Tuesday 31 July 2018

Review of Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth - edited by Catherine McIlwaine (Bodleian Library, Oxford University, 2018)

Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth - edited by Catherine McIlwaine. Bodleian Library, Oxford University, 2018. pp 416.

This is a sumptuous, large format, beautifully illustrated 400 page book which serves as the catalogue for a current Tolkien exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford - but it also serves as the single best, and best value, one-stop-shop for the visual material associated with JRR Tolkien.

Amongst other achievements, Maker of Middle Earth includes - in larger scale and at a higher quality of reproduction - much (not all) of the material from The Tolkien Family Album (1992) JRR Tolkien; artist and illustrator (1995). 

In addition it has some seventy pages of essays (by eminent scholars) on Tolkien's biography, the Inklings, Faery in Tolkien, the Elvish languages, the Northern spirit, and Tolkien as artist.

For me, there were several special pleasures in this book. The first was in seeing new-to-me photographs of Tolkien and his family - and seeing larger and sharper versions of many I was familiar with and especially like; such as JRRT asleep with toddler Christopher on a garden lounger in Northmoor Road.

I enjoyed seeing Tolkien wearing a tweed suit and digging a sandcastle on a (presumably chilly) 1925 summer holiday, with sons John and Michael. There are several characterful photographs of JRRT's mother; and of his young and beautiful wife Edith, showing why Tolkien regarded her as the inspiration for Luthien. In general, these family pictures are delightful, revealing the happiness, love and importance of this vital aspect of Tolkien's life (something which sets him apart from the other Inklings, and indeed from most other writers).

All my favourite Tolkien paintings, pen and pencil illustrations were there; and some examples of the complex doodles he distracted himself with, while trying to work on The Silmarillion

There are a lot of letters and manuscripts in facsimile - not just Tolkien's wondrous script; but an example from 1893 of his mother's fine and original penmanship, suggesting an hereditary element. And several 'fan letters' - mostly from now-famous people; the 19 year old Terry Pratchett, for example, evidently having been deeply moved by Smith of Wootton Major. Some letters were from children - I  liked these better.

(My letter to Tolkien didn't make the cut, I'm afraid - I wonder what I wrote? Questions about elves, I expect.)

There are also maps! - sketch maps, drafts of maps, fragments of maps; reproduced in large scale and clearly. 

And there is something I have wanted to see again for a long time... the 1969 poster map of Middle Earth illustrated by Pauline Baynes (below). For many formative years this was a fixture on the wall of my bedroom - carted from place to place. I spent many an hour examining the pictures with a magnifying glass, to extract the last drop of detail... There was another similar, but not quite so good, poster of The Hobbit.

In sum, if you are know a Tolkien lover, and you will needing to buy him a Birthday/ Christmas present soon - look no further. And any reader of this blog will surely want to put Maker of Middle Earth onto his own Birthday/ Christmas list.

Friday 27 July 2018

Tolkien's noblest book: Unfinished Tales (1980; edited by Christopher Tolkien)

It is a controversial choice, no doubt; but for me Unfinished Tales - the first 'History of Middle Earth volume, edited by Christopher Tolkien and published in 1980 - is the noblest of Tolkien's works: the one that has the most heart-stopping passages of high style and grandeur.

I came across this book in the summer of either 1985 or 1986, when I found a paperback copy at a holiday cottage rented by my parents; and it was responsible for triggering a resurgence of love for Tolkien which had by that time subsided from the heights it reached in my middle-late teens.

After JRR Tolkien died in 1973, his youngest son Christopher (by then nearly fifty years old) took responsibility for his legacy, especially the unpublished writings - during which CRT became, in my opinion, the most important - because irreplaceable - literary scholar of the past century.

By which I mean that in the same way nobody-else could ever have written what JRRT did; nobody-else could ever have edited JRRT in the way that CRT did (and, astonishingly, still does). Thus we have a first rate writer whose oeuvre was massively amplified by first rate posthumous editions of a mass of unpublished and inaccessible material.

Christopher began* with a stumble (as he later acknowledged) with the 1977 Silmarillion - but with  Unfinished Tales he hit his straps, and from then continued in a truly transcendent synergy with his father's writings. It is perhaps this being the very first of CRT's couple of dozen collections from the unpublished writings and drafts, that gives UT its special place in my heart. Since CRT (apparently) did not know in 1980 whether UT would be the only selection from JRRT's unpublished manuscripts; UT has the character of being something like The Cream of these works - sampled from across a wide range of times and subjects.

The whole collection is wonderful - but I will here mention just a few of my personal favourites.

Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin is a detailed fragment of a large but incomplete narrative. I find the character or Tuor very appealing, and (as an unseen frame) the sketched story has the ultimate happy and strange conclusion that Tuor - a Man - eventually (somehow) became an Elf: one of the Eldar. 

There are two pieces on Numenor; which together make the best source on this fascinating 'earthly paradise' devised for Men: its early freshness and innocence, and its later extremity of both power and corruption. Truly, a tale for our times...

The History of Galadriel and Celeborn is a miscellany, and indeed self-contradicting (but I don't care about that); and studded throughout are answers to some of the questions about Elves I had been most longing to have answered for many years - especially about the Silvan/ Wood Elves, which have always evoked a great yearning within me.

Cirion and Eorl is about the friendship of Gondor and Rohan; and contains a lovely account of the oath-making between the leaders of these nations: that is certainly one of the noblest passages Tolkien ever achieved. It moves me to tears.

The Quest of Erebor is a pure delight - being a 'framing' account of The Hobbit narrative from Gandalf's point of view. At only a slightly lower level; The Disaster of the Gladden Fields, and The Hunt for the Ring deepen the understanding and appreciation of Lord of the Rings.

The Istari (i.e. the wizards) was another chapter I seized upon with eager cries, since (like so many people) I had been particularly intrigued by Gandalf, Saruman and Radagast; and here we get their back-story.

The hardback edition ends with a corrected, added-to and improved version of Christopher Tolkien's fold-out map of Middle Earth, modified from the one he originally drew for The Lord of the Rings. Ideal for reference - and a treasure in its own right.

*Note: I should add that even before the Silmarillion in 1977, CRT had edited and published several 'minor' works by his father; such as the Bilbo's Last Song for a poster by Pauline Baynes; and the translations of Sir Gawain, Pearl and Sir Orfeo; and Baillie Tolkien (CRT's wife) had edited the first collection of Father Christmas Letters. 

Wednesday 25 July 2018

Tolkien's beatitudes - his affirmation even of clumsy, insufficient, vague wish-fulfillment fantasy fiction; so long as its motivations are Good

Note: The Beatitudes are that part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel, which consists of a series of statements beginning with 'Blessed are...' - blessed (apparently) being the English translation of the Latin (Vulgate) Bible word 'Beati'. 

From Mythopoeia, a poem by JRRT Tolkien that was begun probably late 1931-1932; but only reaching the form containing this passage probably about 1946.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate,
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bare, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow's sway.

Blessed are the men of Noah's race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things nor found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organised delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have turned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

So, what does this section of the poem mean?

The statements of blessing follow a statments that : of Evil this
alone is dreadly certain: Evil is
. Tolkien is drawing a contrast with those who sustain evil, and those who reject it and respond by imagining something better - even when those imaginings are grossly imperfect.

The three Blessings are given upon three types of imperfect creator: those that hate evil but have timid hearts, those of faith who yet lack ability, and those who discern something better than this world - but only vaguely.

Tolkien firmly endorses all three types of flawed creator - and indeed he expresses admiration at their determination to 'do the right thing', as best they can, despite the high probability of (worldly) defeat.

A later passage endorses this - by drawing an allegorical equivalence between the creator as a maker (minter) of coins, but the fact that the actual coins produced are of poor quality with blurry images; and indeed even what is depicted on the coins is not clearly known.

It is the aspiration, and bravely acting upon it, that makes such Men blessed - even when they fail.

And some will succeed - some have passed beyond the fabled West. And, as things turned-out; Tolkien himself became one of them.

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

Monday 9 July 2018

Reading The Notion Club Papers - again...

About forty pages in, and enjoying it more than ever!

It begins with a kind of hobbit - talk section; perhaps the nearest thing to a transcription of an Inklings meeting that exists.

Then moves onto the most self-revelatory material ever published from Tolkien - in the mouth of his alter ego, Ramer.

Wonderful stuff! If you haven't yet read the NCPs, why not try? They can be found in volume 9 of The History of Middle Earth: Sauron Defeated (1992).

Wednesday 4 July 2018

Reading Tolkien's character from his face - viewing Tolkien in Oxford (1968) with the sound turned-off...

There is an interesting (and flawed) half hour documentary about JRR Tolkien that was made in 1968 - see link below; and I was watching it with the sound turned-off, and focusing on Tolkien's face (as one does...). This turned-out to be a surprisingly interesting and enlightening experience!

Tolkien was in his mid-seventies at the time of this production; but most of the 'faces' being interviewed were young Oxford students, aged around twenty years. What was extraordinary was how animated this old-man Tolkien was - how mobile and expressive his face; and how much more so than the faces of the young people.

Tolkien is extremely engaged by his environment, alert to the surroundings and the interview situation; his face showing what he feels from moment to moment, with sudden changes in emotion very obvious, and quick smiles, laughs and an impish humour.

Tolkien comes across as exceptionally alive and open, quick-witted, unselfconscious, unguarded and spontaneous - especially considering that he knew he was being filmed and recorded for television.

What I want to emphasise is how unusual this is; what an unusual man Tolkien was. This ought not to be any kind of surprise, because geniuses always are unusual people - one way or another. And how his personality, his nature, was - of course - exactly what was needed to write what he did.

There seems to be no barrier between Tolkien's emotional life and its expression; many of the other people interviewed have faces like masks; there is a public persona, and the inner life is both shielded and blocked.

This perhaps needs emphasising in light of the impression from Humphrey Carpenter's official biography that Tolkien's external life (after the First World War) was dull and uneventful... Well, that clearly did not apply to Tolkien's own experience of his life. We can see this.

What is clear from watching Tolkien is that his moment-by-moment response to being-alive was - at least sometimes, and probably even more so when young than in here in his twilight years - one of tremendous vividness, and power.

Monday 2 July 2018

Solving Tolkien's flat-earth versus spherical-earth problem with the help of Owen Barfield

[Jeremy - in The Notion Club Papers, by JRR Tolkien]

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.

If you went back would you find myth dissolving into history or history into myth?... Perhaps the Atlantis catastrophe was the dividing line?

Tolkien had a problem with his legendarium: the First and Second Ages took place on a flat earth; but at the drowning of Numenor (i.e. the 'Atlantis catastrophe'), and the advent of the Third Age (and the time of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings) the world became a round: a sphere. By this change - which was accomplished by direct action of The One/ Eru/ Iluvatar - the undying lands (Eressea and Valinor) became qualitatively separated from the mortal lands (Middle Earth); so that only the enchanted ships of the Grey Havens could get from one to the other - ordinary ships that went West just came around the globe to reach the other side of the Middle Earth land mass.

But this change in planetary geography due to the Numenor/ Atlantis catastrophe was also the dividing line between a magical-enchanted world of the elves; and the mundane world of Men. The Third Age was a transitional phase between these, during which the High and Grey elves left Middle Earth, and the 'magical Men' of Numenor faded and were diluted into being like the mundane men of Middle Earth (although in LotR we meet several of the very few-remaining 'pure' Numenoreans such as Aragorn, Faramir and Denethor). 

In the Fourth Age (our Age) the elves have all departed or faded into invisibility; the Men have lost all their magic, and the world is disenchanted - lacking contact with, or belief in, elves, or the Valar. (Presumably the Ents and the Dwarves have gone extinct, or concealed themselves.) Hobbits, as a type of mundane Men, are said to remain, but hidden.

Tolkien was never happy about the mechanics and implications of this flat-to-round earth transition; and he kept tinkering with the 'cosmology' until shortly before he died; even (astonishingly, in his seventies) planning at one point to rewrite the entire Silmarillion as a round-earth mythology, involving enormous changes - quite beyond then-resources of Tolkien's time and energy.

Yet there was a possible solution to this problem - and it was one that had been worked-out in detail by Tolkien's fellow Inkling Owen Barfield.

I shall describe this in a moment - but it needs to be made clear that Barfield's solution was never an actual possibility for Tolkien, for many reasons. Barfield was essentially CS Lewis's friend, and Tolkien and Barfield had never been close - probably they spent very little time together outside Lewis's presence. Furthermore, Barfield did not enjoy Lord of the Rings, indeed he apparently was unable to finish reading it. And then, although both were strong Christians, there was a denominational gulf between the two - since Tolkien was a devout traditionalist Roman Catholic and Barfield a heterodox Anthroposophist-Anglican.

Barfield was, indeed, a philosopher with so radical and original a metaphysics that few - even of his admirers and scholars - have been able fully to grasp and explicate the sheer scope of what he assumed, argued and asserted.

For Barfield consciousness was primary, and 'matter' was merely a secondary 'condensation' from pure consciousness. Furthermore consciousness 'evolved' - which means it changed by a process of developmental unfolding; in accordance with the divine plan to enable Men incrementally (and over many thousands of years, and multiple incarnations) eventually to attain to god-hood.

The aimed at divine mode of consciousness was what Barfield termed Final Participation: 'final' because it was divine, and 'participation' because it entailed becoming co-creators with God. Because consciousness was primary, Final Participation happened in thought, in thinking. God thought the universe into existence, this thought was objectively real; and if man attained to this level of consciousness, each Man (in harmony with God's purposes) would become a participant in this creation.

And, because consciousness is primary, for Barfield there was no reality apart-from consciousness. What we perceive (what know by our senses, and by reasoning from sensory data) is all we know of anything. There is an indescribable stuff (what Barfield terms the unrepresented) that exists independently of our perceptions of it; but perceptions can only be understood with concept,s, by thinking - so we know nothing about this unrepresented reality.

We only know what we think, and our thinking is a product of our consciousness, and our consciousness can change qualitatively.

What we regard as objective facts are actually 'Collective Representations. In other words, beings with the same quality of consciousness, perceive the world in the same way, and therefore usually come to regard the world as consisting of data which they suppose to be independent of consciousness. When everybody perceives a tree, then people tend to assume that what is really there is a tree; when actually 'a tree' is a concept that is absolutely dependent on consciousness. 

(It can immediately be seen how alien this way of understanding would have been to Tolkien, even if he had known and grappled with it - which he would have been unlikely to do; probably regarding it as pride-full and blasphemous.)

If Barfield's understanding of the evolution of consciousness was applied to the Numenor/ Atlantis Catastrophe, we would understand it to be a qualitative change in consciousness, imposed upon the inhabitants of the world by The One. It was consciousness that changed, primarily; and as a result, the world became perceived as spherical instead of flat.

(It is not a matter of whether the earth 'really had been' flat, or not; but that such a question is meaningless - since there is no 'really' which is independent of consciousness. To the Second Age consciousness of elves, men, dwarves, Sauron, orcs etc; the new form of consciousness perceived the world as round. And there is no going-behind this perception.)

So, the drowning of Numenor really was, as Jeremy of the Notion Club Papers suggested, a 'dividing line' - in which the era of enchanted myth changed-into the era of mundane history. The change was instantaneous; but the working through of this change took some thousands of years.

(Such a Barfieldian perspective also explains how Tolkien's legendarium is real: really-real, not just applicable fiction! It is real because it is 'about' consciousness; it is a way of 'representing' consciousness and its development, under divine shaping.)

So where does that leave Modern Man, in our Fourth Age - which Barfield sometimes called the Age of the Consciousness Soul? Well, we are of course disenchanted, can no longer perceive the elves or the gods; indeed we deny the reality of any God at all. Whereas the enchanted world of Tolkien's First and Second Age was one where most things were alive and conscious and in communication to some degree (a residue of this remained in the Third Age, in Lothlorien - preserved by Galadriel's ring)  for mundane man, everything is dead: indeed Man understands himself to be dead, and consciousness to be an illusion or epiphenomenon of material processes. Because only matter is real, and matter is experienced as un-alive...

But this is incoherent, insane; it is not a viable form of consciousness: it is consciousness turned against itself. It simultaneously claims to know, while denying even the possibility of knowledge. It claims to discern meaninglessness, to know exactly that which is un-knowable (i.e. to know with certainty how things really-are, independent of that consciousness which knows). 

We need to move into a Fifth Age of Middle Earth; in which we can begin to know that consciousness is primary, and to know that consciousness and reality are indivisible.

This was not a matter that Tolkien addressed in any of the work published during his lifetime - but it is a special appeal of the Notion Club Papers that Tolkien comes to the very edge of this matter; which is a thing that can be done in high fantasy.

In a nutshell, we can - if we choose - regard the Notion Club as a fantasy version of The Inklings; and the unfinished text as the start of a process by which these Fantasy Inklings would, in the course of the full narrative and as its climax, solve this most important of all the problems facing modern materialistic Man.