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.


Chiu ChunLing said...

I think that it is important to understand that to say that someone is blessed means that someone else has done the blessing.

And while it is right and proper that those who are blessed should receive the blessing, it is not right that they should forget gratitude for those who have blessed them, through an abundance of strength to do good rather than mere dislike of suffering evil.

I do not feel that Tolkien himself ever forgets what gratitude is due to the heroic effort put forth by the strong and courageous on behalf of the weak and timid.

But I do feel that many people try to use Tolkien to justify impotence and cowardice as superior virtues.

Blessed are those who gratefully accept blessing. Cursed are those who forget from whence all blessings flow.

C.W. Bradley said...

It is interesting that Tolkien says “of things nor found within *recorded* time.” Combined with this quote from the Notion Club Papers: "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” and a similar statement in the Lost Road it seems like Tolkien really did believe there is more to prehistory than the common view that it is mostly barbarism.

These lines in particular are excellent:

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).”

Tolkien acknowledges that there is evil in the world but the solution is not economics or social engineering or Transhumanism or the solutions put forward by the self-appointed aristocrats who despise Leftism but cannot imagine anything better than a world of relentless status competition.

I think the “timid hearts that evil hate” and the others blessed in the poem may be timid but they certainly aren’t “cowardly.” These are people who are afraid to face evil in “open battle” and know they are not strong enough to defeat it. Yet, they do not compromise with evil when it is expedient, nor do they surrender. Even if the idea that there is something better seems impossible like nothing more than hopeless escapism, they hold true to their vision of the Good the Beautiful and the True and live according to it.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if these parts are not only deliberately interacting with the Beatitudes but also, in various ways, with both Ecclesiasticus chapters 44-50 and Arthur O'Shaughnessy's Ode (including, as set by Elgar as The Music Makers)?

David Llewellyn Dodds