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 telpĂ« ("silver") and the adjective element maitĂ« ("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.