Tuesday 27 February 2024

The elvish strain in Mankind, and the motivation of Men and elves

For JRR Tolkien, "elvishness" is a quality that first entered Mankind by heredity from the rare "interbreeding" of Men with Elves; especially Beren and Luthien, Tuor and Idril and Aragorn and Arwen - but perhaps also from one or more unions of Men with Silvan (i.e. "lower") elves such as happened in Dol Amroth. 

After which, the "half-elven" strain was transmitted in part by a kind of heredity (which is not strictly genetic); and also by close-association-with and even the love of elves - via the phenomenon of "Elf Friends". 

Indeed, this second "associational" rather then hereditary elvishness seems likely to have been the most important; since it seems very unlikely that all the Numenoreans (for instance) were actual descendants of Beren, Luthien, Tuor or Idril - most seem to have been members of three particular Elf Friend tribes or clans. 

I find it fascinating to consider what spiritual realities lie behind Tolkien's elves, and their relationship with Men; and my speculations have recently been fuelled by reading-though a fascinating and wide-ranging book called Red Tree, White Tree by Wendy Berg - who was a disciple of Gareth Knight; later (with her husband) becoming leader of the Gareth Knight Christian magical group, after GK retired. 

Berg puts forward many and various speculations on the subject of "faeries" including a detailed consideration of Tolkien's elves; also folklore, and the whole range of Arthurian literature - which she interprets as being, ultimately, "about" faery/ Men relationships.

In particular, she regards faeries and Men as two distinguished-sides of an original-whole; and of the two sub-species of "human" as having been sundered in the remote past - and with, therefore, the long-term implicit goal of becoming re-unified - despite the many problems such a destiny will entail. 

(Problems such as are, for Berg, the principal subject of Arthurian romance.)  

My thought was that elves and Men can be distinguished in terms of motivation. 

Elves/ faeries value and are more immersed in creation, and therefore live in harmony with the natural world; but, on the other hand, elves tend to become passive, contemplative; and instead of contributing to the world, they tend to try and preserve the past, and to stay the workings of time. 

Men are more self-conscious of their distinction from nature, and selfishly tend to impose their will on creation and respond to temporary impulses; yet this heightened self-consciousness and distinction from nature is also the basis of freedom, and can motivate Men to contribute personally to divine creation.  

In Owen Barfield's terms - Elves/ faeries are prone to yearn for the immersive unconsciousness of "Original Participation"; while Men are prone to the alienation and despair of the "Consciousness Soul".

And the hope for a re-uniting of faery and Men; is the hope of combining the best of both: combining the free creativity of Men with the harmony-with-divine-creation characteristic of elves. 

Tolkien regarded elves and Men as both "human"; yet as separate creations, and therefore eternally distinct. Berg takes the different stance of understanding elves and Men to have been two directions in which humanity grew after an original unity in the Garden of Eden.

However we may model or literalize the explanation; there does seem to be a true insight and wisdom in this business. 

It seems probable to me that this ideal harmony and union cannot be achieved - except temporarily and in a limited fashion - in this mortal life and on this earth. 

Yet the distinction of motivations has validity as a way of conceptualizing the ideal state of both elves and Men towards which we may aspire. 

And also a warning - on both sides - of the hazards of a divided and partial consciousness.   

Saturday 17 February 2024

A joke quoted by JRRT

From letter 97b, of the 2023, expanded, edition of Letters by JRR Tolkien*: 

Mother discovered her small daughter drawing.

"What are you drawing, darling" said she.

"I am drawing God." 

"Oh, but you can't draw God, dear. Nobody knows what he's like." 

"Well they will now."

*I got this for my birthday recently, and am avidly reading it; but - because it is so dense and interesting - only at a rate of 30-40 pages per day. With a total of more than 600 pages (not including index), it'll be a couple of weeks before I can write a review of the whole thing...  

Sunday 11 February 2024

Free, high quality e-books of Charles Williams and CS Lewis - downloadable from fadedpage.com

I have recently discovered the excellent Fadedpage web site; which is done by volunteers, and provides free, high quality, downloadable e-books from a variety of authors in the public domain of Canada (which, sensibly, has 50 year copyright laws). 

I stumbled across it in search of Biggles books; but have since discovered a remarkably rich seam of Charles Williams's works (some them very difficult, or expensive, to get in hard copy); plus a large number of CS Lewis texts - also including some rarities! 

Even if you already have these books on paper, Fadedpage could provide handy portable versions to take on holiday or journeys.   

Sunday 4 February 2024

Valedictory Address: The only published piece by Tolkien that I dislike

Of course I do not enjoy everything by JRR Tolkien that has been published; but - with one exception - I do find all his works (finished and incomplete) to be worthwhile and respect-worthy... 

Except for one thing. 

That is the lecture entitled "Valedictory address to the University of Oxford" and included as final piece in the collection The Monsters and the Critics, and other Essays (Paperback, 1987; Edited by Christopher Tolkien).  

This was a public lecture delivered on the occasion of Tolkien's retirement in June 1959, after reaching the age of sixty-seven. Tolkien had been associated with the University first as an undergraduate (forty-eight years earlier); and had then served in two different Professorships (Anglo-Saxon, then English Language and Literature) for the exceptionally long span of thirty-four years.

To my mind; this final lecture should have been - overall - a warm and genial event; a celebration of Tolkien's relationship with a university he (mostly) loved and respected. 

But instead Tolkien adopted what comes-across as a petty, narrow, carping, and mean-spirited attitude; displaying an unattractive defensiveness towards his critics and intellectual enemies; and a persisting resentment concerning the academic decisions and trends he regarded as mistaken. 

Especially given that, by this time, the Lord of the Rings had been published and Tolkien had become somewhat famous outside of the academy - I would have hoped for a public demonstration of the man's greatness of soul and largeness of spirit. 

But I suspect that I would have found the actual lecture to be an embarrassing event to attend; altogether unworthy of Tolkien. 

I would have hoped for his themes to be broad and of general interest (as befits a public lecture); rather than this indulgence in nit-picking over the minutiae of past disputes relating mainly to the departmental syllabus and examinations! 

Valedictory means a goodbye; and when saying goodbye for the last time, one surely ought to attempt a heartening farewell? 

One ought not to leave a "nasty taste" lingering after departure. 

Altogether; the Valedictory Address strikes me as a disappointing and saddening leave-taking of Tolkien's life as Professor - the only of all his productions that I would prefer had not happened. 

Thursday 1 February 2024

"Broad Relic" in the Notion Club Papers is the island of Flat Holm in the Bristol Channel

JRR Tolkien. The Notion Club Papers - in "Sauron Defeated" The History of Middle Earth Volume 9, HarperCollins: London, 1993.  

[p277]. The Danes attack Porlock that night. They are driven off and take refuge by swimming out to the ships and so to 'Broad Relic'.[Note 106]* A small 'cnearr' [ship] is captured. It is not well guarded. AElfwine tells Treowine that he has stores laid up. They move the boat and stock it the following night and set sail West.

[p288]. Danes attack that night but are driven off. AElfwine and Treowine are among those who capture a small ship that had ventured close inshore and stuck. The rest escape to 'Broad Relic'.

*Note 106 [by Christopher Tolkien]. I cannot explain the reference of 'Broad Relic'. 


I have long been somewhat curious about the meaning of "Broad Relic", especially because Christopher Tolkien could not identify it. 

However, as a sometime resident of Somerset who dwelt near the Bristol Channel, I guessed that Danes driven off Porlock to their ships, might well take refuge on one of the islands between Somerset and Wales - of which there are three well known: Lundy, Steep Holm, and Flat Holm. 

I thought that "Broad Relic" might well be one of these islands. 

On researching the etymology of these islands it emerged that Flat Holm was named "Bradan Relice" in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles (which, of course JRR Tolkien knew) - and so the puzzle of Broad Relic appears to have been solved! 

...Although, perhaps typically, Tolkien seems to have quibbled with the mainstream translation of Relice (given below by Coates) as coming from Old Irish reilic meaning "cemetery"; by instead translating Relice as meaning "relic" as if derived from the Welsh rhelyw.  


Richard Coates. The name of the Island of Annet, Isles of Scilly, Cornwall. . Ainm: Journal of the Ulster Place-Name Society. 2008; 9: 73-84 - page 81. 

 A further Irish-derived name-pair evidently belonging in this category is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (Swanton 2000). Flat Holm (Glamorgan), an island in the Bristol Channel, is referred to as (æt) bradan relice, (into) bradan reolice (annals 918 [914] (A) and 1067 (D) respectively). Version D calls the adjacent Steep Holm (Somerset) (æt) steapan relice (annal 915 [914]). 

These names, though English in form, evidently contain a word, perhaps in use as a name, borrowed from Old Irish reilic ‘cemetery’ (Vulgar Latin reliquie), and not from the Welsh borrowing of the same item, which is rhelyw and means ‘relic’ (see Jackson 1953: 403 for the phonology).  


Note added from comments: I think it is pretty definite that the basic history of this "dream" episode of the NCPs is based on the Anglo Saxon Chronicles [https://www.gutenberg.org/files/657/657.txt] e.g (note the second paragraph): 

 A.D. 918. This year came a great naval armament over hither south from the Lidwiccians; (40) and two earls with it, Ohter and Rhoald. They went then west about, till they entered the mouth of the Severn; and plundered in North-Wales everywhere by the sea, where it then suited them; and took Camlac the bishop in Archenfield, and led him with them to their ships; whom King Edward afterwards released for forty pounds. After this went the army all up; and would proceed yet on plunder against Archenfield; but the men of Hertford met them, and of Glocester, and of the nighest towns; and fought with them, and put them to flight; and they slew the Earl Rhoald, and the brother of Ohter the other earl, and many of the army. And they drove them into a park; and beset them there without, until they gave them hostages, that they would depart from the realm of King Edward. And the king had contrived that a guard should be set against them on the south side of Severnmouth; west from Wales, eastward to the mouth of the Avon; so that they durst nowhere seek that land on that side. 

Nevertheless, they eluded them at night, by stealing up twice; at one time to the east of Watchet, and at another time at Porlock. There was a great slaughter each time; so that few of them came away, except those only who swam out to the ships. Then sat they outward on an island, called the Flat-holms; till they were very short of meat, and many men died of hunger, because they could not reach any meat. Thence went they to Dimmet, and then out to Ireland...