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. 


Thursday, 21 January 2021

Dwarves are biologically not viable (Tolkien nods again...)

"Dis" (Fili and Kili's mother) as imagined by Ancalinar - but I suspect she was (even-) less feminine than this, since Tolkien said dwarf-women were indistinguishable from the men. 

The Dwarves' numbers, although they sometimes flourished, often faced periods of decline, especially in periods of war. The slow increase of their population was due to the rarity of Dwarf-women, who made up only about a third of the total population. Dwarves seldom wedded before the age of ninety or more, and rarely had so many as four children. They took only one husband or wife in their lifetime, and were jealous, as in all matters of their rights. The number of Dwarf-men that married was actually less than half, for not all the Dwarf-women took husbands; some desired none, some wanted one they could not have and would have no other. Many Dwarf-men did not desire marriage because they were absorbed in their work

From Tolkien Gateway, summarizing the available 'canonical' information from the Appendices of Lord of the Rings and History of Middle Earth Volume 12.

JRR Tolkien clearly wanted his dwarves to be dedicated to their craft; and not interested in sexual relationships; but he went too far in this and inadvertently made dwarves biologically non-viable. 

He describes the 'slow increase' in their numbers; but from the information given dwarf numbers could not increase at all over the long term, but would inevitably decline - since dwarf fertility was far below the minimum rate needed to replace those who died. 

The fact that dwarf women were only about 1/3 of the population means that each woman would need to replace herself, and two men - plus a margin to account for death before the age of fertility. So minimum replacement fertility would be three-point-something. 


But we are also told that not-all the dwarf-women took husbands (and it is implied they did not reproduce at all) meaning that women were effectively less than 1/3 of the dwarves. 

Therefore each dwarf women who did reproduce would need to have considerably more than three-point-something children. For instance perhaps only 1/4 of the dwarves were women who reproduced - meaning that the minimum replacement level would need to be four-point-something children per dwarf women. 

However, we are told that dwarf-women only rarely had as many as four children; and the tone of the passage suggests that four children was an upper limit and the usual number was considerably less.  


Putting this all together; this means that the dwarves fertility was less than the minimum required to replace those who died.  

There could be a modest increase before the first generation of dwarves began to die out. Their 'average' life expectancy was given as 250 years. However, this number did not take account of premature deaths; and it is described in Tolkien's writings that large numbers of dwarves were slain in battle, through all the ages of the world. 

And Tolkien also says that dwarves married later than 90 years old - so only a couple of new generations could be fitted-in before even the first dwarf generation began to die out (even if only a small proportion of these founders were slain prematurely). 


Pretty obviously this was a mistake of Tolkien's - and he would have wanted to revise it had the problem been pointed-out. 

The simplest solution would be to state that those dwarf women who did have children had enormous families. 

Alternatively, we can imagine a tragic scenario where a large first generation of dwarves was created - but after a couple of hundred years, the race began inexorably to go extinct... 

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Palantir problems... Tolkien on the evil of despair

That greatest of Tolkien scholars, Tom Shippey, noticed something profound yet hidden in the Lord of the Rings - which provides narrative 'evidence' for Tolkien's frequent theme that it is always wrong to despair

Despair is wrong primarily because we live in the ongoing creation of a God who loves us as his children; so this world is being-created, moment by moment, with an eye to the primary purpose of life: which is providing each of us with the experiences we most need to learn from in terms of our Christian choice of resurrected life in Heaven. 

 

(Conversely, this world is Not designed for atheist-materialists, who disbelieve in Heaven. Their lives are indeed, by their own assumptions, meaningless and pointless.)


So, 'general' despair is wrong, and a consequence of lack of 'faith' - that is, lack of trust in God's loving goodness and personal concern for each-of-us. But specific causes of despair are also a mistake; mistakes of inference. 

Why? Because despair is the certainty of bad outcome, such that one gives-up hope. And - simply put - despair is always wrong because we never have conclusive reasons to give-up hope. 

 

Despair is not based on probability, but certainty - and that certainty is always false. A high probability of a bad outcome should be called pessimism. It is not despair because it is a best guess, and estimate; and we realise that even the very improbable sometimes happens. 

Note: It is vital to distinguish between despair and pessimism; and between hope and optimism. 

Despair is a sin, and is always-wrong; hope is a virtue and (for a Christian) always-right. Optimism and pessimism are merely conjectural judgments about the likely future - constrained by individual ability, information and honesty...

 

But more fundamentally, despair is not even about strict-probabilities of the future of a known situation; since we are very unlikely to be framing, to be understanding accurately, the real nature of the situation.

Even if we know a lot about a situation, we never know every-thing about it; and some specific thing (some 'fact') that we do Not know, may have the capacity to transform our understanding. 

If we knew that particular fact, then our 'conclusive reason' for despair would go. 

 

In the Lord of the Rings, there is a seeing-stone device called a palantir, which may be used to gather information. Yet, whenever we see a palantir in use to gather more information and make a judgment, an error is made.

Always, something important about the user's assumptions are wrong, and some vital fact is missing; and therefore his interpretation of the factual information is in error. 

 

For example, when Sauron sees Pippin in the Orthanc stone, Sauron assumes this is the hobbit ring-bearer ('Baggins') who has been captured by Saruman - and he dispatches a Nazgul to collect this precious prize. 

This is a mistake, which happens because Saruman does not realise that the palantir is no longer in Saruman's hands - and because he assumes the stone is being deliberately used, rather than merely the object of hobbit curiosity - an 'accident'. 

Later, Aragorn shows himself deliberately to Sauron, after Sauron has discovered that Isengard was defeated and (presumably) the stone taken. 

Sauron then assumes that Aragorn, as the heir of Isildur, has taken the Ring and is learning to use its power. Sauron therefore 'hastily' launches his assault on Gondor before this has been fully prepared - and is defeated. 

 

A third example is easily missed (I missed it! - but this is where Tom Shippey contributed his key insight) because it can be inferred only by a careful calculation of chronology. It is that Denethor uses the palantir at the time when Frodo has been captured by Sauron - and sees a hobbit in the enemy's hands

Denethor assumes that this is the Ring bearer hobbit whom Gandalf sent into Mordor, and that Sauron now has the Ring. Denethor therefore despairs, his mind breaks, and he descends into madness, suicide; and the attempted murder of his son Faramir (who Denethor assume, also falsely, to be certainly fatally injured). 

What Denethor does not know is that although this is indeed Frodo, and he is indeed in the enemy's hands - at that time Sam has the One Ring; and is not in captivity. 

And it turns-out that this small unknown fact is enough to transform the entire situation from one of 'certain' despair - to the success of the quest. 


This warning of Tolkien's is of crucial significance to these times. 

There really has been a successful global coup, and the world really is ruled by an evil totalitarian government. And there probably are a large proportion of the population who have taken the side of evil. 

From what I know, according to my framing of the situation, the probabilities for the future seem extremely adverse: therefore I am a pessimist about what is coming.

 

Yet my understanding is at least distorted, and may be wrong; and my information is certainly incomplete. There are many facts of which I am unaware. So I have zero grounds for certainty. 

On the other hand, I know that this is God's creation and is being-created moment by moment; and that (since we are all God's beloved children) this creation is always taking into account each individual in ways that I cannot comprehend - but can guess-at based on the way that loving parents regard all their individual family members. 

God does Not see mankind as an homogeneous mass; but instead sees each person as a beloved son or daughter in relationships with other sons and daughters. 

And God is not trying to optimise our temporary, mortal earthly happiness (although that is a factor); but is instead primarily focused on our eternal salvation and life as participants in the work of divine creation.  


We do not have the advantage of a palantir, which always shows the factual truth. But even the palatir does not show the whole truth; and it cannot interpret what its pictures mean. So, even a palantir may well be deceptive - fatally deceptive. 

Our information is much less honest and reliable than that of a palantir; and we are even less 'wise' than either Sauron or Denethor...

So, as Christians we do not have grounds for general despair; and being poorly-informed fools, neither do we have specific grounds for despair - there may well be a transformative fact of which we are unaware. 

 

Therefore, be not afraid; be of good cheer! That is the only faithful and accurate way.

Trust in God! Follow Jesus Christ! 

And you cannot be wrong. 

 

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Saruman's character in Scouring of the Shire as exemplifying Sorathic evil

I have recently written about Sorathic evil - the purest, most negative and destructive form of evil; as being the direction in which the world is going, here-and-now. 

But, Sorathic evil may be hard to understand. We are used to explaining evil actions in terms of fulfilling personal desires - whether the 'Luciferic' desires of immediate gratification by lust or cruelty, or the longer-term 'Ahrimanic' desires of power and control. 

It seems hard to imagine why 'mere destruction' would motivate someone when they might instead fulfil their desires? 

 

Well, it does happen. Perhaps if we introspect honestly, we can recognise the Sorathic within ourselves, as at least a momentary impulse?

An example are those resentment-fuelled spite-fantasies directed against people that we hate, or even who merely annoy us in some way that gets under our skin. For instance; day-dreaming the wish that somebody we have come to regard as smug, entitled, arrogant, privileged - will suffer massive public humiliation, fatal illness, or agonizing violence. Or somebody who 'thinks they are beautiful' and you 'wish' they would suffer a disfiguring accident that would make them hideous. Or when the idea flashes into mind that maybe I should kill myself and leave an accusatory suicide note; so that he/she/they will suffer lifelong agonies of guilt ("That will show them!").

If you can recognise any or all of these scenarios, then that is an example of the Sorathic evil in you. What identifies them as Sorathic is that the primary satisfaction is in the misfortune of others, rather in gratification of oneself. 

Indeed, someone in the grip of Sorathic evil might plot and scheme, expend time, money and resources - and maybe even take risks to his own health and safety - in order to inflict harm on others. 

Cutting off your nose to spite your face is the proverbial expression of Sorathic evil - although this makes a paradoxical quip out of what is truly the worst kind of evil; and such mockery misses that this 'nose-cutting' is exactly the kind of thing that people will do, when in the grip of Sorath


Saruman, in the Lord of the Rings, begins the story as in the grip of typically Ahrimanic evil. Saruman is a very 'modern' figure in the world of Middle Earth; an industrialist with a mind of 'metal and wheels', who even talks in slippery, euphemistic, manipulative management-speak. He works by surveillance (the palantir) and seeks control; even going to the trouble of creating the race of Uruk-Hai; a more obedient and loyal kind of orc-Man, who will stick to orders.  

But evil is a downward path - unless there is repentance: and that path has a slippery slope. 

Ahrimanic evil (while it lasts) retains some Good - insofar as order is better than chaos - and requires virtues such as prudence, hard work, loyalty, obedience...

When Saruman is defeated, he has a chance for repentance; but rejects it. Stripped of power, he refuses to recognise any wrongdoing. 

In particular (and this is amplified in the posthumously-published notes of Unfinished Tales) Saruman is spitefully-motivated against Gandalf. By the end of Lord of the Rings, Saruman has come to exemplify Sorathic evil - since he lives in order to hurt Gandalf, and - by proxy - the hobbits who Gandalf loved and cared for. 

The Scouring of the Shire is a representation of how the brief interlude of Ahrimanic evil administered by Lotho Sackville Baggins, gives way to a frenzy of destructive Sorathic evil when Saruman arrives. 

At first under Lotho - trees were felled to fuel furnaces; later under Saruman ('Sharkey') trees were felled because this would make the hobbits miserable. At first the rivers were carelessly polluted by the outflow of productive industrial processes, but later they were polluted because it would render them hideous... 

Evil as a means to an end, as a by-product; was replaced as evil for its own sake.

 

In his final speech, Saruman reaches the end-point of Sorathic evil when he deliberately courts death by stabbing Frodo in front of the army of hobbits. 

Having reached a point where he cannot destroy the Shire, Saruman tries to saddle the hobbits with a legacy of guilt and regret for having vengefully committed 'deicide' ('god-murder'; in that Saruman is a minor god; a maia or angel).  

But Frodo is protected by his mithril mail, and pardons Saruman - thwarting even his intended indirect 'suicide by cop' and inflicting a further wound of obligation upon the wizard. Yet this act of mercy only increases Saruman's resentment. 

The end-stage of Sorathic evil is despair, and the only perceived 'solution' is suicide. 

Thus Saruman (semi-deliberately) goads Wormtongue into killing Saruman; and thus the wizard 'finally' achieves his own death by that means.

 

Looking at Saruman's descent into Sorathic evil, it is striking how very small, how petty the wizard has become compared with the proud, powerful, 'wise' administrator of the grandiose, world-dominating schemes of his Ahrimanic phase - just a few months earlier. 

And indeed, Sorathic evil can only tend towards being be small and petty, because it becomes less-and-less capable of the deferred gratification needed for making and sticking-with complex, long-term plans and manipulations. 

From this we can see that evil cannot go straight to the Sorathic extremity - without rendering itself ineffectual.  Lucifer and Ahriman are needed in the earlier stages to break-open the Good and allow the Sorath in*. 

 

Thus Luciferic and Ahrimanic evils alternate until they have created a situation of vulnerability where Sorathic destruction can take-over. 

On the other hand, the descent from Ahrimanic into Sorathic evil may be very rapid indeed - some historical examples suggest that it may happen in just day, or even hours - so that great tyrants may die suicidally while wishing the like destruction on everybody and everything else ('after me the deluge' - as a desired outcome). 

At the societal level, in 2020 we reached the threshold of Sorathic evil within only months of the triumph of Ahriman...

 

In the West, we had the Luciferic promises of the 1960s - of a world of unrestrained hedonism; leading incrementally, decade by decade, to the Ahrimanic global prison of 2020 with promises of a world of omni-surveillance and totalalitarian-control (a system, apparently, pioneered in China to be rolled-out everywhere else). 

Yet, such was the triumph of evil and the feebleness of spiritual opposition in this atheist, materialist, leftist-corrupted world; that as the year reached its second half there was already evidence of merely, pettily destructive Sorathic frenzy - with violent riots, destruction, arson, terror, rape and murder; being not just officially funded, organised and defended; but publicly-advocated and approved. 

At a micro-level the brief "all in it together" spring solidarity of March-May devolved into the masked mutual hostility and informer-culture of the summer onwards.

This happened even though such a spread of chaos erodes the very basis and capability of the global coup and its carefully-constructed Ahrimanic System!

 

The Sorathic spirit can also be seen in the apparent-gratuitousness of using surveillance and control technologies and enforcement for crushing society, church, education, sports, theatres, music, cinema, museums, singing and dancing - and finally Christmas.

In a single year has been wrought a truly colossal destruction of Culture

A genuinely Ahrimanic spirit would be subverting and using Culture to monitor, manipulate and control the population... Ahriman would exploit Culture to 'keep people happy' (in a bread and circuses fashion) while explicitly and covertly feeding them pro-System propaganda. 

But the Sorathic spirit of resentment and spitefulness is ever-increasingly getting the upper hand, and engaging in dysfunctional destruction for its own sake. The Sorathic spirit is destroying the Ahrimanic apparatus in all its aspects (including police and military functionality) - destroying, but not replacing. 

 

Because the world is so advanced in evil; such a Sorathic destruction of The System is not any kind of liberation, but an progression of evil delivering the world into chaos: a world of end-stage Sarumans, pursuing personal, petty grudges spiralling downwards into the finality of despair and suicide.  

(And a despairing, or spitefully-motivated, suicide is - surely? - a choice for damnation.)

So, although the Luciferic, Ahrimanic and Sorathic types of evil fight each other, this conflict is not a negation - but the advance of evil; because evils don't cancel, they synergise

 

We cannot defeat Ahriman with Sorath, one cannot be played-off against the other - but only with God. 

If The Ahrimanic System is destroyed by Sorath, then we would be in far worse spiritual situation than if The System remained. 

Yet such a Sorathic collapse looks like a distinct probability for 2021...

 

If we want to resist Sorath spiritually - in our-selves, in our societies; this can only be achieved from a base in The Good. 

If we want Good (i.e. Godly) outcomes; the negative can only be defeated by the positive

The only true enemy of Sorath is Jesus Christ.


*I got this phrase from Ama Boden. Thanks!

Saturday, 2 January 2021

The third-comers of the Children of Illuvatar. What is the role of Hobbits in the destiny of Middle Earth? (A theory by Billy and Bruce Charlton)

(The following is another insight I have recently developed in conversation with my son Billy - indeed Billy should get most of the credit for this idea since the main conceptual breakthrough was his.) 

 

Do the Hobbits have a special role, or purpose, in the destiny of Middle Earth? Were they just an evolutionary accident, or was the fact of their (apparently) arising during the Third Age of Middle Earth for an important reason? 

It is clear that Hobbits - in actual fact - played an essential role in the defeat of Sauron; in some very obvious ways (Bilbo finding the ring, Frodo bearing it to the Cracks of Doom); but also in several essential but non-obvious ways - when Hobbits are overlooked, or their abilities unknown or discounted. But was this role in any sense planned?

What is fascinating about Hobbits is that they represent a departure from the 'usual' idea that the future of Middle Earth is determined by individuals and peoples with special powers. The usual way that the Valar tried to prosecute the war of Morgoth, then Sauron, was through enhancement of either personal, magical or 'technological' power. 

A prime example of this is the High Elves - who were super-elves; and another is the Numenoreans - a race of super-men (including the lineage of 'half-elven' who also had divine descent from Melian the Maia). Sending five wizards to work against Sauron in the Third Age was a further instance. 

 

The fatal problem with this super-power strategy was corruption; because so many of the most powerful individuals (and, indeed, races) began Good but became evil. The usual result was the super-powered Good was neutralised or overcome by super-powered corruption onto the side of evil. 

This began with the most powerful Vala, Morgoth; then the most powerful elf, Feanor - who also led many of the most powerful elves - Noldor - into evil works; including Celebrimbor who made the Three Elven Rings but without whom the (more powerful) One Ring could not have been made. 

There was a whole string of corrupt Dark Numenoreans (surviving as the Corsairs of Umbar), until nearly the whole of the Numenoreans were corrupted. The last and most powerful Numenorean King - Ar-Pharazon - was on the side of evil. And there was a powerful dark Numenorean magician who became the Nazgul Witch King. 

Of the Wizards, although Gandalf was a great success, he was substantially negated by the corruption of the originally most powerful wizard - Saruman; and the other three wizards were either almost ineffectual/ neutral (Radagast), and (perhaps, as speculated in Unfinished Tales) the mysterious lost Blue Wizards became grey eminences behind the Sauron-allied Eastern men.  

We could say (to adapt Spiderman): With power, goes great desire for more power...

 

So, we could imagine that the Hobbits were an opposite strategy against Sauron. Instead of enhancing 'power' - where power is seen as the ability to impose one one's will on others, the Hobbits arose. Half the size of men, weaker, less intelligent; their special abilities mainly concerned with quietness and concealment; and their relative immunity to the temptations of power

In a world where corruption to evil is the plague of all with power; Hobbits seem intrinsically the most resistant of all races to this kind of corruption (Tom Bombadil is one-off, not a race). 

Of course, average/ normal Hobbits have all kinds of petty vices such as greed and laziness, narrow materialism, and a negative clannish parochialism of attitude. But their typical lack of desire for power, or to dominate, becomes a special strength in the world of the Third Age. 

 

Consequently, as Anti-Power specialists, Hobbits display an unique resistance to the One Ring - as exemplified even by Gollum (who carried it for hundred of years, and survived); but also (in different and better ways) by the other Ring-bearers Bilbo, Frodo and Sam. 

The story makes it clear that (ultimately) the entire hope of Middle earth rested upon these four Hobbits; and only the Gollum-Frodo-Sam trio - with Frodo as the bearer - could have led to the destruction of the One Ring.  

 

So, if we accept that the emergence of Hobbits was 'meant' - and not just a happy accident - who made them happen? 

Were they a contribution by one of the Valar - as Aule made dwarves or Yavanna made ents, with Illuvatar secondarily providing the necessary creative life? 

We suggest that the most likely; is that Hobbits were a direct, but secret and undeclared, intervention by Illuvatar

At about the same time as the Valar were yet again trying their usual strategy of supplying power-enhanced individuals - wizards - for the fight against Sauron; perhaps The One, God: Illuvatar quietly made Hobbits. 

 

This would make Hobbits the third-comers among the Children of Illuvatar - coming in the Third Age after first elves, then Men, emerged in the Elder Days. The Hobbits' special role, prepared from the first but only evident at the very end of the Age, was to be the destruction of the One Ring and thereby of Sauron; which we could assume was the main priority of that Third Age, after Isuldur had failed to destroy the Ring at the end of the Second Age. 

The covert emergence and existence of Hobbits was, indeed, part of the plan. Very few of the wise and powerful knew or cared anything about Hobbits - which is exactly what enabled them to do their vital job. They were continually - and for Saruman and Sauron fatally - despised, underestimated and overlooked - left-out of all plans and considerations. 

Yet again and again this neglect and condescension is exactly what enabled Hobbits to make their decisive interventions - not just the Ring-bearers; but also Merry in slaying the Witch King; or Pippin in accidentally misleading Sauron when seen in the Palantir; or both of them in triggering the awakening and mobilization of the Ents and Huorns.  

 

In conclusion, we suggest that the Hobbits arose in the Third Age of Middle Earth, as part of a new, different and secret plan by Illuvatar - The One - to oppose Sauron and to destroy the One Ring. Therefore, Hobbits ought not to be considered as merely 'small Men', but as a separate and unique creation of God, with a separate and vital - albeit temporary - role in the history of the world.