Saturday 30 June 2018

Tolkien's How and Why problems in 'framing' his Legendarium for a modern audience - reflections on re-reading Interrupted Music by Verlyn Flieger (2005)

As Verlyn Flieger clarifies in her 2005 book Interrupted Music; Tolkien had two main problems in providing a 'frame' within-which to present his entire Legendarium (Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Adventures of Tom Bombadil and material from his unfinished Silmarillion). These can be summarised as clarifying How and Why the reader has these stories in his hand...

The How refers to the provenance of the text; that is the process by which a story or history from a remote (and fictional-mythic) past came-down the many generations to reach JRR Tolkien, who is presenting it to the modern reader. Starting with the 'Lost Tales' from the late World War I period, Tolkien tried many explanations.

One idea was of an ancient mariner who visited Fairyland, heard and brought back the stories - sometimes he also participated in the subsequent history; these original manuscripts were translated from Elvish into some other language such as Old English, and handed down between scribes and in libraries in a normal historical fashion - Tolkien being the latest translator and adaptor.

Another idea was that a  modern man - or several people - visited the undying lands in a dream or meditative trance - and brought-back the material. He, or someone else expert in ancient languages, was then inspired by such dreams to learn and translate the ancient languages.

In the end, Tolkien actually framed Lord of the Rings with an apparatus which presents his material as being derived from a book called The Red Book of Westmarch, which is a collection of translations from Elvish legends heard by Bilbo i Rivendell; plus the diaries of Bilbo Frodo and Sam and some other material such as a book on the herblore of the Shire by Merry. Somehow, a copy of The Red Book came down the ages to Tolkien who (somehow) translated it, and used the material to write his various books.

There are some holes in Tolkien's eventual, actual solution to the How problem - but on the whole it seems to work satisfactorily for most readers; although Tolkien was not altogether happy with it, and he kept 'niggling' at it through the editions of The Lord of the Rings and his introductory words to The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.

The Why is a much more difficult problem - and Tolkien never really got further with solving this problem than the lecture On Fairy Stories - which provides a general justification for Fantasy fiction, rather than a specific reason for why his own legends were important. In particular, Tolkien was never able to explain something important to him - which is why his stories were specifically important for England.

There is, in fact, an answer to this Why problem - and I am sure that Tolkien knew exactly what that answer was, but was (for various reasons, good and not good) reluctant to use that particular answer.

The answer is to refer to divine destiny, and to imply or assert that the mythic text that came across many generations to emerge into modern times in the form of Tolkien's books were enabled to do so because modern people need them. In other words that God made it possible; that God preserved and protected the knowledge; and made modern people able to get access to it. For example, God provided the intuitive insights to modern scholars that enabled them to translate ancient lost languages, and to correctly fill-in gaps in surviving texts, and to do so with sufficient literary quality to engage and influence modern readers.

Of course, such a claim would mean making explicit reference to Christianity - putting Tolkien's books into an explicitly Christian frame; which he was clearly reluctant to do. It would furthermore have entailed Tolkien putting himself forward as an instrument of divine destiny (a mere instrument, as he humbly understood it) - which he was willing to do in private among friends, but not in public; because the mainstream atheistic public would surely have regarded such a claim as insane, idiotic or arrogant.

But we ourselves can, if we wish, frame Tolkien's work in this fashion - and I certainly do!

Note: Verlyn Flieger's Interrupted Music is well worth reading for its detailed and accurate scholarship - although it is significantly flawed by fairly frequent intrusion  of mainstream academic deference to political correctness and materialism - 'virtue signalling' and reductionism (eg. repeatedly and wrongly stating that Frodo's mental state at the end of LotR is Post Tramatic Stress Disorder; and that LotR is essentially about war: A War Book). This prejudicial and corrupting leftism crept into this author's later work; as happened to almost-all authors over recent decades; except in some instances when the work was explicitly - non-liberal - Christian.) 

Saturday 23 June 2018

Good and evil in Tolkien

One of the most ridiculous statements made by those literary modernists who dislike Tolkien, and especially The Lord of the Rings, is when they state that the characters are divided unrealistically and simplistically into Good and Evil. Yet, in reality, the opposite is the case - corruption of Good is extremely common, and there are several important examples of repentance of evil.

Starting with The Hobbit - the dwarf leader Thorin becomes corrupted by greed and resentment. On his deathbed he repents and apologises to Bilbo. This is somewhat like Boromir, whose desire for the One Ring gradually masters him, and he tries to take it from Frodo by force; before confessing and repenting to Aragorn as he dies.

Aragorn is an example of a good character who resists corruption; Gandalf and Faramir are others. However, each of these is 'paired' with another who is corrupted. Gandalf is one of three wizards we meet, of whom Saruman has gone over to the side of evil - and refuses to repent although given three opportunities; while Radagast has abandoned his duty and mission to become a 'neutral' in the war.

Faramir is the steadfast brother of corruptible Boromir; and the returned King Aragorn's corrupted twin is Denethor, Steward of Gondor and Boromir's father - who succumbs to despair, compounded by envy of Gandalf and refusal to recognise the legitimacy of Aragorn and yield his power.

When we first meet Theoden, King of Rohan, he has also been corrupted into despair and dishonesty by Saruman's tool Wormtongue; but Theoden repents and remakes himself, to die a noble death in battle - thanks to the tough but compassionate intervention of Gandalf.

Among the hobbits, there are also pairings: the good Baggins's with the corrupt (and pretentious, Frenchified) Sackville-Baggins's (of whom, Lobelia is redeemed through her courage in face of the ruffians); and, Sam with the anti-Sam: Ted Sandyman. Frodo is, tragically albeit temporarily and understandably, corrupted and broken by the ring, at the last moment - taking it for himself; only being saved from the terrible consequences by the providential intervention of Gollum. Frodo repents but is unable to escape his guilt, his mortal life is blighted, and he requires healing in the undying lands. In this respect Frodo is contrasted with the uncorrupted Bilbo, who voluntarily gives-up the ring (as does Sam); and (like Sam) lives-out a long and happy life.

What is lacking in Lord of the Rings is any significant characters who are evil, at the start of Lord of the Rings, and repent before the end (albeit most of the book takes place in a single year); although Gollum gets very close; as does Wormtongue (after the scouring of The Shire) - but neither can set aside their resentments.

And this is - unfortunately - true to life. Once someone has thoroughly sided with evil, it is very unusual for them to repent and reform. In LotR the nearest I can think of, is groups such as The Dead, from the Paths of The Dead - who broken their oath to Isildur and fought for Sauron, but removed their curse by helping Isidur's heir Aragorn; or the Dunlanders - who are defeated in the Battle of Helm's Deep, and are surprised by their decent treatment by their enemies, the men of Rohan.

But those who falsely complain about the division into good and bad characters are in reality complaining about the clear distinction between good and evil sides.

These are indeed distinct - and mainstream atheist modernists dislike and disbelieve this clarity; much preferring ambiguity over what is good and evil; or superficial good being actually evil; or all the characters being self-seeking hedonists and cowards; or the characters divided between witty, intelligent evil ones that we admire, and dumb, gullible good ones that we pity or despise...

From a perspective where there is no God and all morality is arbitrary and expedient (or hypocritical), Tolkien's critics are correct; which is why correcting their ignorance has no effect on their opinion of Tolkien's work. Likewise, the ignorant criticisms of of those who suppose that Tolkien's characters speak in what strikes them as a ridiculous 'Hollywood' fake medievalism; do not change their minds when confronted with evidence of Tolkien's extreme subtlety of linguistic register, and (surely obvious?) deep scholarship concerning real archaic forms and words.

So, I am never surprised by those who dislike and do not enjoy Tolkien. There are 'good reasons' of individual preference why anyone may not enjoy anything - not matter its quality.

However, given the generality and depth of corruption among modern intellectuals (perhaps especially academics); the fact that so many literati hate a work that contains so many convincing and moving depictions of goodness and repentance, is only to be expected.

Note: There is a much wider range of corruption on display in The Silmarillion - where we see the fall of the elves greatest scholar and craftsman, Feanor; and several other once-great elves who fall to despair, lust, anger, pride etc. Taking Tolkien's fiction overall, there is, indeed, a pattern of the very greatest being those who are most deeply and terribly corrupted to evil: Melkor, was the greatest of the Valar, Turin Turambar was the greatest warrior of all-time, Al-Pharazon was the most powerful Man ever, Saruman was the greatest wizard, Denethor was the most powerful Man of his age... Indeed, there is a clear tendency that those who have the greatest accomplishment are most greatly tempted - the Noldorian elves and the Numenorean Men being the clearest examples. The result is, typically, a polarisation among the great.

Saturday 16 June 2018

Tolkien - first picture of his genius

The cover of John Garth's pamphlet 'Tolkien at Exeter College' gives us the first picture of JRR Tolkien (in 1914) in which his genius is apparent... or, more exactly, a picture that is consistent-with some key aspects of Tolkien's genius.

The inset circular photograph of young Tolkien is a blow-up of the larger group photo; where Tolkien is situated at the extreme right of the back row.

What does this photograph tell us. That Tolkien had arrived late for the photo-shoot, and in some unorthodox fashion - since he could easily have been sat on the step in the front row on the left, where there is space; but he ended up standing apart from the main group - indeed setting himself apart from the main group.

Having squeezed himself into the photo at the back, Tolkien chose to stand apart from everyone else, leaning from the top step; almost hanging by his right hand from the trunk of a cultivated tree, with his left hand enclosing the bark affectionately. The face is difficult to read, but seems to proclaim confidence and a kind of defiance.

This the the photograph of a self-motivated nonconformist, a man ploughing his own furrow, listening to inner  - not a 'poseur' because, being at the back, nobody could see what he was doing; he was not showing-off, not making-a-point by his unorthodox stance (unlike like some of the chaps slouching in the second row!).

Tolkien's position and pose was an unconscious expression-of, rather than a public assertion-of, his independence and inner motivation.

Of course there is a lot more to being a genius than what we can see in this photograph, but some of the essential components are there, on display, aged 22.


Monday 11 June 2018

The root of The Problem with the 1977 Silmarillion

John Garth (in Tolkien and the Great War - pages 279-80) puts his finger on the root of The Problem of the 1977, single volume Silmarillion; which is that when Tolkien was re-drafting stories, he did not work from the original text of the stories - such as we can now see presented in the later edition of Lost Tales; but instead he worked from a summary of the stories that he had prepared in 1925 for an old school teacher to whom Tolkien sent some of his work.

This created the basic character of the Silmarillion from then onwards - which is precisely that it reads like a Summary - not like 'the real thing'; everything is at a distance, and I am not engaged by it.

Or, to put it another way, the sections (except perhaps the first creation myth) are essentially 'annalistic' in style - rather like the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, or indeed the Appendicies of Lord of the Rings....

This, in itself, need not have been so damaging, except for the way that the 1977 Silmarillion is presented. The 1977 Silmarillion is without any feigned historical frame, implicitly presented as a arc-ing story; and implicitly as within-universe - yet without any context.

In sum, the 1977 Silmarillion is not presented as the (feigned historical) 'annals' of the legend, but instead as-if the sections were a kind of novel.

As I've written before; this could, in principle, easily be set right by a different presentation of the Silmarillion material.

The Silmarillion legendarium can never have the kind of 'mass appeal' of The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings; but I believe it could and should be made available in a 'within-universe' form similar to the Appendices; a form that is both more accessible, and less 'universe-hostile', than the detached and scholarly presentation of The History of Middle Earth.


Sunday 10 June 2018

John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War (2003) - my audio book mini-review

Powerful and profound

One of the half-dozen best books ever written about Tolkien; and indeed one of the best books about friendship, war, and the formation and nature of a genius. 

This audio version is well read by the author, who has a rare gift for speaking poetry. 

Listening to Tolkien and the Great War moved me to tears more than once, despite that I already owned and knew the paper version - this brings an extra dimension.  



If you only read three books about Tolkien; this should be one of them (and Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle Earth (1982) should be one of the others.)

It is not just a wonderful biography of Tolkien; it is just one of the best (of many hundreds) of 'biographies' that I have read.

Tolkien and the Great War is not a full account of Tolkien's entire life; instead it operates in the sub-genre of specialised biography that focuses on a particular time and aspect of a person.

This focuses on the forces that shaped 'John Ronald's formative life in childhood, at school, as a university student, in the army and shortly afterwards; the thirty-ish years before he became the more familiar scholar and author 'Professor Tolkien'.

Close attention is given to Tolkien's early poetry (until his middle twenties he intended to become 'A Poet', and even submitted a volume of poetry hoping for publication); and the Lost Tales stories - which were later - albeit at some cost of concreteness, vividness and humour - shaped into the more familiar 'Silmarillion' narrative/s.   

One special fascination of the Lost Tales is their biographical applicability; the way that characters, places and incidents derive-from and map-onto Tolkien's life and reading. On the one hand this is a mark of their immaturity and rawness; on the other, it is what makes them worth our attention nowadays; above and beyond them being 'early drafts' of more achieved later works.  

My own special interest in Tolkien and the Great War is that it helped me to understand, actually to feel, the deep motivations of Tolkien's creative writing.

Thursday 7 June 2018

Tolkien and The Machine

Melko's Machine-dragons invading Gondolin, by Roger Garland, as described in the Lost Tales and based on his personal experience of seeing the first tanks at The Somme

JRR Tolkien was hostile to what he termed The Machine - by which he meant some physical or social contrivance to attain an end directly; at the cost of being a mere model of reality, which is to say partial and distorted.

Exponents of The Machine in Tolkien's reality began as early as Melko in the Lost Tales (who later became Melkor-Morgoth), the late and corrupt Men of Numenor (who used magical technology to conquer Middle Earth, and to invade Valinor), and Saruman (with his mind of 'metal and wheels'). The One Ring is itself a Machine - promising the user a coercive short-cut to his desires

Tolkien was intensely suspicious of machines of any degree of complexity - his Shire Hobbits 'did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom'. Even the simplest of Machines, such as a bow and arrow, introduce new temptations (the ability to kill at a distance, and impersonally). 

Yet he recognised that even these simple machines could be a 'slippery slope' to evil. The greatest craftsmen of the Noldorian High Elves, Feanor (who made the Silmarils, the Palantiri, and invented elvish script) and Celebrimbor (who made the elven rings, but who aided Saruman in ring-lore) - were to a greater and lesser extent corrupted and seduced by the Machine.

Another Machine is bureaucracy (including the military) - the narrow specialisation and coordination, by coercion and bribing, of individuals to attain a single imposed purpose: this was what Saruman did first in his Empire and later to the Shire Hobbits. 

Even learning itself (and Tolkien was a professional scholar) is a Machine, and can corrupt - Saruman seems to have been corrupted mainly by studying 'the arts of the enemy' - initially in order to understand and better fight him.

I think Tolkien would, if pressed, even have regarded such Machines as writing and books, music and art, as fraught with peril, in the hands of Men. the High Elves love of such this-worldly things is so intense as to be corrupting, as the strive to stop change, never to forget, sinfully to hold on to that which ought to be let-go-of...

In sum, I think Tolkien regarded The Machine as a temporary mortal contrivance to go beyond Man's natural capacities, and therefore always corruptible.

The Machine is always incomplete and distorted, and Machines will be superseded in Heaven where Man will be raised to attain directly and wholly that which can at present only be approximated by insufficient contrivances.

Wednesday 6 June 2018

Qoheleth Resources for your Inklings collection!

I've mentioned Richard Johnson's second-hand mail-order bookshop Qoheleth Resources before; but it is worth emphasising that this is a superb place to go for your Inklings needs.

In the past couple of weeks he has sent out his Inklings lists (available free on request) with probably several hundred books, magazines, CDs and casettes; all reasonably priced, and many a real bargain.

As well as picking up hard-back replacements for my tattered and disintegrating 1970s editions, replacing losses and the like; I always find something Inklings-esque that is new - indeed unheard-of - and that I want.

And for a beginner to build an Inklings collection from scratch; Qoheleth would be unbeatable.

Add to this that Richard is a Christian, a scholar, and a gentleman - and what could be better!

(Most of his books are indeed on Christian themes.)

He answers individual requests in a personal and helpful way.