Sunday 19 May 2019

Video interview with Bruce Charlton: The vital relevance of The Inklings

Keri Ford has done a half hour video interview with me on the subject of The Inklings, including many subjects such as the development of this blog, the spiritual meaning of The Inklings, and their importance for the future.

Thanks to Keri for this opportunity to expound my opinions in this medium for the first time!

Friday 17 May 2019

The first enchantment of Lord of the Rings

Ever since my first reading, the episode when Frodo, Sam and Pippin meet the High Elves (led by Gildor Inglorien) in the Shire, walk with them, and are given an outdoor feast at Woody End, has been one of my very favourites in the book. I now perceive that I have been responding to the first enchantment of the story, as experienced by the protagonists.

For Sam and Pippin, this is the first time they have met elves at all; for Frodo, it is implied this is his first meeting with High elves; those elves thousands of years old, who were born in the undying lands and dwelt with the gods - and who regard themselves as exiles in Middle Earth.

The enchantment is perceived in the beauty of the singing, the language, and the light (reflected starlight and a glow like that of the not-yet-risen moon) that surrounds the elves as they walk through the Shire.

At first the elvish conversation is rather superficial, indeed more than a little facetious and condescending (since elves tend to regard mortal hobbits as children); but quite quickly a tone of seriousness enters, as the elves realise that the hobbits are being pursued by Nazgul, and therefore 'great matters' are afoot.

The feast is permeated with a magical quality - the food and drink are better than mortals can contrive; and an act of enchantment is performed by Gildor on Frodo, which has the immediate and permanent effect of making Frodo into an elf-friend (a change that is immediately visible to The Wise) and a prophetic dreamer.

I find the combination of The Shire - an 'English' countryside very familiar to me from childhood - and elvish magic to have irresistible appeal.

Monday 13 May 2019

Many Mansions: Charles Williams, Modernity, and the Mass - guest post by John Fitzgerald

There is much to be gained, I feel, in reading and reflecting on the work of Charles Williams in the midst of the political, social and cultural turbulence of our times. His concepts of co-inherence, substitution and exchange form, to my mind, a razor-sharp riposte to both the atomised individualism of the free-market right and the divisive identity politics of the liberal left.

 The individual, first and foremost, is sacrosanct for Williams. Personhood, for him, cannot be subsumed into the collectivities of race (Fascism) or class (Communism). But this by no means makes Williams an individualist. The person is a unique, unrepeatable being with a high and holy calling. But he or she is not a random, free-floating agent, shorn of ties to the past and future and operating in a sealed off, customised bubble of the self. No. The individual, in a society which genuinely aims at the Good, forms part of an organic whole, grounded in history and oriented towards the Divine. Through participating in a deep-rooted project which transcends the individual self, men and women are saved from alienation and despair and given purpose and direction. In service we find our freedom - a wider, more comprehensive good, which neither obliterates nor idolises the individual self, but allows what is unique and unrepeatable in each of us to flourish and shine.

Everything co-inheres for Williams, not just the political and social realms, but the whole universe. There is no boundary between the living and the dead and the natural and the super-natural (or 'arch-natural' as Williams called it). We are all interlinked and interconnected. The dead pray for the living as the living pray for the dead, and the natural and arch-natural worlds form one and the same reality.

This is what Williams depicts in his poem Taliessin on the Death of Virgil (from his 1938 collection Taliessin Through Logres), where those who have drawn sustenance from Virgil's poetry down the centuries save him from post-mortem oblivion and guide him towards salvation:

In that hour they came; more and faster, they sped
to their dead master; they sought him to save
from the spectral grave and the endless falling,
who had heard, for their own instruction, the sound of his calling.
There was intervention, suspension, the net of their loves,
all their throng's songs:
Virgil, master and friend,
holy poet, priest, president of priests,
prince long since of all our energies' end,
deign to accept adoration, and what salvation
may reign here by us, deign of goodwill to endure,
in this net of obedient loves, doves of your cote and wings,
Virgil, friend, lover, and lord.

Virgil was fathered of his friends.
He lived in their ends.
He was set on the marble of exchange.

There is a marvellous outpouring of gratitude here for one who gave so much to so many but now lies helpless - a mutuality, reciprocity and relationally which we in the contemporary West would do well to tune into and put into practice. But even if Williams' ideas were successfully transposed to the political and social spheres, it would still (one imagines) take decades to reorientate society from today's dominant materialist paradigm to this generous, all-encompassing vision of the visible and invisible working in tandem for the common good.

The buffered, 'secular self' of post-Enlightenment modernity acts as a brake on human flourishing. In denying the reality of the arch-natural it cuts us off from the Divine and stifles our potential. It serves as a limit rather than a liberation, and for meaningful change to occur, in either the individual or the corporate realms, this reductionist barrier has to be dismantled.

This is where Williams comes into his own as an unveiler of the sacramental nature of reality and the deep pattern of meaning and purpose woven into creation. This quality is embedded in everything he wrote - novels, theology, literary criticism and poetry - but I want to single out in this brief essay the way he portrays the Mass in his poem Taliessin at Lancelot's Mass (the concluding poem of Taliessin Through Logres) and the final chapter of his novel War in Heaven (1930). The Mass is especially important because natural elements (bread and wine) become imbued with arch-natural significance and there is a profoundly Williamsesque intertwining of levels. Taliessin at Lancelot's Mass paints an evocative picture of solidarity between the living and the dead and a renewed sense of purpose and direction after the passing of Arthur. Logres is broken and has sunk into Britain, but that is a minor detail in this great poem of reparation and fraternity, which gathers the whole Arthurian community - living and deceased - in thanksgiving for what has gone before and in anticipation of the restoration, at the appointed hour, of God's holy kingdom. It is a poem which encourages us to see further than the premises of a materialist science allow and to feel ourselves part of a wider community of seen and unseen presences:

In the ritual before the altar Lancelot began to pass;
all the dead lords of the table were drawn from their graves to the Mass;
they stood, inward turned, as shields on a white rushing deck,
Between Nimue of Broceliande and Helayne of Carbonek ...

Then at the altar We sang in Our office the cycle of names
of the great attributed virtues; the festival of flames
fell from new sky to new earth; the light in bands
of bitter glory renewed the imperial lands.

At the end of War in Heaven, the legendary Grail Priest and King, Prester John, celebrates a Mass of the Holy Grail (or Graal, as Williams calls it) in thanks for the rescue of a four year old boy, Adrian, the son of Lionel and Barbara Rackstraw, from black magicians who also aimed to destroy the Grail itself. Those attending the Mass - the Duke of the North Ridings, for instance - become aware of other presences around them:

The Duke leaned forward a little in perplexity; he saw the forms with which he was acquainted, but here and there, only always just to one side or in some corner, he seemed to see other forms. They had vanished in a moment, yet they had been there. He had caught certain of the faces which he knew in the great gallery of the ancestors in the Castle, and other faces more antique and foreign than these, a turbaned head, a helmed and armoured shape, outlandish robes, and the glint of many crowns. They had vanished, and he saw Adrian plunge to his feet and go to the celebrant's side. And clear and awful to his ears their voices floated.

Then comes a moment of radiant luminosity when the veil of perception is lifted, time and space are transcended, and Lionel, Barbara and the Duke are shown a world of three-dimensional grandeur and depth, as in C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle, when, in the final chapter, the protagonists see all the countries in all the worlds, including Narnia and England, jutting out like spurs from the towering mountains of Aslan's country:

He (Prester John) stood. He moved his hands. As if in benediction He moved them, and at once the golden halo that had hung all this while over the Graal dissolved and dilated into spreading colour; and at once life leapt in all those who watched, and filled and flooded and exalted them. "Let us make man," he sang, "in our image, after Our likeness," and all the church of visible and invisible presences answered with a roar: "In the image of God created He him: male and female created He them." All things began again to be. At a great distance Lionel and Barbara and the Duke saw beyond Him, as he lifted up the Graal, the mixing universe of stars, and then one flying planet, and then fields and rooms and a thousand remembered places, and all in light and darkness and peace.

'The privileged place of encounter,' wrote Pope Francis in 2015, 'is the caress of mercy of Jesus Christ on my sins ... It is thanks to the embrace of mercy that one feels like answering and changing, and from which a different life can flow.' This is undoubtedly true, particularly on a personal level, yet I feel we also need a sense of the vast array of spiritual forces lined up on our side - the serried ranks of angels and archangels and the Communion of Saints, who watch over us and encourage us at all times.

There have been novels and films aplenty, over the years, about the demonic influences pressing against us, but little concerning the powers for good who work invisibly for the salvation and transfiguration of individuals and nations. This is precisely the kind of awareness we need at this time - a breaking open of the small, empirical self and a growing consciousness of the all-embracing pattern that holds us, nurtures us and makes us active participants in a meaningful universe.

A happy, fulfilled society should be a partnership between those here now, those gone before us, and those yet to come. But such wide-ranging vision will always feel beyond us if we cannot perceive the spiritual reality that surrounds and enfolds us. 'In my father's house are many mansions,' says Christ in St. John's Gospel. There is no-one better, for where we are now in history, at pointing the way to these mansions than Charles Williams.

I am sure that as time goes on people will feel increasingly trapped and boxed-in by the bureaucratic, technocratic cage of hyper-modernity. I hope and pray that their search for an 'off-ramp' leads them to Charles Williams and that his collapsing of borders between the natural and arch-natural worlds gives them the hope, sustenance and clarity of vision that they need. Williams' finest hour, perhaps, might be just around the corner.

John Fitzgerald blogs at Deep Britain and Ireland

Thursday 9 May 2019

The temporary breakdown in Tolkien's marriage in 1946?

I remember when I first read Humphrey Carpenter's 1977 biography of JRR Tolkien, that it heavily hinted at some unspecified marital problems of a fairly serious type; and I have been waiting for the past several decades to learn about these in more detail.

I now feel that these can be pinpointed to a period in late 1945 to early 1946.

I have located this significant marital disharmony at the exact same that Tolkien seems to have had a 'nervous breakdown', with enforced absence from work; although I am unsure of the direction of causality.

Overall, I suspect that it was Tolkien's nervous breakdown that caused, or exacerbated, the problem to the extent that that he and Edith decided to spend some time apart, while he recovered his state of mind.

There seems to have been a build up of problems with Tolkien speaking about this to Warnie Lewis in December 1945, and period of separation in March-April of 1946 which Tolkien called a rest-cure. This had Christopher and his father living in a pub, while Edith and (presumably) Priscilla went to Bournmouth.

This time apart (variously described as ten days or three weeks) seems to have been helpful; and I don't know of any other periods when separation was needed.

I have always assumed that the nature and chronology of the Tolkien marital problems was known about for sure by some Tolkien scholars who have had access to unpublished material, including Humphrey Carpenter; but had not been made public presumably due to the sensitivities of living people.

Is any reader able to confirm or refute my inferences on this matter? If you would rather not make your response public, then I can be emailed at the address in the sidebar.

Wednesday 8 May 2019

Tolkien and reincarnation

Although reincarnation is firmly excluded from his devoutly practised Roman Catholic Christianity, as being Not True; Tolkien seems to have had a spontaneous and intuitive belief in the reality of some version of the very-broadly-defined possibility of deceased souls (or significant aspects of them) returning in different bodies.

This seems the likeliest reason for the repeated occurrence of reincarnation - not only in his fictions, but also in remarks he made in private life.

In his fiction; elves are able to reincarnate if killed - although this is only made clear in posthumously published material; Glorfindel being an example. He was himself killed while killing a Balrog at the fall of Gondolin, and he returns to Middle Earth to dwell with Elrond and perform the role of saving Frodo's life at the Fords of Bruinen.

In his posthumously-published writings (The History of Middle Earth sequence, edited by Christopher Tolkien) we find Tolkien grappling with the logistics of elvish reincarnation. But this seems like a surface concern with the logic of the system - underlying which is Tolkiens intuitive conviction that elves do reincarnate. Since elves are a type of human, both being 'children of Illuvatar' and interbreeding, the implications are obvious. 

Among Dwarves, the primal ancestor Durin is known to have reincarnated seven times - although the  details are unclear, it seems that this really was the soul of Durin reappearing after having died. It seems to be implied that Durin is an unique instance among Dwarves; however it establishes the principle of possibility. 

Arwen is also a sort-of reincarnation of Luthien; who had become a Man and died - although Arwen cannot have been a literal reincarnation for that reason (she must have had a different soul). In this respect Arwen resembles several characters among Men who seem to be 'throwbacks' to earlier ages; by a process that is not reincarnation but shares some aspects. For example, Denethor, Faramir and (especially) Aragorn are 'pure' Numenoreans, that have - by some non-genetic heredity - been born in a later age, separated by many generations from similar forbears.

In Real Life, Tolkien sometimes stated profound convictions of a similar kind in relation to modern Men. In particular, he sometimes expressed a belief that each person has an innate real-language, which may differ from any language he had actually encountered (see scattered refs in JRR Tolkien's Letters, 1981. Edited by H Carpenter and C Tolkien). This conviction is given more detail, while being lightly fictionalised, in the discussions of The Notion Club Papers (published in The History of Middle Earth, Volume 9).

Furthermore, in regard to himself (and presumably validated by an inner, intuitive, sense of knowledge) Tolkien stated that he inherited (but he did not seem to mean 'genetically', but by some other mode of inheritance) some very specific traits from his mother's side of the family (the Suffields). These include a special affinity with the West Midlands of England, and the historical languages of its Old- and Middle-English dialects (see Letters).

(Tolkien seems to have regarded his Tolkien and Suffield ancestors rather analogously to Bilbo's Baggins and Took ancestors - in both cases the surname was misleading, and the maternal line was primary.) 

There are other example; but I think there is enough here to conclude that Tolkien was fascinated by the mysterious, spiritual ways in which personal characteristics were transmitted down generations. And that he probably believed that it was possible - even if it did not happen often, or 'nowadays' - for a soul to be reborn with a new body.

And further, that Tolkien found this to be a fascinating and attractive possibility - so much so, that he risked - and attracted (Letters 153) criticism from his co-religionists by expressing these beliefs.

Monday 6 May 2019

Tolkien (the movie) - 2019

The new Tolkien 'biopic' movie was rather frustrating. The first half was extremely good; not least in its ambition - there was a real attempt to make the movie about friendship, language, Tolkien's love of Edith and other similarly important things. This was done in a highly creative way, resulting in a film unlike any other I have seen.

The whole atmosphere and style was original and enjoyable; and some of the scenes - especially of the school and the boys' 'club' were really delightful. The plot was only loosely based on reality, but the spirit was really quite authentic.

The makers even manged to illustrate Tolkien's particular way of making and exploring languages in a highly effective and enjoyable fashion.

So the 'set-up' was very good, and I was beginning to hope that this might be a first rate movie.

But in the second part of the movie, it pretty much fell to pieces - notably in a fantasy nightmare Battle of the Somme sequence which was implausible, boring and embarrassing.

But in general, the narrative lost its grip, the plot strayed further and further from reality (including what all Tolkien lovers had been dreading - the obligatory false-fabricated homosexual intrusion; albeit mercifully understated and brief). The ending looked very anachronistic, felt perfunctory and was unsatisfying.

Overall, Tolkien (the movie) was worth watching, and there is plenty of evidence that it was an ambitious and sincere attempt at producing a story loosely-based on Tolkien's early life and most passionate motivations. But it is easier to begin well than to end gratifyingly; and this movie began well and then fizzled-out.

Note: The definitive account of Tolkien's early life in the period covered by the biopic, is Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth - which is undoubtedly one of the very best books ever written about Tolkien.