra-marital affair with Phyllis - that he indeed regarded repentance of this sin as a temptation; one that he had been strong enough to resist.

I had not noticed before, but Williams's theology is one which really has little or no role for repentance, because he is always trying to discern the unity of all experience; and the ways in which apparent evil is actually good.

He did not find this a consoling doctrine, however, because he had very little sense of the reality of an afterlife or Heaven. He often said that all times were simultaneous - but this seemed to mean that suffering (as well as joy) was permanent and inescapable, and there was no realistic hope of things ever being better than they are now.

In sum - there is very little 'good news' about Williams's Christianity - it is bleak, it is a whisker away from utter despair. This, I think, is because he had painted himself into a corner with some of his theological axioms and assumptions which were not necessary.

In a sense, I am surprised that Williams did not suspect that this might mean he had misunderstood Christianity, in some fundamental way - but then, there have been innumerable Christians who have lost sight of the fact that it was a joyful message.

Aside, I tend to think that repentance is almost the essence of Christianity, and this means that there really are things that need to be repented - in other words, sins. For any traditional Christian there was a great deal about Williams's sexual life that was very obviously sinful and needed to be repented - and his refusal to repent it amounts to a denial of its sinfulness, and an implicit assertion of its virtuousness - which amounts to a far worse sin than the original transgression.

I now need to go back and re-read the theology in light of this possibility; the possibility, I mean, that Williams may have been denying the necessity, and perhaps even the value, of repentance. 

So, the revelations of this biography are, I think, potentially very significant for an evaluation of Charles Williams as both a public Christian teacher and as a theologian.

I had not previously properly noticed that Christianity only came to prominence late in Williams's work - from 1936 and the highly successful production of his play Cranmer at the Canterbury festival.

However, back in 1924, Williams had written but not published a book called Romantic Theology in which he first put forward an idea he had been discussing for years - that in some way marriage, or sexual relationships, might be a path to God - a Christian 'way'.

This eventually reached a mature expression in his later work as the Via Affirmativa, Positive theology, or the way of affirmation of images. I regard this as an important and valuable insight - but not as original as Williams thought (or as Lindop believes), since it was a major doctrine of Joseph Smith and had already been put into practice in the Mormon nation-then-state of Deseret/ Utah for many decades.

Also, the working-out of this idea in the draft of Romantic Theology (posthumously published) - in terms of the supposed analogy between the stages of marriage and the events of Christ's life - is (at least to me) massively un-convincing!

But - whatever its imperfections, this has certainly been, for many people - myself included, one of Williams's valuable contributions to Christian theory.

Williams's other distinctive theories included the doctrines of exchange and substitution - and these were formalized in the organization he founded called the Order (or Company) of the Co-Inherence.

Lindop provides us with rich new detail about this, including that Williams was not reluctant to found this group (as had been previously stated), but on the contrary very keen; and he took an active role in organizing the network of substitutions by which one person would take on the burdens of another.

Indeed, this is another rather disillusioning story. The original idea of substitution was one of voluntary and mutual decision - in which person A would offer to take on a worry or fear from person B, and person B would need to agree.

But after a while Williams was telling, or indeed literally ordering, people to take on burdens of others whom they had not met, and knew nothing about; and often the person getting the assistance would not even know about it.

Williams became like a puppet master arranging an intricate web of (claimed) supernatural assistance, with the participants often unaware of what was going-on.

In sum, I found that this biography challenged my view of Williams in multiple ways.

Williams had remarkable qualities as a man. Many regarded him as something like a saint - or if not, then someone of exceptional spiritual insight, and capable of providing great help to many people. All this was what I first heard about Williams, and it remains true.

But most of what I have learned in this detailed biography was negative about Williams. So the more I know about him, the worse Williams seems! How to put this all together, and come to some coherent and also comprehensive overview is not going to be easy - and I am far from accomplishing it!

So, although it was somewhat dismaying to hear of so many horrible new things about CW in such a concentrated burst; I am very grateful to Grevel Lindop for providing the materials which I will need in my task of discernment and synthesis.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

Review of: The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams 1930-1935, edited by Jared Lobdell (2003)

The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams 1930-1935, edited by Jared Lobdell.McFarland & Company: Jefferson NC, USA & London. 2003. pp 213

As its editor candidly admits, this volume is a strange hybrid, or sandwich - nonetheless it made a significant addition to my understanding one of the most enigmatic of writers and men that I have encountered.  In an important respect, because of this book, I have had to revise my opinion on a very important aspect of Williams.

The meat of the sandwich runs from pages 23-117 and is a complete run of Charles Williams's reviews of detective novels as published in various newspapers - these tend to be about 3-400 words in length and cover 3-5 different books.

Around this filling there is a valuable and necessary introductory essay on Williams in relation to detective fiction, and a closing essay (which I could not really engage with, due to my ignorance and indifference) on the 'Golden Age' of detective fiction (this being the name given to the era when Williams was reviewing) - followed by an appendix giving background on the authors and books which Williams reviewed (and an index!).

So the book's ideal reader would be someone who is very interested both by Charles Williams and also by detective fiction. Unfortunately, I am only half of this ideal reader, having very little interest in or knowledge of detective fiction - although I am not averse to it, and enjoyed finding out a bit more.  

For me this books' importance is simply that these detective fiction reviews are very well written. Well written, I mean, from a purely technical point of view. Williams had very little space to write, and an enormous amount to say - and there is, of course, a limit on how 'good' such journalism can be.

Clearly, reviewing a book - itself typically light entertainment - in the space of a few sentences, and trying not to give away any 'spoilers' about the plots ... well, we cannot expect Williams to plumb the depths of the human condition. And he doesn't - but Williams does maintain a high standard of interest, a light and witty tone; and as a bonus Williams sometimes insinuates  a pregnant aphoristic morsel or two, hinting at vistas beyond, for those who are alert and interested.

But the main point about these pieces is that Williams task was very difficult and he did it very well: the writing is clear, accessible, entertaining.

So now - thanks to this volume - the question is answered that so many of us who have struggled and struggled with trying to piece together an understanding of Williams's obscure and often constipated novels, essays, plays, theology and his late poetry ... could Charles Williams write, or not? 

I had previously said No. That Williams was obscure because he could not write clearly. But.. I WAS WRONG.

Williams could write clearly, he was technically adept: therefore his obscurity is wilful, deliberate, intended - presumably part of what he was trying to do.

This pleases me! Because it would be awful to struggle with the sometimes-extreme obscurity only discover that nothing lay behind it but technical ineptitude.

Because of this book, now we know for sure that Williams was able to write in a 'normal', highly professional, fashion. We can therefore struggle with his obscurities, confident that (however irritating) it is part of his style; there is some reason for it - he has hidden some-thing, and we are meant to work hard to find it... presumably because hard work is necessary for us really to understand what it is that he wants us to understand.   

Friday 19 June 2015

What was an Inklings meeting like? - Depictions of The Inklings

1. An Inklings meeting was the (usually) Thursday evening/ night meeting in CS ('Jack') Lewis's rooms; to read work in progress, criticize it, and have conversations arising from this. These true Inklings meetings probably finished in October 1949.

The Inklings was not the Tuesday (later Monday) lunchtime gatherings at various pubs in Oxford, again focused on Jack Lewis, which happened especially at the 'Bird and Baby' (Eagle and Child), later the Lamb and Flag. These were attended by The Inklings, but also a wideish range of others - and they were just for general, mostly light, conversation. These informal, convivial, conversational meetings continued until Jack Lewis's death in 1963.   

2. There is no direct transcript of an Inklings evening, featuring the actual people who attended. The nearest to this are a few, paragraph length, summary entries in Warnie Lewis's diary - a selection from which is published in Brothers and Friends: the diaries of Major Warren Hamilton Lewis.

3. The best known word-by-word depiction of an Inklings meeting is a chapter in Humphrey Carpenter's group biography The Inklings (1978); which he creatively reconstructed by sampling and synthesizing from multiple writings of the Inklings, together with hints from Warnie's diary.

4. JRR Tolkien's The Notion Club Papers (an unfinished and posthumously published novel to be found in Christopher Tolkien's edited The History of Middle Earth, Volume 9, Sauron's Defeat) comprises a highly Inklings-style meeting of a club based explicitly upon The Inklings and written to be read at The Inklings; but with different, fictionalized and composite participants.

This probably captures the spirit of an Inklings meeting more closely than any other source.

5. CS Lewis also left a short depiction of an Inkling's-esque club which can be found in an unfinished fragment of a story named The Dark Tower, and which was posthumously edited and published by Walter Hooper in 1977.

6. Owen Barfield was an infrequent, but very keen, Inklings participant - and arguably The Inklings evolutionarily-arose-from the Barfield- Jack Lewis conversations and written debates of the 1920s. Barfield published a novel entitled Worlds Apart (1963) which describes a weekend long conversation of a very Inklings-like character - including characters based on Barfield and Jack Lewis.

For further suggestions - see Diana Pavlac Glyer's The Company They Keep (2008).


Wednesday 17 June 2015

Michael Moorcock's "Epic Pooh" essay on Tolkien and the Inklings

Some 25 years ago I came across Michael Moorcock's essay focused on Tolkien in a collection of essays entitled Wizardry and Wild Romance (1987, Gollancz); and I have just been re-reading it.

It strikes me as an uncriticizably-bad essay - in the sense that it is an almost perfect example of that inversion of Good which is the hallmark of New Leftism in its post-sixties and politically correct form.

So, from Moorcock's perspective; virtue is wickedness, courage is cowardice, deep scholarship is criticized as populist, everything beautiful is named ugly, truth is put down as evasion - and all the opposites.

This is also the situation in Moorcock's fiction - it is a world of moral subversion, inversion and destruction; in which entropy is embraced and chaos is king (except that 'kings' are baddies).

I have, indeed, read a lot of Moorcock's books - at least twenty, probably more; at the time of my life when I embraced his nihilism. But, although I was always expecting to find evidence that Moorcock was (as so many journalists said) an important, perhaps great, writer; and although I kept trying book after book; I never could perceive it.

He seemed superficial and inept - in the sense that the books felt slapdash, pointless; and I could seldom understand what was actually going-on (this, I assume, was due to narrative inability, poor storytelling technique).

And I never re-read any of them - which is, for me, decisive; except for a comic James Bond parody called The Russian Intelligence, which made me laugh out loud.


But the Epic Pooh essay is well worth re-reading; not (I hasten to add) for its critical analysis nor its ludicrous pretense at objectivity of standards; and certainly not for its sprawling, hasty, lazy non-structure - but as a case study of the phenomenon of middle class disaffection.

Because Moorcock's main term of abuse is 'middle class' - yet of course he is himself middle class (far more so than I am). However, Moorcock is a characteristic part of the upper middle class; which is the bohemian artist, drop-out, liberated, sexual revolutionary, drink and drugs type middle class.

These drop-out upper middle class  types imagine themselves tougher, realer and more honest than the  lower middle class and the respectable skilled and semi-skilled working class (i.e. the kind from whom my own ancestors and relatives were drawn) - these are despised as smug/ pathetic/ infantile/ square/ repressed/ hypocritical (etc etc).

The bohemian middle class have a snobbish disdain amounting to disgust, directed against the old English hard-working and (mostly) clean-living 'bourgeoisie'; and always they side with tramps, prostitutes, muggers, thieves and beggars; their values are aristocratic: amoral and hedonistic; their gods are style and cool.


All through Epic Pooh, Moorcock is continually, swaggeringly advertising his own toughness in contrast with what he depicts as the the escapist timidity of Tolkien and co.

But Moorcock's idea of toughness is 'smoking behind the bike sheds' teenage rebel stuff; like getting expelled from his experimental private school, drinking to excess, taking drugs, advocating bizarre and promiscuous sex, going on 'demos', and participating in the rock music scene.

Against such indomitable modern heroism; what have the likes of Tolkien and CS Lewis to offer other than serving in the front line trenches during the first world war?


The irony is that Moorcock's brand of middle class moral rebelliousness is now the official ethics of mainstream bureaucracy and civil service; his transgressive sexual practices and orientations are now taught and advocated in primary schools; his once-edgy feminist privileging is now enforced by everybody including the Royal Mail, the Royal Mint, the Royal Society and the Royal Family; the 'revolutionaries' of the sixties are now the recipients of knighthoods and peerages.

Meanwhile, Tolkien is still excluded by the literary establishment, still maintains his devoted readership; Tolkien's values of Christianity and traditional morality cannot legally be expressed either in public or in private.


In his recent interviews, Moorcock apparently still romanticizes himself as a bold and dashing Robin Hood liberationist of 'the people'; indomitably fighting the overwhelming forces of repressive tradition, pervasive patriarchy, and hegemonic Christianity.

Pose is all. And all there is, is pose.


Thursday 11 June 2015

Owen Barfield and the Truth of Imagination - Philosopher of the Inklings

Owen Barfield deserves his description as 'the fourth Inkling' - along with CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and Charles Williams - because, although he attended few meetings, his influence is undeniable (especially on Lewis, but also on Tolkien) and his core philosophical concern was exactly that shared by the other three Inklings.

Indeed, Barfield stated this primary concern more explicitly and over a longer period than any other Inkling (because he started publishing so young and lived an active life up to the age of ninety-nine).

This theme is the Truth of Imagination. Barfield's life-long concern was to understand how the Imagination is a source of Truth, a source of knowledge, a way of accessing reality.


This was also Tolkien's concern, most evident in the concept of Subcreation described in his essay On Fairy Stories - and in his many reflections on myth and history.

It was Lewis's concern in his Platonism - where the Imagination was seen as a mortal and earth-bound way of understanding the primary eternal forms of Heaven - this crops up all through Lewis's ouvre - for instance at the end of The Last Battle and his book on the Medieval world view - The Discarded Image.

And Charles Williams many considerations of Romantic or Positive Theology (via  positiva)  - his multi-form efforts to show that the poetic imagination could be a path towards salvation and theosis; and his best and most explicitly Platonic novel The Place Of The Lion - in which the imagination opens-up a (dangerous, indeed deadly) channel for the eternal forms to invade this world. Furthermore, in his actual life, and to a high degree, Williams lived by the truth and reality of imagination.


Of course, this concern with the Truth of Imagination was mostly a matter of the confluence of spontaneous personal interests rather than of direct personal 'influence' of one Inking upon another - especially in the case of Charles Williams whose ideas were fully expressed before he even heard of the Inklings (in 1936), and before he actually attended meetings regularly (from 1939-45).

By contrast with Williams, Barfield had done most of his thinking and formulating back in the 1920s, before The Inklings, around the time of his Great War with Lewis (a sustained epistolatory debate from 1925 to Lewis's conversion circa 1930); and when the friendship was forming between Lewis and Tolkien. Barfield's early BLitt thesis, and his first two books (Poetic Diction and History In English Words) also (by his own account) influenced and changed Tolkien at this time - both as a professional philologist and in his imaginative writing.

Once we are sufficiently clear about the nature of The Inklings primary concern, the importance of Owen Barfield becomes obvious.


Monday 1 June 2015

The contrasting dream-worlds of Lewis and Tolkien


CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien both used their dreams, and the relationship between dream-life and the awake state, as an important source in their fictional writing.

But the nature of that dream life seems to have been very different - Lewis's mostly negative and Tolkien's including the very positive.


By Lewis's account, he was prone to nightmares throughout his life, and these nightmares are distressingly well remembered.

One of Lewis's strangest works is the posthumously-published fragment from the Space Trilogy sequence, The Dark Tower, which depicts a truly nightmarish world that is so peculiar in its details as to suggest it came directly from a nightmare. To my mind, the particular quality of Lewis's nightmarish writings is a sense of living in an inescapable, eternal world of suffering from which God is excluded - a world which lacks even the concept of God.

In sum, it seems that the usual content of Lewis's dream material was negative, and its contribution to his writing was predominantly in terms of an awareness of horror, misery and sin.


Tolkien, by contrast, reports dream content that is both more varied and includes a lot of positive, euphoric, beautiful experience as well as the eerie, oppressive, nightmarish...

In particular, I would emphasize from the above references, the likelihood that Tolkien's experiences of Faery, of Elfland, were substantially derived from dreams - indeed from 'lucid' dreams in which we retained a degree of awareness of the dreaming state, and was able to exert control over the content and development of the dream while still experiencing it as emotionally-real.

This is also related to a major negative theme in Tolkien's work, which is the profound, inconsolable sense of loss experienced by the traveller to Faery on his return to the 'normal' mortal world - this is the experience of Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings, the protagonist in the poem The Sea Bell, the protagonist of Smith of Wootton Major and of 'Arry' Lowdham's Father in The Notion Club Papers (to name but a sample).

Since Tolkien (apparently) vividly and memorably experienced Faery in some of his dreams; then I would interpret this these as being a fictional version of Tolkien's own sorrow of waking from magical, mythical dreams, into the disenchanted, materialistic world of (much of) his everyday life.


Friday 15 May 2015

Charles Williams died seventy years ago today - i.e. his work is out of copyright at the end of this calendar year, and he is the first Inkling to be thus liberated

A significant anniversary therefore; and a further chance for this neglected author to find readers.

For reasonable reasons (mainly wilful obscurity) CW's readers will never be many, but those who are attuned to him are often bowled-over.

In the meantime, several works - including the novels - are already available on the Project Gutenberg Australia web pages


Thursday 14 May 2015

Review of The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski (2015)

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York. 2015. pp 644 (512 pages of text - 132 pages notes, references, index etc).


This new book fills a niche for those of us who regard the Inklings as being much more than merely a collection of CS Lewis's friends - and who see them as a group of thinkers and writers who have something of vital importance to say to us now.


There is a large amount of published material concerning the Inklings, scattered across works focused on the specific members - especially Lewis, Tolkien and Williams - but only two previous full-dress group biographies: The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter (1978) and The Company They Keep by Diana Pavlac Glyer (2007).

Both are excellent - Carpenter's a masterpiece of deft orchestration, and Pavlac Glyer's an intense and thorough exploration. But Carpenter is insistent that the Inklings are nothing more than a social group, while Pavlac Glyer regards them as primarily a mutual-help writers group.

The Zaleskis get the focus right for the first time, because they regard the Inklings primarily in a context which might be termed 'socio-spiritual'. In other words, the Inklings are seen as important primarily because they are perhaps the major and most influential representatives of a counter-cultural movement which aims to heal the alienation, meaninglessness, purposelessness, ugliness and nihilism of modernity.

Here is the Zaleskis' conclusion, excerpted from the Epilogue:

As symbol, inspiration, guide, and rallying cry, the Inklings grow more influential each year… It is plain that Tolkien has unleashed a mythic awakening and Lewis a Christian awakening.

The Inklings' work… taken as a whole, has a significance that far outweighs any measure of popularity, amounting to a revitalization of Christian intellectual and imaginative life. They were twentieth-century Romantics who championed imagination as the royal road to insight, and the ‘medieval model’ as an answer to modern confusion and anomie…
They were at work on a shared project, to reclaim for contemporary life what Lewis called the ‘discarded image’ of a universe created, ordered and shot through with meaning.

Lewis’s work was all of a piece… he was ever on a path of rehabilitation and recovery.

Tolkien [was a man who made the effort to] create new languages and surrounded them with new myths for the sake of reenchanting English literature.

In his fiction, Charles Williams reclaimed mysterious, numinous objects… from past epochs and relocated them in modern England to demonstrate the thinness, even today, of the barrier between natural and supernatural…

Owen Barfield excavated the past embedded within language, secreted in the plainest of words, in order to illuminate the future of consciousness in all its esoteric, scarcely imaginable, glory...

Though surpassed in poetry and prose style by the very modernists they failed to appreciate, though surpassed in technical sophistication by any number of academic philosophers and theologians, the Inklings fulfilled what many find to be a more urgent need: not simply to restore the discarded image, but to refresh it and bring it to life for the present and future.

This seems to me just right, is lucidly expressed, and needed saying!


So, The Fellowship is the best-yet book on the Inklings in terms of its primary focus; also its balance and detail. Indeed, The Fellowship is very well-written and constructed - following Tolkien, Lewis and Barfield in a three stranded chronology - then introducing Williams at the point when Coghill, Lewis and Tolkien encountered The Place of the Lion.

(In my opinion, this was the exact point when the Inklings 'gelled' and their implicit purpose began to emerge -

The decision to include Barfield to make a core quartet is well justified. Indeed, this was the first time that Barfield has 'come alive' for me, as a real person; and at last I appreciate his prolonged sufferings and disappointments.

Until recently, I have found Barfield's writing the most difficult to engage-with - perhaps because his prose style is relatively plain and his ideas are both deep and unfamiliar. But I am now looking forward to re-engaging with the work with this most subtle and elusive of the Inklings.


The pen-portraits of Tolkien and Lewis strike me as almost wholly accurate and empathic. However, I disagree when the authors are critical of Tolkien - repeatedly! - for what is termed his 'heigh stile'; that is to say his use of archaic forms of language in a context of modern speech.

Of course, archaic pastiche is not to everybody's taste - on the other hand, too much should not be made of it, since clearly it did not prevent Lord of the Rings becoming probably the best loved of all very popular fictions of the twentieth century.

But, personal preferences aside, it is surely unwise to bracket Tolkien's use of archaisms with those of other authors; because Tolkien was the most gifted philologist of his generation, and (according to Tom Shippey) no-one alive can match him in knowledge and understanding.

Tolkien knew exactly what he was doing with the English language, and he did it.


Unlike the other three main Inklings in this study; Charles Williams, as seems almost inevitable, is described 'from the outside' and we don't get a feel for what he was 'really like'.

However, this is not really a failure on the part of the Zaleskis; because I don't know whether there ever has been, or ever will be, anyone who can identify with Charles Williams to the extent of understanding his core being and motivation!

Despite thirty years of intermittent effort in reading dozens of accounts of the man and plumbing his works, I myself regard Williams inner self as a mystery; and this seems to have been the case for everyone who wrote about him. Indeed, all we can say is that those who thought they did understand Williams (such as CS Lewis or TS Eliot) can now be seen to have been mistaken.

I was impressed with the evaluation of Williams ouvre, and I agree with the negative judgement on his poetry. Williams reputations stands or falls on his novels (especially The Place of the Lion) and his main critical and theological work - although I personally have a blind spot about The Figure of Beatrice, which most people regard as one of Williams very best things.


The Zaleskis also have a blind spot, about Lewis's The Screwtape Letters! This book strikes them as sophomoric and an over-extended joke; and as probably destined for long-term oblivion. My opinion is the opposite, and that Screwtape will survive and be cherished when Mere Christianity, Miracles and the other apologetics have come to seem dated. Time will tell.


The Fellowship wears its scholarship lightly, but it is very accurate - and I only spotted a handful of trivial errors among the tens of thousands of facts. In only one respect would I regard the book as significantly mistaken - and that is a matter of interpretation.

The Fellowship repeats near-universal belief that Tolkien did not much like Charles Williams, and that he was jealous of Lewis's devotion. This leads the Zaleskis to doubt Tolkien's sincerity in his letter of condolence to William's widow in 1945 when Tolkien says 'I had grown to admire and love your husband deeply'.

But I have argued that in reality, according to all contemporary evidence, Tolkien did 'love' Charles Williams until more than a decade after Williams death.

Indeed, it was only after the revelations concerning CW's infidelities and involvement with ritual magic became public knowledge in the late 1950s that Tolkien had anything negative to say about him. Only then did Tolkien apparently revise his attitudes - and it is these retrospective re-interpretations that have misled biographers.


That Tolkien was indeed prone to negative retrospective re-evaluations during the early 1960s is confirmed on page 484 of this study, which documents Tolkien's contemporary 'sniping' posthumous comments about CS Lewis (including Letters to Malcolm), and explains them as probably due to his 'drear' state of mind during this period:

'mired in the bottomless bog... trapped fast by illness, overwork, and anxiety over his wife's health, his children's faith, and his own failing powers. Exhaustion and depression lowered his inhibitions and loosened his tongue.'

This is an important thing to get right, since it concerns the core dynamic of The Inklings in their most intense and important phase - during the 1939-45 war, when Williams was living in Oxford. So, my hope is that this might be corrected in a future edition of this study - assuming, that is, that the authors are convinced by my arguments!


Despite The Fellowship's relative comprehensiveness, there still remains much to be done in Inklings studies; not least because the fascination and influence of this group continues to deepen and spread.

Jack Lewis's life has been thoroughly documented - but the same cannot yet be said of Tolkien's. A detailed new biography of Charles Williams is imminent from Grevel Lindop. The fifth most important Inkling - especially as a listener and audience - was Warnie Lewis, and his life and work is still somewhat hazy; and this is even more the case for 'Humphrey' Havard. Plenty of work ahead...

In the meantime, here at last we have the definitive book, the go-to volume, on the Inklings. It is the first book to read if you want to find out about this group

For this much thanks!


Wednesday 6 May 2015

On beginning to understand Owen Barfield - a matter of perspective.

I have been intermittently plugging-away at the writings of Owen Barfield over the past several years - I have read a selection of summaries and excerpts, essays online, read and watched interviews, the official biography; but so far had only really been able to engage with the enjoyable and stimulating Platonic dialogue Worlds Apart; which is a philosophical conversation between a variety of contrasting characters, taking place over a few days in a country house setting.

However, just over the past few days, I have quite suddenly 'tuned-into' what Barfield was getting-at; and have been finding it a very insightful and valuable thing.

The aspect which has grabbed my attention is his long-term endeavour to clarify how it is that Imagination (in a particular meaning, but one not far from ordinary usage) is not just a valid way of knowing, but an absolutely essential component of knowing (when knowing means genuinely to appropriate for oneself).

It was this which provided the focus of Barfield's 'Great War' (an extended epistolary debate with CS Lewis when they were best friends in the mid-1920s, and before Lewis became a Christian). Lewis loved Imagination, but not as a way of reaching reliable and valid knowledge. Barfield was trying to induce Lewis to change his mind on this matter, although Lewis never fully did so. I now think Barfield was correct.

Yet I still do not find Barfield at all easy to read - it is slow, it is hard work - but at least I have grasped what he is up-to; and discovered it is a matter with which I am in sympathy, I can at last begin to appreciate him and evaluate his contributions.

The lesson here is one that I have encountered before: with many writers there is a 'key' which unlocks them for appreciation and understanding; and that key is often a matter of perspective, which itself comes from an empathic identification with their agenda.

Since the writer may not himself be aware of his own true agenda, and since critics may also misapprehend this (or read-in a different agenda) this is something that the reader may need to discover for himself.

But the effort is worthwhile, because the key opens the author.


Thursday 12 February 2015

Brilliant and deep understanding of Lord of the Rings in a five minute videa


I was seriously impressed by this little, slightly facetious, video.

I may have been reading and thinking about LotR for more than forty years, but this tiny and user-friendly cartoon surprised me with several insights which - as soon as stated - were obviously correct.

The above link is where I watched it, but the vid is primarily located at:


Saturday 7 February 2015

The Christianity of the Inklings has disappeared, is no longer available

One of the sad things I experienced about being an Englishman coming to Christianity via the Inklings, is the (delayed) realization that the Christianity they knew and practiced has gone.

So the Inklings reader may become a Christian, in hope of in some way emulating either JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis or Charles Williams - but then he, like I, will find that there is nowadays no remotely similar church he can join; that the Christian way of life from 1945 (when Charles Williams died) has gone - gone, except for some rather horrible, deceptive, almost parodic, institutional residues.


JRR Tolkien was a very traditional Ultramontane, scholastic type of Roman Catholic. Towards the end of his life, Tolkien was made very miserable by the changes introduced by the second Vatican council, especially the vernacular Mass; and would have been appalled and made even more miserable by liberalizing changes since he died in 1973.

He could only have found the kind of church he admired by joining the Society of St Pius the Tenth (SSPX) or similar - but I suspect he would have found their formally schismatic and excommunicate status intolerable.

I think he would have stayed a Roman Catholic but would have been extremely unhappy.


Lewis was a mainstream Anglican who after converting began on the Protestant side of the denomination and moved gradually towards a more Catholic practice (eg taking more frequent Holy Communion, attending confession with an Anglican Monk).

But Lewis did not get much satisfaction from attending church - he did it primarily from duty; and he would not have tolerated the incremental liberalisation of the Church of England, the abandonment by senior Bishops of belief in miracles, the Virgin Birth, even the divinity of Christ; the introduction of priestesses from 1992, and so on.

I think Lewis would have continued to attend a church; but what kind of church? Would Lewis have become a non-denominational conservative evangelical, or a Roman Catholic (like his 'disciple' Walter Hooper)? Perhaps...

Or would he have become Russian Orthodox - a Platonist faith with which he had considerable sympathy and some links? That option seems most likely to me.


Charles Williams was highly heterodox in his interests - although a traditional Anglican in his theology. his practice was Anglo-Catholic, but as a mature man he seems to have like church-going even less than Lewis; and towards the end of his life had founded his own loose Christian association: The Companions of the Coinherence.

I think Charles Williams would have left the Church of England and set up his own sect, or group, or mini-church - probably some kind of Anglican group using the Book of Common Prayer. Williams did not have much regard for priests, and so perhaps he might have made this a denomination with pastors but not priests.


So, the main Inklings would by now have necessarily become outsiders to - or at most marginal, fringe, and reluctant members of - their own denominations; and we to try to follow in their footsteps cannot help but do the same, if we wish to preserve their true legacy.


Wednesday 28 January 2015

My new essay on The Notion Club Papers is posted at L Jagi Lamplighter's Superversive Blog


Here is the essay in full:

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Unfinished Work: 

The Notion Club Papers

By Bruce G Charlton

The Notion Club Papers (NCPs) is an unfinished and posthumously-published modern science fiction novel by JRR Tolkien which he wrote in 1945-6 and read aloud to The Inklings during a long gap in the writing of The Lord of the Rings. He had become bogged-down over what seems an almost trivial detail in the narrative: synchronizing the phases of the moon in the different parts of the tale.


The draft novel material can be found on pages 143-327 of the Sauron Defeated, which is The History of Middle Earth Volume Nine, edited by Christopher Tolkien and published twenty years ago (1992) – and in addition there are a further hundred pages of drafts of the history of Numenor which was intended to have been integrated into the story.

This is a big chunk of writing, done at the peak of Tolkien’s powers, so it may be surprising that it is not better known – but of course the Notion Club Papers form merely one part of a scholarly volume also dedicated to charting the evolution of Lord of the Rings, so few Tolkien fans are aware of its existence.

Yet even when they are aware of the NCPs, few Tolkien fans trouble to read it. And this is understandable. What we have is a mere fragment: a scrappy ‘set-up’ for a very ambitious fiction which is mostly unwritten. Furthermore, the novel is not just un-finished, but hardly begun I terms of its action. Most novel readers are looking for a complete and coherent story with clear characterisation – and the NCPs do not offer anything of that type.


Why read it then?

I can only try to explain what draws me back to this tantalising work again and again.

In the first place there is a delightful sense of eavesdropping on a real-life Inklings meeting, because (as the name implies) the ‘Notion Club’ is modelled upon the Inklings, as reading and discussion groups of – mostly – dons, and meeting in the evening in Oxford Colleges. The style, and even the topics, of discussion at the Notion Club fit very well with what is known of the Inklings at their best.

Secondly, these fragments are worth reading because the NCPs is thematically focused on some of Tolkien’s deepest and most enduring concerns and yearnings – in particular his desire to provide England with a mythology that he felt it lacked, and to re-connect the impoverished modern world view with the richer, deeper perspective of the past. There are particular passages, here and there, which jump out at me; and feel like Tolkien talking of his inmost desires and deepest convictions.

And thirdly because the NCPs were at one point intended to be Tolkien’s fictional link from the modern world to his whole ‘Legendarium’ of the Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and Silmarillion legends. Specifically, it seems that the Notion Club was to describe how the stories of ancient and magical times were transmitted to modern times: partly by the dreams experienced by members of the Notion Club, and probably also by two Notion Club members actually voyaging West across the Atlantic Ocean, discovering a long-lost route and coming to the land of the elves.

Yet another aspect is the development of the concept of Numenor, including the invention of the language Adunaic, as the everyday language of the Island. Among this material is a fascinatingly ‘garbled’ version of Numenorean history. Which Tolkien constructed as an example of the way that the original correct information from the elves might have become distorted by the passage of time and cumulative errors of many generations of men.


For the past few years I have been accumulating thoughts about the Notion Club Papers and putting them onto a blog of the same name

One of the most interesting ‘discoveries’ was that the NCPs were written at a time when Tolkien was suffering from severe psychological stress almost amounting to a ‘nervous breakdown’.

This was probably caused by Tolkien having taken on the duties of the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature while at the same time fulfilling his previous role as Professor of Anglo Saxon, during the period while a replacement was being appointed. Not only was he doing two jobs, but each of these jobs was heavier than usual because of the wartime shortage of academic manpower.

It is perhaps because of Tolkien’s psychological state that the NCPs contain – indirectly and put into the mouths of several characters - some of the most personal and autobiographical material Tolkien ever intended for public consumption.


And if the writing Notion Club Papers was indeed a ‘therapeutic’ process for Tolkien, then this treatment was apparently effective – since in the late summer of 1946 Tolkien resumed writing the Lord of the Rings and this time he was able to take the work through to completion without any further major hold-ups.


So The Notion Club Papers is interesting in its own right, and was also a pivotal work in the development of the Lord of the Rings from a hobbit-sequel into what it became.

Because, although it is now hard for us to believe - while he actually was writing it, the NCPs was the most ambitious work that Tolkien has attempted – a book involving both modern ‘science fiction and multi-layered and linked ancient history: both real and fictional. The Notion Clob Papers were, indeed, themselves a development of an incomplete story begun in 1936 called The Lost Road and now available as volume five of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth.

So, the combined efforts of The Lost Road and Notion Club Papers represented a whole decades-worth of effort, albeit intermittent, to bridge the ancient and modern, the factual and fictional, in a single complex work which would explain and introduce all his tales of Faery.

But when Tolkien abandoned The Notion Club Papers, it seems that this vast ambition was instead, somehow, channelled-into the emerging Lord of the Rings, enriching and deepening the concept.

All admirers of the Lord of the Rings therefore have reason to be grateful for the fragmentary and unfinished Notion Club Papers.


Tolkien's Notion Club Papers completed... (a speculative treatment)

(This is a combined and edited version of some previous posts, describing my idea of how JRR Tolkien's The Notion Club Papers might have ended-up.)

Having brooded (some would say obsessively - and they would be right!) over Tolkien's Notion Club Papers for a couple of years, I am now going to speculate about where the NCPs were tending; what the NCPs would have been about and what they would have been like - if ever Tolkien had finished the novel.


In a nutshell, I believe that the Notion Club Papers were intended to serve an extremely important purpose: to rescue modern England from its spiritual malaise.

At least - that was what the Notion Club themselves would be depicted as doing fictionally - and the finished book would be intended to make this possible in the mundane world.

Tolkien's ouvre (his Legendarium) was intended to make a mythology for England; the Notion Club Papers were intended to link his mythical Legendarium to modern England. (I got this from the work of Verlyn Flieger - especially her book Interrupted Music.)


I suggest that the NCPs would - ultimately (if finished) - have provided a feigned history of the processes that brought Tolkien's historical myth/s into action in the modern world.


What was Tolkien 'rescuing' England from?

This is made explicit in the NCPs:

[Jeremy] ..."Sometimes I have a queer feeling that, if one could go back, one would find not myth dissolving into history, but rather the reverse: real history becoming more mythical - more shapely, simple, discernibly significant, even seen at close quarters. More poetical and less prosaic, if you like.(...)

"They're not wholly inventions. And even what is invented is different from mere fiction; it has more roots." (...)

"[The roots are] In Being, I think I should say," Jeremy answered; "and in human Being; and coming down the scale, in the springs of History and the designs of Geography - I mean, well, in the pattern of our world as it uniquely is, and of the events in it as seen from a distance. (...)

"Of course, the pictures presented by the legends may be partly symbolical, they may be arranged in designs that compress, expand, foreshorten, combine, and are not at all realistic or photographic, yet they may tell you something true about the Past."


With the NCPs Tolkien was intending to tell us something true about the past, something that we need to know because at present England's past is merely history, when it should be myth.

The Notion Club Papers were intended to make England's history into myth - i.e. to reverse the process of myth dissolving into history described by Jeremy in the quote above.

Tolkien wanted, that is, contemporary history to dissolve into myth; and the NCPs were (as they evolved) aimed at achieving this.


Arguably, Tolkien achieved his goal, although by other and less direct means - in the sense that many people (like myself) nowadays 'use' Tolkien's Legendarium as a myth by-which (and through-which) they understand and interpret the current world.

We do this despite the lack of an explicit and comprehensive mythical link between the Legendarium (saturated, as it is, with purpose and meaning) and the nihilistic modern world of objective irrelevant 'facts' and purely-individual subjectivities.

However, in order for this to have happened via the NCPs, they would need to have needed to end-up very differently from how they set out: in literary terms, the NCPs would have required very substantial re-writing, in ways which we can only extrapolate from hints and glimmerings.


The basic situation which the Notion Club inhabit is an Oxford (England, Western Civilization) that is 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.


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.


As they stand, the NCPs are - to me - an endlessly fascinating fragment, full of evidence about Tolkien and his deepest concerns; but it seems to be a work of extremely limited appeal (at least, I only know of two or three other people than myself who find it at all interesting or enjoyable!) - and therefore I assume that the story in its present form would either be unpublishable, or else destined only for a microscopically small cult audience.


If the NCPs had been completed they would therefore, I believe, have ended-up very differently from the way they exist at present.

The overall purpose of the NCPs (within Tolkien's books) would have been to provide a frame for Tolkien's legendarium - in other words, a pseudo-historical 'explanation' for how the legends of the elves, Numenor and ancient Middle Earth were transmitted to our times (transmitted specifically to England, and even more specifically to Oxford).

In other words, approximately to link The Silmarillion, Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to the modern reader by a feigned history.


The Notion Club Papers novel would, then, describe how a link between Middle Earth (this modern world) and Faery was re-established.


The shape of the novel would presumably have been the same as Tolkien's other works - some kind of heroic quest in which the hero or heroes come into contact with 'Faery' and an ennobled by contact with 'higher things' and made wiser by their experience.

Clearly, the Notion Club Papers would therefore require need a protagonist with whom the reader would identify. That is a character whose thoughts and feelings the reader would get to know in the course of the story.

But such characters are lacking (or indirect and inexplicit) in the current NCP drafts.


The existing form of the NCPs, i.e. the literary conceit of their being the formal minutes of club meetings, would therefore need to be dropped or relaxed; to bring in much more direct forms of narrative or reportage.

This was already beginning to happen in the later parts of the NCPs, with the introduction of letters from Lowdham (plus some footnotes), and an extended 'dream sequence' which reports Lowdham's inner state during an Anglo Saxon episode.

So, in the NCP novel there would be a great expansion of such letters, and also probably diaries and journal entries - so as to bring the reader into more direct contact with the action.


In terms of character, the ANC would therefore need to get inside at least one of Guildford, Ramer, Lowdham and Jeremy.

My guess is that the protagonist would have been Guildford - the recorder, who would become the narrator, and would speak directly to the reader (to posterity) about the collection of minutes, letters, poems, fragments and journal entries which he has gathered and collated with the aim of preservation and propagation.

Probably, Guildford would have remained a rather background character in terms of the action and excitement, and it would have been the extrovert Lowdham in particular would emerged as the most obvious hero - supported by Jeremy who would, I guess, end-up being the main person responsible for achieving the quest to re-connect with Faery.


I suspect the Ramer character might therefore have receded in importance. His role might be in learning the languages necessary to interpret the documentary material eventually recovered from Faery by Lowdham and Jeremy.

Ramer's role at the end of the ANC would perhaps be as scholarly interpreter of the texts brought back to Oxford by Jeremy (who seems not to be skilled as a philologist or historical linguist).


I would imagine that Lowdham - accompanied by Jeremy - would make the breakthrough to physical contact with faery: set sail for the West with Jeremy, be responsible for navigating the boat, and eventually actually land in Faery where he would meet his father - and the High elves.

But then Lowdham would stay-behind in faery (with his father) and Jeremy would be the one who returned to England bringing the legendarium - especially the Red Book of Westmarch and Bilbo's Translations from the Elvish.


In sum, the Notion Club Papers would be presented as a collection of minutes, letters, journal entries etc. collected by Guildford concerning the Notion Club in general and Lowdham and Jeremy in particular - telling the story of how a link between faery and England was re-established by the efforts of the Club - firstly in dreams then ultimately by a voyage to Faery.


However, the link between Faery would be firstly psychic, and only secondly physical - the early parts of the NCPs are concerned with the initial glimpses of myth and faery via dreams, then a break-through of visionary material from the past - so powerful that it had an actual physical effect on Oxford and nearby areas of England (the storm replicating the downfall of Numenor).

This stage would also provide sufficient linguistic information for the Notion Club (with its linguistic, historical and philological expertise) to be able to interpret the extensive documentary material which would eventually be brought back by Jeremy.


This requires an intermediary: Dolbear - who turns-out to be a wizard/ angel/ messenger from Faery.


The character of Dolbear jumps-out of the Notion Club Papers as somebody about whom there is more than meets the eye. Almost everything he says is wise and cuts-deep. He seems to understand more of what is going-on than anyone else.

We know Dolbear has certainly been working, independently, with Ramer even before the meetings were reported and also later with Lowdham - on their dreams and interpretations.

Dolbear is also hinted to be a kind of grey eminence at the least; someone greatly respected by the other members (underneath their chummy chaffing) and probably somebody who is - in fact - actually stage-managing the whole process by which the Notion Club re-establishes contact with Faery.


In this sense Dolbear resembles Gandalf - who is a wizard or an 'angel' in disguise; in the sense of being a higher being from the undying lands who is a messenger and catalyst. Probably the reader would not have access to Dolbear's inner life - he would (like Gandalf) be observed rather than experienced.

Dolbear would make things happen, by hints and directions and providing key pieces of information - never by force. And at the end of the story Dolbear would return (like Gandalf) whence he came - to Faery.


This is (I speculate) the meaning of Dolbear seeming to sleep though the meetings, yet remain apparently aware of everything which is happening in them - indeed more aware of the implications of the meetings than are the active participants.

I suspect that during sleep Dolbear is in contact with Faery and with the Notion Club at the same time. He is therefore a conduit or passageway linking Oxford and the undying lands - he transmits the proceedings of the Notion Club to Faery, and receives instructions of what to do.

Dolbear's trance-like states of sleep are therefore (I believe) the specific means by which the inhabitants of Faery are encouraging the renewed contact between England and Faery which the Notion Club themselves seek.


The Oxford setting is highly significant, as is the general similarity between the Notion Club and The Inklings.


Tolkien saw himself as the inheritor of an English racial memory of Faery. In his earliest legends (now published as Lost Tales) England had indeed been a part of Faery - with a place to place mapping between mythic and modern places, and England was especially favoured for this reason.

Tolkien regarded this inherited memory as coming down his mother's side of the family, and therefore centred in Warwickshire (Mercia).


And Tolkien had less strong but similarly mystical feelings about Oxford as he did about the nearby West Midlands of England, and of course he spent most of his working life at the University, and this was where most of his friends lived.

But mostly, for Tolkien, Oxford had a special role in scholarship related to Faery. And from a practical point of view, Oxford in the early and mid-twentieth century was the perfect place from which knowledge of Faery might have been disseminated throughout the rest of England.


So, my guess is that the NCP novel would have described the Inkling's-like Notion Club in Oxford as having first established a psychic link with Faery - with visionary material glimpsed during dreams, then having recovered extensive documentary evidence from Faery, and brought it back to Oxford for secret safe-keeping, translation and dissemination.

The benefits of this mythic, faery knowledge would then enhance first the Notion Club members, then the rest of the University, with elven craft, depth, wisdom and mystery.

A special quality in the work of the Notion Club, and Oxford, would have been recognized by the English (who were genetically predisposed to appreciate it) and the effects and benefits would have been spread throughout England by means of Oxford's role in educating the administrators and teachers of the rest of England.


So, in order to re-establish contact between Middle Earth and Faery there would need to be efforts form both sides: both a push and a pull.

On the one hand there was a push from the members of the Notion Club, who sensed the shallowness and literalness of their world, the damage of materialism, and the ugliness of industrialization (e.g. Ramer's horrible dream of Oxford through the ages) - and sought to enrich life by contact with Faery.

And on the other hand there was a pull from the inhabitants of Faery. The elves were assumed to have benign intentions towards humans and seek to help them.


Especially the inhabitants of Faery wish to help Men to adopt an attitude of love towards nature; to become 'elvishly' capable of disinterested craft, art, science and scholarship as things to be loved for their own sakes, rather than as a means to another end.


In sum - the The Notion Club Papers would (I imagine) describe how the post-medieval process of 'myth turning into history' would be reversed; and first the Notion Club, then Oxford, then England, then maybe eventually the World - might again connected with Faery, and re-enchanted by elvish wisdom and suffused with an elvish perspective.


In practice, the finished Notion Club papers were intended to be the first Tolkien book which people should read: a modern science fiction type novel which would explain how the Annals (Silmarillion legends) and Romances (Hobbit and Lord of the Rings) came to England, and were translated for a general audience.

Having read the Notion Club Papers - mainstream fiction of a familiar type - the modern reader would be prepared for to move onto reading the much stranger and less familiar Annals and Romances; and would (at some level) then be able to treat them as (or as if) an historical reality.