Saturday, 16 October 2021

A 35 year relationship with Surprised by Joy by CS Lewis (1955)

I first read Surprised by Joy in about 1985; during a period of time when I was actively investigating Christianity. Then and since, I regard this autobiography of CS Lewis as a superb book - one of the best autobiographies ever, and as full of perfectly expressed and permanently memorable stuff as any other book of its length. 

In particular, the focus of this book - the experience of 'Joy' (which is essentially the same as Novalis's Sehnsucht or a Colin Wilson's Peak Experience) has for me, as it was for Lewis, been probably the core of my life. 

Surprised by Joy described my own deepest spontaneous yearnings, diagnosed exactly the ineradicable problems with making that 'desire' and 'state of mind' the focus of my life - and pointed to the answer in Christianity. An answer that I eventually reached myself - and in which I continue to regard Lewis as one of the most important of my mentors.


So here was a first-rate book which was written by a man with whom I had much in common, spiritually, in that we were both lifelong Romantics; a book describing beginning with Joy and becoming a Christian...    

Yet the fact is that I did not become a Christian; not until more than 20 years after reading SbJ

Also, it was only after a few more years as a Christian when I reached the point of being able to reach what I regard as a satisfactory way of knowing Christianity to be the real and full answer to my Romantic yearning; I mean (what I call) Romantic Christianity


The reason that Surprised by Joy did not convert me back in 1985, I now perceive to be because it defines the problem, and make the diagnosis - but does not provide the answer.

Indeed, in its final concluding passages, SbJ explicitly rules-out what I would now regard as the true solution to the problem. Here is the penultimate paragraph:


But what, in conclusion, of Joy? for that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian. I cannot, indeed, complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away. I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old stab, the old bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries, "Look!" The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. "We would be at Jerusalem."

You see the problem?


In the end, Lewis explicitly repudiates his past Romanticism - by re-labelling Joy as merely a pointer to a Christian way of living that is not - of itself - Romantic.

This did not answer the question which drove me - which was how to carry my innate and dominating Romanticism forward into being a Christian. 

Lewis was content (or said here that he was!) to become a Christian with a Romantic hobby; but I wanted to be a Christian whose faith was Romantic - root and branch. 


When I first became a Christian, I indulged my romanticism mainly in contemplating the aesthetic aspects of Christianity that had always drawn me - the beauty of cathedrals and old churches, the beauty of the Authorized Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer... but these are not intrinsic; and they do not permeate down to the level of thinking - that thinking which includes the moral and the true, as well as the beautiful; that thinking which knows the coherence and relations of living and conscious Beings from the inside.

This is the demand of the real romantic - nothing less. 


But this is not a feature of mainstream Christianity as derived from any of the churches - indeed, it cannot be derived from any external authority; because it rests upon the ultimate authority of imagination and intuition; heart thinking not intellect; of inner grasp; of direct knowing.  

So Lewis's usual advice to new Christian converts - you must pick a traditional-orthodox church (preferably one you were born into) then subordinate yourself to its instruction - was not advice I could take. 

Nor was it advice I much wanted to take (although I tried, initially) since I could soon observe the corruption and indeed apostasy of the churches (which turns out, since early 2020, to be far more extreme and complete an apostasy than I had supposed possible).


Yet Romantic Christianity is present even in orthodoxy - although in practice subordinated rather than formative. Lewis himself contradicted his non-Romantic Christianity in several of the best parts of his Narnia books. And indeed, Romantic Christianity is exactly what I get from a close reading of the Fourth Gospel ('John') - which is the only book of the Bible where there is a complete identity of word and being. 

Reading the Fourth Gospel with full conviction and recognizing its primary authority among all scripture and divine provenance; I find that the mode of reading, the mode of thinking, is itself that which was sought after. This book is not a test of instructions for how to live; it is a book which itself can be an instance of how to live.  

Likewise I can get this at times in Narnia - for example in the character of Lucy, Reepicheep and the children towards the end of Dawn Treader, the underground parts of Silver Chair, or The Last Battle - when I can feel that This Is It... almost despite what Lewis explicitly asserted (in his theological lectures and essays) how things ought-to-be for a devout Christian. 


In other words, it is my conviction that Joy - rigorously considered and pursued - is not just a pointer to Christianity; but a vital element in actually being a Christian. 

And, indeed, a Christianity that is not rooted in Joy, is not of much value in the world as it has now become. It is Joy that saves us from the near-total negativity towards The World (a world so thoroughly contaminated and dominated by evil, as it is) which is otherwise the unenviable fate of Christians. 

Therefore we still may benefit from the definitions and diagnoses of Surprised by Joy - but when it comes to a prescription for what ails us; we need to look to Narnia and Middle Earth, The Fourth Gospel - and to the insights of such as Owen Barfield.

These make clearer that our task is to bring to explicit and chosen consciousness the intimations of Joy and let them lead us seamlessly into Christian thinking, Christian being. 

Joy (properly understood) is the actual experience of eternal resurrected life in Heaven - it is what we can experience of Heaven here on earth, during these brief mortal lives.   


Friday, 24 September 2021

The Rings of Power - failure for Sauron, success for Morgoth

Sauron decided to make nineteen rings of power for elves, dwarves and men - and the One Ring to control them. So, did his plan work? 

Overall not. The nine rings for men were the best success; since they produced the Ringwraiths, who were powerful and completely loyal to their master. But the dwarves were resistant to being enslaved - so Sauron got those back which had not been destroyed by dragon fire. And the elven rings were never tainted by the touch of Sauron, and were only used when he did not have the One Ring. 

Even when Sauron had possession of the One Ring - and maximally enhanced by it; nonetheless, his armies were defeated by the Last Alliance of elves and Men - and Sauron himself was slain (in his bodily form) by Gil-galad and Elendil.

And then, after Sauron had lost possession of the One Ring; he was destroyed spiritually by its destruction.

If we presume that the purpose of the rings of power was to gain power for Sauron - because power was Sauron's primary goal; then they did not work; and did him more harm than good in the end. 


But if the rings were an error from the point of view of Sauron's will for power; they were a success from the point of view of Morgoth's 'Satanic' agenda; which was to corrupt the world and creation, in spite of Eru. 

The corruption of the Ringwraiths has always been mentioned. But although not enslaved by their rings, the dwarves were corrupted. The rings enhanced their core sin - which was greed for material things, for wealth. The dwarf rings were desired by (some) dwarves because they were supposed to amplify wealth, that was the flaw of greed which the rings then amplified. 

And even the elf rings amplified the elves major sin - which was the desire to slow down time and change: to make the mortal lands of middle earth more like the undying lands. This increased the elvish tendency to inertia, regret; towards passive self-absorption.

Plus the One Ring, after Sauron had lost it. This caused considerable and widespread corruption. Most obviously by turning Saruman (the greatest wizard) to the side of evil. Also the ill effects on Isildur, Denethor and Boromir (among the greatest of Men). Then there was the chronic temptation of Galadriel - the greatest High Elf of the age (eventually overcome). 

At the smaller scale there were historically significant effects on the proto-hobbits Deagol and Smeagol - and the pain and corruption done to Frodo. 

Indeed, only Bilbo and Sam seem to have had net-benefit from the One Ring. 


So the rings of power failed to achieve dominating power for their maker Sauron; but achieved an increase in the amount of evil in the world which benefitted Sauron's master - Morgoth. They made a considerable contribution to the agenda of evil.


Acknowledgment: The above ideas were developed in conversation with my son, Billy

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Sam's character was transformed by encountering the High Elves of Woody End, much as was Frodo's

I tend to think of the character of Sam Gamgee as being stable throughout the Lord of the Rings; but that is not really true. 

When the quest begins, Sam has been instructed by Gandalf to accompany Frodo - but he agree mainly because he wants to meet with elves. In the early phase of the quest - before setting-out and for the first day of the journey; Sam is not explicitly and obviously devoted to Frodo, in the complete and self-sacrificing way he was later. He seems more like a normal, faithful domestic servant. 

But the encounter with High Elves in Woody End seems to have had a transformative effect on Sam - much as it did on Frodo; after Gildor named him 'Elf Friend'

He looked at Sam Gamgee, and discovered that Sam was watching him. ‘Well, Sam!’ he said. ‘What about it? I am leaving the Shire as soon as ever I can - in fact I have made up my mind now not even to wait a day at Crickhollow, if it can be helped.’

‘Very good, sir!’

‘You still mean to come with me?’

‘I do.’ ‘It is going to be very dangerous, Sam. ‘It is already dangerous. Most likely neither of us will come back.’

‘If you don’t come back, sir, then I shan’t, that’s certain,’ said Sam. "Don’t you leave him!" they said to me. "Leave him!" I said. "I never mean to. I am going with him, if he climbs to the Moon, and if any of those Black Rulers try to stop him, they’ll have Sam Gamgee to reckon with", I said. They laughed.’

‘Who are 'they', and what are you talking about?’

‘The Elves, sir. We had some talk last night; and they seemed to know you were going away, so I didn’t see the use of denying it. Wonderful folk, Elves, sir! Wonderful!’

‘They are,’ said Frodo. ‘Do you like them still, now you have had a closer view?’

‘They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak,’ answered Sam slowly. ‘It don’t seem to matter what I think about them. They are quite different from what I expected - so old and young, and so gay and sad, as it were.’

Frodo looked at Sam rather startled, half expecting to see some outward sign of the odd change that seemed to have come over him. It did not sound like the voice of the old Sam Gamgee that he thought he knew. But it looked like the old Sam Gamgee sitting there, except that his face was unusually thoughtful.

‘Do you feel any need to leave the Shire now - now that your wish to see them has come true already?’ he asked.

‘Yes, sir. I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, that I want - I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.’

‘I don’t altogether. But I understand that Gandalf chose me a good companion. I am content. We will go together.’

So; Sam is not named an Elf Friend, but he is changed by the experience of conversing with the Elves; perhaps when the Elves said "Don't you leave him!" - this was partly an enhancement of what he already felt, partly a clarification; and perhaps also the injunction was also taken as an order from those of greater wisdom and authority. 

At any rate, from then onwards - and permanently, Sam put Frodo first.   


Sunday, 19 September 2021

Review of The Nature of Middle Earth by JRR Tolkien (2021; edited by Carl F Hostetter)



The Nature of Middle Earth by JRR Tolkien; edited by Carl F Hostetter. HarperCollins: London, 2021.

This book is significant as being the first collection of mostly-unpublished JRR Tolkien writings to emerge since the death of his son Christopher; being edited by Carl Hostetter. It is a book that serious Tolkien readers will want to own and use; because it is something like a cross between The History of Middle Earth Volume XII and an addition to Unfinished Tales

Therefore, those who regard HoME and/ or UT as important, will not want to miss this one: there are many things here which I regard of permanent value; and I am very grateful to know them. 


These are too many to list. Perhaps the essay Osanwe-kenta may take pride of place (I had already read this, but it was previously only available in a small circulation magazine). This is a detailed consideration (relevant to both Middle earth and our own world) of the 'communication of thought' by what might be termed telepathy, including the implications for free will. This was of extraordinary depth and interest to me.   

Another section is given the title of Description of Characters, and is Tolkien's commentary on Pauline Baynes's illustrated map of Middle Earth from 1970. For example, Tolkien regarded the back-view of Boromir as an almost perfect representation of his imagination; while Sam and Gimli were 'good enough'. On the other hand he was critical of several (most!) others including Gandalf, Legolas, Aragorn, Shelob and the Black Riders; and in making these criticisms he gives further detailed accounts of how he saw them.

The bulk of the book is about elves; including a great deal about their different types (also why they ended up different) and very large scale considerations of the justice and wisdom of the Valar in their dealings with elves. All this was absolutely gripping, and operates at a very deep spiritual level. 
 

The book does, however, have a significant flaw in that it begins badly - i.e. boringly. There are 166 pages under the section title of Time and Ageing - with repeated developing drafts of Tolkien's consideration of the time-lines, time-experiences (relative between the undying lands and Middle earth, and between races), movements of elves; and a lot about the elves rates of growth and reproduction. These are often presented in terms of tables of figures, and lists.

There was a great deal to interest me among these 166 pages; but there is no denying that there is a great deal of repetition and minutiae. There is considerable relevance - even here - for those of us fascinated by Tolkien's mind and creative processes. But I think it was - I believe - an error to begin the book with this material; because some readers who open and start reading at page one, will probably get no further. I would have placed this material in the middle of the volume; and probably relegated some of the repetition and tables to an optional appendix.   

The last section of the book, entitled The world, its lands, and their inhabitants - may have the broadest appeal to those whose interest is focused on Lord of the Rings. It consists of 100 pages of extra 'snippets' about all kinds of things. I was particularly pleased to learn more about Numenor (everyday life, reproductive life, ageing etc).


In general; this volume is (I think) the first to provide abundant new authorial material on what might be termed demographic, social and organizational aspects of Middle Earth (and the undying lands) - which are often stated to be neglected by Tolkien because they are omitted from Lord of the Rings. The Nature of Middle Earth proves that Tolkien had indeed considered such matters, often in considerable detail - albeit often after the publication of LotR

Overall, this is a book aimed at Tolkien aficionados such as myself; but for us it takes its place alongside John D Rateliff's two volume History of The Hobbit - valuably supplementary to the many earlier (and uniquely, filially, authoritative) volumes edited by Christopher Tolkien. 

Monday, 16 August 2021

What makes Men better than elves?

Why is it that in Tolkien's world, Men come after the 'first born' elves and take-over from elves as the dominant humans on Middle Earth?

In one sense this sequence of elves then Men 'had to' be true if elves ever were to be dominant, because Tolkien was writing 'feigned history' and his reader lives in a world of Men - where elves are either absent or hidden. 

This sequence of first elves, then men - was indeed planned by Eru (God) - implying that it is A Good Thing for men to take-over - that it is better for the world to be run by Men than by elves.

Yet the reader finds this hard to understand, and Tolkien is never able to explain satisfactorily how exactly Men can be regarded as genuinely superior to elves* - given that elves are more beautiful and intelligent; better at magic and science, arts and crafts; do not suffer aging, do not get ill - and do not die. 


Well, elves can be killed - apparently like Men; but there are brief hints (especially in the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen in the Appendices) that after death the spirits (or souls) of elves stay within the world (potentially to be reincarnated), while the spirits of Men leave the world - and go... somewhere else. 

Yet again though; it is not clear why this is a superiority of Men - beyond that after some thousands of years, most elves simply get fed-up and tired of being alive - and therefore might crave extinction as a form of 'rest'. 

Furthermore elves also care deeply for the world - they love and cherish nature. Knowing they will live in the world indefinitely, they preserve its beauties and (through their arts and craft) create new beauties. By contrast, short-lived Men seem to have the attitude of mere visitors to Middle Earth (or 'guests' as elves apparently term Men).  


To explain the 'superiority' of Men, and why they replaced elves; Tolkien talks variously that elves are confined to the circles of the world while Men are able to 'escape' from them. But it is not obvious why this escape - into what? - is better than the elves chance to live 'forever' in undying paradise. 

Or Tolkien explains that Men have, in some sense, genuine freedom to act outside of the music of the Valar - the destiny of the world. But again, it is not clear that elves lack anything of free will, at least as it can be observed. Legolas seems no less free than Boromir, or Galadriel than Gandalf - and their capacity to choose freely is indeed an important aspect of their goodness. 

However, Tolkien was of course right - and the difficulties in explaining convincingly how and why Men 'superseded' elves arose mainly because he was trying to explain the superiority of Men without explicitly naming Jesus Christ, resurrection and Heaven.

The simple explanation of why Men came after elves, superseded elves, and are 'better' than elves - is that by dying - really dying - and leaving the circles of the world, Men are able to be resurrected into Heaven. The superiority of Men is just that and incarnated life in Heaven is better than life in paradise.


By not-dying, elves are doomed to remain essentially themselves - whether these selves are reincarnated or spirits. And no matter how superior elvish selves may be to mortal Men, they are greatly inferior to resurrected Men, who will excel even the Valar - since resurrected Men are cleansed of sin, and think and live in full accord with the divine will.  


*Note: Tolkien's best discussion of 'elves versus Men' comes in The Debate of Finrod and Andreth. I have also found helpful a really excellent fanfiction novel called The Question of Pengolod, which I have mentioned before on this blog.  


Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Tolkien and escapism - into enchantment, or merely glamour?

We all need to escape - with a psychological need that gets more urgent and compelling as the bars of the Iron Prison close-in upon the whole world. 

But the psychological need is mostly assuaged by glamour - as constructed and disseminated by the mass media. From adolescence onward, typical modern Man absolutely relies-upon glamour fantasies (and, maybe, a bit of our own - secondhand - glamorous reality at evenings, weekends and on holiday). 


In daydreams, in fantasy, modern Man sees himself, watches-himself and his life, as if he was in a photo-shoot or movie - cool, stylish, attractive, charming, dominant, impulsive, blissed-out... whatever it may be - as if he lived 'inside' the world of the media. 

The hedonic life... And of course it does not work; even on its own terms. It is not gratifying - except negatively (scratching an itch of dependence), it is merely addictive

People have 'fun' and 'enjoy' themselves, and (essentially) discuss this online (and sometimes in person...) - and people are depressed, miserable, afraid and despairing... As who would not be with a life divided between expanding-crushing bureaucracy and totalitarian regulation on the one hand; and the shallow, jaded triviality of glamour on the other. 


We need enchantment (not glamour) - and the re-enchantment of The World, of Life, must not be an attempt to apply enchantment like paint on a surface; but instead a rebuilding of life from new (or rather) old assumptions.

Building from assumptions that are first Christian (so that our faith brings hope) and secondly (but vitally) Romantic - so that we know our own personal everyday world (properly understood) is alive, conscious, purposive - and that we are personally involved in the reality of this world by the relation of love.

This spiritual life of excitement and enchantment is not 'private' - because the spiritual realm is objectively real; but enchantment is hidden from the world of politics, bureaucracy, the media and public discourse generally. 

We really are actors in an unfolding drama of enchantment - but this is not a public drama to be observed on screen and in media; instead our life is a spiritual drama that we know in our own heart-thinking; and shared with God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost - also with spiritual beings such as angels and demons, who have vital roles to play in the drama. 


And re-enchantment must come from within - it is not a consequence of external stimuli.

Not even Tolkien's work will supply enchantment - obviously, because most of his fans have extracted merely distracting glamour from Lord of the Rings: they see it as 'sword and sorcery', not as an enchanted world.

Tolkien rightly defended escapism as a valid goal of reading fairy stories - but he meant the escape to be into the enchantment of faery; not escape into merely mundane glamour, excitement and hyper-stimulus. 

For Tolkien it was only partly a matter of 'escape-from' - but mostly a matter of what the reader 'escapes-to'. 

If the reader escapes-to a fantasy world that is merely not-true, a world into-which the reader imports the (inverted) values of modernity - a focus on cool, style, charm, sex and sexual transgression, ultra-violence fear and despair; then glamour has displaced enchantment, and escapism has become merely therapeutic


To regard Tolkien's world as implicitly one of mere 'glamour', of psychology - as do most of Tolkien's modern 'fans' and 'scholars' - is an inevitable consequence of carrying mainstream leftist-materialist atheism into that world - thereby annihilating enchantment. 

Enchantment is (as of 2021, when things have come to a point) open only to Christians - and only effective in their lives when that Christianity is Romantic

Enchantment then brings both hope and optimism - because Christian hope points beyond this mundane and transient world of corruption; and  optimism comes from the revelation that our actual life can be - when properly regarded - an heroic daily adventure, a war of good and evil: exactly like the Lord of the Rings truly is, for those with hearts to know it.    


Sunday, 8 August 2021

"Fairy-wife", elf-friend, or staying in faery - three ways that mortals may become 'elvish'

In Tolkien's universe, for a mortal to become more like the 'immortal' elves, more elvish, is regarded an ennoblement. 

Elvishness has various possible effects - one is simply to make the mortal more beautiful (in an elvish way), another is to introduce a yearning-for and appreciation-of 'higher things - such as song, poetry, learning, and wild and beautiful country such as mountains and forests. 

There are also possibilities of greater 'wisdom' - including higher intelligence and 'supernatural' abilities such as foresight and discernment of deeper truths. 


Thus the men of Dol Amroth were made more beautiful by the fact of one of the Princes having married a Silvan elf and - presumably - infusing the population with elvish blood. This seems also to have happened to the Numenoreans due to the marriages of Beren (Man) with Luthien (maia-elf) and Idril (mostly elf) and Tuor (Man). 

Yet - in addition - as well as the results of interbreeding on the bloodlines, there must surely have been an indirect effect due to the larger populations having been formally named "elf-friends" by a 'high elf' of high status - as happened with the Numenorean Men; and also with Frodo and Gildor

Or, perhaps from some kind of proximity-effect of elvishness in a population - whereby living with those of elvish descent, and/or elf-friends, 'rubbed-off' on the other mortals. 


I say 'mortals' because there are examples from both Men and Hobbits; and the one dwarf example of Gimli - who was (we are told in the Appendices) formally named "elf-friend" - presumably by Galadriel, or perhaps by Legolas (see below). It is implied that no other dwarf would have wanted to be named an elf-friend, although there were earlier examples of at least close cooperation between Noldor elves and dwarves, such a Celebrimbor and Narvi who seem to have cooperated in constructing the West Gate of Moria. 

Gimli was unique among dwarves due to his special reverence for Galadriel (a high elf) and his close friendship with Legolas (a 'grey' elf or Sindar) - and he became the only dwarf to go to the undying lands at the end of his life. 

Bilbo was also named an elf-friend - by Legolas's father Thranduil (in The Hobbit) - so we may infer that the Sindar (being of 'the Eldar' or higher elves, although never having been to the undying lands) perhaps also had the capacity to 'make' elf-friends. 


Other interesting examples among the hobbits were the Tooks - about whom there was a legend that one had 'taken a fairy wife'. We are told (by The Hobbit's narrator) that this was not true - but it suggests the possibility that this might have happened. 

And it is one potential basis for the fact that the Fallohide type of hobbit (including the Tooks and Brandybucks) had distinctly elvish attributes - such as leadership, adventurousness and preference for hunting - although these are more like the Silvan wood elves of Mirkwood than the Eldar. Perhaps, therefore, there was indeed - as with the Princes of Dol Amroth, a union of wood elf and hobbit at some point in history? 


But there seem to be other ways in which hobbits can become elvish - with the example of Sam's first-born child, his daughter Elanor; who is described as exceptionally beautiful in an elvish way despite being born to non-Fallohide hobbit parents. Elanor's lineage was also responsible for the preservation of the Red Book of Westmarch - from which Tolkien's stories were 'edited' - so she apparently had the elvish attribute of scholarship.

The implication seems to be that this elvishness of his first-born was due to Sam having visited Lothlorien, reverenced Galadriel, and perhaps also having received a gift from her. So, how did this work? 

Sam does not seem to have been named an elf-friend; so perhaps the mechanism was more like the legends of men about the lasting effects on a mortal of having visited fairyland or faery - including eating their food (perhaps especially - in this case - lembas; which are usually not allowed to mortals). 

At any rate, the elvish 'effect' seems to have 'worn-off' after Elanor was born, since none of Sam and Rosie's other children are described as having been especially elvish. Yet, the changes to the Shire hobbits after the war of the ring - which happened via Merry and Pippin, as well as Frodo and Sam; might also have a 'proximity' cause in their visits to Rivendell and Lothlorien. 


The above examples are enough to establish that the elvish influence was capable of being infused and transmitted to mortals (Men, hobbits, dwarves) by a variety of 'mechanisms'. 

And Tolkien (with his usual deniable-seriousness of tone) often attributed admirable aspects of more recent Men - such as personal beauty and a love of art and learning - to this remote and historical combination of personal contact, formal recognition by noble elves, and blood descent. 

 

Sunday, 18 July 2021

Circling back to Charles Williams

Durham Castle (University College) is the silhouette on the right (Cathedral to the left) and my rooms were located just to the right of the keep, looking out on this view

I have recently been re-reading some of my favourite Charles Williams bits and pieces - including what began my interest in this writer: Humphrey Carpenter's biographical account in The Inklings (1978). I would recommend this to anyone who thinks they might be interested, because Carpenter highlights Williams's most appealing and exciting aspects. 

I recall first reading about 'CW' in my dark rooms located in Durham Castle one autumn morning; and being so energized and gripped that I dashed off to the university library to borrow some of his books. The included the Place of the Lion novel, Image of the City collection of essays and the Taliessin through Logres and Region of the Summer Stars poems.   

Yet I have never appreciated the actual work of Williams as much as I did the biography, the idea of what he was trying to do; the fact that he lived this strange life in which the natural and supernatural were not divided - and in which the eternal and perfect forms of reality were perceptible behind the everyday and mundane. 

For this reason - one of my favourite Williams books is the early (long since out of print) An Introduction to Charles Williams, by his friend Alice Mary Hadfield - since this gives the deepest and most vivid account of the best aspects of William's point of view on life.  

However, after periods of immersion and when I attempted to live my spiritual life in a way modelled on that of Williams; I have ended in a very different place indeed. And I am much now more aware of the fact that Williams's ideas failed in Williams's own life: that he was always a deeply unhappy (even desperate) man, who consistently made (and doubled-down on) wrong choices. 

Because (again and again) that which he most wanted at a surface level, and which he adopted as life-assumptions; was also exactly what hurt him the most profoundly. And as a consequence, made his own life worse than it needed to be.

This tragic situation (which lay behind the surface of success, charisma, and apparent spirituality) was mostly a consequence of CW's deepest metaphysics and most rigorously followed-through philosophical convictions

So, you can see why Charles Williams continues to fascinate over such a time span, and draws me back recurrently to engage with his life and work. 


Thursday, 1 July 2021

Who was the best poet of The Inklings?

Several of the Inklings were poets; and all the Big Four - CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield - began their literary careers intending primarily to become poets; only Williams ended his life regarding himself a poet. 

Williams was the only successful poet among them; being regarded as one of the leading British poets of his generation; albeit mostly for the poetry that was published before Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars - which Williams himself regarded as his best and only significant work. 

At the other extreme, it has been said that Tolkien is, because of the songs and verses in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, the most often read of twentieth Century poets (this is assuming that the verse is not just skipped by readers - as has been suggested). 

Tolkien wrote a great deal of unpublished poetry in his early years (including unfinished long poems), published quite a few shorter and comic or lyrical works, including translations and modern-language development of ancient works, mostly in small magazines.   

Lewis's first two books were poetry - and it was only the critical and sales failure of Dymer (when he was aged about 28) that he decided not to continue on that line; although he published many more verses in magazines through the rest of his life. 

Barfield wrote considerably more poetry than he published; but he did publish in small magazines - mostly later in life. 


But which was the best poet? Williams seems like the obvious candidate; but I do not regard Williams as a real poet. And to my inner-ear; Lewis and Barfield were also 'contrived' versifiers; whose work lacked that something unique to real poetry.  

So there is no doubt in my mind that JRR Tolkien was the best Inklings poet - indeed the only real poet among the Inklings if judged by the standard of English lyrical poetry (i.e. song-like verse, plus something more) that defines for me what is 'poetic' about poetry. 

If I was asked to define what makes real poetry - as contrasted with verse - I could only do so indirectly; for example by pointing out that Palgrave's Golden Treasury (1861) displays the nature of this tradition in a very pure and concentrated form. 

Most of Tolkien's output would best be characterized as verse; and it varies pretty widely in quality (as does the work of most real poets) - but Tolkien at his best was a real poet; whereas the other Inklings were writers of verse, and not true poets. 


My selection of Tolkien's poetry at its best would include these five poems; The Sea BellImran; and Aotrou and Itroun - and also some others, including a few of the earliest poems posthumously published in Lost Tales


Thursday, 24 June 2021

How was Rivendell defended?

Rivendell was located in a hidden valley; and, while it is obvious that being hidden was a helpful defence - I find it very difficult to imagine how a valley was defended when the enemy had succeeded in locating and attacking Rivendell.

Rivendell was twice besieged by Sauron - once in the second and again (by the Witch King of Angmar) in the third age (there is a description in the History of Middle Earth of the near starvation during one of these sieges). 

But I cannot understand how - at least in a material military sense - a valley could be defended; since castles are always placed upon raised ground. To be located in a valley allows the enemy to approach unmolested, and gives height advantage in hand to hand fighting - while allowing the enemy to rain down projectiles from the valley sides. Furthermore, it seems that the house of Elrond itself was not fortified - at least, this is never mentioned nor depicted by Tolkien in his drawings. 

However, since Rivendell did indeed withstand two sieges, despite being in a very disadvantageous location; I think we must look elsewhere for an explanation.  

My best guess is that it was defended by High Elf magic, in some way analogous to the Girdle of Melian - which was an encircling, magical barrier cast by Melian, wife of Thingol Greycloak - around the Sindarin elf kingdom of Doriath. This (usually) caused the unauthorized to become bewildered and lost - to die of starvation.  

It may be that this was how Rivendell was 'hidden' from hostile eyes - because otherwise Saurons winged servants (such as crows) could surely spot any large valley - no matter how flat the surrounding landscape. 

Perhaps during the sieges of Rivendell, the forces of Sauron could not find the valley; or (at least, not without the physical presence of Sauron himself) could not get through it and into Rivendell. Perhaps their plan involved starving the elves towards a point where the barrier would weaken or break? 


Friday, 18 June 2021

The strange difference of the elves in The Lord of the Rings movies

The subject of elves and their differences from Men is one of the deep and structural aspects of Tolkien's legendarium - although it plays little part in the Lord of the Rings. 

Nonetheless in the Peter Jackson movies,  there are some very effective 'moments' where the differentness of the elves is subtly yet effectively highlighted.  

Perhaps the first is in Legolas's reaction to the first appearance of the balrog. 

Legolas never shows fear at any other point in the movies; but is a character who clearly enjoys fighting, and is brilliant at it. But when the balrog first appears, actor Orlando Bloom (presumably under Jackson's direction) gradually lets drop his bow, then stands with his face frozen in a mask of terror, panting for breath.  From 1:20 in this except.


This visually demonstrates that Legolas has suddenly realized with horror that he has met one of the worst of elf banes. Orcs and trolls, tentacle monsters and giant elephants, none of these hold any fear for the elf - but a balrog is something else - and for once he is paralyzed; while the Men, and even the Hobbits, are still able to function. 
 
Another moment. After the death of Gandalf, and the escape from Moria; the fellowship collapse and are overcome with grief and weeping.  

But Legolas stands apart with a strange perplexed expression on his face, shaking his head. He seems to be thinking "So: this is death for mortals". The contrast with the rest of the fellowship is very marked - and suddenly we realize the strangeness of the elves. From 2:20. 


A further episode is harder to miss; and occurs when Haldir is killed at Helm's Deep (something which is not in the books). The expressions on actor Craig Parker's face as he dies, and the beautiful choral turn in the musical score, emphasize that when an elf dies it is not the same as when mortals die.

The audience do not know what happens that is different - but again the strange differenness of the race is made evident. 


Despite their flaws; The Lord of the Rings movies stand near to the pinnacle of cinematic art - and such moments are indicative of the astonishing care and knowledge that went into their making. 


Saturday, 12 June 2021

What was the effect of the War of the Ring on The Shire? - from Note on the Shire Records (from the Lord of the Rings: Prologue, concerning Hobbits)

I have often wondered how many people read the Prologue: concerning Hobbits, which comes before Chapter 1 of The Lord of the Rings. 

This gives-away a good deal of the coming story, by implication at least - and it is surely a very strange way to approach a fiction via some 20 pages of descriptive context; before the reader has read a word of narrative! 

Yet, apparently it 'works' - for millions of people - as do so many of the strange and counter-intuitive aspects of Tolkien's narrative method.  


Anyway; there are many treasures in the Prologue, which continues to surprise me. For instance, its last section - entitled Note on the Shire Records - primarily has the function of providing a feigned historical 'frame' for the narrative. 

It states that The Lord of the Rings was edited (implicitly by Tolkien himself) from an ancient manuscript copy of the Red Book of Westmarch; which began with Bilbo's account of his adventures (The Hobbit), and was then added to by Frodo and Sam's accounts of their adventures (The Lord of the Rings). 

The Red Book proper is also stated to have contained some of the information included in the Appendices - such as the family trees; and it is said that it was boxed with Bilbo's translations from the Elvish - which we are meant to infer is the basis of what was later published (in excerpted form) as The Silmarillion. 

Indeed, Merry is also implied to have been the part-author of some parts of The Lord of the Rings as we know it - for example Appendix B, The Tale of Years, and Appendix D, which is about calendars.


But another aspect of Notes on the Shire Records, which I hadn't properly noticed, concerns the effect of the War of the Ring on subsequent life in the Shire. 

I think many people have the idea that - after the Scouring of the Shire - everything returned to normal; and life in the Shire was re-set to how it had been before the arrival of the Black Riders. But this is not the case. 

Tolkien tells us that there was an awakened interest among Shire Hobbits in their own history and traditions; and these were collected from oral sources and written for the first time. In the first century of the Fourth Age, several libraries were established in The Shire; by the Took family, the Brandybucks; and at Undertowers in the new Westmarch, where Sam's eldest child Elanor lived with her husband Fastred. 

The Buckleberry library was begun by Merry, who himself wrote books on several subjects; including Shire Herblore, Calendars, and the philology of Shire words and names compared with Rohan. So, the Brandybuck library specialized in Shire matters specifically; with a further concern with matters of Rohan. 

The library in Tuckborough was of more general scope. Pippin did not write anything himself; but collected works from Gondor concerned with Numenor, Sauron and the history of Middle Earth in general. 

This library was thus the (probable!) basis for Appendix B - The Tale of Years - with Merry's assistance. We are told that Merry returned more than once to Rivendell, to consult with the remaining High Elves, including the sons of Elrond; and (probably) Celeborn - who dwelt there for some time after the departure of Galadriel, and was a living link with the Elder Days.  


In other words; the result of the War of the Rings was to make The Shire less parochial, more outward-looking. It is implied that the hobbits were somewhat 'ennobled' and raised by their (indirect) contact with 'higher things'. 

When Pippin says to Merry (in the Houses of Healing) "We Tooks and Brandybucks, we can't live long on the heights.' Merry responds: "Not yet, at any rate. But at least, Pippin, we can now see them, and honour them... There are things deeper and higher... I am glad that I know about them, a little." 

It seems that the two hobbits took this insight back to The Shire, and put it into action. There was a raising of the intellectual level, and an increase in literacy; stemming directly from the links established by Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin with elves and men in Rivendell, Gondor and Rohan.


When Frodo conversed with Gildor in the Woody End at the start of the adventure; the elf said about the Shire Hobbits: 

"It is not your own Shire... The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out."

The Notes on the Shire Records inform us, that following the War of the Ring, and the invasion by Saruman and his ruffians; the Shire hobbits increased in wisdom, ceased to fence themselves in, and began to take notice of the wide world all about them. 


Saturday, 5 June 2021

Was accent did Merry and Pippin have? Who gets it right?

I am going to compare the the best known audio-depictions of Merry and Pippin: the three movies directed by Peter Jackson (on the assumption that it is the director who chooses the accent which actors adopt); the audiobook of Lord of the Rings read by Rob Inglis; and the BBC Radio drama-adaptation by Brian Sibley - directed by Jane Morgan and Penny Leicester.  

In the movie, Merry is given a mild 'Mummerset' accent - which is what actors call the generic West Country rural accent, characterized mainly by an exaggerated 'r' sound. This same West Country accent is adopted in a more extreme 'Ooh Arr*' version by Sam Gamgee, in all the versions here studied. 

Probably to provide a distinguishing contrast, the movie Pippin's accent is mildly Scottish (the actor comes from Glasgow). 

In the audiobook; Rob Inglis gives both Merry and Pippin a Mummerset accent; the two hobbits being distinguished mainly by the timbre and pitch of their voices. 

But in the BBC drama version, Merry and Pippin are given an English upper class accent (with Pippin having a lighter and younger-sounding voice) - and they are depicted as a couple of young 'toffs', rather like PG Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster and Bingo Little of the Drones Club. 

(BTW, the BBC radio actors were Richard O'Callaghan as Merry and John McAndrew as Pippin.)  

And this is the most accurate in terms of Merry and Pippin's very elevated position in the Shire Class system. Pippin is the heir to the Thain, which is the King's representative in the Shire; and therefore the nearest Hobbit equivalent to a young prince. Merry is heir to the Master of Buckland - which is the Shire's semi-autonomous outpost; and therefore something like the heir to a Dukedom. 

At any rate, Merry and Pippin are the two poshest young Hobbits in the whole Shire! 

So, full marks to the BBC Drama for getting it right, and commiserations to the other contestants. 


Note: I was myself raised in the West Country - Devon and Somerset - and can confirm that the rustics in that corner of England really do say Ooh Arr - with remarkably frequency.

Friday, 14 May 2021

Unfinished Tales by JRR Tolkien: Review of the Audiobook read by Samuel West and Timothy West (2021)

Unfinished Tales is probably my very favourite among the many wonderful books collecting his unpublished father's works that Christopher Tolkien edited over a span of more than forty years. 

The audiobook version of Unfinished Tales was issued just last week; and I began listening on the day it was published! 

It was a sheer delight to hear it read by the Father-Son duo of Timothy and Samuel West; whose versions of Beren and Luthien and The fall of Gondolin gave me so much pleasure. 


Timothy W. takes the 'role' of Christopher Tolkien by reading the editorial material; while Samuel reads the main texts written by JRRT. 

Timothy W. adopts an avuncular and relaxed persona; while Samuel reads with sustained concentration, tremendous intensity, and a focus on detail that could not be surpassed. 

Consequently, although I have re-read Unfinished Tales many times, I became aware of many aspects - specific facts and general tone - that I had previously not noticed. This is one reason why I appreciate audiobooks so much - the other is my spontaneous enjoyment of hearing favourite words spoken aloud so well. 


If you love The Lord of the Rings but have never begun to explore Tolkien's writings unpublished in his lifetime; this is where I would recommend you start - perhaps by listening to the Audiobook first, and then getting a paper copy for future reference. 

You will hear On the coming of Tuor to Gondolin - the very best and noblest story of the elder days (according to Christopher Tolkien, endorsed by me!). 

You will hear of Aldarion and Erendis and discover much concerning the earthly paradise of Numenor (this was Tolkien's only 'love story', albeit a sad one). 

You will hear the 'back story' to The Hobbit as told by Gandalf; also much on the finding of the One Ring and the about the Nazgul. 

I was (literally!) entranced by the information about the elves in general, and Galadriel in particular - hearing this vividly re-awoke the elvish fascination I first felt in my middle teens. 

And there is much else concerning the five wizards - including the occasion when Gandalf first irritated, and then incensed, Saruman by smoking pipeweed, while Saruman tried to ply his rhetorical persuasion on The White Council... And of Saruman's subsequent guilty and secretive adoption of the pastime. 


In short - the Unfinished Tales audiobook is a treasure trove for the Tolkien-lover. This was just the first of what will surely be many listenings... 

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

What Numenor can teach us about the value of life and death

I am fascinated by the descriptions of Tolkien's Numenoran Men; and how one of their gifts was to know when it was that they should die. This evoked one of the most beautiful passages Tolkien ever wrote:

Then going to the House of the Kings in the Silent Street, Aragorn laid him down on the long bed that had been prepared for him. There he said farewell to Eldarion, and gave into his hands the winged crown of Gondor and the sceptre of Arnor, and then all left him save Arwen, and she stood alone by his bed. 

And for all her wisdom and lineage she could not forbear to plead with him to stay yet for a while. She was not yet weary of her days, and thus she tasted the bitterness of the mortality that she had taken upon her. "Lady Undómiel," said Aragorn, "the hour is indeed hard, yet it was made even in that day when we met under the white birches in the garden of Elrond where none now walk. And on the hill of Cerin Amroth when we forsook both the Shadow and the Twilight this doom we accepted. Take counsel with yourself, beloved, and ask whether you would indeed have me wait until I wither and rail from my high seat unmanned and witless. Nay, lady, I am the last of the Númenoreans and the latest King of the Elder Days; and to me has been given not only a span thrice that of Men of Middle-earth, but also the grace to go at my will, and give back the gift. Now, therefore, I will sleep. 

"I speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world. The uttermost choice is before you: to repent and go to the Havens and bear away into the West the memory of our days together that shall there be evergreen but never more than memory; or else to abide the Doom of Men." 

"Nay, dear lord," she said, "that choice is long over. There is now no ship that would bear the hence, and I must indeed abide the Doom of Men, whether I will or I nill: the loss and the silence. But I say to you, King of the Númenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive." 

"So it seems," he said. "But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory, Farewell!"


The Numenoreans had been gifted (by the Valar, the gods) with a lifespan several-fold greater than ordinary Men; and they were also immune to both illness and the degenerations of ageing. So they would (unless killed) remains healthy and vigorous until they became aware that their proper lifespan was ended; and at this recognition they - willingly, by choice - ought-to embrace death, as did Aragorn. 

If they rejected death, the Numenoerans could indeed live about a decade longer; but at the cost of rapid decline in physical health and the onset of what we would term dementia. But more significantly, by clinging to life, they had succumbed to spiritual corruption. And this corruption itself shortened their life span.  

It was when the Numenoreans, especially their Kings and Queens, began clinging to life; that the corruption of the race began to get a grip and to accelerate. Because this clinging represented their rejection of the divine will that Men (but not elves) should naturally die and their souls would then leave the circles of the world. 


I feel that there is a deep lesson here about life and death. Our life is of value, as a time of experience and learning, and for so long as this life continues it is ordained by God. Death is inevitable for men - however, the inevitability can be accepted or rebelled-against; can be embraced at the proper time, or delayed for a while. 

There will come a time when we know that Christians ought to surrender life willingly - and more with faith and hope onto the next stage. 

But - for this choice to be a real choice, it is possible to refuse to die now and move-on - and it is possible that death can be delayed. There is no guarantee of successful delaying of death, for those who choose that path - but the spiritual crux is whether we accept timely death, or whether we strive to delay it. 


We can either acknowledge that this mortal life has now fulfilled its divine purpose and that it is now best to undergo the transformations of death and resurrection... 

Or, we can refuse death, and remain alive for some while longer - but at the cost of physical and mental degeneration and spiritual corruption. 

In other words, we can - at death - align our-selves with God's purposes; or we can turn-away-from God's purposes and hold to our own.

 

When I talk of willing embrace of death at the right time, I mean more than a stoic acceptance of the inevitability of death; and more than the acceptance of death as the least-worst of alternatives - for someone worn-down by pain and weariness. In other words, the willing embrace of death means more than death as analgesia, sleep and rest. 

Death should go beyond mere passive acceptance to a voluntary and positive choice. When a Christian follows Jesus through death to resurrected life eternal; this is an active and conscious matter - which entails repentance (recognizing and discarding the sins that are incompatible with Heaven).   

The willing embrace of death was modelled by Jesus in the Gospel accounts; but it follows naturally from a desire for salvation - which can only come via death.  


It may be of vital importance to know the point at which the price of life becomes too great. 

A Man may find himself confronted with the possibility of 'clinging to life' at the cost of doing, saying or thinking some-thing that he knows to be a deep and damning sin. At such a point; a Christian needs to be able to recognize that this is the time to die. 

Such a situation may become more frequent in the world as it has become. In this totalitarian world of surveillance and control, ruled by powers of evil; more and more Men are in a position analogous to the slave of a wicked master. 


Ultimately a slave may be compelled to do his master's will, or else die: there may be no other alternatives.

Therefore, we need to be prepared to die, prepared willingly to accept death; when what we are being asked to do is would destroy our own capacity for repentance. 

Each Man will know when this point is reached (God will make sure of this) - although he may, of course, choose to pretend that he does not know. 

Obedience and death-delayed; or refusal and death-now... 


The devil delights in presenting such a choice when he feels confident of the outcome; and he must surely be confident that most modern Men would do or destroy literally anything when they believe it may delay their own death - as the 2020 birdemic made crystal clear. 

If that choice comes to us, and when the price of obedience is damnation; a Christian needs to acknowledge the fact, and the irreversibility of the decision. To refuse martyrdom may be to embrace damnation.

It is as well to be prepared. The cost of wrong choices we can see depicted in the History of Numenor.   


Tuesday, 4 May 2021

What is the unique quality of Lord of the Rings that so powerfully affected me from age 14 and for decades since?...

There is, there must be, more to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (LotR) than meets the eye - or has been explained by even the very best literary critics; some-thing that goes beyond what a simple work of fiction can achieve. 

This is evident in the initial impact of LotR when I read it aged 14; and was confirmed by the unique intensity and duration of my lifelong engagement with the book. 

I remain fascinated and gripped by LotR; even after uncounted re-readings, background scholarship on the early drafting, adaptations, artwork and a great deal of 'secondary literature' of comment, criticism and analysis. And mainly such a lot of thinking and imagining!

For me, there is nothing else even remotely like this in my life. I am by nature a re-reader, and a background reader; so I have re-read many books many times, and read many biographies of many authors and so on. I have also had recurrent thoughts and imaginings from other books. Yet none of them come anywhere near to the effect of Lord of the Rings. 

Whatever the reason for this may be, I think it hit home immediately; on the first reading. So that probably holds the clue. 

My memory is that I believed LotR was true, and more-true than the normal work around me. This was evident to some of my friends, including the one who introduced me to the book who I heard say this with a mixture of frustration and mockery. To him I was taking it all much too seriously.  

Most people would agree - but from where I am, more than forty years later, I was dead right. Tolkien is realer than ordinary real life - and this has become more true with every passing year as 'real life' became more fake, 'virtual', evil and is now almost-wholly dishonest and deluded. 

But I still find it hard to say just why this is the case, or why this fact was so evident to me so quickly.  


Friday, 23 April 2021

Spoiler-free review of The Horse and his Boy, from The Narnia Chronicles; by C.S. Lewis

The Horse and his Boy - which is the fifth book in the Narnia Chronicles by publication - and chronologically a 'plot loop' insert within The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, happening while the children are grown-up Kings and Queens of Narnia - is probably the most sheerly-enjoyable, fluid, coherent and well-structured of all the series. 

And this, despite that it could easily be omitted without significantly affecting the understanding of the other six volumes. THAHB is essentially just a great story, on several levels; wonderfully told. 

And yet it was the last Narnia book I read; because I was put-off by the Middle Eastern setting. The illustrations by Pauline Baynes are (as usual) very good; but I did not much like the 'exotic' subject matter...


Therefore, my enjoyment has been greatest when hearing the book, rather than actually reading it. 

My introduction was via the superb 1990s Brian Sibley dramatizations for BBC Radio. After listening to this a few times, I moved onto the Audiobook version - which was perfectly performed by Alex Jennings.  

(In Michael Ward's Planet Narnia scheme - this book is ruled by Mercury; and this is reflected in various subliminal ways by plot, character and symbolism.) 


All the Narnia volumes have some particular Christian moral aspects - and in this the striking one is that Aslan make some direct interventions into the lives of characters; which he then explains to them. I take it that Lewis is telling us that we can each understand the specific workings of divine providence in the details of our lives - assuming was are sufficiently aligned with Christ/ Aslan (presumably through prayer) and ask the right questions. 

But equally importantly, when the characters ask about how divine providence has operated in the lives of other people; they are informed by Aslan that "No one is told any story but their own." 

So, on the one hand - we can understand why bad things happen to us; but on the other hand, we cannot know why bad things happen to other people

This is a lesson that modern people (including non-Christians) would do well to reflect upon; since moderns (influenced by the arts and media) are always trying to discover 'why' some large and general Bad Thing happened to other people. 

To make things worse - these events are often remote in space and time, and known only secondhand by unreliable accounts. Such are the status of ill-formed questions such as 'But why did a supposedly-loving God allow'... some particular war, genocide or plague - or disasters generally? Then, when a brief and wholly-satisfactory answer is not immediately forthcoming; this exchange is taken to have refuted Christianity...

  

At the level of atmosphere, this book is congenial to me in that it begins in the parched deserts, and the characters yearn for the green and pleasant 'North' of Archenland and Narnia. 

When the two main characters - who have never known anything but a Middle Eastern climate and vegetation - approach and experience the recognizably European- then British-type landscapes from the burning South; I experience a renewed appreciation for the effects of rainy places!

This is an excellent example of the capacity for 'refreshment' found in good Fantasy literature; which Tolkien describes in his essay On Fairy Stories


Saturday, 27 March 2021

High fantasy as intrinsically Christian

I have been pondering what it is that I most value in my favourite books of the 'fantasy' genre - or indeed in other media such as movies and TV. And I think it is a particular 'enchanted' feel, which could be described as including both animism and providence


Animism is the conviction that the natural world is alive and conscious - such that living beings (animals, trees) are also conscious; but most specifically those things that are usually considered to be not-alive ('dead') such as mountains, rivers, the sea - are also considered to be alive, aware, purposive to some significant degree. 

Thus, when the protagonists of a high fantasy are on a journey, then the landscape through which they move is a 'character' (or series of characters) in the story. 

Whereas in a low fantasy (sword and sorcery etc.) the landscape is just an environment: background scenery, or a series of challenges. 


Providence in high fantasy refers to the fact (or sense) that there is someone in the background influencing the course of events; more generally that there is a purpose or destiny (direction or teleology) influencing events. 

In high fantasy there is a 'macro' level of meaning, above or behind the plot. 

By contrast; low fantasy may be set in the context of a 'micro', close-up reality that is not going anywhere in particular - and success and failure tend to be defined in terms of happiness versus misery, attaining personal goals versus being thwarted or killed.  


From a Christian perspective, both animism and providence could be seen as referencing divine creation - a reality of meaning, purpose and personal relatedness; or even as a foretaste of the condition of Heaven. 

In this sense, high fantasy is an intrinsically Christian genre - since the personal-divine basis of reality is pretty-much specific to Christianity. 


Note added: The original English 'definition' of Romanticism comes from Wordsworth and Coleridge Lyrical Ballads (1798); in relation to which it was said that Wordsworth was writing about (implicitly animistic) nature, and Coleridge was dealing with the supernatural (with reference to some kind of providence). 

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Review of The Minnipins/ The Gammage Cup by Carol Kendall (1959)

I found this book after seeing it recommended by Lin Carter as being a good post-Tolkien, Hobbit-like children's' story. In fact; I found its (inferior) sequel first, in the Bristol City Library - and then afterwards bought a paperback copy of The Minnipins (also called The Gammage Cup in the US edition). 

It has proved to be an enduring favourite of mine, which I have re-read multiple times over the decades - mostly recently last week. 

The Minnipins is an nigh-perfect children's fantasy; and deserves to be considered one of the classics of the genre. 

It ticks all of the boxes: assured and convincing world-building of a charming and believable society; likeable and distinctive characters; original and sinister baddies; good writing - prose and folk-rhyming - spanning from excitement through humour, lyrical beauty, with touching emotional scenes; and a very well-structured plot that moves through several interesting phases to a satisfying conclusion. 

Perhaps what raises The Minnipins is its memorability. Some of the rhymes and 'maxims' (used for chapter headings) really stuck; and some of the scenes became vividly established in my imagination on an apparently permanent basis. 


Tuesday, 9 March 2021

Hobbit music? From the Jaye Consort


This album was the first recording of Medieval Music I ever heard (borrowed from my history teacher and mentor John Reeve). This pioneering band (from 1967) is hilariously rough and ready, improvised and (obviously) done in a single take - in a pretty convincing recreation of how things might actually have sounded IRL. You will hear why I call it Hobbit music - due to the rasping intermittent drone of the longest instrument depicted on the cover. I can just imagine the rustics at The Green Dragon Inn, Bywater falling-about with laughter while dancing to this Estampie. 


Review of Elidor by Alan Garner (1965)


The cover of my teenage copy of Elidor

I have always been disappointed by Alan Garner's Elidor (1965); coming as it does between two of my very favourite children's fantasy books The Moon of Gomrath (1963) and The Owl Service (1967). Indeed, I simply did not enjoy Elidor when first I read it (aged 14 0r 15), or at subsequent attempts. 

Yet, Elidor has been the most well-known of Garner's four children's fantasies; being often taught in schools, and leading to a BBC TV series. So I thought I would give the book another try - this time in the audio version read by Jonathan Keeble. 

I can see why I was not much taken by the book, since it is structured more like a thriller than a fantasy. The fantasy elements are swamped by the detailed, realistic descriptions of physical and social life in Manchester and its suburbs - which are often grimy; replete with arguments, angst and stresses; and containing implied 'social commentary' (which are very likely the exact reasons why British school teachers appreciated this book above Garner's true fantasies).  


Furthermore the book starts slowly and with a miserable tone. Following a deal of childish bickering, the fantasy land of Elidor is briefly glimpsed and seems almost-wholly unpleasant and hazardous. Malbron - the only Elidorian man the children talk-with - is a callous and unsympathetic character, and we know hardly anything about him - or indeed Elidor. 

The early chapters set up the main interest of the book which is that four siblings have been given (against their will) the task of guarding four treasures of Elidor, needed to stop the land being destroyed. 

However; I felt that I did not know enough about Malebron to be confident that he was honest, or to care whether Elidor was a place worth saving at great risk to the children. 


The siblings return to modern Manchester with the treasures disguised as modern objects - and the best part of the book is the exciting middle section during which the children gradually realize that the treasures are hazardous (giving-off a strong and disruptive electromagnetic field).

The treasures are also attracting sinister warriors from Elidor - who are repeatedly trying to break-through to the modern world, and getting closer and closer... 

After the slow pace and detailed descriptions of the main book; the ending is abrupt, feels incomplete, and is emotionally unsatisfying. 

Furthermore - it is so complete a plot re-set, as to leave the children in their modern world without any record or residue of their experiences: apparently the modern world is completely unchanged by its period communication with Elidor. 


So, the retrospective reframing of the Elidor narrative - looking back from its ending - is that its only purpose was to save a land we barely know; and that the process has been futile from a modern perspective.

Everything that happened 'might as well' have been a dream or a delusion (as some of the siblings tend to believe, about halfway through the story)...

And this was, unfortunately, Garner's own retrospective reframing (in Boneland some half century later) of his first two novels (Weirdstone of Brinsigamen and Moon of Gomrath) - as nothing more than dream-delusions of one of the child protagonists. As I remarked in my review - this is anti-fantasy, being subversive of fantasy - as evidenced by its rejection of eucatastrophe

The actual ending of Elidor comes across as cynical, pretentious, and indeed aggressive. 


This is very interesting to me in contrast with Garner's previous Moon of Gomrath; which ends with the liberation of the Old Magic into the modern world, and the implication that things will never be the same again - that, indeed, the modern world is just about to be transformed (for the better, it is implied) by a resurgence of enchantment and a renewed contact between Man, nature and the spiritual powers. 

My best guess would be that Garner underwent some kind of profound disillusionment between the writing of Gomrath and Elidor - which left him increasingly bitter and resentful (which is how he generally strikes me, as a person). 

But this is speculation; what is clear from the texts is that Garner lost his youthful optimism and decided to explore and evoke downbeat pessimism and despair in his later fiction, lectures and essays. 


My evaluation of Elidor is that overall it fails structurally as a novel and as a fantasy; and fails to establish credible characters and motivations in relation to Elidor. On the plus side, it is genuinely tense and exciting through the middle section and until near the end - which section, after all, includes most of the book.  

 

Thursday, 18 February 2021

My attempted completion of Frodo's poem: O! Wanderers in the shadowed land

Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin are in the Old Forest...

*

Frodo tried to sing a song to encourage them, but his voice sank to a murmur. 

O! Wanderers in the shadowed land
despair not! For though dark they stand,
all woods there be must end at last,
and see the open sun go past:
the setting sun, the rising sun,
the day’s end, or the day begun.
For east or west all woods must fail…

Fail - even as he said the word his voice faded into silence. The air seemed heavy and the making of words wearisome. Just behind them a large branch fell from an old overhanging tree with a crash into the path. The trees seemed to close in before them.

*

It's a lovely lyric; but - thanks to the increasing threat of the Old Forest, it never gets completed. The commentary in Christopher Tolkien's The History of Middle Earth seems to suggest that the poem was never taken any further. 

So, I thought I would have a shot at providing a final line for the poem - by completing a rhyming couplet beginning with For east or west all woods must fail… 


I can immediately inform you that I failed to attain an altogether satisfactory result; the the best completion I managed, the one that is most in spirit with the rest of the poem is:

For east or west all woods must fail…
East or west, all woods must fail.

But that is very obviously pinched from Robert Frost's poem that ends with a repeated "And miles to go before I sleep"...


The ideal last line would either complete the argument, or else explain why the poem stopped. 

So, here are a few other suggestions, from which you can take your pick - or yourself try to do better. 

For east or west all woods must fail…
If not at Harvard, then at Yale. 

For east or west all woods must fail…
It's like escaping from a jail!

For east or west all woods must fail…
And that's the ending of my tale.


Perhaps the best, however, is surely:

For east or west all woods must fail…
Alas! I've trodden on a nail.

 

POSTCRIPT:

Following a to and fro at my BC's Notions blog, and using the breakthrough provided by WmJas Tychoneivich, this is my personal preferred version of the completed poem:

O! Wanderers in the shadowed land
Despair not! For though dark they stand,
All woods there be must end at last,
And see the open sun go past:
The setting sun, the rising sun,
The day’s end, or the day begun.
For east or west all woods must fail
As out of shadow wends our trail.


Wednesday, 17 February 2021

The grave of JRR Tolkien's Aunt Grace Bindley Mountain (nee Tolkien) - giving the day of her death

 



The inscription reads: 

IN 
LOVING MEMORY 
OF

WILLIAM CHARLES MOUNTAIN, J.P.
WHO DIED 26TH JANUARY 1928
"LIFE'S RACE WELL RUN:
LIFE'S WORK WELL DONE."

ALSO OF HIS BELOVED WIFE
GRACE BINDLEY
WHO DIED 3RD MARCH 1947

From Hammond and Scull's Addenda and Corrigenda to The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (2006) Vol. 2: Reader’s Guide - 

John Benjamin and Mary Jane Tolkien had at least eight children: *Arthur Reuel, Tolkien’s father (1857–1896); Mabel (?1858–1937, not to be confused with *Mabel Tolkien, née Suffield, Tolkien’s mother; m. Thomas Evans Mitton, b. ?1856); Grace Bindley (1861–1947, m. William Charles Mountain, 1862–1928); Florence Mary (b. 1863, m. Tom Hadley); Frank Winslow (1864–1867); Howard Charles (1866–1867); Wilfrid Henry (1870–1938, spelled ‘Wilfred’ in census records); and Laurence George H. (b. 1873, m. Grace D., b. ?1873).The ‘Myers Newcastle Time Line’ website by Alan Myers states that Tolkien visited Newcastle upon Tyne in each of the years 1910–1912, but offers no evidence for these dates. 

Christine Ahmed, in the article ‘William Mountain: A Northern Industrialist, Now Forgotten’ and in the article ‘Tolkien in Newcastle’, provides details of the life of Tolkien’s uncle William Mountain, an industrialist who for twenty-four years led the company Ernest Scott and Mountain, maker of electric lighting for mills and factories, as well as pumps, dynamos, and high-speed engines for railways and collieries. In 1913, the firm having expanded too quickly, it was bought by C.A. Parsons. Mountain became a consultant, went into a partnership with his son and son-in-law, and worked in a wire manufacturing business. He was a member of the local Literary and Philosophical Society, and in 1925 became a Vice-President of the North East Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers (now the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers).

Mountain and his family lived in the Newcastle upon Tyne area at 9 St George’s Terrace, Jesmond; in South Street, Hexham; at ‘The Hermitage’, a twenty-room house in Sheriff Hill, Gateshead; and in Sydenham Terrace, Newcastle. According to Ahmed, Tolkien’s paternal grandmother (i.e. Mary Jane Tolkien) ‘stayed with the Mountains from 1911 to 1915 when she died’, but gives no source for this statement; a Mary J. Tolkien is, however, listed in official death records as having died at Newcastle upon Tyne in 1915. William and Grace Mountain are buried in Jesmond Old Cemetery in Newcastle; an article on the cemetery’s website illustrates their joint gravestone, which gives his date of death as 26 January 1928, and hers in March 1947 (we cannot make out the day from the photo).

*

Jesmond Old Cemetery is included in the route of one of my daily walks - so I took the opportunity to fill in a missing detail from Scull and Hammond's account above; namely, the exact date on which Tolkien's Aunt Grace died - which they could not read from the photo. 

As you can see, she is listed as having died on 3rd March 1947.  

The cross is made of very light grey granite, and the grave is situated about 75 yards from the North-West corner and 10 yards from the South-West wall. It is being rapidly broken apart by the expansion of living stumps of shrubs that - until about a decade ago, covered and concealed the grave.  


Sunday, 14 February 2021

Review of Tolkien's Modern Reading, by Holly Ordway (2021)

Holly Ordway. Tolkien's modern reading: Middle-earth beyond the Middle Ages. Word on Fire: Park Ridge, Illinois, USA. pp ix, 382. (39 illustrative plates and two full page portrait photos of JRRT.)  


Tolkien's Modern Reading by Holly Ordway is a book which changed the way I think about Tolkien - and in several respects. Which I regard as quite an achievement! - given how much I have read and brooded-on Tolkien over nearly fifty years. 

Ordway solidly proves her core argument; which is that Tolkien read a great deal of 'modern' fiction (defined as post 1850 - but including works right up to the end of his life); that he enjoyed much of it; and took some works seriously enough to affect his own writing: often fundamentally. 


Tolkien's Modern Reading operates at various levels, and its interest for me increased the deeper it went. 

At a surface level, Ordway documents the specific works of modern literature that Tolkien is known to have read, including the evidence that he did indeed know and read each particular book. This sets-out the scope of TMR

Then there are specific incidents and details which are known to have influenced particular aspects of (especially) The Hobbit and/or Lord of the Rings. For instance Tolkien once stated that the fight with Wargs in The Hobbit was based on a scene in a book by SR Crockett - Ordway tracks-down and quotes the specific passage, and its vivid illustration is reproduced. 

In my experience (e.g. my 1988 analysis of the Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray), this is how fiction writers generally work - that is, they select and modify elements of their own experience and reading to generate elements in their fiction. 

But more interesting to me is the next layer of depth, which is conceptual. An example I found striking is Ordway's insight into Tolkien's comment that his goblins were influenced by those in George MacDonald's Princess and the Goblin fantasy. 

Ordway clarifies that Princess and the Goblin was the first popular work to depict goblins as essentially underground, tunnel-dwellers - and always malicious by nature. But before MacD's time goblins and hobgoblins were regarded as above-ground, household fairies - some were benign and helpful. 

This is of considerable cultural significance, given the vast proliferation of evil, underground goblins in modern fiction and Dungeons and Dragons-type games; and we can now see that this idea came originally from George MacDonald but crucially via his influence on Tolkien's Hobbit.

(Before The Hobbit was published, but known only to Tolkien's family; nasty, underground, tunneling goblins feature in The Father Christmas Letters).  


Perhaps a deeper form of influence is also illustrated by MacD - which is negative influence. Ordway's idea of negative influence is when, for example, Tolkien regarded a fantasy author or book with some mixture of approval and disapproval, such that he determined to avoid what he regarded as a particular fault. 

The MacDonald example is The Golden Key. Tolkien was writing an introduction to the book which he had loved early in his life; but when he re-read Tolkien found there was much he disliked. The negative influence was that Tolkien then wrote Smith of Wootton Major to do right what he regarded MacD as having done wrong. 

Another example of negative influence suggested by Ordway relates to Charles Williams and CS Lewis's overt usage of Christian material in their work. This seems to have led to Tolkien adopting the opposite strategy of removing nearly all explicit references to Christianity, or any religion; and yet making the work as a whole engage with Christian issues by the nature of its plot, characters, events etc. 


The concept of negative influence is one that I believe will turn-out to have exceptional applicability in understanding Tolkien. I can think of many instances in which an aversion for some aspect of another writer's work, or even Tolkien's own earlier work, served as a structuring lesson in what to avoid from now, and a stimulus to do better in the future.   

Tolkien's early anthologized poem Goblin Feet (with its tiny, delicate, precious, 'Victorian' fairies) is one of the first known examples; the 'silly' Rivendell elves of The Hobbit another - these leading up to the tall, noble, wise, powerful (and not at all 'silly'!) elves of The Lord of the Rings

A further instance of Tolkien being negatively influenced by himself, was the avuncular narrator of The Hobbit who occasionally indulges in asides to the adult reader, above the children's head. He later regretted this; and ensured that The Lord of the Rings was absolutely free from any such condescension or 'archness'. 


The importance of Tolkien's modern reading should have been obvious to everyone, all along - but was not. To the extent that many authors have, with greater or lesser degrees of exaggeration, made vast and sweeping, negative and derogatory assertions regarding Tolkien's ignorance and loathing of such fiction, and denying any significant influence from it. 

And, for this, the main fault lies with Humphrey Carpenter and his authorized 1977 Tolkien biography, the selected letters (1981), and The Inklings group-biography of 1978. 

It was Carpenter who so deeply-planted the idea that Tolkien had read very little modern literature and liked even less. And this has (by a kind of 'Chinese whispers') grown over the years among writers on Tolkien to wild assertions that he had read very little since Chaucer - or even since the Norman Conquest!  

Based on Carpenter's excessively simplified and distorted accounts; this further led onto other false assertions such as that Tolkien tried to impose (or did - somehow impose) his irrational personal preferences and limitations onto the Oxford English syllabus. 


Carpenter - with the status of being (even now!) the only author granted access to a mass of personal and private diary and letter material and allowed to quote from it; and writing with the (apparent) endorsement of the Tolkien Estate - created a set of initial false assumptions that have ever since distorted Tolkien scholarship. 

Explicating and clarifying the malign influences of Carpenter is a recurrent topic throughout Tolkien's Modern Reading; and, although a side-theme, may prove to be Ordway's major achievement - given the many and extreme distortions of understanding for which Carpenter was responsible.  

Indeed, one of the most significant aspects of this book is the long-overdue discrediting of several basic evaluations of Humphrey Carpenter - a necessary process of adjustment which readers of this blog have known that I have been advocating for several years.   


Ordway documents something I had long-since inferred from internal evidence; that Carpenter (by his own account, on public record) did not like Tolkien or his work - nor indeed did he like any of the Inklings; and that his original motivation with the biography was to write a subversive account of Tolkien. 

The significant negative distortions which have been the legacy of Carpenter's Tolkien and Inklings* biographies cannot, therefore, be regarded as an accident, but resulted from a combination of unsympathetic attitudes and egregious intentions. 

(In addition, so HC also said; he was settling some scores with the Christian Oxford of Carpenter's childhood - his father Harry had been Bishop of Oxford and Warden of Keble College - an Anglo-Catholic Anglican foundation. Humphrey rebelled and reacted-against this conservative and religious upbringing; to adopt a mainstream-media-type leftist and counter-cultural ideology and lifestyle.) 


Carpenter's biography was written quickly, leading to significant factual errors (documented by Hammond and Scull, in The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide and elsewhere); although Tolkien (1977) was, and remains, a very deft and readable book, and is a highly-skilled work of compression of a great deal of factual material into a modest length. And, of course, it is mostly accurate!

Yet the biography's first draft was regarded as completely unacceptable by the Tolkien family. It was 'torn to pieces' in detail by Christopher, according to publisher Rayner Unwin. And the version we know was (again hastily - in just a week or two) revised, and the worst passages excised, before being passed for publication. 

Yet, and this is the take-home-message; the basic animus with which Carpenter approached Tolkien of course remained; and in may ways has been perpetuated to this day**. 


It was also Carpenter who seeded the idea that Tolkien had a violent dislike of the Narnia books by CS Lewis. This effect was achieved by picking-up, distorting and exaggerating some much milder comments by Roger Lancelyn Green. This was linked to the - now widespread - idea that this extreme aversion to Narnia was responsible for a cooling in the Lewis-Tolkien friendship. 

What Ordway describes is a much milder dislike, which Tolkien recognised as due to his limited range of sympathy; plus a few specific sharper criticisms of the early draft chapters of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. These include the inconsistency at the inclusion of Father Christmas (Christ-mas), and an apparent queasiness at Lewis's use of a mythologically-lecherous faun to befriend Lucy and take her home. 

Yet Tolkien also described the Narnia Chronicles as "deservedly popular" to a correspondent. One decisive fact is that Tolkien handed his granddaughter Joanna the Narnia Chronicles from his own bookshelf, for her to read. 


I was perhaps particularly struck by this re-analysis of Tolkien and Narnia because I had myself absorbed and accepted the idea of Tolkien's extreme hostility to the point of using it as key evidence in understanding the 'cooling' of Tolkien and Lewis's friendship.

Reflecting on the way I came to this idea; I wonder how many other falsely exaggerated and distorted - and negative - assumptions I still hold; which were perhaps insidiously implanted by Carpenter or other authors who had a hidden and hostile agenda towards Tolkien and the Inklings more generally?

It is hard to exaggerate how powerfully assumptions can come to dictate interpretation of evidence; and when these assumptions are based on selection and distortion with a negative intent; the resulting negative attitudes can be surprisingly difficult to detect and to eradicate. So the assumption of Tolkien's ignorance-of and hostility-towards modern literature has become a cherished prejudice that has, so far, survived a vast mass of contradictory evidence.  


At any rate, I am grateful to Holly Ordway's Tolkien's Modern Reading for setting me right on several important aspects of Tolkien - who is someone with great personal significance in my life. 

Those who value Tolkien the man - as I do will certainly want to read this book. 


Notes:

*The major negatively-influential (oft-repeated) distortion of Carpenter's Inklings biography of 1978 was that the Inklings were nothing more than a convivial group of Jack Lewis's friends who had negligible influence on each other's writing. 

This idea was very thoroughly addressed and decisively refuted by Diana Pavlac Glyer in The Company They Keep (2006). Indeed Tolkien's Modern Reading resembles TCTK in terms of being structured by an overall contra-Carpenter thesis, pursued by exhaustive scholarly documentation.  


**In considering the malign influences of Carpenter; I think the Tolkien Estate must take significant blame. Not only for choosing, or at least allowing, Carpenter to kick-start his career as a professional writer with what was intended to be something of a 'hatchet job' biography. 

(Indeed, HC wrote several of these throughout his career. Colin Wilson - a delightful man, by all accounts, describes HC posing as a well-disposed ally, and accepting Wilson's generous hospitality as a house guest. Then Carpenter comprehensively mocked and rubbished Wilson in his hostile and dismissive 2002 group-biography The Angry Young Men.

After providing the 'authorized' imprimatur for Carpenter to publish misleading quotations, and launch several denigrating distortions; the Tolkien Estate then failed to issue specific explicit corrections. They also failed to do something which would have been better - to break Carpenter's 'monopoly' by allowing later (more sympathetic and honest) biographers to have the same publishing-access to private papers as enjoyed by the careerist and subversive Carpenter. 

So long as Carpenter remains the only person who has been allowed to publish restricted material from journals, letters etc; for so long will the distortions of the 1977/8 biographies be sustained. 

After 43 years it is past-time for more authorized biographies, and further (less distortedly-selected and -quoted) publications

Writers with a track record of scholarly excellence, readability and empathy - such as Holly Ordway, Diana Pavlac Glyer and John Garth - would be much more suitable official biographers; and begin to redress the subtle, chronically-poisoning effects of Humphrey Carpenter.