Wednesday 30 January 2019

Charles Williams and the avoidance of Glastonbury

I am currently reading a book called The Avalonians by Patrick Benham (2nd edition 2006); which is about the people involved in the spiritual re-awakening of Glastonbury in the late 19th, early 20th century.

On particular series of events kept reminding me of Charles Williams's novel, War in Heaven (written 1926, published 1930) - which is about the Holy Grail (spelled Graal) turning-up in England and being pursued by various characters.

I shall try to summarise what happened in real life. In 1898 an English doctor, John Goodchild, bought a strange glass cup in Italy, and was guided by visionary experiences to conceal it in a well in a field Glastonbury. His hope was that it would be found by three maidens and would initiate a rebirth of the feminine aspect of Christianity.

in 1906, the cup was indeed discovered following a vision revealing its whereabouts experienced by Wellesley Tudor Pole. He sent two maidens (two sisters surnamed Allen) to seek it, they found it - and the cup ended up in Clifton, Bristol where it was venerated by a number of people, in a brief, priestess-led, Christian sect.

Tudor Pole regarded the cup as having been possessed by Jesus, and as a kind of physical version of the spiritual grail. He tried to get the cup evaluated and dated by various experts; and in 1907 the matter was taken in hand by Archdeacon Wilberforce (reminding me of the Archdeacon protagonist in War in Heaven), who invited all kinds of nobles and intellectuals to his house to view the cup and try to ascertain its provenance - the cup was later passed around several experts (also including mediums and occultists) with rather contradictory and inconclusive results.

This was supposed to happen in secrecy, and the process was by invitation only; but one of the participants seems to have 'gone to the newspapers' (specifically the Daily Express) and stories claiming some version of  'the Holy Grail has been found in Glastonbury' were investigated and splashed all over the English press in the summer of 1907.

At this time Charles Williams was 20 years old, working in the Methodist Book Room in London, commuting from his home in St Albans; where there was a large scale historical pageant at which he got to know his future wife Florence. Did Williams hear this press coverage of the (or at least 'a') Holy Grail being discovered in Glastonbury, and apparently taken seriously by some contemporary experts (plus some mystics) as being suitably ancient? And did he put some press-derived version of this story into memory, to be adapted and reused some nine years later when composing the early version of War in Heaven?

This led me to notice a further striking thing, an all-but omission from Charles William's published work on the Grail, and indeed on historical Christianity; which is that he seems to have no interest in Glastonbury.

This omission seems striking to me, since the many both Christian and Arthurian legends and histories that twine so luxuriantly around Glastonbury seem - on the face of it - to be exactly the kind of thing that would fascinate Charles Williams. The 'myth' that Joseph of Arimathea brought the Grail to Glastonbury was very well known; and at times many people regarded it as the resting place of Arthur and Guenevere.

Furthermore Williams seems not to have had interest in (or contact with) the Christian esotericists who were during Williams's life associated with the place (e.g. Wellesley Tudor Pole, Dion Fortune, and composer Rutland Boughton who wrote an opera The Birth of Arthur).

In short, Williams's neglect or avoidance of the subject of Glastonbury strikes me as More Than A Coincidence - but I have no explanation for it.

Any suggestions?


Wednesday 23 January 2019

Galadriel and Eowyn Tolkien's exceptional women, and why they 'work' for him (but seldom for other authors)

There are two 'dominant' women characters in Lord of the Rings, Galadriel and Eowyn. Three generations of readers testify to the fact that they 'work' narratively - and in this respect they stand-apart from the many thousands of dominant women characters that have become such a tiresome cliche in recent decades (in fiction, on TV, at the movies - and in 'news' stories) who strike the reader as contrived, incoherent, preachy - mostly just plain Unconvincing.

Aside from Tolkien's far greater skill, the main reason why Galadriel and Eowyn work and so many others fail is that G & E are both presented as exceptional.

Galadriel is second only to Elrond as the most dominating person among the free people's of Earth; and she even has a kind of priority over Elrond in being older, having been born in Valinor - and therefore having the greatest personal 'magical' power (and from being his mother-in-law!).

However, Galadriel is presented as exceptional. Within the Lord of the Rings this exceptional nature is implied by her being the only women of the White Council, and among a handful of the most beautiful women of all time. Further, in the Unfinished Tales and Silmarillion it is emphasised that she was even more exceptional; in being a woman of 'Amazonian' stature and strength - similar in combat ability to all but the very greatest elf warriors.

But Tolkien never asserts that this makes Galadriel typical of 'women' - on the contrary she is an unique phenomenon, and marked out as such from birth. She is the female complement to Feanor - both High Elves who attained god-like stature due to their attributes.

By contrast, modern authors generally imply or actually assert that exceptional women such as Galadriel are numerous - either in actuality or in potential; or would be numerous, if not oppressed; or should be normal if women were properly motivated - by which they mean pursuing success in the public realm rather than in the family context.

Galadriel is indeed married to Celeborn, and had a daughter. This merits analysis. Celeborn is officially the ruler of Lothlorien (one of only two large elf kingdoms, the other being Mirkwood) - and described (in LotR) as the greatest of the elves of middle earth; because he is a Sindarin elf, born in middle earth - but as such of lesser wisdom and authority than the High Elves. He is a member of the White Council, along with other Sindar such as Thranduil of Mirkwood* (who he outranks in age and experience, and because of his wife), and Cirdan the shipwright - but while Galadriel defers to Celeborn in public, she is clearly a personage of greater stature than her husband.

Anyway, Galadriel is married and a mother - and the greatest female power in history; and there is no other like her among the Children of Illuvatar.

What about Eowyn? She is a warrior, who does the great feat of slaying the Nazgul's flying beast; then (after Merry has made her sword effectual) the Witch King and Chief of the Nine; one of the greatest heroic feats in the entire history of Middle Earth. Clearly, an exceptional woman - and she is an ordinary mortal Man, and her success is in the realm of pure fighting, which is a masculine domain.

However, it is neither implied nor claimed that Eowyn is the match of the male Riders of Rohan in strength or swordcraft - as she could not have been; and her great feat was not the product of her being a great warrior, but the product of amazing courage fortified by her love for Theoden; a feat perfomed to protect her uncle and adoptive father.

Courage, yes indeed; but also a desperate, reck-less disregard of her own life. Because - like many and probably most real-life exceptional women, women of genius - Eowyn is (until she loves Faramir) somewhat crazy. So she is Not presented as a 'role model' or template for how 'women in general' ought-to live - indeed when healed in body and spirit; Eowyn quite explicitly abandons her life as shield maiden, and man-in-disguise.

So, what can we learn? In Tolkien as in real life, there are exceptional women of high attainment in the public realm - and also that such women are exceptional, they are rare. Furthermore, when they are mortal Men (not semi-divine elves), such women are often somewhat crazy, extremely odd - and recognised as such.

So there are real warrior queens, like the English national heroine Boudica (Boadicea); and like Boudica they are often damaged, crazed persons. There are also rare and exceptional women who are truly great political leaders - like Queen Elizabeth I - but she was also an extremely strange person, and by no means a model for women-in-general.

There are many women genuises, especially in literature; but again they are rare and (almost always) somewhat crazy, in one way or another.

(Don't take my word; try for yourself - First make a list of the best-ever women literary authors - novelists, essayists and poets (there aren't any great women playwrights); and then evaluate them biographically for craziness, chaos, weirdness, extreme eccentricity etc.)

So Tolkien's ability to include powerful and exceptional women who accomplish greatly in traditional realms of masculine attainment - and to do so absolutely convincingly in narrative terms; is simply that Tolkien knows such women exist, but he never tries to pretend that they are anything but exceptional.

Tolkien does not try to pretend that such women ever have been, are, could be, or should be, anything other than very uncommon.

*Note added 5 August 2023: On further consideration, Thranduil seems Not to have been a member of the White Council; because in The Hobbit the King of the Wood Elves of Mirkwood (i.e. Thranduil) did not participate in the deliberations and actions of the White Council is forcing the Necromancer (i.e. Sauron) from his stronghold in Mirkwood (i.e. Dol Guldur).  

Sunday 13 January 2019

The problem of professional fantasy writers - the author-editor system

The greatest fantasy fiction has been written by 'amateur' authors such as Kenneth Grahame, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien; and therefore the fact that the fantasy publishing genre has grown to become a significant money-making activity has set a ceiling on quality, even as it has massively amplified the quality.

Admittedly that quality ceiling among professional authors is a high one; yet it does exclude the truly great work. The exception which proves this rule is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, the only first-rate work of fantasy in recent decades - and one that was written by a first time author over a period of a decade.

Harry Potter may also be regarded as first rate at its best, albeit the quality is uneven and the series sags in the middle; and JK Rowling became professional, famous and wealthy during the writing. I do not think it is known for sure how much of the superb last volume (Deathly Hallows) was composed early in the gestation of the series - but even if DH was mostly conceptualised from the start, actually producing it under such unprecedented intensity of publicity and expectation was an astonishing achievement.

There are some obvious reasons why professional fantasy does not scale the highest heights. One is the volume of production needed to make a living as a writer: the continuous pressure of time. Another is that there is never very much work of the first rank, so that when a genre expands it almost inevitably does so by the increase in somewhat lower quality work.

But a significant fact is the publication system of author-editor collaboration - which the fantasy genre inherited from science fiction (and, I think, other high volume genres - and magazines such as the New Yorker). The author prepares a first draft, which he then 'turns-over to a professional editor, who then works on the text with the author; detecting errors, pointing-out weaknesses and omissions, making suggestions about structure - often at a very fine level of detail. This process may be repeated several times.

This author-editor system acts as a quality control mechanism and also increases 'efficiency' by allowing the author to concentrate on what he does best - which is seldom the kind of detailed and prolonged critical examination of his own creative work.

By contrast, the old system had no editor (although sometimes the author's agent would perfom some of the activities of a modern editor) - the author interacted with the publisher directly, and the 'quality control' was done by the author (and whatever method the author chose) and was official only at the level of the typesetting and proof-reading (where, for example, spelling was checked, and sometimes altered to the publishers standard form).

Grahame's Wind in the Willows is inconsistent to the level of gross incoherence - a modern editor would never have allowed such a hodge-podge to be published; yet the book is unsurpassed in children's literature. CS Lewis's fictions were mostly second draft and published unchanged. The Narnia Chronicles are riddled with errors - but that does not stop them from being first rate. Tolkien did his own editing for Lord of the Rings, which he hated doing - and greatly damaged his efficiency; but he did a superb job with his own work, and of course he produced one of the great books of all time.

As a strong generalisation; to be a professional author, a writer must be efficient. But mandatory efficiency is the enemy of human accomplishment at the very highest level.

Quantity comes at the cost of quality - but in a complex fashion. The lowest quality is filtered-out, average quality may rise, and the limit on quality is detectable only by the exclusion of genius.

Any system that increases efficiency will prevent first-rate accomplishment. It is as simple as that; and confirmation can be found in most areas of creative human endeavour - including science, medicine, teaching and scholarship.

Note: However, music may be an exception - at least up to the advent of Romanticism. Most of the greatest classical composers up to Beethoven were professionals, were highly productive - and they were efficient. I'm not sure why - but music often is an exception to other rules of creativity; perhaps because it depends so much upon sheer technical skill.