Monday, 12 September 2022

The three ages of Tolkien in my life

Looking back over the past fifty years I have been reading Tolkien; I can perceive that my attitude to the books (especially The Lord of the Rings) falls into three broad phases. 


Socio-Political

When I began reading, in my middle teens, I regarded LotR as, pretty much, a blueprint for how we ought to live in a socio-political sense. My attitude was that the lesson of the book was that we ought to deindustrialize substantially, and return to an agrarian society, divided into mostly self-sufficient units (i.e. a kind of feudalism), based upon a much simpler level of technology. 

Thus, my interest in Tolkien led to an interest in pre-modern history - Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Medieval. And also an interest in the 'self-sufficiency' and 'intermediate technology' movements, 'ecology', and the politics of William Cobbett, HD Thoreau, William Morris, RH Tawney, the 'distributism' of Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton, and EF Schumacher of 'Small is Beautiful' fame.  

In essence; I saw the spirit of Tolkien located in a type of society; and I hoped to live by this spirit via living in what I understood to be a Tolkienian society. I therefore read the books almost as if they were a manual or blueprint for how we ought to live. 


Jungian

In younger adult life, I lost faith in both the power and goodness of politics - and realized that its direction was against the agrarian. I realized that Men were not passive products of social systems - and I developed the broadly-Jungian idea that 'the psyche' was the primary reality. 

I saw the psyche as a third realm in-between the subjectivity of the everyday and mundane mind on the one hand, and the objectivity of the material world (including society and politics) on the other hand. 

My broad conclusion was that the 'lessons' of Tolkien ought to be developed in terms of living in accordance with the collective unconscious - which I saw as an objective realm of archetypal and mythic realities that was shared by all Men. 

In sum; I saw Tolkien as the greatest modern exemplification of this mythic world; and reading him as a way of discovering and strengthening the mythic in my own life; with the goal of living an integrated life - feeling part of society and guided by the wisdom of myth. 


Romantic Christian

In middle age I became a Christian, and then more and more of a 'Romantic' Christian - under the influence of Mormon theology; and writers such as Blake, Coleridge, Steiner, Barfield and Arkle. 

Thus, from about 2009, I began increasingly to read and experience Tolkien in a different way. This new era began with my immersion in JRRT's posthumously-published and unfinished novel: The Notion Club Papers. The NCPs contains a good deal of Tolkien autobiography, and was intended as a framework and bridge between the modern world and the world of the 'legendarium' (ie. the Silmarillion annals, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings). 

The Notion Club Papers blog then began to record a new practice of reading Tolkien, and some of the other Inklings, as what used to be termed 'devotional literature' - in the same spirit that past generations might have read Milton's Paradise Lost or Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress

So, this is where I am now: in my third era of Tolkien. 


Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Did Radagast the Brown fail in his mission?

The Wizards/ Istari were incarnated Maia (angelic spirits) who were sent to Middle Earth in about the thousandth year of the Third Age to resist Sauron. They were five in number: Gandalf the Grey, Saruman the White, Radagast the Brown and two Blue Wizards named Alatar and Pallando. 

Most of what we know of the Wizards, as a group, can be found in the (mostly unpublished during JRR Tolkien's lifetime) texts collected in the chapter The Istari in Unfinished Tales. These texts include discussions relating to Radagast, and which are somewhat undecided about whether he failed in his mission - by turning aside from engagement with Elves and Men, and becoming 'enamoured' by plants and animals. 


Recently, a further discussion of Radagast, written in 1970, was published in The Nature of Middle Earth edited by Carl F Hostetter, page 193:  

[Gandalf] differed from Radagast and Saruman in that he never turned aside from his appointed mission... and was unsparing of himself. Radagast was fond of beasts and birds, and found them easier to deal with; he did not become proud and domineering, but neglectful and easygoing, and he had very little to do with Elves and Men although obviously resistance to Sauron had to be sought chiefly in their cooperation. But since he remained of good will (though he had not much courage), his work in fact helped Gandalf at crucial moments. Though it is clear that Gandalf (with greater insight and compassion) had in fact more knowledge of birds and beasts than Radagast, and was regarded by them with more respect and affection. (This contrast is already to be seen in The Hobbit 124-5. Beorn, a lover of animals, but also of gardens and flowers, though Radagast a good enough fellow, but evidently not very effective.)

This is somewhat damning of Radagast - as he is depicted as inferior to Gandalf in even his area of special expertise!


However, taking a wider perspective; I think we can make an interpretation of Radagast that gives him a great deal more credit for his activities in resisting Sauron. 

In the first place, it seems likely that when Valar sent five emissaries, it is probable that each one (or pair in the case of the Blue Wizards who are considered as a dyad) - being angelic spirits each was of different nature and abilities; and these characteristic were no doubt chosen with the mission as priority. Even though Radagast was lesser in 'stature' among the Maia than Gandalf (as Gandalf was lesser than Saruman) - this does not preclude Radagast being better suited than Gandalf to Radagast's particular intended role. 

Furthermore, each Wizard was probably affiliated with a different Vala; according to an idea developed by Tolkien in The Istari essay - which suggests that Gandalf was representing Manwe, Sauruman was of the people of Aule, and Radagast was chosen by Yavanna - whose special care was for plants and animals, and who in Middle Earth was represented by the Ents. I think we should infer from this that Radagast - despite his preference for dealing with plants and animals, and lacking confrontational courage - was especially well-suited by his nature and abilities for the task he was sent to perform. 


In other words; although all wizards were intended to resist Sauron, each Wizard had a different specialist sub-mission. I suggest that Radagast's particular task was precisely to work with animals and plants to resist the attempts of Sauron to enlist them in his plans. 

It is - after all - clear from The Lord of the Rings that Sauron had enlisted many birds and beasts in his service; especially as spies: 

[Aragorn]: If the Riders fail to find us in the wilderness, they are likely to make for Weathertop themselves. It commands a wide view all round. Indeed, there are many birds and beasts in this country that could see us, as we stand here, from that hill-top. Not all the birds are to be trusted, and there are other spies more evil than they are... The Riders can use men and other creatures as spies... Soon I became aware that spies of many sorts, even beasts and birds, were gathered round the Shire... Regiments of black crows are flying over all the land between the Mountains and the Greyflood,' he said, `and they have passed over Hollin. They are not natives here; they are crebain out of Fangorn and Dunland. I do not know what they are about: possibly there is some trouble away south from which they are fleeing; but I think they are spying out the land

[Elrond]: Soon now his [i.e. Sauron's] spies on foot and wing will be abroad in the northern lands.  


Therefore it is clear that there was value in having a wizard who specialized in building alliances among birds and beasts - and presumably also among trees and other plants - in resistance to Sauron; and in opposition to the attempts of Sauron to enlist ever-more of the natural world in his evil schemes in hostility to Men and Elves. 

And this - I think - was Radagast's special role. 

If so, it is likely that Radagast was at-least somewhat successful; in so far as many (if not most) of the living beings in the North West of Middle earth (where Radagast operated) were Not on the side of Sauron; but cooperated with the powers for Good. The Eagles are one clear example; but most of the nature encountered by The Fellowship seems mostly-uncorrupted.  


In sum: if Radagast is regarded as an emissary of Yavanna, with a mission primarily to the plants, birds and beasts (rather than Men and Elves) - then he may well have stayed true to this mission. 

So much so, that (we are indirectly informed in The Istari essay) Radagast remained in Middle Earth after the defeat of Sauron - presumably because of his deep love for non-human 'nature'; choosing not to return over the sea to dwell in the Undying Lands. 

Maybe, therefore, he is still here!


Friday, 5 August 2022

What did the Ents look like? Tree-ish Men (but Not Man-like trees)

 







I have never seen an accurate picture of an Ent; i.e. a picture that conforms to Tolkien's descriptions in the text of Lord of the Rings where they are depicted as large Men, much like trolls; and possible to mistake for large Men or trolls from a distance - but with tree-ish aspects. 


The problem is that this information is scattered through the text of the Two Towers; while the fact that Merry and Pippin initially suppose that Treebeard is himself a tree, seems to prejudice the reader (and illustrators) to suppose that Ents are mostly like trees (i.e. resembling Man-like trees).

This misunderstanding is then sustained by the Hourns - who are trees that (apparently) move by means of their roots coming out of the ground, and operating like many legs. 

Yet Treebeard says that - since sexual reproduction become impossible due to the 'loss' of the Ent-wives (female Ents) - Ents can become trees; and trees can become Ents, implying that Huorns are part-way through this transformation.  

Nonetheless, I think we can be confident that Tolkien saw Ents as troll-like and man-shaped; as is evident in an earlier draft of the Two Towers:


As they were gazing north, they were suddenly aware of a strange figure striding south along the east bank of the stream. It went at great speed, walking stilted like a wading heron, and yet the long paces were as quick, rather, as the beat of wings; and as it approached they saw that it was very tall, a troll in height, or a young tree... 

Theoden was silent, and all the company halted, watching the strange figure with wondering eyes as it came quickly on to meet them. 

Man or troll, he was ten or twelve feet high, strong but slim, clad in glistening close-fitted grey and dappled brown, or else his smooth skin was like the rind of a fair rowan tree. 

He had no weapon, and as he came his long shapely arms and many-fingered hands were raised in sign of peace. Now he stood before them, a few paces off, and his clear eyes, deep grey with glints of green, looked solemnly from face to face of the men that were gathered round him. 

Then he spoke slowly, and his voice was resonant and musical.

From Pages 29-30, The War of the Ring; The History of Middle Earth (1997), Volume 8 - edited by Christopher Tolkien. 


Assuming that Tolkien mind-picture of Ents did not change from this earlier conception, I think we must conclude that Ents should be Man-like enough to be, initially, mistaken for some kind of large Man or Troll from a distance. 

None of the illustrations or animations of Ents that I have yet seen conform to this requirement of being mistake-able for a Man-Troll; which suggests that Tolkien's text is widely misunderstood. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2022

Why did Tolkien come out of the Great War without suffering pessimistic disillusion?

It is characteristic of those intellectuals and officers who wrote about the Great War of 1914-18, that they experienced a permanent disillusion leading to the attitude epitomized by Robert Graves's autobiography "Goodbye to all that". 

In other words, the typical effect of the Great War was some combination of a rejection of tradition generally but especially Christianity; the embrace of hedonism - especially sexual, but also drinking and smoking, jazz etc.; socio-political leftisms of various types - communism/ socialism, fascism, pacifism, vegetarianism, 'green' ideas etc; an intense, tragic and paralyzing, yet guilty, nostalgia for the care-free privilege and security of the Edwardian era; and all underpinned by a bleak combination of philosophical materialism and hopeless nihilism. 

But, as John Garth makes clear in Tolkien and the Great War, this did not apply to Tolkien. He was deeply affected by the war, his trench experiences, and especially the deaths of so many friends (i.e. all but one of his closest friends) - yet Tolkien was not permanently embittered nor disillusioned by the War, nor was he impelled to adopt the above-listed 'typical' literary responses. 

What made Tolkien immune to this existential aspect of the war? I think the answer is quite simple; and it is that Tolkien had a deep and powerful Christian faith. 


In contrast, from what I can tell, those who experienced the disillusion of the Great War either practiced a shallow and merely conventional Christianity, that rapidly and permanently collapsed under the intense and sustained psychological and physical pressures of trench warfare... 

Or else they were not Christians at all, and the war confirmed their pre-existent conviction that the reality of life was nasty, brutish and short - and the only valid response was to live for today oneself, and agitate for a more peaceful, prosperous and secure society in future. 

Many of the most disillusioned men were intensely artistic and aesthetic people, intensely political and reformist in outlook, and 'romantically' dedicated to a life of intense personal relationships. But they failed to learn from the fact that none of these - nor all together - were able to cope with the stresses and sufferings of the Great War. 


Instead of noticing this failure of their ideals - instead of noticing that their own disillusion proved that their ideals were illusions -  they doubled-down on their ineffective strategies... And have continued to do so in the many decades since. 

The failure of secular ideals taught the failure of trying to live without religion.

And something analogous applied to mainstream Victorian/ Edwardian Establishment Christianity: it had been tested, and it had failed the test. 

The failure of mainstream Christianity taught the failure of the churches. 


Things could have been otherwise... 

Tolkien, as so often, showed the proper and effective way forward - because he was both a Romantic and a Christian

I think the same applies to this era. 

The mainstream churches have been taught that they have failed in the face of crisis; the leftists have been taught that their ideals are incoherent and based on lies, propaganda and coercion. 

We know what has failed - now we need to seek what is both good and strong. 


Sunday, 26 June 2022

Review of The Great Tales Never End: Essays in memory of Christopher Tolkien (2022)

The great tales never end: Essays in memory of Christopher Tolkien. Edited by Richard Ovenden & Catherine McIlwaine. Bodleian Library Publishing: Oxford, UK, 2022. pp. 231. 

I feel enormous gratitude to Christopher Tolkien (1924-2020) for the extraordinary work he did in editing and making available his father's unpublished works, and the drafts of his published works. These have vastly enhanced by enjoyment, and depth of appreciation, of JRR Tolkien over the past several decades. As Tom Shippey puts it in this volume:

It may be said without any qualification at all that no author has ever enjoyed a better or better-qualified literary executor than Tolkien found in his son Christopher.


Yet, although I 'know' and like his literary persona as well as almost anybody; I have until now been able to discover very little about Christopher's life. The Great Tales Never End at long last provides some of the key information I sought. 

My main criticism of this volume is, indeed, that there is not more focus on Christopher's life, and I would have liked more detail about the work he did in the decades before he began to edit his father's unpublished papers. 

I would also have appreciated extra in the way of memoirs of Christopher from friends and relations. TGTNE gives us a poem and a short memoir from sister Priscilla; but I would have enjoyed a lot more of this type of material (which could have been supplied by several of the contributors to later chapters). As things stand, Christopher's real-life personality is still rather obscure to me.  


The book takes the loose 'form' of a Festschrift - with work by eleven authors. It opens with a biographical introduction, timeline and bibliography of Christopher's life by Catherine McIlwaine. This was excellent, and included exciting quotes from thus-far unpublished correspondence; although I would have wished it several-fold longer!  

The information here confirms what I had previously heard but in confidence, and was implied by some remarks in a memoir; that Christopher's academic career was hampered and delayed by his third class bachelor's degree, when a first class was usually expected and required (and might lead swiftly to a permanent academic position). The unexpected failure to attain 'a first' is here explained by depression and ill-health following a failed love affair. 

Christopher then took the longer route to academic security of obtaining a BLitt degree, the research for which led to his only solo book - an edition of Heidrek's Saga. After which he published very little, according to the bibliography (although Google Scholar mentions a paper omitted here, called The Battle of the Goths and the Huns, in Saga-Book of 1953-7). 


As long ago as 1973 I myself studied The Nun's Priest's Tale in the excellent edition that Christopher produced with fellow ex-Inkling Nevill Coghill. It was an inspiring volume, which I have kept all these years - covered, as it now is, by my micrographic schoolboy pencil annotations.

Indeed; Christopher's academic reputation seems to have been based on a reputation for excellence as a teacher. He was a 'lecturer' (presumably on fixed-term contracts) for several years before being elected a Fellow of New College, Oxford in 1963 (at the rather late age of about thirty-nine). He remained in this secure and prestigious post until 1975 (aged about fifty one) when he resigned to work on editing his late father's works. 

From that point onwards, starting with his father's translation of 'Sir Gawain', and for the next 45 years - Christopher certainly 'made up for lost time' as a prolifically publishing scholar! 

In the end, Christopher Tolkien lived to complete his self-imposed task with The Fall of Gondolin in 2018 having been responsible for twenty-five books (according to the bibliography here); all of interest and importance to lovers of Tolkien; many of them containing the fruits of intense study and deep thought.


I shall now focus on particular aspects of a few of the chapters of TGTNE which made a particular impact on me. 

Vincent Ferre presents a detailed analysis of Christopher Tolkien as 'a writer' - whose role (especially in The Silmarillion of 1977) was sometimes required to go beyond 'normal' editing; to include selection from very different versions, rearrangement of passages, and composition of linking passages of prose (although presumably Guy Gavriel Kay - his helper for The Silmarillion - should also be credited with some of this). This gave me a new insight into what Christopher actually did, his process; in relation to the materials he had to work from. 

I took from Verlyn Flieger's chapter a fresh realization that the poetic description of the beginning of the world - as described in Ainulindale or Singing of the Ainur - comes to be reflected in what was originally the final words of The Lord of the Rings outside of Bag End (later moved to the Grey Havens) - where  "Sam heard suddenly the sigh and murmur of the sea on the shores of Middle Earth". 

The significance is that, slightly to paraphrase what the Silmarillion tells us: in water there yet lives the echo of the Music of the Ainur; so that later Men still hearken to the voices of the sea, but know not for what they listen. In a nutshell: The Silmarillion legends and LotR constitute "one long saga" - an arc from creation itself, to the eternal echoes of creation. 

John Garth's chapter reinforces the importance of this concept to Tolkien by describing the process of his meticulous earlier re-dating of this section of Lost Tales - which locates the Music of the Ainur as among the very earliest examples of Tolkien's creative flowering. 

Another example of the process of literary scholarship is in the chapter by Carl F Hostetter, who illustrates four examples of just how Christopher Tolkien - and himself - work on JRRT's primary manuscripts to provide vital information on dating; and therefore the compositional sequence, of drafts. This sequencing has been especially important in the case of Tolkien's draft material; since it often changed radically; spanning years, or sometimes decades, of composition. 


I was fascinated by Stuart D Lee's chapter on the 1955-6 BBC Radio dramatization of The Lord of the Rings; which used the letters between Tolkien and the BBC, drafts, and annotated scripts to provide a background to these - long lost - audio-broadcasts.  I was particularly struck by Tolkien's comment on the accents that he believed should be used to distinguish the characters. 

It was pleasing to see my own inferences confirmed that Merry and Pippin should not have 'rustical' accents, because they were "two young hobbits of the highest birth in the land". Tolkien suggested that the genuine rustic accents (e.g. for Sam or Butterbur) ought to be characterized mainly by the 'burred' pronunciation of 'r'. 

And further that elves (and other high folk) should 'trill' their 'r's in all positions of the letter (but not as much as do the Scots); whereas the dwarves should use a guttural 'r' from the soft palate (more like the Northumbrian dialect). 

Aside; I noticed that in 1956 the part of Ioreth (the wise woman of Gondor) was played by the young actress Prunella Scales, who later married actor Timothy West - who (some sixty years later) was the editorial voice of Christopher Tolkien himself in the recent audiobooks of Beren and Luthien and The Fall of Gondolin! (Their son Samuel West reads the actual texts.) 


Tom Shippey's chapter is titled King Sheave and the Lost Road; and discusses the especially powerful linked-concerns of Tolkien of a divine/ faery land in the west across the ocean; the once-existing sea-path to that land which is now lost but might be found again; and the idea of a 'higher/ nobler' Man (or Men) who came from the West by boat; bringing (for a while) gifts of good government, peace and prosperity in harmony with the gods' will. 

Shippey argues that the King Sheave character of (?) legend was seen by Tolkien as related to Jesus Christ in some spiritual fashion - perhaps as a partial vision of Jesus for the then-pagan North? 

Yet, as Shippey says, although this group of ideas haunted Tolkien through his life, and although he several times tried to incorporate it into his imaginative fictions (for example in Lost Tales, The Lost Road, The Notion Club Papers, references to Earendil and the Great Wave in The Lord of the Rings, and the published poems of Imram and Looney/ The Sea Bell) - in the end Tolkien never succeeded in finding a satisfactory narrative form that would capture this deep emotion. 


I hope have said enough to indicate that there is a lot of 'good stuff' in this enjoyable, albeit heterogeneous, volume. 

At its recommended retail price of forty pounds Sterling; TGTNE is perhaps too costly for the general reader; but this is presumably due to its specialized nature and probably modest audience; as well as to its superb quality as a hardback volume - with good paper, stitched binding, and very impressive maps and colour plates. 

But if you are sufficiently wealthy, Tolkien-obsessed, or can get hold of a library (or secondhand, or review) copy of The Great Tales Never End; you will find a great deal of inspiration, valuable information, and plenty of fruitful novel perspectives; concerning both Christopher Tolkien and his father.


Tuesday, 7 June 2022

Legolas and Gimli were - ultimately - wrong about Men

There is a brief yet marvelous conversation in The Lord of the Rings, when Legolas and Gimli walk together through Minas Tirith and talk of the race of Men. 

**

'We will come', said Imrahil; and they parted with courteous words. 'That is a fair lord and a great captain of men,' said Legolas. 'If Gondor has such men still in these days of fading, great must have been its glory in the days of its rising'. 'And doubtless the good stone-work is the older and was wrought in the first building,' said Gimli. 'It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.' 'Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,' said Legolas. 'And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.' 'And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,' said the Dwarf. 'To that the Elves know not the answer,' said Legolas.

**

I have long regarded this as one of the most significant passages in the LotR; yet now I realize that while the exchange gives a correct understanding of Men as it seems from the perspectives of Elf and Dwarf - the Elf-Dwarf perspective is restricted to Men in this world

Elves and Dwarfs have an existence in both life and after death that is - so far as they know - wholly of this world, this 'planet'. Their lives are therefore bound-up with the life of 'the earth'. 

Tolkien links this to the great arts and crafts of these races. Elves and Dwarves can achieve higher standards of work than Men because they both care more about this world, are wholly invested-in this world; and the permanent link to this world means that their interest and commitment to their work does not fade. 


Men are relatively much more fickle, easily distracted, more readily bored than either Elf or Dwarf; and therefore Men's work, even when it starts-out very well, is less invested-in and tends to decline. And ultimately this is because Men's souls leave this-world after death 

Knowing this innately, Men feel - and behave - like 'visitors' to the world. Visitors are not so much 'at home' as permanent residents. 

For Tolkien's Men, and for us - this world does not feel like home, and is not enough

Consequently, Men are less engaged with the world, and with their work - they do not take this-world as seriously as Elves and Dwarves - and for Men there is a tendency to become dissatisfied, to daydream and lose focus on the work at hand; and to aspire after something beyond the world... 


To understand the perspective of Men, therefore, we must take into account Aragorn's words on his deathbed: "Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory." 

For Men, but not for Tolkien's Elves and Dwarves, this mortal life is a phase and a preparation; and can be a temporary prelude to something greater and eternal. 



Therefore Legolas and Gimli's understanding is incomplete, and they cannot comprehend the fate of Men as including something that lies beyond this-world. 

Gimli seems to regard Men as 'merely' shorter lived, less serious and less skilful Dwarves! Legolas balances this with approval of Men's capacity to bounce-back after disaster defeat and to start over again - in a way that Elves - burdened by their long lives and accumulated memories - cannot.  


Tolkien did not wish to make the fate of Men any plainer than the 'negative' statement that their souls left this world after death. At the time of LotR, the salvation brought by Jesus Christ was imagined to be a long way in the future; not known by revelation, yet perhaps vaguely intuited...

But Men such as Aragorn who trusted  The One (Eru Illuvatar - the prime creator) already knew that there 'must be' some very good reason why Men died and their souls left this world; which was why mortality was called The One's Gift to Men.

Even the Valar could not take this form of death from Men; albeit afte the fall of Morgoth, the Valar extended the lives of Numenorean Men several-fold compared with their earlier ancestors.

Yet even this life extension - which was kindly intended, as a reward and to allow for greater (more Elvish, or Dwarf-like!) levels of skill and achievement in this world - backfired and led ultimately to Men of Numenor desiring the unending life-in-this-world of the Elves and Valar; and to their ultimate corruption and downfall. 


Tolkien's lesson, overall, seems to be that Men are what they are - not second-rate elves or Dwarves! - and Men have their own distinctive destiny.

And 'what Men are' includes a perspective larger than that of Elves and Dwarves: a perspective that ought-to extend beyond the death of the body, and beyond the circles of this world. 


Thursday, 14 April 2022

The Colin Duriez biography of JRR Tolkien

Colin Duriez. JRR Tolkien: the making of a legend. 2012. pp 248. ISBN-10: 9780745955148; ISBN-13: 978-0745955148 

Because I have been reading Tolkien for so many decades, and therefore have felt the greatest impact from rather specialized and scholarly books such as Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle Earth, Verlyn Flieger's A Question of Time, and John Garth's Tolkien and The Great War - I have until recently rather tended to pass over the biographies aimed at a first-time reader; and it is this this area that author Colin Duriez excels. 


I have known that Duriez was a very knowledgeable and personable individual in the realms of 'Inklings studies', often appearing on TV and movie documentaries - and approved of him in a general sense, but without having made much of an effort to read his stuff! 

A few years ago I enjoyed his 2003 account of the friendship between Tolkien and Lewis; and last year read his 2015 book on The Inklings - which favourably surprised me by its usage of a different range and emphasis of sources than those used by Carpenter and Glyer. 

In other words, as well as providing the general and first-time reader a more accessible, briefer and more readable volume than the more 'academic' scholars - Duriez also provided a different and complementary account of the Inklings from the other books; which made it both enjoyable and well worth the attention of even someone like myself who is familiar with most of the primary sources.  


I therefore decided to try reading Duriez's biography of JRR Tolkien - taking advantage of the fact that it was available as an audiobook. 

Again, as with his Inklings, I found the work thoroughly enjoyable, and sufficiently different in its use of sources and angle of approach, to provide a fresh perspective. Duriez gives us what seems to me the best-integrated account available of Tolkien's childhood and early adult years, leading up to his major books - which this being the most foundational era of his life. 

The Duriez biography has an affectionate and enthusiastic basis, which raises it above the snipings and subversions of Humphrey Carpenter (Carpenter seems subtly designed to poison the mind of the reader against Tolkien). 

It was also refreshing that Duriez is an explicitly Christian writer, which I regard as essential for a rounded understanding of Tolkien and his significance; but one who refrains from pushing this at the reader, or 'using' Tolkien for apologetic purposes. 


Especially if you have never yet read a Tolkien biography; I would therefore recommend Duriez as the best first-time, initiatory Tolkien biography I have yet encountered.


The Place of the Lion audiobook; my favourite of Charles's Williams's novels now available in a reading by David Pickering


The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams is one of my favourite novels, which I have read multiple times over a span of some thirty-five years. 

It is also - I believe - the work which, when they encountered it in 1936, triggered both CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien to write fantasy for adults - Lewis's Space Trilogy, and Tolkien's Lost Road/ Notion Club Papers which fed into the increasingly-adult Lord of the Rings. 

Of these; PotL most-resembles That Hideous Strength and The Notion Club Papers; as being about the breaking-into mundane life of profound and threatening spiritual realities. Place of the Lion has an appealing 'mundane setting', with several pleasant and likeable characters, and a high spirited overall feeling - as well as plenty of both physical and spiritual peril. To me - PotL is by far the most wholesome of Charles William's novels.  

Therefore, for most people, if you are intrigued by what you know about Charles Williams, and you want to try something by him; Place of the Lion is probably the best place to start. 


And for those who, like me, appreciate hearing literature read aloud - there is now an audio-version of Place of the Lion which includes an informative introduction by CW's biographer Grevel Lindop, and is narrated by actor David Pickering. 

Pickering's particular contribution is that he is able to make clear and comprehensible those parts of the text where the reader is most likely to lose the thread - as the reader's eye skips too quickly and lightly over important points. 

For example, when I first read this book, I found the critical first scene - when The Lion  makes his appearance - difficult to grasp; because there Williams makes a distinction (that turns out to be vital) between a Lion (implicitly here meaning a male lion) and a Lioness. But by vocal-acting (i.e. careful emphasis and intonation) Pickering is able to distinguish and keep separate these creatures, and to bring-out CW's intended significance.  

As with any good reader; the audio version brings-out interesting and surprising aspects of the story that I hadn't previously noticed. No matter how many times you have already read Place of the Lion, I think you will find that listening will probably add to your appreciation. 


Note: Apocryphile Press have also produced several other audiobooks of CW's novels, and a wide range of his written works.   



Wednesday, 16 March 2022

Review of the Andy Serkis narrated audiobooks of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

Surprisingly perhaps, the recent Andy Serkis narrations of The Hobbit unabridged and the Lord of the Rings (plus Appendix A, and the introduction to B) are I believe the only English language versions apart from those by Rob Inglis

So how does Serkis compare with Inglis?


Both are very good, but different enough to be complementary. 

Serkis takes the reading more slowly, speaks more emphatically, and there is more light and shade - both humour and horror come out more strongly. In a word: Serkis is more exciting

Inglis's is a more integrated reading, and he reads more correctly in terms of getting across the meaning by intonation and correct emphasis - by contrast, Serkis often emphasizes the wrong word in a phrase or description - especially over-doing the adjectives. 


As for the songs or poems - both do these unaccompanied. Serkis sings with a natural bass-baritone voice, Inglis with a trained, higher baritone. 

In general, I don't much like the tunes either of them use, and neither do justice to the 'high style' elvish songs; but Serkis does some of the folkier hobbit songs quite convincingly. 


What about the different voices of characters? Consistent with the above, Inglis's characters are not so starkly differentiated as Serkis. 

It seems clear that Serkis has modelled some of the character voices on the actors he worked with in the Peter Jackson movies; for instance, he does Merry as 'Mummerset' and Pippin as Scottish - which are fine, but neither of which I would regard as correct! 

Serkis as Gollum is simply perfection, and will never be surpassed. 

On the other hand; I was not convinced by Serkis having Boromir, Denethor and Faramir speak in Yorkshire dialect - which does distinguish Gondor from Men of Rohan and Bree; but which seems to owe more to Sean Bean than to their situation as the three highest status Men in Middle Earth. 

And the Gondorian soldier Beregond and his son Bergil are given Ringo Starr-esque Liverpudlian accents - which grated on my ear. 

Yet these are minor quibbles - and in general the range of character voices represent a tour de force by Serkis. 


In conclusion; I prefer and would recommend Rob Inglis as the best option for the serious, repeated, adult Tolkien listener. 

But I have no doubt that Serkis would be a better choice for younger and first-time listeners - and, at his best Serkis allows himself time, and possesses the energy and concentration, to scale the heights and plumb the depths of these great works. 

And the ideal is - of course - to own both!


Tuesday, 22 February 2022

Frodo's and Sam's coma after the one ring has been destroyed: Another of Tolkien's nods - but why?

In the chronology of The Lord of the Rings - Appendix B - there is a strangely long period between the destruction of the One Ring and the rescue of the unconscious Frodo and Sam by Gandalf and the eagles - and Frodo and Sam awakening to participate in the celebration on the Field of Cormallen. 

March 25 - The Host is surrounded on the Slag-hills of Dagorlad. Frodo and Samwise reach the Sammath Naur. Gollum seizes the Ring and falls in the Cracks of Doom. Downfall of Barad-dûr and passing of Sauron. [...]

April 6 - The Ring-bearers are honoured on the Field of Cormallen.

Apparently Frodo and Sam were asleep for about a fortnight! 

The only explanation comes a few pages later when Gandalf says: 'The hands of the King are hands of healing, dear friends,' he said. 'But you went to the very brink of death ere he recalled you, putting forth all his power, and sent you into the sweet forgetfulness of sleep. And though you have indeed slept long and blessedly, still it is now time to sleep again.'  

In The History of Middle Earth - Sauron Defeated; Christopher Tolkien comments that in the earliest draft the date of Frodo and Sam's awakening was the third of April, and subsequent revision put-in fourth and seventh, before settling on sixth. 

But why so long? Christopher says: "I do not know precisely what considerations impelled my father so greatly to prolong the time during which Sam and Frodo lay asleep." The only clue is a marginal note saying: "More time required for [?gathering] of goods" 

I have puzzled over the chronology of this period of time, and I cannot see any reason why F&S should be compelled to remain comatose for such an unfeasibly long period of time - in an era without the possibility of parenteral hydration and nutrition!

Any suggestions? 


What happened to Elladan and Elrohir? Were they a source of elvish inheritance in later Men?

Elladan and Elrohir were the identical-looking twin sons of Elrond; older brothers of Arwen. The brothers spent most of their lives as warriors, living with the Northern Dunedain of Arnor; and they traveled with the Dunedain to fight with Aragorn in Pelargir (with the army of the dead), the Battle of Pellenor Fields, and also before the Black Gate. 

We are told that Arwen must choose whether to travel with her father or else remain on Middle Earth and become mortal. She chooses to remain, wed Aragorn, and presumably Arwen became mortal when Elrond took ship with Frodo from the Grey Havens - she died (of grief, it is implied) shortly after Aragorn. 

We also know that Elladan and Elrohir remained in Middle Earth, and by my reasoning (although Tolkien does not say so) this would mean that they also became mortal. 

Arwen had one son and more-than-one daughter with Aragorn; and Tolkien says that this was one of the ways in which the influence of elvishness descended to later Men. I wonder if the same applied to the twins? 

Did either or both of Elladan and Elrohir wed a mortal woman, and have children - and therefore (in world) be among the ancestors of modern men? 

It would be nice to think so!


Where did Frodo and Bilbo go after leaving the Grey Havens - Lonely Island or Blessed Realm?

For many years after reading The Lord of the Rings, I did not understand that the Undying Lands were two-fold - the original land occupied by the gods (the Valar) and the original habitation of the elves - was called Aman or the Blessed Realm

(I long thought it was called Valinor, but that is only a part of Aman.)

But the Noldor elves that returned from Middle earth at the end of the First Age, dwelt in a different place; an island to the east of Aman called Tol Eressea or the Lonely Island/ Isle. My understanding is that this was maybe due to lack of space on Aman, partly due to allowing the elves their own society in which they (rather than the Valar) were rulers... 

But perhaps mainly as a punishment for them having left Aman and gone to Middle Earth in pursuit of Morgoth and the Silmarils - after which they were forbidden ever to return. The Lonely Island was therefore a way of allowing the Noldor to return from Middle Earth to a land where there would be no death (until the end of the world), but without breaking the terms of the prohibition. 

If this prohibition still stood, it would seem to imply that the Elves on Tol Eressea were not allowed to visit (or transfer to) Aman; but must remain on the Lonely Island. (Although presumably they might get visitors from Aman, perhaps including the Valar and Maia.)


So, what does this imply about Frodo's destination at the end of Lord of the Rings? I had always assumed he would be going to Aman to stay with the Valar and the high elves who had never left Aman - because Aman would surely be Gandalf's destination (since he was a Maia - a lower, angelic, level of Valar). 

Yet Galadriel would, I presume, be going to Tol Eressea and staying there - since she was one of the Noldor rebels. 

This seems to suggest that the boat carrying Frodo and Bilbo would be calling at the Lonely Isle and dropping-off Galadriel and presumably other high elves - perhaps also Elrond; then moving on to 'terminate' at Aman to deliver Gandalf.


But where did Frodo and Bilbo go? With Gandalf of Galadriel - Eressea or Aman? Or first the one, then the other? And did Galadriel ever get to visit Gandalf? 

I don't know for sure - although Tolkien in a letter said Aman for Frodo; any suggestions? 
 

Wednesday, 16 February 2022

Why is Tolkien's subcreated and fictional mythology (for most people) more powerful than traditional myths?

In what follows I will try to describe what was new and distinctive about Tolkien's writing - the X-factor that makes Tolkien's myths more and more interesting and relevant, even as 'traditional myths' dwindle in perceived relevance and power. I will try to explain how it is that Tolkien achieved the apparently-impossible: the making of new, yet real, myths - myths for now and the future, as contrasted with myths from the past. 


From the middle of the twentieth century, the most dominant explanation for the power of traditional myths was that of CG Jung; which was amplified and popularized by Joseph Campbell. 

This idea is that myths have their psychological power because they tap-into the collective unconscious, where there exist universal archetypal symbols - such as characters and plots - that are found (with only superficial variations) in the myths, all Men's dreams, the psychotic phenomena of the insane, and the visions of trance-medium spiritual experts such as shamans. 

In other words, the power of myth is supposed to be a function of its roots in the unconscious, and this collective unconscious is universal - but manifested in the 'folk mythologies' that arise in particular cultures - and are especially evident by comparing tribal or ancient societies (where they are assumed to emerge, and where there is less possibility of cross-cultural transmission). 

By this account - a myth symbolizes the unconscious and puts in touch with 'the universal'. 


Ever since the 1960s there have been many attempts to explain the power of Tolkien's work in these broadly-Jungian terms - for instance listing his sources in Norse or Celtic mythologies. 

Obviously, there are such connections and influences; yet I am sure they cannot be the main reason for the special power of Tolkien's work - because it is obvious that for many people Tolkien's work has more power and truth than the myths from-which he is supposed to derive them.

Likewise descriptions of the supposed archetypes (such as the wise old magician, of whom Gandalf is supposed to be a version) are interesting - but lack the particular power of the Tolkien manifestation.

Likewise the supposed plot archetypes such as the hero quest. Tolkien's actual quests in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings have some resemblances to these; but also differences. And although Tolkien's quests come later, they have a power that is experienced as deeper than the supposed originals.   


Owen Barfield, who was a friend of Tolkien but who did not enjoy (and could not finish reading!) The Lord of the Rings; provided what I regard as the basis of a deeper and more historically-explanatory understanding of myth. 

Barfield's scheme would see myth as originating in the immersive, spontaneous and unconscious way of thinking - the 'mythic consciousness' - of ancient tribal Men (and young children as well, albeit within their lesser cognitive abilities). 

Originally, it would be supposed, this consciousness was Not found as separate 'myths' as we now recognize them, but as simply the whole way of life and being - in other words, consciousness was itself mythic, and there was no need or function for special myths. 


The stories we recognize as myths come from the later stage when adult Men begin progressively to lose this spontaneous and natural consciousness. Such Men no longer lived immersed-in the mythic; and therefore access to the 'original' form of consciousness could only be attained intermittently and by using methods - such as inducing visions, or by song, story, ritual, artifacts and symbols - by religious and magical practices. 

In other words; as mythic consciousness began to wane, myths began to emerge

Myths were meant to be true; deeply true; and with a truth that was deeper than ordinary everyday facts and information. True beyond words and explanations. 

I would say that, implicitly, myths were a means to an end - and that end was the return to original mythic consciousness. 


But as the original mythic-consciousness continued to wane throughout human history; matters reached a point where mythic consciousness could only be accessed or activated temporarily. This by means of mythic stories, for example - and usually within some kind of 'ritual context' which spiritually-prepared the participants. 

(I am thinking of - for instance - myths as performed by someone gifted such as a bard, in a solemn and focused public situation.)

Then, as the process of waning continued - Men's normal, mundane, everyday consciousness could no longer experience myth. To contact and experience mythic consciousness context required inducing some degree of altered consciousness - at the least a 'light trance' state; which might be induced by music, rhythm, chanting, dance or even physical interventions such as fasting, or sleepless vigils. 


At the extreme, and especially in the late-19th and early 20th century - writers and other artists tried to eliminate choice and awareness, aiming to 'allow' the unconscious to well-up into direct expression. 

Deep meditation training, surrealism, automatic writing, trance mediumship, clairvoyance, consciousness-altering drugs... 

All such techniques are based on the underlying idea that the artist's 'self' or ego' needs to, ought to, step-aside and 'allow' the collective unconsciousness to well-up into consciousness - the artist merely functions as a scribe for the resulting spontaneously-generated material. 

But the resulting mythic experience was not just temporary, but the necessarily-altered conscious state also tends to make mythic experience separate from 'normal' (non-mythic) life; and to impair memory. And the very extremity of methods tended to invalidate the mythic experiences - which could easily be written-off as merely pathological. 

And with further development and waning; even the possibility of even extreme measures to enable a renewal of contact with mythic consciousness all-but disappeared - and we entered the characteristic modern state of pervasive, shallow, mundane materialistic thinking. 


When we have reached the modern era (that is, from the later 20th century), there has been an almost-complete separation of everyday- from mythic-consciousness. 

Separation of the mundane and the mythic even to the extent that the apparatus of traditional myth has lost power and become of dwindling popular interest; and the spectrum of methods, techniques, rituals and symbols have all-but ceased to evoke mythic consciousness. 

And yet - this does Not apply to the works of JRR Tolkien - which seem to go from strength to strength. 

So what is the difference?


My best guess is that Tolkien was not writing myth  - he was not even trying to write 'a myth'. His work therefore does not operate by awakening, or evoking resonances of, un-conscious mythic consciousness. 

So if not working with myth - then what was Tolkien doing? He tells us himself. 

Tolkien was, I think, aware that he was doing something different and relatively new with his writing; which is why (in the essay On Fairy Stories) he invented the term 'subcreation'. 

Tolkien's creative process was much more conscious, deliberate, and freely chosen than earlier myths - Tolkien was deliberately creating in a smaller version of divine divine creation; instead of - like myth - inducing contact with already-existent divine creation. 

In essence; I would say that Tolkien wrote in that higher form of 'after-modern' consciousness which Barfield termed Final Participation, and I have called primary thinking. 


Because primary thinking is the medium of subcreation, it can happen only when the artist's thinking is aligned with divine creation - when the artist's creation harmoniously adds-to divine creation. 

Under such conditions the artist's creativity is an expression (a translation) of the artist's real and divine self - rather than his public persona, his everyday personality and socialized self.

But Men cannot (in this earthly mortal life) continuously or for long periods attain to this level of divine-aligned and subcreative consciousness - therefore the composition process often requires a great deal of trial and error. 

That is - repeated trials of composing a mixture of genuinely inspired and erroneous material, and then later testing what has been composed against the artist's intuitive sense of rightness and truth (elimination of error). This is a process we can observe at work in those exploratory drafts and re-drafts published by Christopher Tolkien as as The History of Middle Earth.  


What was Tolkien testing his compositions against? One possible answer would be 'the collective unconscious' in some form or another. And this must have some truth - new myth needs to have some kind of consistency-with ancient myth. 

Yet this is not, it cannot be, the whole story; nor even its most important elements - because this would be only secondary-creation, re-creation - but not sub-creation. 

If Tolkien was only evaluating on the basis of back-compatibility with ancient myths, this would lead merely to variations on perennial themes. It could not explain why Tolkien's writing has 'bucked the trend' of declining power in myths; has become more, rather than less, powerful with passing decades. 


Likewise, Tolkien's much discussed rigour in ensuring coherence throughout his invented world; ensuring that every aspect linked-across to the others - to make his world as internally-consistent as possible.

Inner-consistency might explain certain aspects of depth in Tolkien's world and an aspect of realism; but there must be more. 

Because inner-consistency does not explain the mythic sense of vital relevance to our lives of Tolkien's best works; their purposes, motivations and meanings which are experienced as far deeper and more-real than everyday modern existence.  

After all, an internally-consistent and complex invented world would merely be experienced as an intricate and ingenious toy - unless is was also something deeper and more personally important.


I regard what is most special about Tolkien's creativity - its X-factor, if you like! - as something genuinely new, truly generative, and originative. 

I infer that therefore Tolkien was actually testing the validity of his subcreated written compositions against ongoing divine creation. But not just in terms of back-compatibility - but in terms of present and future divine creation.  

In other words; when Tolkien was writing at his best, I think we should regard him doing so in a higher state of consciousness that was aligned with divine creation: that was indeed in accordance with God's creative purposes

Therefore his testing and revisions were in effect comparing what was written with Tolkien's living understanding of God's ongoing creative goals and methods: future as well as past. 


This state of consciousness in which I believe Tolkien composed should, I believe, be envisaged as highly aware - including self-aware; as expansive and wide-ranging. It was, indeed, the kind of thinking when thinking is itself reality; in which thinking is simultaneously aware-of existing reality, and making-of new reality. And that is 'the secret' of JRR Tolkien's writing; what sets it apart from almost everything else.  

  

Saturday, 5 February 2022

Another Tolkien-Birmingham connection: Ramer's meteorite identified as the boulder in Cannon Hill Park, Edgbaston (from the Notion Club Papers)

 


From The Notion Club Papers - by JRR Tolkien

[Ramer speaking:] "There is a very large meteorite in a park, Gunthorpe Park in Matfield, where I lived as a boy, after we came back from abroad; even then it had a strange fascination for me. I wondered if it could have come from Malacandra. I took to hobnobbing with it again, in the vacs. Indeed, I made myself ridiculous and an object of suspicion. I wanted to visit the stone alone at night - to lessen the distractions; but I was not allowed to: closing hours were closing hours. So I gave that up. It seemed to be quite without results."

"So the poor old stone was left all alone?" said Lowdham. 

"'Yes," said Ramer. "It was. It is a very long way indeed from home, and it is very lonely. That is, there is a great loneliness in it, for a perceiver to perceive. And I got a very heavy dose of it. In fact I can't bear to look at such things now. For I found, about the end of the long vac. two years ago, after my final visit, that there had been results. It had evidently taken some time to digest them, and even partially translate them. But that is how I first got away, out beyond the sphere of the Moon, and very much further."

"Travelling on a dream-meteor!" said Frankley. "Hm! So that's your method, is it?"

**

Ramer is one of several Tolkien alter egos - serving partly as a mouthpiece for some of Tolkien's deepest convictions - in The Notion Club Papers. 

I have long been fascinated by this passage - which has (to me) the ring of personal experience about it; yet Christopher Tolkien was unable to suggest a real life origin for his Father's fictional version of the meteorite and park. 

I now think it very likely that the 'boulder' in Cannon Hill Park - depicted in an old photo above (the boulder is still in position nowadays, but without railings or an information board) - was the 'original' for Ramer's meteorite. 

This suggests that the young Tolkien may well have had some analogous childhood experience with the Cannon Hill Park 'meteorite', to that which Ramer describes for the fictional Gunthorpe Park.

Linking evidence: 

1. Gunthorpe Park seems like a pun on Cannon Hill Park. 

(I invite readers with an understanding of etymology to discern whether there may be any other puns linking the fictional and real-life park- and place-names.)

2. Ramer says "where I lived as a boy" - Tolkien lived as a child in Edgbaston, Birmingham; where Cannon Hill Park was located - indeed, the Park is included in modern 'Tolkien trails' within the city. 

3. Although the boulder is nowadays apparently regarded as a glacial erratic - there are several online accounts from people who played in Cannon Hill Park as children, who say they always regarded it as a meteorite. 

It seems probable that the boy Tolkien would have regarded the boulder as a meteorite - the 'dream-meteor' that Ramer had used to travel in time and space via mystical communion and lucid dreaming*. 

c 1900

Footnote: Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull (authors of The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide) made the following comment in an e-mail which I quote with their permission: 

Your speculation seems sound. And if it is, then certainly Gunthorpe Park could be a play on Cannon Hill Park. But there's also the point that thorpe 'hamlet, village, (remote) farm or settlement' is etymologically connected with terp 'mound, hillock' (as the site of a village). Thus Gunthorpe could conceivably play on hill as well as on cannon. 


*A meteor is the name for the travelling rock while it is in space and enters the earth's atmosphere; a meteorite is the term for that rock which remains after a meteor has survived its atmospheric transit, and has landed on the earth. 

Monday, 31 January 2022

The River Anduin as bearer of the One Ring

Who was the third bearer of the One Ring - coming after Sauron and Isuldur - and before Deagol then Smeagol/Gollum?

The answer is that for nearly two and a half thousand years (TA 2-2463) the One Ring lay at the bottom of The River Anduin

This was a long time - and raises the question of why the ring was not found by Suaron (after he had reformed, some hundreds of years before the ring was found by Deagol/ Smeagol), or by the Ringwraiths: especially the Witch King who was active from TA 1300.  


Given that the ring had will, sought its maker, and seemed to posses the ability to shape chance to aid its own purposes - it is surprising that nothing happened to the ring for such a long time; that it was not able to arrange its own finding. 

Perhaps the answer is that the ring was immersed deep in water; and water was an unique element in Middle-earth, in being almost free from any taint of the evil which was permeated into the world by Morgoth. 


As Tolkien wrote in The History of Middle Earth: Morgoth's Ring

"...Certain ‘elements’ or conditions of matter had attracted Morgoth’s special attention (mainly, unless in the remote past, for reasons of his own plans). For example, all gold (in Middle-earth) seems to have had a specially ‘evil’ trend – but not silver. Water is represented as being almost entirely free of Morgoth. (This, of course, does not mean that any particular sea, stream, river, well, or even vessel of water could not be poisoned or defiled – as all things could.)"


It seems possible that the One Ring was 'shielded' by the waters of Anduin - making it both hard to detect, and rendering it unable to manipulate events in its own favour. 

And when the ring was eventually found, this was by the first of a sequence of hobbits - who (it has been suggested) were especially 'made' in order to resist the evil powers of the ring, more effectively than any other race. 

This 'chance' sounds more like the will of the Anduin (or of Ulmo, Vala of the sea and rivers) rather than something engineered by the ring. 


Also; it was only after the ring was removed from the water that its evil could again reassert itself; which it did instantly: inspiring the murder of Deagol by Smeagol. 


Acknowledgment: This idea derived from my son Billy Charlton, in the course of our conversations which also led to the Hobbit creation theory

Sunday, 9 January 2022

True Romanticism in the Notion Club Papers

There is a truly Romantic spirit which I value supremely when I find it; which is seldom, including very rare instances in myself. 

We are, apparently, trapped by deep habits, fears and a kind of sheer incompetence; and therefore find it extremely (sometimes impossibly) difficult to be what we most desire to be; to express what we most desire to express. 


The true Romanticism can be found only seldom - for example in some of William Blake's aphorisms and short lyrics, but not in his long poems or most of the rest of his oeuvre

By the strictest standards; I cannot find Romanticism realized anywhere in Coleridge, although Coleridge knew it, understood it, and sought it; and much the same applies to Rudolf Steiner, Owen Barfield and CS Lewis. All wrote about it, with great insight and value; but did not themselves embody it in their writings. 

But writing about Romanticism - including that 'writing about' which is the use of allegory (as with Blake's prophetic works, or some of Barfield's and CSL's stories) - is not the thing itself

What is meant is being referred-to, but the actuality is not embodied in the writing.


What I am saying is that nearly all writers, in their writing, keep a distance from actual Romanticism: the distance of scholarship, allegory, facetiousness or irony. 


Yet True Romanticism can be found in writings; sometimes in obscure authors like William Arkle; but supremely in JRR Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings - which is, I think, why this work holds its unique and elevated position. 

Tolkien, here and there - but more often than anybody I know - gives expression to the fullest and truest Romanticism; and in a way that is highly accessible, and easier to appreciate than any other. 

This was only possible because Tolkien was himself a Romantic, but then again so were CS Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams - yet none of these managed to get past the barriers to its expression in the way that Tolkien did. 

What I mean by Romanticism, and how it is nearly always blocked, can be seen in The Notion Club Papers (NCPs). In broad terms, this incomplete and posthumously published novel represents an Inklings-based group that is able to break through the crust of convention and constraint to achieve a fully expressed Romanticism.


The NCPs begins with superficial and facetious interaction between its members; a jokey and cynical conversational style of a kind familiar to any English person of the professional classes. This is one type of defensiveness, and it absolutely blocks Romanticism. 

Another defensiveness is of conventional values - such as 'scholarship' or 'science' when these are regarded in a consensus fashion. Such conversation serves to suppress individual discernment and creation by a kind of implicit threat related to pointing out its transgression from the group norms; norms that provide coherence and power. 

The idea is that group members should fear going beyond the group-approved forms and content, and the fear is of being singled out, stripped of status, and scapegoated, ridiculed, demonized. Such external control may be done with a light touch, ambiguously and deniably; but the message is transmitted nonetheless - and there are few who resist it and none who are unaware of the implications. 


So fear is one reason; but also people just don't know how

Some people are drawn to Romanticism, and are aware that indirect references to the Romantic are not enough - but instead only succeed in emoting. Instead of Romanticism there are just strong and merely-subjective feelings.

The truly Romantic must be transcendent, must embody the divinely creative - directly apprehended; whereas emotions and feelings as-such are merely animal responses to the environment or to inner body states. To rant and rave - to free associate or let-rip - is not of any transcendental value. 

Thus the literature of the Beats, Hippies, Sixties Counterculture and New Age is almost wholly worthless from a truly Romantic perspective of written-expression. It may be based upon an accurate diagnosis of the problem, but is profoundly wrong in assuming that liberating the id or collective unconscious is a solution. 

To try and suppress human consciousness, delete the self or ego; and assimilate to the un-conscious or 'liberate' the 'instinctive' is not to solve the problem of alienation of Men. It is merely to crave oblivion - to aspire to cease being a Man - to regress Man towards the animal.   


It is easy to say what Not to do, to describe the pitfalls in various direction; but there is no formula for what to do instead - which is why it is so rarely achieved. 

Nonetheless, the matter can be illustrated, and it has been illustrated in the Notion Club Papers. What happens at times through the accounts of the Notion Club; is that the conversation is able to escape from facetious joking, or mere description, and attain a truly Romantic level that transcends all the pitfalls. We are actually shown what this would be like. 

The NCPs begin with the club responding to a story by Ramer - and for some pages the response is merely superficial - full of 'joshing' - mostly good natured, sometimes rather pointed. Some characters (such as Lowdham) adopt a cynical attitude, repeatedly trying to bring the conversation 'down to earth' in an irritating fashion.

It later emerges that this is a defensive posture by Lowdham who is (fearfully) attempting to hold-back an almost-overwhelmingly powerful Romanticism in himself; but at first he is the worst representative among an unserious tendency in the group. 

At the other extreme is Jeremy, who is always earnest and never even tries to be witty; indeed he seems to be regarded as something of the butt of group (to be 'shot at' with barbed quips; as being younger, and seemingly more naively enthusiastic). Yet he is in reality the conscience of the Notion Club. 

Jeremy goes on to say some of the most profound and important things in the NCPs; and (surprisingly) joins-up with the rambunctious Lowdham to make a complementary team; who whole-heartedly seek to experience the fullest possible Romantic contact with providence and the divine.  


It takes several pages of merely scholarly and jocular talk; but the NCP discussion becomes more serious rather suddenly when Guildford says the word 'Incarnation' as his suggested 'method' for space (and indeed time) travel. 

Although the intended meaning of the word incarnation is never given a wholly satisfactory explanation in the NCPs, it can be inferred from usage and context that what it partly means is a kind of reincarnation involving mind-to-mind connection - whereby a modern person has (or develops) the ability to experience events in the past that were experienced by his hereditary ancestors*. 

Hereditary - but not by a genetic mechanism, but really more a matter of spiritual ancestry: the sharing of a spiritual orientation across (perhaps) very-many generations. 


Specific heredity emerges later in the NCPs when Lowdham and Jeremy become - for a while - 'possessed' by former identities of men in Numenor during the lead-up-to and events of that lands cataclysmic (literally world changing) drowning. 

They become able to speak the Numenorean languages, and re-enact some of the ancient events - and in doing so they apparently create a 'cannel' by which the actual Numenorean storm breaks-through into modern England to wreak considerable havoc. 

This carefully-prepared direct mind-to-mind human connection - which has an implicitly general and providential aspect, never explained in the surviving fragments of the NCPs - is an actual expression of Romanticism in the text.  


But in this early stage of the NCPs the main Romantic protagonist is Ramer; who has - it gradually emerges - succeeded in travelling both in space and time; but without any reference to either incarnation or reincarnation. Instead Ramer seems to have developed a way of attuning his mind to non-organic 'things' - such as a meteorite. 

Ramer was eventually able to re-experience the 'life' of this meteorite from its remote origins buried in some remote celestial object, through its journey through space and the eventual burning entry through earth's atmosphere. 

It seems that by Incarnation, Tolkien may intend also to include this implicit 'animism'; a living universe whereby there are no 'things' but only 'beings' - and whereby 'inorganic'/ mineral entities are possessed of memory and consciousness of a type.

This is an aspect of Romanticism that recalls the consciousness of ancient tribal Man and the early childhood of every Man; and it recurs whenever the perspective reaches its strongest expression. 

Thus Ramer can commune-with (and participate-in the consciousness of) a rock; much as Lowdham is able to do with his remote Numenorean ancestor -- and also his more recent Anglo-Saxon ancestors of Mercia; which 'inheritance' is the posited mechanism by which he spontaneously knew this language. 

(It seems, from multiple comments in his letters and private conversation, that this spontaneously knowledge of Mercian Old English also applied to Tolkien himself.) 


(Note: There are many other examples of such 'animism' - communing with living, conscious realities in non-human animals, plants and minerals - all-through The Lord of the Rings.) 


It is by this means of fiction - but fiction-presented-as-real - that JRR Tolkien was able to express True Romanticism. How he did this is ultimately a matter of genius - coming from the divine creativity innate in all Men to some degree; and Tolkien in this particular fashion. 

If Tolkien had not himself regarded his fictions as really-real, and been writing from the heart; then there would have been nothing real for him to communicate. 

But Tolkien also achieved this rare literary feat by his careful and rigorous techniques of framing the fictions in a quasi historical fashion (for the NCPs by means of the Foreword; in LotR by the Prologue and Appendices), of creating a fictive-sense of depth by reference to untold stories and hinted back-histories; and in the Notion Club Papers by a gradual ascent from the mundane chit-chat at the beginning to the fullness of sincere, unguarded, heart-felt Romantic interaction among club members in later passages. 


*Note added: This may be implied by footnote 15 to part one, of the first draft, which provides a partial explanation with Guildford saying: "try reincarnation, or transcarnation without loss of memory." Transcarnation may imply that that the consciousness of one person can 'move' to another body - which would be functionally equivalent to a direct contact between two consciousnesses in different places. 

Sunday, 2 January 2022

The reality of the imagined: Why did Tolkien frame the Lord of the Rings as if it was real history?

Something missed by casual readers of The Lord of the Rings is the 'editorial' apparatus that presents the book as based-upon an ancient manuscript; in other words, the claim that the book is real history. Why did Tolkien do this - especially considering that he had not done so in The Hobbit


Well, in the first place, it was not unusual for the early novelists to claim explicitly and non-ironically that their books were either real records of actual events, or based upon such accounts (e.g. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe - if considered as a novel). Indeed, this was so common as to be almost normal up to the twentieth century. 

However, the practice had stopped before Tolkien began work on his Silmarillion legendarium with the unpublished (in his lifetime) Lost Tales commenced late in the 1914-18 War. These stories included a very elaborate feigned-historical framing and explanation of their provenance - that is, the links of how it was that these stories came into our world, into the hands of the modern reader. 

The practice had become very rare by the time Tolkien published Lord of the Rings - except in a self-conscious manner that was intended to be taken ironically or satirically (as with the tongue-in-cheek 'editorial' apparatus of Farmer Giles of Ham). 


Tolkien, by contrast, was not-at-all ironic, but indeed very serious and 'literal' in his within-text claim that LotR came from 'The Red Book of Westmarch', a strategy repeatedly pursued in the Prologue and Appendices that bracket the story; and this was later buttressed by the editorial introduction he included with The Adventures of Tom Bombadil

Furthermore, it is a significant part of the failure of The Silmarillion of 1977, that any attempt at framing was abandoned by Christopher Tolkien - a decision CRT soon regretted, and endeavored to 'undo' indirectly, by his History of Middle Earth.  

Note: Verlyn Flieger has written an excellent account of Tolkien's lifelong wrestling with the matter of framing his stories - Interrupted Music, 2005.)


So why was it so important for Tolkien to frame his stories by serious attempts to explain how they came down to modern readers - against the trend of 20th century fiction? 

I think the answer is simply that he wanted to create an imaginative bridge that explained why these stories were not-just-entertainment, not just 'escapism; but were intended to be 'relevant': of serious concern to modern readers. 


This was especially important to Tolkien because he eschewed the usual means of making imagined world relevant - which is allegory

Tolkien's world was not meant to be allegorical, and he reacted quite aggressively against those who said it was; but real in-it-own-terms. Yet without any framing and linking between the stories and ourselves this detailed, autonomous, not-allegorical world-building might make the stories feel simply irrelevant... 

By providing a feigned history to bridge between the stories and ourselves, Tolkien created a single imaginative conception of the stories as forming part of our living world - hence obviously of relevance and serious concern to modern readers.


It seems pretty clear to me that Tolkien did not want to admit that he was doing this! - and indeed (e.g. in the preface to the second edition of LotR) he sometimes denied that his stories had any 'purpose' except to entertain people who happened to share his taste for such things. 

But this is to ignore the great efforts he made to frame and link LotR. These went far beyond parody, satire or the merely fictively-sophisticated. 

Indeed, setting aside defensiveness; the truth of the matter was apparent in Tolkien's own - passionate, and non-ironic - practice of referencing his own work in commenting on everyday life; e.g. labelling the attacks on trees (e.g. by chain-saws) as orcish, or modern bureaucracy as the work of Saruman. 

And even developing (post LotR) Galadriel as more and more an echo of the Blessed Virgin Mary to whom he was religiously devoted. This linkage would be merely blasphemous unless it were underpinned by a very serious and real imaginative link between his sub-created world and God's creation as known by modern people. 


In other words, Tolkien wrote and lived-by a belief in the potential reality of the imagined: and the actual reality of his own imagined world. 

Tolkien did not, however, theorize the reality of imagination.  

So we can see that for Tolkien it was vitally important the seriously imagined worlds were regarded as really-real - despite that, at another and theological level, he denied this very assertion. 


According to available biographical data, and confirmed by the brilliant analysis by RJ Reilly in his Romantic Religion; Tolkien was apparently unaware of his friend Owen Barfield's extensive and rigorous philosophical work that coherently theorized the reality and truth of imagination. 

Of course; Barfield was working from a metaphysical basis that Tolkien's orthodox, traditional Catholicism did not share. 

But we, looking back, can now perceive that Barfield explained the reality of Tolkien's profound intuitions regarding his own world; and why it is that an imagined provenance for The Lord of the Rings was so important to Tolkien - and so effective for some of those most serious of his readers who regard the Prologue and Appendices as a vital part of the effect made by the whole book.