Wednesday 20 December 2023

JRR Tolkien, Beowulf; and the nature of this mortal life

From Beowulf and the Critics by JRR Tolkien, edited by Michael DC Drout, 2002. 

[Drout:] Tolkien located civilization in the masculine institutions of the Beowulf poet (in particular the bright hall), outside of which the chaos-monsters ruled. The primary theme of Beowulf, Tolkien wrote, is "that man, each man and all men and all their works shall die." Beowulf is not subject to reproach for fighting with the dragon because he would have died anyway, albeit from a different sling or arrow of fortune. In Beowulf and the Critics Tolkien quotes from both the Seafarer and Hrothgar's words to Beowulf [translations by JRRT]: 


I believe not that the joys of earth will abide everlasting. Ever and in all cases will one of three things trouble his heart before the appointed day: sickness, or age, or the foeman's sword from the doomed men hastening hence will his life ravish


Soon hereafter it will come to pass that sickness or sword shall rob thee of strength, or grasping fire, or heaving flood, or biting blade, or flying spear, or dreadful age; or the flash of eyes shall foul and darken. Swiftly will it come that thee, o knight, shall death conquer


Comment. Thus it was and thus it is still...

Albeit that for us, in The West, death has recently conquered and the joys of earth been extinguished more by sickness or "dreadful age"; than by sword, fire, flood, or spear. 

Yet, it can been seen that our barbarian ancestors implicitly knew there was more to the world than the bright hall of mortal life and the chaos-monsters that surrounded such brief and fragile joys. Because these men had an ethic of courage; a morality that regarded death in battle against monsters, in obedience to duty to one's lord, in defence of one's people - as better ways to die than sickness or age.

There was therefore an unrecognized, implicit knowledge that - in spite of their belief that the monsters would eventually win, and chaos would consume the world of men; this ought to be resisted and delayed. 

In other words; although neither consciously known nor named, there was assumed to be some higher perspective, some point-of-view which stood above the apparent division of reality into temporary mortal joy and enveloping eternal chaos... 

And it was this higher perspective from-which came duty and values: and virtues. 

Such Men of the Dark Ages had an existential overview of reality and the human condition which is almost completely lacking in the modern West. 

We are, instead, so consumed by shallow, short-termist hedonic (utilitarian) concerns and fears; that we have genuinely lost sight of the reality and inevitability that all our joys and sufferings, our triumphs and disasters, are all temporary; and man, each man and all men and all their works shall die.

Knowing such facts-of life; to such men as Beowulf and his contemporaries; Jesus Christ's offer of the chance for resurrected eternal life in heaven; and a permanent escape from the tyranny of death, was a no-brainer!

Of course such Men wanted what Jesus Christ offered! 

That they wanted it was clear, certain and obvious - the only question was whether or not this "Jesus" really could fulfil his promises. Once convinced Jesus could do what he said - their decision was made. 

Once a pagan Anglo Saxon had been convinced that following Jesus really was a way to eternal Heavenly life; there was no question but he would seize the offer in both hands, and do whatever was required to obtain it.

(And the same applied to the Vikings who came some centuries after.) 

By contrast, modern Men of The West are so pathetically bound up in their everyday machinations, their hope for little pleasures and fears of possible suffering; that they cannot even comprehend the nature of Life; and failing to comprehend the problem, are indifferent to the solution. 

Consumed by trivia and selfish-utilitarianism; Modern Man is not sufficiently interested in the eternal questions to make an effort to investigate the real nature and potential validity of what Jesus offers. 

Our existential and spiritual inferiority to the Anglo Saxon pagans is an objective fact. We are so very inferior to them, that we have not even acknowledged the unavoidable existence of the question of Life - leave aside making an effort to evaluate the rightness of possible answers. 

Friday 24 November 2023

Numenor and the insufficiency of mortal life in this-world

The recent collection of Tolkien's Numenor material into a single volume The Fall of Numenor (edited by Brian Sibley, 2022) has triggered considerable further thought concerning one of Tolkien's most profound mythic themes. 

The significance of Numenor is something that I only gradually recognized, and which has increased over the years. 

The reason is not hard to discover; because Numenor addresses Tolkien's core theme of "death"; because Numenor enables Tolkien to explore Man's response to death in a very pure situation of this-worldly bliss: an earthly paradise. 

In Numenor, Men are given an ideal life in material terms: the "land of gift" bestows strength and stature, immunity from illness and the decline of age, greater intelligence and skill; and the best possible land and climate for humans to thrive. 

The point is that in the rest of the world outside Numenor (as in our own world) there are always material 'reasons' to explain the insufficiency of life: things like sickness, violence, famine, old age etc. Men can therefore assume that "if only" the material conditions of life could be sorted-out - then Life would become completely satisfactory. 

But Numenor is a world in which the material conditions have already been sorted-out; and yet Life is still insufficient!

In other words, in Numenor we are able to observe Men in a situation where all the solvable problems of life have been solved; and what remains are intrinsic features of the Human Condition. 

We are thus invited to reflect upon: whether or not the situation of ideal Men in an ideal world is sufficient to satisfy our soul's need? 

And Tolkien's answer is: No

That is Tolkien's answer and I agree, as have many Men back (at least) to the times of the Ancient Greek philosophers. Numenor is an illustration of the fact that this mortal life is insufficient - no matter how ideal its circumstances. Men are not ultimately satisfied by paradise. 

My understanding is that Man's eventual and decisive dissatisfaction with the life of Numenor was not itself evil: it was, indeed, an inevitability; and the fact that the Valar (and the Eldar) did not anticipate this dissatisfaction, and could not understand it once it had become evident - was evidence of the angelic powers' and the elves' limited sympathies when it came to Men: their limited understanding of The Nature of Reality. 

Men's dissatisfaction with their life and this world is actually a consequence (albeit indirect and expressed by opposition) of their ultimate spiritual superiority to the Valar and the Eldar; and the reason why The One brought forth this second wave of 'humans beings': why the Followers (Men) were always intended and designed to replace the Firstborn (elves). 

Death - in Tolkien's world - is called the Doom of Men; the word "Doom" covering both sides of the matter: that death was the ineradicable gift of Eru (God: the prime creator), and also that death was experienced as an inescapable and terrifying fate. 

One lesson of Numenor is that the inescapable reality of death means that there can be no ultimately adequate life for Men - not even in Paradise. That recognition is wisdom. 

But what then? If this mortal life is insufficient, if Paradise is not enough... What Then? How should Men understand their situation in the world; what should Men do?

Here is where the Men of Numenor went wrong - most obviously those who delusionally tried to attain eternal life by force of arms, but probably even those who were of "the faithful" - those who obeyed the Valar, and respected (and, it seems envied) the Eldar. Because Tolkien implies that "the faithful" wished in their hearts to be as the Eldar were, "immortal", but correctly recognized this was not possible. 

This desire for elvish longevity made the faithful, and their Middle Earth descendants in Arnor and Gondor, a sad people, prone to childlessness and an excessive (also counter-productive) concentration on health and longevity.   

Clearly it was a deep sin for the Men of Numenor to worship Morgoth and to assail the Valar. But; the Big Question is: what should the Men of Numenor have done instead

Because, on the face of it: Men seem to be in a no win situation. 

Men know that they are "doomed" to die, and know that their discarnate souls will leave "the circles of the world"; but Men have no idea (and have never been told by the Valar) what then (if anything) happens to their discarnate souls. 

Is the future of all Men utter annihilation - or... something else?

This is indirectly addressed by Tolkien in his "Marring of Men" narrative - in which he has his protagonists allude indirectly to what we are intended to infer is the incarnation of Jesus. 

Jesus is therefore put forward as being the - as yet unknown and apparently unknowable except by inference - answer to the problem of mortal Men and a world that has been "marred" ineradicably by Morgoth. 

Yet it is important to realize that the answer "Jesus" - the resurrection and eternal life he brings that is only accessible via death -  is, in Tolkien's universe, both unknown and unknowable to the Numenoreans. The Numenoreans have no foresight of Jesus, and neither do the Valar or the Eldar (who might, in principle, have informed Men). 

It is assumed that only Eru foreknew the coming of Jesus, and Eru (apparently) did not tell anyone

Men in Numenor are (in effect) asked to accept the insufficiency of mortal life on earth; and to hope without reason - to hope, based purely upon faith in the goodness of Eru. 

This was the challenge of the Men of Numenor; and clearly they failed to respond rightly to that challenge; and in failing, brought nearly-complete ruin upon themselves and their civilization.  

We can ask, however, whether (in Tolkien's world) it was reasonable of Eru to expect otherwise; given that He had not provided any of his creatures with any clue as the to eventual advent of Jesus Christ? 

Was it, therefore, reasonable of Eru to expect Men to live by faith and hope yet without knowledge or assurance? 

I sense that Tolkien was troubled by this aspect of his world; and was at least sympathetic with the Men who failed this high and ascetic task. And that Tolkien wondered why God did not provide his Men of Middle Earth and Numenor with foreknowledge of Jesus - which was indeed the situation for all Men except a tiny minority of Jews, in the ages before Christ. 

Saturday 18 November 2023

A note on the silver-handed Nodens and Tar-Telemmaite - resonances across the decades in JRR Tolkien

From The name Nodens by JRR Tolkien - Report on the excavation of the Prehistoric, Roman, and post-Roman sites in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire. Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London. 1932.

The name Nodens occurs in three inscriptions from the excavation, and may also have occurred in a mosaic. The inscriptions most probably represent a Keltic stem inferred to be 'noudent'. Now this is precisely the form required as the Old and Middle Irish form of mythological and heroic name Nuada. 

Nuadu was Argat-lam – King of the Silver Hand who ruled the Tuatha de Danann – the possessors of Ireland before the Milesians... It is possible to see a memory of this figure in the medieval Welsh Lludd Llaw Ereint (‘of the Silver Hand’) – the ultimate origin of King Lear – whose daughter Creiddylad (Cordelia) was carried off, after her betrothal to Gwythyr vab Greiddawl, by Gwynn vab Nudd, a figure having some connexions with the underworld... 

Of Nuada Airgetlam it says: Streng mac Senghainn cut off Nuada's right hand in combat at the battle of Mag Tured Cunga, when the Tuatha de Danann invaded Erin. The leeches of the Tuatha de Danann put on Nuada a hand of silver with the complete motion of every hand. ' If not an established certainty, it is, then, at least a probable theory that there was a divine personage of whom the chief later representative is the Nuada of the Silver Hand in Irish tradition, and that this Nuada is the same as the Nodens which occurs in curious and suggestive isolation in these British inscriptions... 

It is suggestive, however, that the most remarkable thing about Nuada was his hand, and that without his hand his power was lost.

From Tar-Telemmaite, 15th monarch of Numenor. In "The Line of Elros" in JRR Tolkien Unfinished Tales, 1980. 

The date of this writing is not given, but adjascent material on Numenor is dated to after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, around 1965.  

...The King was so called because of his love of silver, and he bade his servants to seek ever for mithril. 

Note 31 and Index entry concerning Tar-Telemmaite by Christopher Tolkien: " said to have been called so (i.e. 'silver-handed') because of his love of silver..." "Fifteenth ruler of Numenor, so named ('Silver-handed') for his love of silver".

An etymological note from Paul Strack states that his name is a compound of an assimilated form of telpë ("silver") and the adjective element maitë ("handed").    

JRR Tolkien's "The name Nodens" is an early and little known publication; an appendix concerning an inscription, following an archaeological excavation report. In this, the ancient Celtic god Nodens is described as "silver-handed"; with a magical hand made from silver from which he derived great prowess. 

Perhaps thirty-plus years later, Tolkien described one of the Kings of Numenor as again "silver-handed"; but this time, because of his love of the precious metal silver - particularly of the 'true silver' mithril. 

Different kinds of being, different reasons for the name; but surely Tolkien's early description of an heroic silver-handed Celtic god resonated in his mind with the covetous Numenorean?


Thursday 9 November 2023

Experiencing spiritual contact with JRR Tolkien via The Notion Club Papers

I have a strong, and still increasing, conviction that we ought to move away-from the kind of impersonal abstraction that has been characteristic of spiritual, mystical, meditative and prayer life for many centuries - so much so that the two are often regarded as synonymous. 

Christian mystics have, for instance, often been Neoplatonic in their rationale and experience, and mysticism is often asserted to be a negative state of indescribable, inexpressible experience.  

What I mean is that the ultimate is often supposed to be an experience and a 'subject' that is beyond the personal. 

On the other hand, personal experience of the spiritual - that is, when there is some kind of contact with a Christian personage - whether Jesus Christ, Blessed Virgin Mary, a saint of angel, or any other individual of higher spiritual stature - have also often been reported. 

But typically such an interaction has been conversational... 

An experience of meeting-together perhaps, and conversing. Such experiences as as talking-with a statue or crucifix, an icon, or at a shrine; speaking oneself and hearing replies in the mind... 

Maybe meeting with another person in a dream-like state (or an actual dream), accompanied by vivid visions. Perhaps writing questions and then being dictated answers; or automatic writing. 

These two seem like the options - either, on the one hand, a sophisticated and intellectual kind of abstraction and negation; or else, on the other hand, a rather child-like interaction with a personage that operates rather like a mundane conversation. This tends to encourage adult (and educated) Christians to abandon the personal and embrace the abstract. 

But there is at least one other option, which is something I have at times experienced. An example is when I was immersively reading and thinking about the Fourth Gospel - but an earlier instance relates to more recent historical people who I came to regard as spiritual teachers: William Arkle and JRR Tolkien. 

I have elsewhere talked about the Fourth Gospel and Arkle experiences; but not really about Tolkien. 

My Tolkien experiences were related mainly to my original readings and re-readings of The Notion Club Papers - including the notes by Tolkien's son Christopher. The fragmentary, incomplete, nature of the NCPs; and the fact that they required (or, at least, invited) speculative completion, was what made me embark upon the attempt to experience the work from Tolkien's perspective, by a kind of sympathetic identification with Tolkien. 

The result was that - from my personal perspective. I felt a clear and sure kind of understanding of what Tolkien meant or intended by particular passages; due to a subjective experience of validation or endorsement by (what felt like) Tolkien's spirit. 

To be more specific; I struggled with particular sections of the texts relating to the NCPs; and at times felt I knew just what they were getting at; what experiences of Tolkien's they were derived from; what aspirations of Tolkien's they related to. 

This was personal, like a kind of communion or co-thinking with Tolkien's spirit; but they were never 'conversational' in form, nor in the form of questions and answers, nor was it anything like telepathy or 'reading thoughts'. And they were mostly not mediated by words or pictures or anything else. 

The experience was much more like what I have termed direct knowing. That is a personal of experience of what I assumed were Tolkien's primary thoughts in relation to the subject. 

Although sometimes I did experiences mental pictures as well - such as pictures of what was being described - for example a burning meteor in the earths atmosphere. These pictures were more like secondary illustrations of the direct experiences which were primary - in other words it was more like being a burning meteor, than a picture of one. 

Of course; there is no particular reason why anyone else should assume that I have got these things right! 

I might well be regarded as fooling myself with wishful thinking; or trying to impress other people by claiming special authority by (whether manipulatively, or delusionally) having a 'direct line' to the author. 

Furthermore; in communicating such matters, what another person gets is itself a result of reading my writings (or, in principle, hearing me speak on the subject). Such is always something of a secondary nature compared with the original subjective experience, being only an expression of what I experienced, and also requiring the reader to interpret and understand the writings.  

The thing is that I don't really care what 'other people' think about it! 

For me, the experiences were well-motivated and self-validating and had spiritual value. That is the reason for them, and the reason for writing-about them. They are part of my spiritual life; not (except accidentally and occasionally) a matter of interacting publicly - except for a general hope that I may encourage more people to read and meditate upon the Notion Club Papers

I do not take a single such experience as everlastingly decisive: so, I have 'checked' the initial experiences many times over the years for coherence and stability of understanding; mainly by re-using the experiences in other thinking, at later times. 

The special value of these first experiences in relation to the Notion Club Papers is that this sense of attuning to the spirit of Tolkien (his intentions), worked as a 'key' to the NCP writings; to my being able to appreciate and learn-from some texts that initially made very little impression on me, which indeed - at first glance - I found rather dull and frustrating.  


My point here is to suggest that such an engagement may be of value to other people; at least when motivations are Good, and when the person whose spirit is sought is one with whom there is a strong respect, liking (indeed love); and when there is a valid desire to understand, and to learn-from him.

In retrospect; I think that the incomplete nature, and relatively small amount of material, in the published Notion Club Papers - was actually very helpful. It is too easy and false to try and understand a person by means of reading a great deal by him, and about him. 

For example, many historical persons have attracted a vast 'literature', and the reader is tempted to discover them at second-hand; by learning and compiling great swathes of 'evidence' from reading their entire outputs - from autobiography, biographies, memoirs, letters, critical scholarship etc...  

I do this myself! And have done so with Tolkien. 

Yet, I don't think I ever achieved such a sense of knowing Tolkien-the-man, as I did from my engagement with the bits-and-pieces that constitute The Notion Club Papers.  

Indeed, extra material can sometimes (apparently) interfere-with and hinder the understanding of a person, a spirit; by layering-over, burying, confusing an already-achieved empathic understanding. 

I found this with William Arkle. 

When I had very little biographical information about Arkle, I was compelled to wring everything possible out of that little I did know; I would brood on it, and press my mental understanding towards grasping his meanings by a kind of identification.  

When later I found out more supposedly-'objective' information, it overwrote the earlier understanding to an extent; the new material made a screen between myself and the author - rather as a movie can overwrite the experience of a book with its explicit imagery and specific interpretations. 

My experience of Tolkien, in the early 1970s, was similar - there were only a handful of books by or about Tolkien - and I could not access all of these; therefore what-I-had was scarce, precious, and pored-over repeatedly. Some was copied-out. I even tried to make my own illustrations. 

I think this behaviour relates to the achievements of Medieval scholarship in the pre-printing manuscript era; when books were scarce, precious - and therefore closely-pondered over long periods. In such circumstances; reading sometimes itself became a form of contemplative prayer. 

But there is more to this phenomenon of communing with an author than merely sustained and loving attention. 

We also need to be believe that it is possible for us genuinely to establish actual contact with the spirit of someone who is dead. 

Before I acknowledged the reality of a spiritual world, beyond and encompassing the material reality; I had a less-powerful and less-real experience of such identification. Consequently, I was much more concerned that my understanding was endorsed by "other people". 

Examples would include a deep identification with Shakespeare via Hamlet in my late teens; or a similar attitude to Ralph Waldo Emerson in my thirties. Although very strong in a subjective way; these feelings nonetheless seemed to need decoding into 'implications' for modern life, and for my particular life. 

I was focused on 'learning lessons' from authors - mostly because (at heart) I regarded such experiences as symbolic, and not-really-real.  

But now - because I know that life beyond mortal death is possible, and because I believe that there may be communication between the living and the so-called-dead; new depth and strength becomes possible and recognized.

It is probably worth emphasizing that I am not here talking about "channeling" JRR Tolkien! This is Not a matter of Tolkien speaking through me!

With the kind of spiritual contact I described above for The Notion Club Papers, I was Not a passive recipient of information - instead I had to do all the work*

(*Note: This, of course, also means that I am personally responsible for what I have written on the subject.)

The understanding reached was My understanding, not JRRT's intention; but my experience was of My understanding being endorsed by Tolkien. 

The result is not experienced as Tolkien's exact personal intention, nor even Tolkien's words; instead, it is more like me suggesting to Tolkien a particular explanation or interpretation - and the direct endorsement being of a nature somewhat like (but never in words): "Yes. OK. That's near enough. It's pretty close to what I intended."

After all; even among our closest family and friends, we do not experience perfect understanding of ourselves, nor can we achieve perfect understanding of our loved ones; nor are communications of understanding any better than approximate in expression and interpretation. 

Yet such situations are very far from hopeless; and we do experience moments and periods of certainty, or spiritual harmony and accord. 

My understanding is that it is possible - with correct understanding, right motivations, and sufficient personal effort - to experience the same sort of spiritual contact with dead authors, artists, philosophers etc; that we can with our living beloved family and friends. 


Note added 10th November 2023

It strikes me that it is worthwhile to analyze the general, public significance of my - or anyone else's - claim of experiencing spiritual contact with an author - whether dead, or indeed still alive!  

In terms of such public activities as literary scholarship or criticism, (because false claims are so easy, and none can be checked externally) a person's claim of special spiritual understanding cannot be allowed to have any formal or explicit significance: Scholarship or criticism ought to stand or fall on its intrinsic qualities. 

(This is what ought to happen in an ideal sense; despite that, in practice, this is seldom the case - and that instead high status institutional affiliations and educational certifications of the scholar or critic are too-often taken as validation of specific claims.)

So, we ought to judge for ourselves and not accept spiritual claims of another person simply because they have been made. Nonetheless; it seems absolutely valid to take-into-account such matters as spiritual affinity, when evaluating Tolkien scholarship and criticism. 

And, in practice, this is done; both by the majority mainstream, secular and academic, Tolkien scholars, and also by the significant minority of scholars whose perspective on Tolkien is rooted in his devoutly Roman Catholic religion. 

For myself; I make an evaluation concerning each scholars spiritual sympathy, that is his empathic understanding of Tolkien - and my attitude is (broadly) that the scope of a scholar's understanding is constrained by the limits of his spiritual sympathy. 

That does not exclude the possibility that - within that scope - a scholar may make a vast contribution to the understanding of Tolkien: thus (IMO) the greatest of Tolkien scholars so far - Tom Shippey - is neither a Catholic nor a Christian. 

Nonetheless, that constraint is still operative; and I would not expect Shippey to have much to contribute to a spiritual approach to Tolkien - that is, to the idea of regarding JRR Tolkien as a spiritual mentor and guide (as I do).  

Broadening-out the argument; my summary is that each of us whose concern is spiritual and Christian, can and should be discerning and evaluating, and taking into consideration, the degree and nature of spiritual affiliation between a specific scholar, critic or philosopher - and any person under discussion. 

In sum: making decisions concerning spiritual affiliation is not just relevant, but a necessary activity in the world generally - as well as literature specifically.  


Wednesday 1 November 2023

JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and wanting Heaven - rather than death or continued this-life

Since the Christian churches are thoroughly corrupted and converged to totalitarianism, and Christian evangelism has proved all-but useless in The Modern West; our best hope perhaps lies in inculcating a desire for Heaven that may influence our post-mortal choices.

In other words, since (it seems) modern people place this-worldly socio-political issues above religion and spirituality (which are assumed to be a mixture of wishful thinking and institutional manipulations). And since this civilization has adopted a materialist set of metaphysical assumptions that renders life-beyond-death impossible: Modern Man expects or wants only a painless death followed by annihilation; or maybe hopes for some kind of transhumanist-scientific extension of this life. 

Against this, there may be a few countervailing influences such as JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis's fantasies; which encourage, perhaps implant, at least a desire for something more; something beyond death: a daydream and yearning for Heaven in particular (however vague this notion in the mind of Modern Man).

This daydream/ desire/ yearning may be the best or only hope that post-mortal Men will at least consider accepting the gift of Jesus Christ. 

Such is the importance of Christian fantasy in this age. 


Wednesday 18 October 2023

Space travel in The Notion Club Papers by "Incarnation. By being born" - What does Tolkien mean?

[Guildford] "For landing on a new planet, you've got your choice: miracle; magic; or sticking to normal probability, the only known or likely way in which any one has ever landed on a world." 

"'Oh! So you've got a private recipe all the time, have you?" said Ramer sharply. 

"No, it's not private, though I've used it once." 

"Well? Come on! What is it?" 

"Incarnation. By being born", said Guildford

From The Notion Club Papers; page 170 of Sauron Defeated (1993) by JRR Tolkien. 

Note 15 expands on this: In the original text... [Dolbear adds] "Then try reincarnation, or perhaps transcarnation without loss of memory."


This is the exact point at which JRR Tolkien's Notion Club Papers (NCPs) takes a turn from mundane conversation among club members; towards the supernatural, or more accurately the occult.

Yet, I found this important passage to be very confusing at the time I first read it; and I am still unsure why Tolkien used the term "incarnation" in reference to the aim of space travel, of visiting another planet. I usually understand incarnation to refer to a spirit taking-on a body - and this is usually assumed to be irreversible except by death. 

"Being born" seems to confirm this. Being born onto another planet can hardly be described as a viable way of 'landing' on a new planet - even if memory of one's previous life was retained. It means becoming somebody else. Incarnation seems not to be equivalent to visiting another planet - implicitly temporarily, so one could come back and tell other people! - by means of spaceship, miracle or magic (the previously discussed possibilities)

I turned to the earlier draft note, which mentions reincarnation - usually meaning the same soul being clothed by a series of at least two bodies. But again, this is a linear and irreversible process - and seems unsuitable for visiting other worlds. 

Transcarnation may be a neologism: that is, a word here invented by Tolkien; which probably was intended to convey the idea of a soul transferring from one body to another without death. 

By this, I presume he must have meant that someone's soul might go to another planet; either by temporarily inhabiting the body of someone being already there (something of this kind, a 'body swap' is mentioned in CS Lewis's unfinished Dark Tower, which Tolkien had heard); or perhaps by (temporarily) clothing itself in a body (or appearance of a body) while on that planet. 

What actually emerges as the way in which members of the Notion Club visit other places, and times, has aspects of this (presumed) transcarnation, in the case of Ramer; and something like reincarnation in the case of Lowdham and Jeremy. 

Ramer's soul or spirit seems to leave his body and visit other places during sleep. Ramer does not seem physically to incarnate; but he does report being present, aware and localized - rather as if he had condensed spatio-temporally, maybe clothed himself with a 'spirit body'. 

This is sometimes called Astral Projection - for example Rudolf Steiner regarded this as what happened to us all, every night, during dreams. Our Astral body leaves the sleeping Physical and Etheric bodies; to go and do 'dream things' in another actual but spirit-realm of reality. 

And (according to Steiner) the Astral body 'carries with it' our Ego, or sense of self, or 'I' - which is how we are self-aware during dreams. 

Because the spatio-temporally limited Physical body (and its attached Etheric body) are left-behind (although still connected, as it were by an infinitely elastic thread) - the Astral body can be assumed to move freely through space; and perhaps also time. 

These ideas are compatible with what Ramer reports; including his comment that "Dreaming is not Death. The mind is, as I say, anchored to the body."

(It is quite possible that Tolkien may have known of these ideas, either from general reading and converstaion, or specifically via Inkling-member Owen Barfield, who was Britain's leading Anthroposophist - i.e. Steiner follower. Indeed; the obviously referenced "Ranulph Stainer" is listed as a member of the Notion Club!) 

By contrast; Lowdham and Jeremy were (probably) intended to be something-like (but perhaps not exactly, according to Tolkien's comments) reincarnations of paired souls; who had descended 'genetically' through history - including having inhabited Numenor, experienced its downfall, and been among those who escaped to Middle Earth. 

This narrative plan was something Tolkien carried over from his earlier draft story The Lost Road - but there it involved father-son pairings.   

In other words; Ramer's journeys were focused on space travel while Lowdham and Jeremny were primarily engaged in a kind of time travel. In her brilliant and inspiring monograph A Question of Time; Verlyn Flieger convincingly argues that Tolkien's idea of time travel was rooted in JW Dunne's ideas of the simultaneity of time. This enabled the mind to survey the past and indeed future. 

The idea was probably that Lowdham and Jeremy's connection of heredity was activated - partly by purposive dreaming - such that the simultaneity of the downfall of Numenor, and the 'modern' activities of the Notion Club, became superimposed. The Numenorean catastrophe then overlapped with contemporary Oxford in this condition of simultaneity; leading to the massive storm experienced by the South and West of the British Isles that forms the climax of the second part of the NCPs. 

Lowdham and Jeremy therefore do not engage in any kind of 'transcarnation' or Astral travelling; but instead become a kind-of simultaneous combination of their Numenorean and modern selves. 

For clarity, it would perhaps have been easier for the reader if Tolkien had dropped the term 'in-carnation' and stuck with his original terms of re-incarnation and trans-carnation; and maybe given them at least a bit of definition. Something like this may have happened, had the Notion Club Papers been taken any further. But in the event, we are left to complete the jig-saw ourselves, using the clues JRRT left-behind and which his son Christopher assembled and published - nearly half a century after the NCPs had been abandoned.

Tuesday 3 October 2023

Tolkien's Subcreation is (more or less) Barfield's Final Participation

If we assume that because Final Participation (FP) is our destiny, what God wants from us at this stage of things; then perhaps it ought not to be impossibly difficult or rare. Perhaps we should expect to see Final Participation in our own lives; and in those of at least some people whose work is recoded in the public domain. 

Maybe the difficulty in locating Final Participation is in recognizing it as something genuinely different and new, and therefore misclassifying it under old categories - because the old categories are all we know.  

To clarify; Final Participation is an engagement with reality, in which we bring to bear our own creativity - to participate in creating. 

This could be participation with divine creation (this is what I understand to happen in Heaven); or participation with another person's created work - perhaps someone from the past. 

This can serve as an illustration - taking the example of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (LotR). 

Two widely known categories of engagement with life, with works; could be termed 'projection' and 'channeling' - and I will contrast these with Final Participation.


Projection is not intentionally a participation, because it describes what happens when a reader of Tolkien projects his own concerns onto the book. 

This seems to be the usual practice of Tolkien mass-fandom. Except minimally; the projecting fan-reader does not experience what Tolkien himself felt or intended; but instead uses the book (selectively and distortingly) as fuel for his own interests. 

For example such a fan might read LotR as-if it were a "sword and sorcery" novel, being interested only by the fights, magic, monsters, spectacle etc; and either not-noticing, skipping-over or forgetting the other material. Or, to judge by the content of one genre of fan-fictions; quite a few readers even seem to read Tolkien in a subversive fashion, as fuel for their personal sexual fantasies.   

Therefor projection is not a form of 'participation' except very minimally, unconsciously, unintentionally; because the intent is to impose oneself upon the-other. 


The ideal behind the form of participation I am calling channeling, is that the reader become so totally immersed in the work that he identifies completely with the author. 

This is a contemplative, not creative, ideally-non-participating form of engagement - because the ideal is that the reader be passive, absorptive, and reflective. The reader seeks to lose-himself-in the work 

This is, indeed, the form that has been called 'inspiration' and which used-to be (in the pre-modern era) the form that so-called 'creativity' took. The 'creator' was supposed to be a clear-channel for God/ The Gods/ The Muses - and himself to play no personal role in what emerged.

In other words; with channeling, with inspired work, the ideal is non-participation. 

This channeling is therefore a particular example of what Owen Barfield termed Original Participation - which is the primal relationship with the world of the child or the early tribal Man. It does have elements of participating; but only in the secondary sense that we are then (and almost fully) engaged with the world, with life, with other beings. But (when channeling works) we are so immersed in the flow of external things, that while our own participation in them is inevitable, it is intentionally minimal.  

Perhaps the ideal of the medieval sculptor working on one of the great cathedrals might serve as an illustration. He is contented to be anonymous, and forgotten, and to work in exactly the same style as every other mason - because his personal nature should 'stand-aside' and should not have anything to do with the product. I have heard of musicians (conductors and soloists) who regard their interpretations likewise: they try to identify so closely with the composer that they lose-themselves in the perormance altogether. 

In terms of Tolkien, this is perhaps the ideal of the best kind of literary critic of the old school: he attempts to expound Tolkien, and not to 'interfere' by interjecting personal views or evaluations. In particular, he is very wary of 'projection', which he regards as itself a gross and unscholarly error, leading to distortions such as anachronism.  

Final Participation

For an example of FP we need to go to Tolkien himself, in his writing of Lord of the Rings; and to that activity which he termed "subcreation". 

This - I suggest - is the relationship between JRRT and his 'source material' - which came from the author's engagement with his academic subject of philology (the language-focused study of old texts), and his other concerns such as mythology, and the matter of England. 

I believe that Tolkien not only had a deep immersion in his sources; but that he also went beyond immersion in his 'sources'. That is; JRRT went beyond the contemplative-passive processes of channeling, and brought his own creativity to bear on the material that he was experiencing from-within. 

There are innumerable examples. Tolkien's elves are rooted in Icelandic, Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic material from his philosophical studies - the words for elves, their histories, their implications (as discussed by Tom Shippey in Roots and Branches); but Tolkien also brought a deep and intense personal interest and concern with elves - which he envisaged as an ideal type of certain aspects of Men; blessed with innate health and extreme longevity, greater love of the earth, greater skills and intelligence, and magical powers. 

And yet Tolkien felt a need to explain (to himself, primarily) how and why it was that elves were (more or less) estranged from, then replaced by, Men - who became rulers of this earth; despite that Men seemed inferior, overall. 

To generate acceptable answers to these (and other) questions about elves, problems about myth, England and so forth; Tolkien needed to go beyond existing material and theories: he needed to enlist his own creativity. 

I consider Tolkien's writing of LotR as a publicly-available example of Final Participation. 

In the first place JRRT was inspired by many, already existing, source materials; and had immersed himself in these materials so that he could, when needed or desired, 'channel'/ expound/ explain these materials in their own terms, in the context of the times and places of their composition. 

But in the second place Tolkien wanted to do more than just passively be-inspired-by; he wanted actively to generate something new by bringing to bear from-himself to participate with that which others had created.  

This was (pretty much) what he termed subcreation. 

To generalize, I think it would therefore be reasonably accurate to state that:

Final Participation = Inspiration plus Personal Creativity 

As such, examples can be generated from other areas of the arts, sciences etc. The pianist Glenn Gould did not just 'channel' Bach (as some have wrongly claimed), because, although he was steeped in Bach's creative mind and intent - Gould also added his own creativity, to make something participated. A synthesis, rather than recreation. 

A creative scientist of genius must, of course, build upon the valid science of his precursors; but as well as selecting from among the already-existing scientific literature that he deeply understands in its own terms (which might be said to 'inspire' him); and as well as extrapolating this work; the great scientist will bring something new, something original: from himself - in order to make a qualitative breakthrough.  

In sum; I hope the above might help make clearer what is meant by Final Participation; and to help recognize when it occurs in our own lives. 

Monday 25 September 2023

Review of Twenty-First Century Tolkien by Nick Groom (2023)

Nick Groom. Twenty-first century Tolkien: What Middle Earth means to us today. Atlantic Books: London, 2023. pp xxiii, 451.

Nick Groom, the author of Twenty-first century Tolkien, approaches Tolkien from almost the opposite side to myself; in terms of what we each think is significant about Tolkien the Man, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; and more fundamentally, also, in what we think is good and true in the world!

The core problem for me, is that Groom has an incompatible and, I feel, incoherent understanding of the subject matter itself: i.e. what we mean by "JRR Tolkien", and what "Tolkien" actually should-be. 

Twenty-first century Tolkien is an eclectic brew (including biography, textual analysis, literary history, cultural criticism and much else); but I think mostly about what can be termed "the Tolkien phenomenon", as this developed from publication and up to Amazon TV's Rings of Power in 2022. 

(The gulf between my own aesthetic and moral evaluations, and those of Nick Groom, is evidenced by the fact that he liked Rings of Power, thought it was conceptually interesting, well done, and a valid contribution to Tolkien's legacy; whereas my own evaluations were... rather different!)

Perhaps the main value to the book is its extensive information concerning how other people (not Tolkien himself) have interpreted, adapted, and exploited Tolkien's written works; across a wide range of media - especially radio, television, movies - particularly interesting in including unpublished and unmade examples. 

Groom's accounts of these are interesting and amusing, at a gossipy level - and I found myself reading-out sections to the family, about the astonishing absurdities and excesses of various plans and scripts for adapting The Lord of the Rings.  

But I began to realize what would turn out to be the core problem of this book for someone like myself; which is that Groom seems to like and approve-of - or at least take seriously as valid options - a great deal of what seems to me the most ignorant, incompetent and crass interpretations. 

And indeed this is the main problem I have with Twenty-first century Tolkien, throughout. For Groom; the proper subject matter of discourse is not JRR Tolkien As Such; but the Tolkien phenomenon - which is, in principle, anything and everything people have thought, said, written, depicted - which is (in almost any way) linked-with Tolkien's work. 

Groom goes to the extreme (that is, it seems extreme and indeed absurd to me, although fairly mainstream in Literary Criticism for several decades) of stating that "we" cannot any longer regard Tolkien (his life, his work) as a "purely literary" phenomenon; and that this means that we ought to cease regarding the original text as the subject matter. 

Groom says we "cannot" (I think he means that he believes we "should not") separate Tolkien the Man, his literary works, and the cumulative cultural products of the Tolkien Phenomenon/ Industry. 

Part of this argument is an extensive 'revisionist' reinterpretation of Tolkien's written works; by which Groom ingeniously homes-in upon those elements which contradict the accepted (and, I would say, true!) generalizations concerning Tolkien: such that his 'world-building' in Lord of the Rings was uniquely coherent and detailed. 

Groom highlights instead the inconsistencies, loose ends, and vagueness in the printed text; and emphasizes the zig-zag and exploratory way in which that final text was developed, through sometimes many drafts (as described in The History of Middle Earth). 

On the one hand, Groom's approach does highlight the exceptions behind the generalization; on the other hand, by the time Groom has finished his exposition, the Lord of the Rings has been almost inverted into something almost unrecognizable - to my mind almost an anti-Tolkien! 

But - and I think this is significant - Tolkien thus regarded has become something much more palatable to the institutionally-leftist and reflexly-secular assumptions, convictions and tastes of modern academia. 

I agree with Groom that it is possible to regard "Tolkien" in exactly the way he advocates, and I also agree that this is indeed how many or most people do regard Tolkien. 

As a clear example, the Peter Jackson movies have, as a matter of sheer fact, overwritten some aspects of the books in the memories of many who appreciate both - such that the two cannot be reliably distinguished or kept separate. 

This is, at least partly, because the "virtual reality" power of a movie is something largely passively and uniformly imposed-upon the audience; while by contrast a book's power is much more actively and personally co-created by the reader. This unfortunately means that even a bad movie (and Peter Jackson's movies are superb, greatly amplifying their power to usurp!) can penetrate and distort the impact of a book.

For example, the idiotic depiction of the Ents in Bakshi's 1978 animated Lord of the Rings (the first picture on this page) often jump into mind when I am reading the book; despite or exactly because I so much despise them!

In other words; the Tolkien phenomenon much more often, because so much more easily, degrades more than it enhances what is valuable in the original literary source. Unfortunately, in this world it is facile to mock, subvert, degrade and destroy - but very difficult to make something beautiful, true and virtuous. And what is easy happens more often than what is difficult. 

As Tolkien himself made clear; evil distorts and pollutes, it cannot create - and there have been few phenomena in the history of this world that are more purposively evil (in terms of their inversion of values) than the modern mass media

Insofar as we deliver Tolkien into the "phenomenon", we assimilate his texts into the mass media; and inevitably to that extent will his work be corrupted - and indeed inverted.  

But for me; to redefine Tolkien in this way, and open-endedly - such that "Tolkien" is being continually changed by... well, whatever latest Tolkien-themes cultural product has an impact - is a gross and indeed lethal diminution of what Tolkien and his work can be for us. 

In other words, to regard Tolkien as having disappeared-into, and been assimilated-by, the Tolkien Phenomenon; is merely to regard Tolkien as Just Another evanescent, attention-grabbing aspect of the mainstream mass media. 

Whereas, by contrast (and as this blog is intended to exemplify), to focus upon Tolkien the Man and his Books, can be to live in the presence of an unique and exceptionally valuable individual author - one who I personally would not want to be without.


Tolkien can give us a positively life-transforming, culturally challenging, deep perspective; but only if we are prepared to separate him sufficiently to discover his particular nature and contribution.

Saturday 26 August 2023

Charles Williams, the City of God, and this mortal life as palimpsest of the eternal

I first came across Charles Williams in Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings (1979) which I read in 1987, while living a somewhat Inklings-like life; researching English, and a Don in Durham Castle, University College, Durham. 

Carpenter does an excellent job of portraying Williams as an interesting and unusual person; so that the reader is drawn to investigate further - which I did. 

I have been thinking lately about that way of living (or something aimed-at in living) that I associate with the work and practice of Charles Williams - by which the mundane world is understood as (what I have termed) a palimpsest - as when a new medieval text is written on a secondhand parchment, and the pre-existing manuscript can sometimes be seen shining-through. 

The idea is that we are at first aware only of the mundane 'natural' and surface level of meanings; but underneath these, there is a super-natural reality, of eternal and archetypal forms.  

Thus; for Williams the City of London (or any city) represents the City of God; and its mercantile exchanges of goods and money, represent the Christian spiritual "exchange" between "co-inherent" Men. In his novels and poems, and also apparently in his own life and that of his 'disciples', this seems to have been the daily practice of Charles Williams - anything in the passing show, might be experienced as a symbol of some-thing archetypal and eternal.  

From long before I counted myself a Christian, this had a strong initial appeal to me; as an attitude that seemed to lend depth and meaning to a mundane, everyday world that so-often, so-badly lacked depth and meaning (consisting of dull bureaucracy, transient distractions, the pursuit of low motivations and rejection of high). 

It came naturally too: I suspected, sometimes detected, much going-on beneath the surface; including good things of which people seemed often unconscious, and good influences that were unnoticed, unintended, unsuspected... 

In other words; the reality was largely negative and implicit in in its effects; and my idea was that to make it positive ought to enhance its power to enhance life. 

"Power" was indeed a part of the concept - including Will Power. I was sympathetic to the idea that there could be a collective focusing of will power for Good; and that this kind of activity might do good in ways that were again unnoticed and unconscious. 

(Indeed, such ideas were prevalent a few decades ago, and people would often organize mass activities of 'will power' - such as prayer, meditation, and many varieties of ceremonial activity; with the expressed aim of doing some-Good to the world... In a sense, the underlying idea was that Good could be done-to masses of people - "whether they liked it or not"! 

So there were ideas of a realler-reality beneath the surface; and ideas of the Good-stuff being present and operative without awareness, working-away in all kinds of positive ways, but unknown and unsuspected. And maybe "some way" of tapping into this underlying world by those (relatively  few) who recognized the nature-of-things; and thereby influencing things-in-general for the better - although they probably would never know it. 

And so I continued for many a year. 

And I gained satisfactions by it: both an immediate satisfaction of seeing beyond or below, and the motivation of doing more so. 

Yet, of course, there was no purpose to it. Ultimately, it was hedonic in its intent - a way of making life more enjoyable, but without making life qualitatively different. 

And there were disadvantages - because regarding actuality as a palimpsest devalues it relative to the deep past and the hoped-for future. Indeed, the surface seems ever-thinner, as the mind penetrates to 'eternal verities' beneath; and this life itself - mortal life, full of ephemeral objects and ideas - seems futile. It is going nowhere - but to change, corruption, death; so why do we linger in this vale of mere shadows when there is a bright and pure and flawless world awaiting us on the other side? 

Indeed, why did we ever come here at all - when there exists a world so much better; and a world which we will (apparently) experience as wholly satisfying? 

What is the point, if temporarily incarnating into such a mixed and messy world of temporary stuff; if/when there is an archetypal and timeless reality to which we might in principle have dwelt-within? 

And when we try to abolish time and sequence, and start believing that what is now is always, what was is also now, and what is to come has already-happened - then various terrible implications begin to sink-in. 

We have bought meaningfulness as a terrible cost; the cost of abolishing purpose hence choice - leading to paralysis as we contemplate an essentially tragic state of being. 

So, in the end I found - as, I believe, did Charles Williams - that despite the immediate allure and benefits of regarding this mortal life as a palimpsest written over an eternal and ideal world that can be accessed by the determined adept; when taken seriously and over the long term, such an attitude detracts-from and devalues (rather than enhances and validates) the mundane life.  

Saturday 5 August 2023

The Shire was not an anarchy nor did it have a government; but had a clan- (family-) based system of authority

Some people have badly misunderstood The Shire as some kind of an 'anarchy'; with the implication that a lack of much in the way of formal government mistakenly-equated with a condition of unconstrained individual 'freedom'. 

But this idea of the unconstrained individual, free to do whatever he wanted, is very modern; and anarchy did not exist in traditional societies - although the delusion that it did, and that ancient tribal hunter gatherer societies were some kind of anarchy dates back at least to Engels, and Rousseau before him. 

On the contrary; it seems clearly implied that The Shire was - like many ancient and small scale societies - based upon extended families - that it was a kind of clan-based society.

In clan societies, individuals 'identity' is as part of their family; and it is families who regulate individual behaviour - using the relatively fluid and informal, but nonetheless authoritative, means by which families spontaneously operate. 

Thus we are told that hobbits are deeply interested by genealogy - that is family ancestry; and individual hobbits are nearly always discussed in terms of their familial descent and membership. 

Furthermore; there is also an implicit Shire class system; with some hobbit families identified as 'gentry' (such as Baggins, Bolger, Boffin) - and a few of these (such as the Tooks primarily, and Brandybucks secondarily) as something-like an aristocracy in that they have an hereditary and patriarchal (primogeniture) authority over others. 

This dominance by certain clans appears to be rooted in the hereditary competence for rulership of Fallohide hobbits; who seem to be both bolder and more intelligent than the other Stoor and Harfoot types.  

(Although formally patriarchal; it is also clear that  - just as in real life Men's families - exceptional female-hobbits may establish substantial - but non-hereditary - authority, or even dominance: examples are, buy implication, Bilbo's 'remarkable' mother Belladonna Took, and Lobelia Sackville Baggins, who we hear described apparently dominating first her wealthy husband, and later her son.)     

In such a clan society; there is almost nothing corresponding to the individuality of anarchism; since personal identity is - spontaneously - immersed in the family; which is indeed regarded by other hobbits as definitive. 

Bilbo and Frodo, as wealthy (hence independent) bachelors, who care little for the opinion of other hobbits, are, of course, notable exceptions, since they - apparently - do whatever they like! 

But there will have been extremely few Shire hobbits who could afford to lose their 'respectability' (i.e. their guaranteed place in Shore society) by steeping outside of family expectations.  

An important factor is that The Shire does not much resemble any actual historical society of Men; and this is mainly because hobbit-nature is different from Man-nature - especially in that hobbits have very little desire to dominate and control others; so that Big Man societies or monarchies do not develop. 

Again, there is an exception with Lotho Sackville-Baggins, who is power-driven and briefly becomes a Big Man (the "Chief"). Lotho is widely disliked, yet meets with very little significant resistance to his monopolizing of power from other hobbits, confirming their innate lack of dominance instinct. 

The exception is the Thain - who is head of the Tooks, the most powerful clan; and with the strongest Fallohide inheritance which fits them for ruling both intellectually and temperamentally. Thus, the Tooks refuse to acknowledge Lotho's authority, and indeed defend their territory with lethal force when Lotho send 'ruffians' to intimidate them.

In conclusion, The Shire is very far from an anarchy; and instead seems to be a society with a clan-family structure that is similar to those of many historical Men, plus a small degree of national government (e.g. the mayor, shirrifs and postal service). But the end result is significantly modified compared with Men to become something unique; by the different and less dominating and power-driven nature of hobbits*. 


*Note: This resistance to the temptations of power is exactly what makes hobbits the best of all races to bear The One Ring; and indeed suggests that this is precisely the reason that Illuvitar enabled hobbits to 'evolve' from Men, probably during the Third Age.    

Thursday 27 July 2023

Why I found it necessary to revise the "polar metaphysics" of ST Coleridge and Owen Barfield

The transcendental philosopher says; grant me a nature having two contrary forces, the one of which tends to expand infinitely, while the other strives to apprehend or find itself in this infinity, and I will cause the world of intelligences with the whole system of their representations to rise up before you. Every other science presupposes intelligence as already existing and complete: the philosopher contemplates it in its growth, and as it were represents its history to the mind from its birth to its maturity....

It is equally clear that two equal forces acting in opposite directions, both being finite and each distinguished from the other by its direction only, must neutralize or reduce each other to inaction. Now the transcendental philosophy demands; first, that two forces should be conceived which counteract each other by their essential nature; not only not in consequence of the accidental direction of each, but as prior to all direction, nay, as the primary forces from which the conditions of all possible directions are derivative and deducible: secondly, that these forces should be assumed to be both alike infinite, both alike indestructible. The problem will then be to discover the result or product of two such forces, as distinguished from the result of those forces which are finite, and derive their difference solely from the circumstance of their direction. 

When we have formed a scheme or outline of these two different kinds of force, and of their different results, by the process of discursive reasoning, it will then remain for us to elevate the thesis from notional to actual, by contemplating intuitively this one power with its two inherent indestructible yet counteracting forces, and the results or generations to which their inter-penetration gives existence, in the living principle and in the process of our own self-consciousness.

from Biographia Literaria by ST Coleridge, 1817.


The above passage has stood for over two hundred years as the basis of a "polar metaphysics" that has underpinned several of the most valid and coherent metaphysical explanations of a Romanticism compatible with Christianity

These include the work of Owen Barfield (especially as elucidated in his book What Coleridge Thought) and William Arkle (appearing as contrasting feminine and masculine poles, geometrically or by analogy with physics described in A Geography of Consciousness and The Hologram and Mind). 

Although these two 'contrary forces' can indeed be the basis of a coherent and valuable metaphysics; as Coleridge immediately makes apparent it is also necessary to add further assumptions - such as that these forces are 'infinite' and 'indestructible'; in other words, eternally self-originating and self-sustaining. 

It is also necessary to add at least a further two similar factors; namely purpose and time; because to explain the phenomena of this world it is necessary to explain change, and necessary too to explain the direction (teleology) of change. 

Put together; these are the basis of Coleridge's Polar Metaphysics/ Polarity/ Polar Logic; which was his fundamental and most original philosophical idea - an idea never popular, seldom well-understood, yet nonetheless always retaining influence.

[Note: It should be noticed that Coleridge's Polarity is almost the opposite of what modern people mean by "polarization".] 

So, we get what amounts to a complex, abstract, dynamic, and difficult to conceptualize, explanatory scheme - with at least four elements.

Moreover; polarity a 'model' of reality that does not arise from common sense, and is utterly incomprehensible to children, or simple people, or those incapable of or unwilling to make sustained and concentrated effort. 

Thus; having grappled with Polar Metaphysics until I felt I did understand it - I still found it very difficult to explain, such that it was difficult to be sure I had genuinely understood it - or indeed that other people had understood it.

Furthermore; given that Polarity/ Polar Logic was associated by Coleridge by the idea of an animated universe: a reality in which nothing was "dead" or "mineral"; and instead everything was alive, conscious, purposive... 

Given this; the metaphysics of Polarity led to the strange and wrong-seeming necessity to explain organisms and other actual, concrete and experienced living beings, in terms of these abstract forces and tendencies...

This felt the wrong way round! Surely the primary reality was the living beings, and the abstract explanations are (merely) ways of conceptualizing their attributes? 

So, I decided to dispense with the abstractions of Polarity/ Polar Logic and start by assuming the primacy of "beings". 

It is such Beings (each, in some degree and to some extent - alive, conscious, purposive) that already-contain, inextricably, as of their ultimate nature, attributes that can be distinguished in terms of the categories of polarity.

It is Beings for which we assume attributes such as being 'infinite' and 'indestructible'; eternally self-originating and self-sustaining.  

Beings, in other words, are actual things (but including immaterial 'spiritual' things) that do not need to be 'explained' because each Beings has always been; and each Being has essential attributes by which (as we know from our experience of our-selves and other Beings) there can be change, even transformation - while remaining the same Being - while retaining its eternal identity.       

Therefore; I assume (I define) Beings as innately comprising all the needful aspects which might abstractly be considered as elements of Polarity. 

Beings are the primary categorical assumption of my metaphysics: Beings are how the universe of reality is (and always has-been) divided. 

To which must be added the possibility of relationships between these eternal Beings - and then, I think we have a far more concrete and comprehensible scheme than Coleridge's: yet one that can equally well Cause the world of intelligences with the whole system of their representations to rise up before you!


Saturday 1 July 2023

Review of The Battle of Maldon by JRR Tolkien (2023), edited by Peter Grybauskas

JRR Tolkien. The Battle of Maldon, together with The homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm's son, and The Tradition of Versification in Old English. Edited by Peter Grybauskas. HarperCollins: London, 2023, pp xx, 188.

This book constitutes mostly unpublished and new material, but is centred on The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm's Son ("HBBS") a poem-play for voices/ radio-play by JRR Tolkien. This has been generally available since c.1965; when it was it was included in a version of Tree and Leaf. That is where I first read it nearly fifty years ago; and I've re-read several times since. 

However, I found that this new edition - with its better layout, and ancillary material - made a much greater impact on me; and the play itself was therefore experienced as far more enjoyable. This alone would have made the new collection worthwhile.  

The poetic play (which has been broadcast on BBC radio) has a strange origin; since it was first published in the prestigious professional academic journal Essays and Studies - where it was bracketed by a scholarly, and somewhat more conventional,  introduction and epilogue from Tolkien that discussed the Old English poetry-fragment called The Battle of Maldon.  

Yet despite the very peculiar nature of the original academic publication (which runs to 35 pages in this edition, with a further 15 pages of scholarly notes by Grybauskas); Professor Tom Shippey (in Roots and Branches, 2007) rates HBBS as among the top-three philological publications of JRRT's career. This; in terms of its professional influence and citations (although Shippey personally regards some of Tolkien's main points as mistaken). 

Grybauskas, in the present volume, also suggests that HBBS should be regarded as a third major essay to make-up a trio with the much-more-often-discussed essays On Fairy Stories and Beowulf: the monsters and the critics. Taken together; these three provide a special and deep insight into Tolkien's creative processes, relevant to The Lord of the Rings in particular. And Grybauskas cites some comments by Tolkien himself to support this claim of a trio of JRRT's most important Middle Earth-relevant pieces. 

This large claim for HBBS is vindicated by The Battle of Maldon (2023) - especially as it is now supported by the first-time publication of some hundred pages of lecture-preparations (or projected essays), probably from the 1930s, by Tolkien; in the section of this book entitled The Tradition of Versification in Old English

Despite some parts of highly technical philology, which I could not understand; this series of Tolkien's notes contains much really fascinating discussion that has autobiographical relevance to several of Tolkien's core, long-term concerns and fascinations.  

These special interests of Tolkien include the nature of poetry and its different functions; the working-out of language changes on poetry - both in oral transmission and scribal transmission - and how these two aspects interact in terms of the various aspects of poetry such as vocabulary, pronunciation, and metre. 

All this is, in turn, directly relevant to JRRT's almost obsessive concern with the fictional provenance of his Legendarium: i.e. the question of how texts, of various sources, were preserved and transmitted down to the present day and the editorial hand of Tolkien himself. 

This concern with (imaginary) provenance derives from his professional studies in philology; but is  what lies behind the supposed origins of The Lord of the Rings mentioned in the Prologue and Appendices... The fiction's feigned historical nature; and the basis of the Romance in (for example) Bilbo's Translations from the Elvish, The Red Book of Westmarch (from Bilbo, Frodo and Sam, mostly), and other texts by Merrie Brandybuck. 

There are further references to provenance in the 'editorial' introduction to The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and - even more so - the unpublished Notion Club Papers

The other main section of the book is relatively short, but clearly of importance: this is Tolkien's (previously unpublished) 12 page prose translation of The Battle of Maldon fragment - with a further 14 pages of scholarly notes from Grybauskas. The Battle of Maldon serves both as a new publication from Tolkien, and also - in context of this volume, as an essential reference from-which to understand HBBS and the Tradition of Versification lecture notes. 

In conclusion: Congratulations are due to Peter Grybauskas, and to the Tolkien Estate. This is a very worthwhile and interesting book, continuing the excellent start made to HarperCollins recent "post-Christopher Tolkien era" series; continuing CRT's epic work in producing scholarly and enjoyably-readable editions of Tolkien's unpublished or relatively "minor", hence neglected, works. 

Monday 26 June 2023

Romanticism Come of Age; a second edition of the biography of Owen Barfield by Simon Blaxland-de Lange

Simon Blaxland-de Lange. Owen Barfield: Romanticism come of age. Temple Lodge Publishing: Forest Row, UK, 2006/ Second Edition 2021. pp. xvii, 367. 

Blaxland-de Lange's is the only biography of Owen Barfield, and it is very good. 

Indeed, because its greatest strength is that BdL has such a deep understanding of Barfield's ideas, this biography is a way by which someone could approach reading Barfield from scratch. By reading the biography first, the potential explorer can discover which of Barfield's very various books he would be most likely to enjoy and appreciate - and therefore where he might best start reading. 

The biography's great strength, might also be regarded as a stumbling block; which is that BdL is - like Barfield - a serious, indeed professional, Anthroposophist - a follower of Rudolf Steiner. 

This has the great advantage of providing valid and thorough explanations of this aspect of Barfield, which aspect is usually so badly covered by most other writers about Barfield - few of whom have made the (considerable!) effort necessary to get to grips with Steiner's vast oeuvre

On the other hand; the book is written on the basis of Anthroposophical assumptions, and includes reference to Steiner concepts; that will strike the naïve reader as bizarre, as well as startling. Yet, there is also a good deal of Steiner, and indeed the core of his work; that is potentially of primary importance to everyone; so to attain understanding is well worth a bit of effort.   

The organization of the book is somewhat eccentric. It begins conventionally enough, with a "biographical sketch" which gives an overview of Barfield's life, and some of the major incidents - ending with some snapshots of his attitudes and concerns at the end of his ninety-nine year life. 

After this, the book is presented in a thematic way, with different chapters covering different aspects of Barfield's life and ideas - and these chapters are not in any overall chronological arrangement, but instead each chapter includes whatever is relevant to its particular concern. 

This means that - after the first overview - the book chapters can be read, without loss, in almost any order; and this has been my practice over the decade-plus since I bought the first edition. 

Second edition differences are minimal. Indeed, I could only myself detect the addition of an Appendix making available for the first time Psychography; which was an aborted draft attempt, from the late 1940s, at a spiritual autobiography by Barfield - which runs at 12 pages, and stops in Barfield's late teens. 

This is well worth reading, as a further insight into some fundamental aspects of Barfield - including his extreme shyness and reserve in talking on the topic of himself. 

For instance, he writes about the psychological effects of his problem with stammering; but never actually says what that problem was! If the reader did not already know about this problem from elsewhere, then the passage would be highly mystifying - and the problem sounds more sinister, and shameful, than it actually was.  

In sum: Romanticism Come of Age is probably the only indispensable book about Owen Barfield - anyone who is interested by Barfield will want a copy, and will consult it frequently. 

Wednesday 14 June 2023

Frodo's dream of the Elf Tower, in Crickhollow

Eventually [Frodo] fell into a vague dream, in which he seemed to be looking out of a high window over a dark sea of tangled trees. Down below among the roots there was the sound of creatures crawling and snuffling. He felt sure they would smell him out sooner or later. Then he heard a noise in the distance. At first he thought it was a great wind coming over the leaves of the forest. Then he knew that it was not the leaves, but the sound of the Sea far-off; a sound he had never heard in waking life, though it had often troubled his dreams. Suddenly he found he was out in the open. There were no trees after all. He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over to him to climb the tower and see the Sea. He started to struggle up the ridge towards the tower: but suddenly a light came in the sky, and there was a noise of thunder.

Frodo's dream in the house at Crickhollow, the third night of the quest; from A Conspiracy Unmasked in The Fellowship of the Ring


For long I was puzzled by the above dream, because it does not correspond to anything that happens in The Lord of the Rings. 

A partial answer was provided by the analysis of Frodo's dreams in Verlyn Flieger's A Question of Time

From studying The Treason of Isengard volume in The History of Middle Earth; it turns-out that Frodo's Crickhollow dream is a revised version of a dream that, in an earlier draft, accurately and literally referred to Gandalf being besieged by the Black Riders in one of the three Elf Towers that lie to the west of The Shire; from the tops of which Shire hobbits believe that the sea can be seen. 

Later revisions leading to the published dream in The Fellowship of the Ring, had Gandalf held captive by Saruman on the tower of Orthanc (i.e. not an Elf Tower). And, during the night following the Crickhollow dream (the first sleep in the House of Tom Bombadil) Frodo accurately saw Gandalf's rescue from Orthanc by Gwaihir the eagle - a correct vision of an event remote in space, and also in time; since the rescue had happened some eight nights earlier than this dream. 

But why did Tolkien retain this dream for the published text, after plot revisions had made it obsolete and without reference to real events of the story? And why was Frodo's accurate clairvoyance delayed by more than a week? 

There are two possible kinds of question and answer to why: the first asks what was Tolkien's actual and conscious motivation and suggests a possible answer; while the second is to ask what makes inferential sense in terms of the logic of the story - even though Tolkien might not have been aware of it at the time of writing. 

Flieger's explanation refers to the first of these questions - it is a speculation as to why Tolkein might consciously have preserved the Elf Tower dream. She says the published dream functions mainly as an effective "mood piece", characteristic of Frodo, and one that establishes him as A Dreamer - often previsionary, or able to see other times and places - within the rest of the story. 

But I believe that more can be said. Frodo only becomes A Dreamer after Gildor named him Elf Friend

This naming can be seen to have had a lasting and transformative effect on Frodo - giving him elvish qualities and attributes that were immediately apparent; first to Goldberry, then to others able to discern such things in the later story.   

However, it can further be suggested that the elvish ("magical") transformation was something that built-up over a period of time

Thus the first night after being named Elf Friend, Frodo dreamed the Elf Tower dream - which was a real things, but an event that never happened. 

The second night's dream (in the house of Tom Bombadil) was an impressively accurate dream, but several days late. 

The third night's dream - which happened during the second night at Tom Bombadil's - was again accurate, but even more impressive; because it was a prevision of Frodo's arrival in the undying lands some time after the narrative of The Lord of the Rings has ended - presumably at Elvenhome (the Lonely Isle of Eressea).  

Therefore, my suggestion as to Tolkien's unconscious (not deliberately-intended), but perhaps implicit, reason for including the inaccurate Elf Tower dream; could be understood as depicting stages en route to Frodo becoming a full Elf Friend, and a fully-fledged Dreamer. 

Thursday 1 June 2023

The trade-off between life and works: Legolas, Gimli and the stones of Minas Tirith

'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.

The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien

I have always found the above to be a particularly deep and resonant passage; and so do many others. 

At one level, the difference between short-lived, distractible but procreative Men; and the Elves and Dwarves who are (especially Elves) potentially relatively longaevus - seems to be profound. Elves and Dwarves are both capable of greater works of arts and crafts, better able to work on long 'projects' without losing interest...

Yet this is only a relative difference, and sooner or later, all the achievements - all the 'stone work' - of Middle Earth, will decay, and be destroyed. 

The rate of change can be diminished by better work, by steadier and more focused effort - but, it seems, only by a 'slowing' of existence. 

Dwarves and Elves have a longer time horizon, but this goes-with a lower rate of procreation, a lesser focus on reproduction - which stands-for and is symptomatic-of a tendency towards desiring to slow life, trying to hold-things static, attempting to prevent decay by 'crystallizing' achievement... 

But, this has a price; being bound-up with a tendency against life.  

Men, by comparison, are more alive, do more stuff (good and bad, careful and slapdash); just keep on trying different things; bounce-back after defeats and start again - have kids, rebuild the ruins, make another new civilization... 

But Men never seem to get very far with anything they attempt; and they each soon die, and their best civilizations are brief. 

So; in this mortal world, in all we know of this material universe, entropy will always win in the end - whether sooner or later; it will prevail. 

If we imaginatively identify with the perspective of God the Creator, take his Point of View (POV); then this continual dismantling of creation by entropy is unsatisfactory

Of course, we (as God) can keep-on creating forever and without limit; yet this is always going to be a matter of patching-together repairs and not a restoration to a pre-entropic state. We can continually compensate for the damage of entropy - a bridge collapses, so we build a new one; a Man dies and another is born - yet whatever we do, entropy accumulates

More familiarly for Christians, a closely analogous situation occurs with Sin (which may be understood as an aspect of entropy). God can compensate for the effect of Sin, can repair the consequences, can provide the world with help from Angels and Saints... but nonetheless Sin accumulates. 

The way out from this unsatisfactory situation was for God to create another world from this one; by using this one. 

In other words: God's creative plan was two-stage (which is why Jesus was necessary - for the second stage). 

While the first creation is mandatory; the second creation is discretionary: optional, opt-in, for those who choose it. 

The second creation is a 'world' without entropy, a world in which the tendency for destruction and sin has been left-behind. 

I am talking about Heaven, of course. 

And Heaven did not arise until after Jesus Christ.

The reason that Jesus Christ is an essential aspect of salvation; is that He was what made it possible for Heaven to exist, for Heaven to be populated... 

To put it bluntly; God the primary creator needed Jesus Christ in order to make possible the second - and final - creation that is Heaven. 

Jesus Christ came from within the prime creation, lived within the world of entropy - and died; but did so in perfect alignment with the values, aims, love, of God the prime creator. 

In other (more familiar) words; Jesus was a mortal Man who was fully divine. Mortal in body and by living in the primary creation, divine in terms of wholly Good and on the side of God; knowing and being in complete-harmony-with God's creative plans.

Thus Jesus was unique: nobody-else could have done the job (not even God the prime creator) because Jesus knew - experientially, from living fully in both worlds - 'how' to guide Men from this primary and entropic-mortal creation to the secondary and eternal-immortal creation that is Heaven.

Tuesday 23 May 2023

Tolkien's On Fairy Stories audiobook, from the Catholic Culture Audiobooks website

A few days ago, I stumbled across a new unabridged audiobook version of JRR Tolkien's seminal essay On Fairy Stories, published on the website of Catholic Culture Audiobooks

The superb performance is by voice-actor James W Majewski; who really seems to understand what he is reading, so that it is expounded with great clarity. Even better, he reads at a measured pace yet with a quietly-passionate intensity that revealed the essay to be - itself - one of Tolkien's greatest works of imagination.  

I have read and re-read OFS more times than I can count (including the annotated scholarly edition); yet, I felt I had never really grasped it before, never recognized that it was so highly wrought, while also having originated in Tolkien's deepest well-springs of creativity.

Monday 15 May 2023

The perilous necessity of seeking enchantment

I have been re-reading that most inspiring of essays: On Fairy Stories, by JRR Tolkien; and considering the need some of us feel (in the 'modern world') for enchantment

Tolkien describes how this can be found in the best of Fairy Stories - or what we nowadays, since Tolkien's essay, term 'fantasy' literature. 

But what of 'real life' - of our lives outside of fairy stories? What of our disenchanted mundane lives? Is there any kind of 'cure' for disenchantment - something in-addition-to our leisure-time and recreational immersion in artistic recreations of faery?

What should we do when we awaken from the enchanted realms of a fairy story, and find-ourselves back in the mundane world?

Such questions are the basis of the 'romantic' impulse; and for people such as Tolkien (and myself, and many others) they are unavoidable and compelling matters; they are matters of life and death. 

We can try to ignore or drown-out the 'horns of Elfland' - the call of enchantment - but we will always be comparing our actual lives with the possibilities experienced in 'fairy stories'. 

For us, the prospect of life stretching ahead is intolerable without enchantment; so it is not a matter of whether we pursue enchantment; but how

Yet, as Tolkien often emphasizes; this seeking of an enchanted mortal life is perilous; just as true faery is perilous. He frequently depicted this - most explicitly in Smith of Wootton Major, most pessimistically in his poem The Sea Bell; and it forms the background motivation to the embryonic plot of The Notion Club Papers

The fundamental problem is that mortal Men in this world cannot attain any Good with permanence - because that is the entropic nature of our-selves and the world; and from the fact that such joys are subject to 'habituation'/ tolerance/ fatigue - so that they cannot be sought directly and repeated 'stimuli' (use of symbols, rituals, or exposure to art-works) will decline in effectiveness. 

Many have tries to create for themselves an enchanted life; all have failed - in the end we are up-against our own corrupt and limited natures. 

Many, many people have ended up in the tragic situation depicted at the end of The Sea Bell; unable to forget, yet unable to attain, 'faery' - and finding no consolation in 'the world'. 

A Christian can and should be consoled by the ultimate prospect of resurrected life in Heaven; which is (as Tolkien makes clear at the end of his essay) the only possible actuality of that which we glimpse in faery. It is resurrection that makes the quest for enchantment a matter of truth rather than delusion. 

Yet, that still leaves the problem of how we structure our earthly lives in the years ahead... indeed in this day, and this moment...  

A further problem is that the consciousness of Modern Man has developed so as to become so resistant to enchantment - that there seem to be many people who claim not to experience it, not to want it. 

And there are others who (whatever they may they claim) seem never to experience any kind of enchantment; but instead seem (so far as I can tell) to live disenchanted lives; to the point of being hostile to the whole idea - and regarding any taint of romanticism is childish, insane or evil

Sadly, many self-identified Christians are of this aggressively disenchanted type: the kind of Christians who regard any whiff of faery, magic, romanticism as indicating the stench of Hellish brimstone (and who regard Tolkien himself as one of the devil's party). 

I say 'sadly' - because, despite that the quest for enchantment may be personally tragic; not-to-want it at all, and to regard enchantment as stupid, malign of delusional, strikes me as a kind of self-maimed half-life. 

I cannot help feeling sorry-for such people - even when they are frustrating or maddening to deal-with. 

My best positive suggestion, that I have discussed many times before on this blog; is to apply some of the lessons of Owen Barfield's concept of Final Participation - which I have further analyzed into concepts such as Primary Thinking and heart-thinking. 

In particular; the idea that - instead of seeking an overwhelming and immersive experience of enchantment, of faery, such that we hope to experience 'being there', inside that world -- we may choose to seek to participate-with such a world in the realm of purposive conscious thinking

Instead of (mentally) lowering-our-selves-into enchantment, instead of sinking-into a dream-like realm; we might instead aim to rise-above the mundane: to weave our conscious thinking with thoughts of (experiences from?) faery. 

This Final Participation is not a final answer; because there is none on this side of death; but engaging with an assumed living and potentially present realm of faery is something that lacks some of the problems of the more usual attempt at 'travelling'-into/ dwelling-within faery - not least because it is immune to that loss-of-effectiveness that plagues all attempts to lose-ourselves. 

With the Final Participation idea; we do Not try to lose our-selves or our awareness of this-world - but aim instead to remain our-selves; indeed to expand and strengthen our-selves as we encounter enchantment; which can be done by aligning our motivations with that which is Good in faery.  

Such is difficult because it is a creative activity; and creating just-is difficult. Also because it entails the discernment of what is Good in our-selves and 'the enchanted' - and working-from that.

But - however difficult, intermittent, and only-partially-successful, is such a creative endeavor; it is nonetheless something that provides a very deep level of satisfaction, and a potential for profound learning.

So, Final Participation in faery seems like a valid Life Quest for those of us for whom a 'romantic life' is a fact of our natures.