Thursday, 12 January 2017

Fantasy fiction is more important than ‘real life’: completing the argument of JRR Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories

By Bruce G Charlton

Published at L Jagi Lamplighter's blog:

http://www.ljagilamplighter.com/2017/01/10/on-fairy-stories-and-why-they-matter

JRR Tolkien’s most famous and influential essay, and indeed by far the most famous and influential essay on the subject, was On Fairy Stories. This was originally a lecture delivered in 1939 at the University of St Andrew’s, Scotland; it was published in a revised and expanded form in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, 1947 and reprinted in other volumes many times since.

The crux of the essay, and the reason for its large influence, is a defence of the value of Fairy Stories for an intended adult audience. Indeed On Fairy Stories became, pretty much, the standard explanation of, and rationale for, the genre of Fantasy Fiction - which is now a large and significant phenomenon in modern publishing.

Tolkien’s basic argument is that the author of Fantasy is creating a ‘Secondary world’ with features that are both wonderful (typically magical) and internally-consistent. And this Secondary world potentially offers a sympathetic reader the triple benefits of Recovery, Escape and Consolation.

As such, On Fairy Stories serves to justify the Fantasy genre; but on the other hand it does implicitly consign Fantasy to Secondary status as contrasted with the Primary world. Tolkien presents a strong case that Escape and Consolation are legitimate wishes. However, at the end of the day these are (merely) psychological justifications – ways of saying that Fantasy makes us ‘feel better’ in legitimate ways.

I believe that Tolkien’s argument can legitimately be extended to a stronger sense, which offers a ‘primary’ status to Fantasy fiction when understood in the context of the modern, mainstream world of public discourse. More specifically, I believe that Tolkien’s argument about Recovery contains the seeds of a much more powerful explanation of Fantasy being (at its best) more real than (so-called) ‘real life’.

That Fantasy is (in some important respects) more real than real life I will take as an assumption rather than trying to argue; because it is something that all serious Fantasy readers already know to be true from personal experience (and it is, of course, why we continue to read Fantasy). But what is so-far lacking, and what Tolkien may be seen to imply, is an explanation for why and how it is true.

I think an explanation is valuable, and perhaps necessary, if fantasy, as a genre, is to be regarded (whether by ourselves, or more generally) as more than just a pleasing pastime – as something that is of potentially great cultural importance.

Tolkien’s argument about Recovery is that the material of magic, wonder, the fantastic - and the imaginative inhabiting of a different and complex but internally-consistent world - are what allow a refreshment of our appreciation. So we come to appreciate the basics of this (primary) world, now refreshed because we have come across bread, stone, trees in a new and unfamiliar context; and we also appreciate Men anew because we have met elves, dwarves and hobbits.

This is true but I think it underestimates the profundity of what Fantasy can do; especially when it is contrasted with the modern world. The key to the value of Fantasy – here and now – is its contrast with the modern world: Modern ‘reality’ is most deficient in the most important aspects of Life. And this is because modern reality is, mostly and ever-increasingly, a mass media-generated ‘virtual’ kind of reality.

Thus modern ‘Primary’ reality is deficient in terms of lacking destiny, meaning and purpose for Life; in its ignorance, denial, or blind terror of ageing and death; in terms of regarding the Human Condition as a mixture of mechanical determinism and random chaos; in its regarding of the major virtues of Love and Courage as mere products of social-conditioning and evolution; and its understanding that Tolkien’s joyful ‘eucatastrophe’ – the unexpected ‘turn’ of events in a Fairy Story that snatches the Happy Ending from apparently-inevitable defeat – is merely a statistically improbable coincidence… The above is not exhaustive – in particular the modern lack of a living and over-arching religion; and indeed lack of any spiritual reality and depth to experience - is another vital deficiency of the Primary world as we experience it in The West.

But this list suffices to illustrate why, in our kind of world, Fantasy may be much more than just a pleasure or a preference. And why Fantasy does not simply enable a Recovery of appreciation for the basic essentials of Life – much more importantly, Fantasy may be our only sustained experience in which these real-realities are encountered.

The staleness and superficiality of modern life is a consequence of the way in which modern reality is the product of modern theories – the ‘ideologies’ that arise from science, law, politics, sociology etc. but which we mainly learn from the mass media; and to a lesser extent from a corrupted system of formal education, corporate advertising and official propaganda.

But how is it that Fantasy may be able to supply what the Primary word so horribly lacks? Well, Tolkien all-but said it – the creation of another internally consistent world of wonders provides us with stimuli, with perceptions, that do not automatically get plugged-into the subversive and inverting theories of modernism. The magic and wonders of Fantasy quite naturally and spontaneously attach themselves to our built-in, universal concepts – the mythic understandings and interpretations of the ‘collective unconscious’, or our shared divine-endowments. And it is these universal concepts which enable us to apprehend and share reality.

So the fictional experiences of Fantasy are not just apparently but literally more real than everyday Life in the modern world. They are real because they are understood by means of the eternal, the universal, the Human, the God-given; whereas the Primary world is perceived, but not understood, merely by the manipulative and dishonest and ever-changing abstract theoretical ideologies of our time and place – ideologies such as the dreary incoherence of Leftist ‘identity’ politics, antiracism, feminism, economic hypotheses, anti-colonialism, and the ever-mutating lies and inversions of sexuality and the sexual revolution.

In sum; Fantasy fiction (Fairy Stories) may currently be the only source of sustained and convincing ‘good metaphysics’ available to many people in The West: our only access to the eternal and universal truths of real reality – as contrasted with the despair-inducing, hope-less, meaningless, purposeless fake-realities of modern life.

Seventy years after Tolkien’s essay was first conceived, we are in a situation that Fairy Stories have become something close to a necessity for those who want to experience Life as it could and should be experienced… even more, a necessity for those who want to live in the real world; rather than the hellish-yet-addictive media-Matrix of alternating distractions, intoxications, lust and fear which is the world of mainstream public discourse.

Consequently our demonic overlords hate, hate, hate real Fantasy (and Tolkien above all) and do their best to ignore or mock it – or else they reinterpret and subvert it in terms of the incoherent tendentiousness of modern ideologies (such as those deadly meditations on racism and sexism in The Lord of the Rings…). Or else they create fake-Fantasy which incorporates exactly those false ideologies to which Fantasy offers us a Real Life alternative. Instead of wonder and magic, we get parables of multiculturalism or gender-bending… just like modern, mainstream, bureaucratic ‘real life’.

I would therefore suggest that we should now drop Tolkien’s idea of Fantasy being a Secondary reality, in favour of a recognition that – at its best – Fantasy is now the Primary world. Fantasy fiction is therefore a way in which we may potentially (albeit partially and intermittently) escape The Matrix imposed upon us to our detriment; and begin living from true, universal and vital concepts: living real lives from the solid ground of universal metaphysics.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Review of Tales from the Perilous Realm - Brian Sibley's 1992 radio adaptations of Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wooton Major, Leaf by Niggle and some Lord of the Rings scenes featuring Tom Bombadil


I came across this little gem while browsing a list of JRR Tolkien Audiobooks available for download - it is a set of four dramatised radio programmes broadcast on the BBC in 1992.

What filled me with anticipation was that they were done by Brian Sibley. He did the excellent dramatisation of Lord of the Rings; as well as the almost miraculously good BBC Narnia Chronicles. When I approach Sibley's work I do so with pleasure and confidence that it will be sympathetic to the spirit of the original work, as well as creatively inspired.

I wasn't disappointed.

The whole collection is framed and linked by the device of having Tolkien as an avuncular narrator; who at times interacts with the characters. The role is played by Michael Hordern, who was Gandalf in Sibley's LotR, and one of the very greatest English actors of his generation. 

Farmer Giles of Ham

This was wonderful - full of delightful touches, such as having Garm the Dog brought forward as a developed 'sidekick' character. Brian Blessed was a terrific Giles; as well as the beautifully-judged voice acting, picturing Blessed was just right (Blessed is a superb actor, as well as being the most famous shouter in the world). I could not have imagined this done better - funny, with many characteristic cod-learned asides, and some gently touching moments.

Smith of Wooton Major

The original is an extremely beautiful and perfect high fantasy; and Sibley has lightened it and injected some hunour for a radio audience by framing the narrative as an autobiographical story told to some children at his forge by the eponymous Smith. This is successful, and broadens the appeal; but at the cost of losing some power from the impact of some of the most effective scenes in the original; and the end fails to achieve a full sense of closure. Smith is very well played by Paul Copley, with his trademark rural Yorkshire accent - in theory this sits oddly with the West Country accents of everyone else in the cast, but in practice it didn't seem to matter.

Leaf by Niggle

This is again a creative adaptation of Tolkien's perfect short story - to create an equally perfect play which moved me to tears more than once (tears of joy) - it really is inspiring. Niggle was played by Alfred Molina, who is an actor whose early work I regard as often touched with genius - and it  certainly was here. The interactions between the Tolkien Narrator and Niggle are beautifully contrived and performed. Really lovely.

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil

This is at a lower level than the three preceding pieces, and is best regarded as a Bonus. It is a kind of 'out-take' from Sibley's script of the Lord of the Rings dramatisation, done with a different cast. It covers three section. The first is from entering the Old Forest, the capture by Old Man Willow and rescue by Tom. I found this satisfying, without being fully engaged by it.

The middle section covers In the House of Tom Bombadil - and this was very good indeed! Tom and Goldberry are given Irish accents, which worked for me - although I always imagined them as dwelling in Tolkien's native Worcestershire. Bombadil is a very difficult role to pull off, I should think; and Ian Hogg captured all the aspects - including both the rather irritating heartiness of a stereotypical Old Salt seafarer with revelations of sudden depths, sensitivities and poetry.

The final section covered Fog on the Barrow Downs - and I did not find this effective. The lead-in to the capture was so brief as to seem perfunctory, and in general this somewhat superfluous scene failed to engage me. This is indeed was of the less effective parts of the original book, with too many similarities to the previous Old Man Willow adventure, and the Barrow Wight failing to achieve a genuine presence and identity. 

Overall, this is a really good set of dramatisations - I found I wanted to re-listen to the whole thing after only a week; and I anticipate coming back to them many times; as I have done with Sibley's other work.

http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Tales_from_the_Perilous_Realm_(1992_radio_series)


Friday, 30 December 2016

Does The Notion Club's fictional response to Ramer's story in The Notion Club Papers recall the real life reception of Tolkien's Lost Road?

In the feigned Foreword to the supposed First Edition of The Notion Club Papers (NCPs), the 'editor' describes the work as nothing more than a literary curiosity; but when he adds a Note to the 'Second' edition he reveals the real importance of the work in the parting phrase that refers to "the strange processes of so-called literary 'invention', with which the papers are largely concerned".

The phrase 'so-called' and the quotes around 'invention' are (presumably) intended to imply that the editor regards the work as not having been invented - but a true account.

I return to re-read the NCPs every year or so, and on the current encounter it struck me that - given the NCPs history of having been read to The Inklings, as a light entertainment initially (later ripening to an extremely ambitious conception - perhaps the most ambitious work Tolkien ever projected) - the very first significant incident of the book seems likely to refer back to an actual incident in an Inklings meeting.

What happens is that Ramer (who is substantially a Tolkien alter ego, being a philologist and science fiction/ fantasy writer; although not the only Tolkien alter ego in the NCPs) has just read a story to the Notion Club.

The club responds to Ramer's story with various jovial and satirical comments, the substance of which is that they liked the story, which we don't know much about, but which apparently was set on another planet; but found the 'frame' describing getting-to and back-from this planet unconvincing and contrived, while the story itself had the ring of truth.

Indeed, some of the club members intuit that the story was not entirely fictional, in the sense that it seemed as if Ramer had actually 'been there', in the world he described. Later, Ramer reveals that this is true - he has actually visited this other planet, in reality - but in a dream.

If we suppose that Tolkien was writing this episode based-upon an actual occurrence in an Inklings meeting, which seems likely; what story of Tolkien's might it refer to?

The most obvious example is beginning of the unfinished novel The Lost Road (posthumously published in 1987 as Volume Five of The History of Middle Earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien). The Lost Road fragment was originally (probably) written during 1936-7 (in November of 1937 a version was submitted to Unwin publishers, but rejected).

However, Tolkien had clearly been looking again at The Lost Road before embarking upon The Notion Club Papers; because in a letter to Unwin of 21 July 1946, after setting aside the NCPs, he wrote that the NCPs (not named) had involved 'taking up in an entirely different frame and setting what little had any value in the inchoate Lost Road (which I once had the impudence to show you..."

It therefore seeks likely, indeed probable, that the Notion Club's response to Ramer's story contains echoes of the Inklings's response to The Lost Road - which is (in the fragment) set primarily in Numenor, set within a modern 'frame'.

My assumption is that - before embarking upon the major re-write that constitutes the NCPs; Tolkien will have read-out his c eight-year-old Lost Road story to The Inklings to gather feedback and critical comment. If so, it is plausible that the Inklings found the Numenor sections of Lost Road to be very convincing, as real as if Tolkien had 'actually' been there; but found the introductory modern chapters comparatively rather dull and a contrived method of getting-to Numenor and back again.

However, in The Lost Road the link between the frame and the main story - which involves a transition of both time and space from modern England to Numenor (located, like Atlantis, somewhere in what is now the mid-Atlantic) and deep into the past. However, a difference is that this transition is described in terms of a dream, and not by the use of any kind of technological apparatus such as a time-and-space-ship; which we gather is how Ramer described his transition.

Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to imagine that when Tolkien read the first draft of the beginning of Notion Club Papers to the Inklings (which we know he did, from an entry in Warnie Lewis's diary); he was probably getting chuckles of recognition as Inklings recalled their mixed response to hearing The Lost Road.   

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Is Howard Shore's music the very best thing about the Lord of the Rings Movies (which are, themselves, among the very best movies ever)

Just asking.

Because I can hardly listen to the soundtrack without tearing-up, again and again. No other film score has ever affected me this way.

Now, of course, the impact of the music is aided by my memories of Tolkien's original book (my favourite of all books); and by the marvellous scenes that the movie has in its best moments (which are many); but a very large proportion of what is best about the movies is indeed in the soundtrack.

Shore's is the only music I have ever found which, at times, really captures the spirit of Lord of the Rings; and I have been looking for such music more than forty years...


Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Tolkien and Barfield, Fantasy and Imagination - unexplored links

The fact that Owen Barfield did not enjoy The Lord of the Rings is evidence of a lack of empathy with Tolkien's work; and indeed I have not found any serious engagement of Barfield with Tolkien in any of the writings or interviews.

Barfield was, of course, at least superficially familiar with Tolkien's ideas - but I get no sense of Barfield having grappled-with Tolkien's theoretical writing - certainly not in the way that he did with the work of CS Lewis. I am thinking particularly of the essay Lewis, Truth and Imagination (in the 1989 collection Owen Barfield on CS Lewis). Specifically, Barfield here notes that Lewis - for all his manyfold use and advocacy of Imagination - never developed an explicit theory of Imagination.

Yet for Barfield a theory of Imagination, and in particular of how Imagination may lead to 'real' knowledge, is very much needed now; as it has been since the time of Coleridge's brief but highly suggestive work on the subject in the early 1800s.

However, in contrast to Lewis, a theory of Imagination was precisely what Tolkien actually did develop - in his definition and defence of Fantasy in the famous essay On Fairy Stories. Barfield certainly knew this essay at some level; since he was one of the other contributors to Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947), where On Fairy Stories was originally published.

What Barfield (apparently) missed, was that Tolkien’s argument about Recovery contains, with different terminology, a theory of Imagination; and the seeds of a much more powerful explanation of Fairy Tale/ Fantasy providing actual knowledge, and being more real than (so-called) ‘real life’.

Serious readers already know that Fantasy or Fairy Tale (done well) feels much realler than 'real life'; but what is so-far lacking, is an explanation for why and how this deep conviction may be factually true.

Tolkien’s argument concerning the truth of Faerie focuses on the possibility of what he terms Recovery. The idea is that Fairy Stories (or Fantasy) include both magic, wonder, the fantastic - and also entail the creation of a different, complex but internally-consistent world. Tolkien therefore describes the Fantasy author as a subcreator - the maker of a wonder-full-and-coherent Secondary world within the Primary (and divinely-created) world.

The reader's imaginative inhabiting of this magical 'Secondary world' is what allows a refreshment of our appreciation; and this the Recovery (in Imagination) is what Barfield would have termed Participation.

Participation is the state of being in the world, an undivided reality, which we all knew as children; and which also characterised earlier, especially tribal, types of human society. In this form it was an un-self-conscious and immersive Original Participation. Participation was simply how-things-are and accepted as such - we participate quite spontaneously - and without and freedom of choice - simply because we experience ourselves as part of the greater totality.

But successful Fantasy is an example of what Barfield termed Final Participation; a free, chosen, self-conscious, self-aware and (yet!) real participation with the world that takes place in Thinking: specifically in Imagination.

In Final Participation we choose to have a relationship with the world, and all that makes-up the world: the divine, our own thoughts (as distinct from the 'self- behind them), other people, animals, plants landscape, made things...

The contrast is that with Original Participation we are simply IN the world and unaware of a distinction between us and it; while with Final Participation we have full analytic knowledge of all distinctions yet experience the reality of loving relationships that makes everything cohere - cohere lovingly precisely because things are distinct.

(Final Participation is made possible by Love; which is freely chosen; and this is why Final Participation is ultimately a Christian concept - made possible by the work of Jesus Christ.)

From Fantasy as Tolkien said - and by the power of Imagination, as Barfield might have added - we come to appreciate the realities of our (primary, 'real life') world, but refreshed because we have come across familiar basics such as men and women, bread, stone, trees... in the magical and coherent context of a Secondary world.

The key to the value of Fantasy – here and now – is its contrast with the modern world: Modern ‘reality’ is most deficient in the most important aspects of Life. We are alienated from the world - our Self is cut-off from experienced relationships with anything else: nihilistic solipsism is a constant threat.

And this is ever more so, because modern reality is, mostly and ever-increasingly, a mass media-generated ‘virtual’ kind of reality. Thus modern ‘Primary’ reality is deficient in terms of lacking destiny, meaning and purpose for Life; in its ignorance, denial, or blind terror of ageing and death; in terms of regarding the Human Condition as a mixture of mechanical determinism and random chaos; in its regarding of the major virtues of Love and Courage as mere products of social-conditioning and evolution; and its understanding that Tolkien’s joyful ‘eucatastrophe’ – the unexpected ‘turn’ of events in a Fairy Story that snatches the Happy Ending from apparently-inevitable defeat – as merely statistical coincidence…

Fantasy may indeed be our only sustained experience in which these real-realities are encountered.

But how is it that Fantasy may be able to supply what the Primary word so horribly lacks? Our imaginative participation in an internally consistent world of wonders, provides us with stimuli, with perceptions, that do not automatically get plugged-into the subversive and inverting theories of modernism.

The magic and wonders of Fantasy quite naturally and spontaneously attach themselves to our built-in, universal concepts – those mythic understandings and interpretations of the ‘collective unconscious’, or our shared divine-endowments. And it is these universal concepts which enable us to apprehend and share reality.

These interpretative idea I have drawn from the early philosophical work of Rudolf Steiner - especially A Philosophy of Freedom; which Barfield knew deeply and regarded as of primary importance. I can only presume that Barfield's lack of sympathy with Tolkien's world view was what (apparently) prevented him from perceiving that Tolkien's theory of imagination could easily and quite naturally be completed by Steiner's and Barfield's 's insights into the nature of 'Thinking about Thinking' (to use a phrase of Barfield's, descriptive of what he did).

If Barfield had 'joined forces' with Tolkien (in an intellectual sense) - I think they could have provided - 70 years ago - a clear and comprehensible theory of imagination, including an explanation of how Fairy Story may yield real knowledge.

And this is a theory which can be, and indeed has been, tested by many millions of readers of Tolkien, Lewis; and other great fantasy worlds such as are subcreated in The Wind in the Willows, Narnia Chronicles, Watership Down, and Harry Potter - to mention only a few of my personal favourites.

These I know, from experience, to be real-and-true; what was previously lacking was only an explanation for how this might plausibly 'work'. Barfield and Tolkien, taken together, seem to provide a satisfactory answer.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Heaven and the Human Condition in ‘The Marring of Men’ (‘The debate of Finrod and Andreth)

By Bruce G Charlton. The Chronicle of the Oxford University C.S. Lewis Society, 2008; Vol 5, Issue 3: 20-29


The Argument from Desire

One of C.S. Lewis’s most famous arguments in support of Christianity is that the instinctive but otherworldly yearning emotion of ‘joy’ (in German, Sehnsucht) implies that there exists some means of satisfying this urge; otherwise humans would not experience it.

This is sometimes termed the ‘argument from desire’. In brief, it states that because humans profoundly and spontaneously desire something not of this world, the experience suggests the reality of the supernatural. Lewis used the argument in many of his best known Christian writings. In Mere Christianity, he argues that ‘[i]f I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world’. In ‘The Weight of Glory’, he notes that ‘we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy’. And in the autobiographical Surprised by Joy, he comments that ‘[i]n a sense, the central story of [his] life is about nothing else’.

But Lewis is not the only among his friends to formulate an argument from desire. Perhaps the idea’s most powerful and compelling exposition can be found in a little-known and recently-published (1993) story by Lewis’ great friend J.R.R. Tolkien; a tale which was written in about 1959 and appears in the middle of Volume X of The History of Middle-earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien and published in twelve volumes between 1983 and 1996 [1]. Since The History of Middle-earth is read only by Tolkien scholars and enthusiasts, this wonderful dialogue is at present little known or discussed.

It is, of course, no coincidence that both Lewis and Tolkien should write of the argument from desire, since Lewis’s own conversion to Christianity was shaped by this argument: both Tolkien and Hugo Dyson used it in the famous late night conversation of September 1929 on Addison’s Walk in Magdalen College – an event which was recorded by both Lewis and Tolkien. Tolkien’s epistolary poem ‘Mythopoeia’ (addressed to Lewis) outflanks the counter-argument that this is mere wishful thinking or day-dreaming by asking the question: ‘Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream?’ And Tolkien used the argument again in a letter to his son Christopher dated 30 January 1945, in reference to the human yearning for the Garden of Eden:

…certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile’ [2].

But in ‘The Marring of Men’, Tolkien makes the argument from desire the basis of a fiction – and, as so often, Tolkien’s most personal concerns are most powerfully expressed in the terms of the mythic ‘secondary world’ he created.


‘The Marring of Men’

Tolkien’s story was never formally named – but probably the most compelling of its alternative titles was ‘The Marring of Men’ which I have adopted here . In the History of Middle-earth, the story is given its Elven name, ‘Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth’, translated as ‘The Debate of Finrod and Andreth’. The text of J.R.R. Tolkien’s story is about twenty pages long, with a further forty pages of notes and supplementary material compiled from other writings by J.R.R. Tolkien and notes by Christopher Tolkien.

‘The Marring of Men’ is part of the Silmarillion body of texts, which were composed over many decades, from Tolkien’s young adulthood during World War I right up until his death in 1973. This body of texts is sometimes referred to in its totality as Tolkien’s ‘Legendarium’, to distinguish it from the single volume Silmarillion selected by J.R.R. Tolkien’s son Christopher, and published in 1978.

The situation in ‘The Marring of Men’ is that of a conversation between Andreth, a mortal human woman, and Finrod Felagund, an immortal Noldo, a ‘High’ Elf. The explicit subject of their conversation is the nature and meaning of mortality, and its implications for the human condition – a subject which is probably the most fundamental of all religious topics, and which is certainly the single main interest and underlying theme of most of Tolkien’s fiction, including The Lord of the Rings. The implicit subject of the conversation is original sin and the fallen nature of Man – which is why the title ‘The Marring of Men’ seems appropriate.

But the conversation between Andreth and Finrod is not simply an abstract philosophical debate: It is fuelled both by world events and by personal experiences. The protagonists are aware of the imminent prospect of Middle-earth being irrevocably overrun and permanently destroyed by Morgoth. (The selfishness and assertive pride of Morgoth, the corrupt Vala or ‘fallen angel’ analogous to the Christian devil, are the primary origin of evil in Tolkien’s world.)

The personal element comes from the fact that the now middle-aged woman Andreth had fallen mutually in love with Finrod’s brother Aegnor in her youth, and had wished to marry the immortal Elf; but she was ultimately rejected by the Elf, who left to follow the call of duty and fight in the (believed hopeless) wars against Morgoth. It emerges during the conversation that Aegnor’s most compelling reason for rejecting Andreth was that he did not want love to turn to pity at her advancing age, infirmity and ultimate mortality – but (in Elven fashion) wished to preserve a memory of perfect love unstained by pity.

The ‘marring’ referred to in the title is mortality. The first question is whether Men were created mortal, or whether Men were originally immortal but lapsed into mortality due to some event analogous to original sin.


Immortal Elves and Mortal Men

While mortality is a universal feature of the human condition as we know it in the primary world, the Elven presence in Tolkien’s secondary world brings to this debate a contrast unavailable in human history. Tolkien asks in which ways the issue of mortality would be sharpened and made inescapable if mortal Men found themselves living alongside immortal Elves – creatures who, while they can be killed, do not die of age or sickness, and, if killed, can be reincarnated or remain as spirits within the world.

Tolkien’s Elves are fundamentally the same species as Men – both are human in the biological sense that Men and Elves can intermarry and reproduce to have viable offspring (who are then offered the choice whether to become immortal Elves or mortal Men). Elves are also religious kin to Men in that both are ‘children’ of the one God (Elves having been created first). But Elves seem, at the time of this story, to be superior to Men, in that Elves are immortal in the sense defined above. Elves do not suffer illness; they are more intelligent (‘wise’) than men, more beautiful, more knowledgeable and more artistic; Elves also have a much more vivid, lasting and accurate memory than Men.

The question arises in the secondary world: If Elves are immortal and generally superior in abilities, what is the function of Men? Why did Eru (the ‘One’ God) create mortal Men at all, when he had already created immortal Elves? Implicitly, Tolkien is also asking the primary world question why God created mortal and imperfect Men when he could have created more perfect humans – like the immortal Elves?

Tolkien’s answer is subtle and indirect, but seems to be related to the single key area in which the greatest mortal Men are superior to Elves: courage. Most of the ‘heroes’ in Tolkien’s world, those who have changed the direction of history, are mortal Men (or indeed Hobbits, who are close kin to mortal Men); and there seems to be a kind of courage possible for mortals which is either impossible for, or at least much rarer among, Elves. Elves have (especially as they grow older) a tendency to despondency, detachment and the avoidance of confrontation. On a related note, Tolkien hints that Men are free in a way in which Elves are not, and that this freedom is integral to the ultimate purpose of Men in Tolkien’s world – and by implication also in the real world.

C.S. Lewis once stated (albeit from the pen of a fictional devil!) that courage was the fundamental human virtue, because it underpinned all other virtues: Without courage other virtues would be abandoned as soon as this became expedient:

"Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky." [3]

At any rate, courage seems to be one virtue in which the best of Tolkien’s mortal Men seem to excel.


The Fall of Men

The first question is whether Tolkien’s One God ‘Eru’ originally created immortal Men, who had been ‘marred’ and made mortal by the time of Andreth (and, by implication, our time). This is Andreth’s first view – the mortal woman suspects that Men were meant to be immortal but have been punished with mortality:

‘[T]he Wise among men say: “We were not made for death, nor born ever to die. Death was imposed upon us.” And behold! the fear of it is with us always, and we flee from it ever as the hart from the hunter’ [4].

‘We may have been mortal when first we met the Elves far away, or maybe we were not.... But already we had our lore, and needed none from the Elves: we knew that in our beginning we had been born never to die. And by that, my lord, we meant: born to life everlasting, without any shadow of an end’ [5].

Naturally, this prompts the Christian reader to think of parallels with the Fall of Man and original sin; and this analogy is clearly intended by Tolkien.

Andreth talks of a rumour she has heard from the wise men and women among her ancestors, that perhaps in the past Men committed a terrible but undefined act which was the cause of this marring. The implication, never made fully clear, is that Men in their freedom may have deviated from their original role as conceived by ‘the One’, and been corrupted or intimidated into worshipping Morgoth, or at least into doing his will and in some way serving his purposes. This, it is suggested, may be the cause of Men’s mortality as such, along with a progressive shortening of their lifespan and a permanent dissatisfaction and alienation from the world they inhabit and even their own bodies. In the dialogue, Finrod asks:

‘[W]hat did ye do, ye men, long ago in the dark? How did ye anger Eru?... Will you not say what you know or have heard?’

‘I will not’, said Andreth. ‘We do not speak of this to those of other race. But indeed the Wise are uncertain and speak with contrary voices; for whatever happened long ago, we have fled from it; we have tried to forget, and so long we have tried that now we cannot remember any time when we were not as we are’ [6].


Men’s Lifespan

By contrast to their uncertainty about the origin of mortality, the decline in mortal lifespan caused by Morgoth’s corruption of the world seems certain to both Andreth and Finrod. Later in Tolkien’s history, those Men who help defeat Morgoth are rewarded with a lifespan of about three times Men’s usual maximum, i.e. about 300 years; greater strength, intelligence and height; and a safe island off the coast of Middle-earth on which to dwell (Numenor, Tolkien’s Atlantis).

It seems possible that the enhancements of ‘Numenorean’ Men are simply a restoration of the original condition of Men. Or it may be that these enhancements are compensations of Elvenness, rendering Men more Elven (though still mortal), perhaps with the ultimate aim of a unification of Elves and Men. At any rate, the majority of Numenoreans eventually succumb to corruption and evil, and are destroyed by Eru in a massive reshaping of the world, which drowns the island and the vast Numenorian navy that is landing on the shores of the undying lands.

For Tolkien, it is a characteristic sin of Men to cling to life, and it is this clinging which corrupts the mortal but long-lived Numenoreans who try to invade the undying lands – either in the mistaken belief that they will become immortal by dwelling there, or with the intention to compel the Valar to grant them immortal life.

While Men are characteristically tempted to elude mortality – to stop change in themselves – the almost-unchanging Elves are tempted to try to stop change in the world – to embalm beauty in perfection. This Elven sin is related to the first tragedy of the Silmarillion, when ultimate beauty – the light of the primordial trees – is captured in three jewels; and it later leads to the creation of the Rings of Power, which are able to slow time almost to a stop, and thereby to arrest the pollution and wearing-down of Middle-earth.

As well as having an increased lifespan, Numenoreans surrender their lives voluntarily at the appropriate time, and before suffering the extreme degenerative changes of age. This voluntary death (or transition) at the end of a long life is described in the most moving of the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, when Aragorn (the last true Numenorean) yields his life at will to move on to another world. His wife Arwen pleads with him to hold on to life for a while longer to keep her company in this world; however Aragorn kindly but firmly refuses her request:

‘Let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!’ [7]

Arwen’s fate is tragic, because she is one of the ‘half-elven’ who may choose whether to become Man or Elf; she chooses to become mortal in order to marry Aragorn and share his fate. However, her resolve to accept mortality at the proper time is undermined by her ‘lack of faith’ in Man’s destiny of life after death. In the appendix, she is portrayed as regretting becoming a mortal instead of an Elf; and as having succumbed to the sin of clinging to mortal life rather than accepting mortality and trusting that there is life after death.

"…and the light of her eyes was quenched, and it seemed to her people that she had become cold and grey as nightfall in winter than comes without a star." [8]

The half-elven Arwen has failed to embrace the mortal need for courage to underpin all other virtues; and one possible interpretation of this passage is that this has consequences for her fate in the next world.


At Home in the World, or Exiled?

For Tolkien (and Lewis), the sense of exile is a ‘desire’ which implies the possibility of its gratification; in other words, it reflects the fact that Men have indeed been ‘exiled’ from somewhere other than this world.

Finrod makes clear that Elves, by contrast, feel fully at home in the world to which they are tied:

‘Each of our kindreds perceives Arda differently, and appraises its beauties in different mode and degree. How shall I say it? To me the difference seems like that between one who visits a strange country, and abides there a while (but need not), and one who has lived in that land always (and must)’. [9]

‘Were you and I to go together to your ancient homes east away I should recognize the things there as part of my home, but I should see in your eyes the same wonder and comparison as I see in the eyes of Men in Beleriand who were born here’. [10]

Elves therefore care for the world more than Men, and do not exploit nature as Men do, but nurture and enhance the world. And indeed Elves are not truly immortal, since when the world eventually ends, they will die; and to Finrod it seems likely that this death will mean utter annihilation:

"You see us...still in the first ages of being, and the end is far off.... But the end will come. That we all know. And then we must die; we must perish utterly, it seems, because we belong to Arda (in [body] and in [spirit]). And beyond that what? The going out to no return, as you say; the uttermost end, the irremediable loss?" [11]

Partly because of this prospect, the almost-unchanging Elves become increasingly grieved by the ravages of time upon the world, and cumulatively overcome by weariness with their extended lives. Hence the characteristically Elven temptation to try to stop time, to arrest change.

By contrast, Men seem to Finrod like ‘guests’, always comparing the actual world of Middle-earth to some other situation. This opens up the question of Tolkien’s version of ‘the argument from desire’. Finrod thinks that Men have an inborn, instinctive knowledge of another and better world. Hence, he thinks that they never were immortal, but have always known death as a transition to another, more perfect world – not as the prospect of annihilation which Elves face. Thus, he considers the possibility that Men’s ‘mortality’ is ultimately preferable to Elven ‘immortality’.

But even in this world Finrod suspects that the destiny of Men may eventually be higher than that of Elves. He acknowledges that at the time of his debate with Andreth the Elves are the superior race in most respects; but he can envisage a time when mortal Men will attain leadership, and the Elves will be valued mainly for the scholarly and artistic abilities fostered by their more accurate and vivid memories. This projected role of Men will be related to the healing of the world from the evil that was permeated through it by Morgoth.

One possible interpretation of this is that Elves cannot heal the marred world because they are tied to, part of, that world; but that mortal Men may be able to heal it because, although they themselves share the marring of the world, they are ultimately free from that world through death.


Tolkien’s Vision of Heaven

Building on hints by Andreth, Finrod intuits that if things had gone according to Eru’s original plan, there would have been no need for Men. The first-born, immortal Elves would have been the best inhabitants and custodians of an unmarred world, because their very existence was tied to it.

But since the demiurgic Morgoth infused creation with evil at a very early stage, Eru made a second race of mortals – Men – who lived in the world for a while, then passed on to another condition. Because mortals were not tied to the world, they had the freedom to act upon the world in a way that Elves did not. This freedom of Men could be misused to exploit the world short-sightedly; but it could also be used to heal the world, to the benefit of both mortals and immortals alike.

[Finrod]: ‘This then, I propound, was the errand of Men, not the followers but the heirs and fulfillers of all: to heal the marring of Arda’.

Indeed, Finrod perceives that to clarify this insight may be the main reason for their discussion: so that Andreth may learn the meaning of mortality from Finrod, and pass this knowledge on to other Men, to save them from despair and encourage them in hope.

[Finrod]: ‘Maybe it was ordained that we [Elves], and you [Men], ere the world grows old, should meet and bring news to one another, and so we should learn of the Hope from you; ordained, indeed, that thou and I, Andreth, should sit here and speak together, across the gulf that divides our kindreds’. [12]

Andreth suggests that Eru himself may intervene for this hope.

[Andreth]: How or when shall healing come?…To such questions only those of the Old Hope (as they call themselves) have any guess of an answer.… [T]hey say that the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end’.[13]

Finrod cannot at first understand how this could be, and Andreth herself seems to regard it as highly implausible – a wishful dream. But on reflection, Finrod argues:

‘Eru will surely not suffer [Morgoth] to turn the world to his own will and to triumph in the end. Yet there is no power conceivable greater than [Morgoth] save Eru only. Therefore, Eru, if he will not relinquish His work to [Morgoth], who must else proceed to mastery, then Eru must come in to conquer him’. [14]

The Christian parallels are obvious. Indeed, ‘The Marring of Men’ can be seen as part of Tolkien’s lifelong endeavour to make his legendarium (originally conceptualized as a ‘mythology for England’) broadly compatible with known human history, particularly Christian history [15].

Andreth’s hints inspire Finrod to a vision which offers ultimate hope to the immortal but finite Elves as well as to mortal Men:

‘Suddenly I beheld a vision of Arda Remade; and there the [High Elves] completed but not ended could abide in the present forever, and there could walk, maybe, with the Children of Men, their deliverers, and sing to them such songs as, even in the Bliss beyond bliss, should make the green valleys ring and the everlasting mountain-tops to throb like harps’.

‘We should tell you tales of the Past and of Arda that was Before, of the perils and great deeds and the making of the Silmarils. We were the lordly ones then! But ye, ye would then be at home, looking at all things intently, as your own. Ye would be the lordly ones’. [16]

This, then, is Tolkien’s vision of Heaven, pictured in the context of Arda, his sub-created world.


Myth and reality

The conversation of Andreth and Finrod occurs during a lull before the storm of war breaks upon Middle-earth; and Finrod foresees that the next stage of war will claim the life of his brother Elf Aegnor, whom the mortal woman Andreth loved in her youth and loves still. The fragment ends with Finrod bidding Andreth farewell by reaffirming, ‘you are not for Arda. Whither you go you may find light. Await us there, my brother – and me’. Andreth’s destiny lies beyond the world, and Finrod dares to hope that this is true for the Elves also.

In Tolkien’s legendarium, loss or transmission of knowledge is always a matter of concern. The message we take away from ‘the Marring of Men’ is hopeful. We are called to infer that this conversation has ‘come down’ to us today: that it was remembered, recorded, and has survived the vicissitudes of history, possibly because we modern readers need or are meant to know this.

Just as Morgoth’s marring of the World and of Men is analogous to the Christian account of the Fall of Satan and of original sin, Finrod and Andreth’s intuitions and hopes, Tolkien implies, were vindicated in real history by the coming of Jesus Christ. And Tolkien’s sub-creative vision of heaven, as explicated by Finrod, is meant to be taken seriously as an image of true heaven, in which Tolkien believed as a Christian. It is entirely characteristic that Tolkien’s heaven should have a place for Elves as well as for Men.

Tolkien’s story ‘The Marring of Men’ – though so brief a tale – seems to me one of his most beautiful and profound: a product of deep thought and visionary inspiration. It encapsulates nothing less than Tolkien’s mature understanding of the human condition and the meaning of life. Scholars and admirers of C.S. Lewis, who are unfamiliar with Tolkien’s legendarium, may find a way into his magnificent fantasy by reading it as complementary to Lewis’s great idea of ‘joy’ and his characteristic ‘argument from desire’: Tolkien engaged in developing and completing themes which underpin much of his old friend’s best and most serious work.


1. J.R.R. Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring: The History of Middle-Earth, Volume X, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 2002[1993]), pp. 301-366.
2. Humphrey Carpenter (ed.), Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1981), p110.
3. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1951), p148.
4. Morgoth’s Ring, p. 309.
5. Ibid., p. 314.
6. Ibid., p. 313.
7. The Return of the King (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1974), p. 309.
8. Ibid., p. 309.
9. Morgoth’s Ring, p. 315.
10. Ibid., p. 316.
11. Ibid., p. 312.
12. Ibid., p. 323.
13. Ibid., p. 321.
14. Ibid., p. 322.
15. This is the subject of Verlyn Flieger’s book Interrupted Music: The Making of Tolkien’s Mythology (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2005).
16. Morgoth’s Ring, p. 319.

*

More on Tolkien and Vatican II

Continuing from:
http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/tolkien-and-world-historical-disaster.html

More evidence has come to light on Tolkien's intense revulsion from of the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council:

Worst of all briar patches was what he persistently regarded as the spiritual decay of our times and particularly of his own Roman Catholic church, of which he was a longtime and devout member. The Church, he said, ‘which once felt like a refuge now feels like a trap.’ He was appalled that even the sacred Eucharist might be attended by ‘dirty youths, women in trousers and often with their hair unkempt and uncovered’ and, what was worse, the grievous suffering given by ‘stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests.’ An anecdote I have heard involved his attendance at mass not long after Vatican II. An expert in Latin, he had reluctantly composed himself to its abolishment in favor of English. But when he arrived next time at services and seated himself in the middle of a bench, he began to notice other changes than the language, one a diminution of genuflection. His disappointment was such that he rose up and made his way awkwardly to the aisle and there made three very low bows, then stomped out of the church.

Cited by Bradley J Birzer from unpublished parts of Tolkien and the Silmarillion by Clyde S Kilby, from MS in Wade Center, Wheaton College.

http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2015/07/tolkien-the-man-and-tolkien-the-myth-maker.html

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Mythopoeia - by JRR Tolkien (1932 or 1933)

Mythopoeia - by JRR Tolkien (1932 or 1933)

JRRT for CSL

You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are `trees', and growing is `to grow');
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star's a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, Inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.

At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;
and as on page o'erwritten without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
and endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,
each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.

God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.

The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain's contortions with a separate dint.

Yet trees and not `trees', until so named and seen -
and never were so named, till those had been
who speech's involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh,
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.

Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves,
and looking backward they beheld the Elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother's womb whence all have birth.

The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seed of dragons, 'twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we're made.

Yes! `wish-fulfilment dreams' we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem ?
All wishes are not idle, not in vain
fulfilment we devise - for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is dreadly certain: Evil is.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate,
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bare, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow's sway.

Blessed are the men of Noah's race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things nor found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organised delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).

Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have turned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.

I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
- if by God's mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.

I will not tread your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker's art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day-illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land 'twill see
that all is as it is, and yet may free:

Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden not gardener, children not their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God's picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.

Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Tokien and Lewis - modern Saints? A guest post by William Wildblood

A sentence in John Fitzgerald's recent post set me thinking. He wrote "The body of work left behind by the Inklings has helped re-mythologise the world and baptise the contemporary imagination". I haven’t read much by any of the other Inklings and I hadn’t even heard of them when growing up, but that sentence sums up the effect that Tolkien and CS Lewis had on me as a child. I’m sure they had a similar effect on countless others too. Indeed, I sometimes think that without them (and a few others but them principally), children growing up in the mid to late 20th century would have been left almost completely spiritually bereft.  Most of us had very little exposure to real spiritual truths and what we did have seemed formal and remote. But the stories of these two writers brought the spiritual world alive and did so (and this I think is very important) in a way that not only opened up the imagination but was also Christian.  The world was re-enchanted and done so in the light of Christ.

Modern Christianity often seems like a fire that has burnt itself out. Whether that is because of the paucity of real saints (saints are the lifeblood of any religion) or because it has lost touch with its roots or because it has become infected with social and political ideologies or because it is now more concerned with the letter than the spirit or because it has desacralized itself or because it frequently denies the truth and power of its own mythology and symbolism or because it has severed its connection from the imagination or because it focuses too much on this world and not enough on the next is almost beside the point. (Actually all these things are linked). The fact is it has lost its glowing and full-bodied colours of yore, its sense of being lit from within, and become a black and white thing of two dimensions. And with its truth attacked from the outside and its vitality sapped from within, as well as a tendency to accommodate itself to what is trying to destroy it, it is now in many ways a faint shadow of its former self.

But, as John Fitzgerald pointed out, Tolkien and CS Lewis helped revive Christianity by re-establishing it in the world of the imagination. The former covertly, the latter more obviously but they both did it and they did it in a way that many people either didn’t notice or didn’t much care about if they did, thus getting beneath the prejudices instilled in the modern mind. Furthermore they brought back a sense of Tradition which after the Second World War appeared to have been completely abandoned by all the clever people intent on building their soulless world of modernity. I mean by Tradition a connection to real things, both natural and spiritual, that humanity had established over centuries but which was in danger of being swept away by those, more or less the entirety of the intelligentsia in the West, who preferred ideology to truth.

Running parallel to this idea of the restoration of poetry and imagination to religion was something else. Both Tolkien and Lewis recognized the reality of evil and taught the necessity of fighting it. In a way that’s what their books were all about. At the time they were writing even many Christians were embarrassed by the idea of the devil, preferring to see good and evil in terms of impersonal psychological principles. But our two writers knew better and in this, as in many others ways, they were prophets. Now anyone who is serious about trying to understand the spiritual world knows that dark forces, demons, call them what you like, exist and have tremendous power in this world which must be resisted. They cannot be compromised with. The best way to fight them is through handing oneself over to God and doing his will but this is not a passive thing as it was not for Gandalf or Frodo or any of the sons and daughters of Adam sent into Narnia to help restore it when things were going badly. It requires trust and hope and love of the good, and soldiering on doing one’s duty as Frodo and Sam did even when all seems lost. Pacifists don’t fight and they don’t win either. Obviously I’m not saying that one should never turn the other cheek but resist not evil does not mean giving way to it.

I said they were prophets. Much of what Tolkien and Lewis wrote can be seen to apply to the present day demonic assault on mankind. I'm thinking of Saruman and the Scouring of the Shire (already started in Tolkien's day but now everywhere and seemingly irreversible) or even the whole of The Lord of the Rings, and, in particular, The Last Battle and That Hideous Strength. The Ring can be many things but it is certainly not inappropriate to relate it to modern computer technology which gives us great power but at what inner cost? I also regard the depiction of a small band of men and women of true hearts and good will working with the inner powers against the demonically inspired forces of a corrupt Establishment, as depicted in That Hideous Strength, to have more than a touch of truth to it.


I wrote in an email to Bruce Charlton that these men were probably saints but that they, especially Tolkien, would almost certainly reject that title and look with extreme displeasure on any fool who gave it to them. Well, they’re not here to do so and I don’t suppose they care from where they are now. But if saints are those who faithfully carry out the will of God and work for him on this Earth then I don’t see why not. These two men performed a great work and are surely responsible for bringing many people to and, just as important, keeping them in the way of Christ over the last half century or so. They re-illuminated a light that was in danger of going out and did so in a way that inspired millions. In their stories, and in the case of Lewis, his religious writings, they not only provided lifeboats for sensitive souls drowning in a sea of atheistic materialism, they also gave us spiritual weapons to fight ignorance and evil. My, at the time, 9 year old son said to me a few years ago that The Lord of the Rings seemed more real than reality, and, of course, it is because it better reflects the truth in reality than what passes for reality in this world now.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

The Inklings - Heralds of the Coming Christian Renaissance - A guest post by John Fitzgerald

The Inklings - Heralds of the Coming Christian Renaissance
by John Fitzgerald

I once claimed, in response to a post on Bruce Charlton's Notions, that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis could be viewed as twentieth-century incarnations of the 'two witnesses' referred to in the Book of Revelation. That was silly and hyperbolic, yet my sense remains that the Inklings in general, and these two in particular, were sent by God to carry out a great creative work which would echo and resound and have long-term repercussions for good in the world.

At first sight this might appear questionable. The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books were published in the 1950s. Since then, the materialist worldview, ably assisted by social and economic liberalism, New Age 'spirituality' and post-modern vacuity, has made great strides in hollowing out the deposit of faith and culture that the West still possessed, albeit in diminished fashion, immediately after the Second World War (when Lewis's That Hideous Strength and Charles Williams' All Hallows Eve were published). 

'What use were Lewis and Tolkien then?' a cynic might quibble. One could equally turn the question around, however, and ask, 'But what if they never existed? What if they never wrote a word? What if their words went unheard? How much more precipitous might the decline have been?'

It's staggering when you think about it, the amount of people - young people in the main - who, without Lewis and Tolkien, would have been deprived of such a fine and noble imaginative vision, such a potent alternative to the drab secularism masquerading as freedom which sets, it seems, so much of the world's agenda today.

I say 'seems', because its power base is dissolving as I write. Its hold over the imagination is weakening. Liberal humanism has become shouty and shrill. It no longer motivates, unshackles or inspires. Its future appears limited, and the Inklings, I feel, have played a significant role in challenging and undermining its flat, one-dimensional, increasingly joyless manner of experiencing the world. But that's just the start. The Inklings story will run and run. Because what their writings point towards is nothing less, to my mind, than the great Christian renaissance to come - the 'Age of the Holy Spirit' prophesied by Joachim of Flore in the twelfth century and Nicholas Berdyaev in the twentieth.

The reformers of the Second Vatican Council, to take the Catholic perspective I know best, sensed something of this approaching change, I think. They realised that what had become a sometimes rather rules-obsessed Tridentine Church might struggle to inspire hearts and minds in the modern era. Their (or their interpreters) mistake, however, was to throw the baby out with the bathwater, sidelining the sacred and casting off tradition in a doomed attempt to appear 'relevant' to a Zeitgeist which was already, in the late 1960s, shifting and morphing into something quite brazenly anti-Christian.

The reformers, unlike the Inklings, lacked imagination. Their 'Spirit of Renewal', one feels tempted to conclude, has enjoyed its greatest successes only in de-mythologising large swathes of Catholic life. The body of work left behind by the Inklings, on the other hand, has helped re-mythologise the world and baptise the contemporary imagination. The Christianity of the future prefigured throughout the Inklings' oeuvre is different to post-Vatican II Catholicism. Like the Tridentine Church, it revolves around the sacred and is faithful to tradition, but is guided more by imagination than legalism, consecrating and making holy God's great gift of creativity - the 'flame imperishable' that Iluvatar, in Tolkien's Ainulindale, hurls forth into the void at the beginning of the world to bring life and light to all things.

Let us conclude, on that note, with a passage from Philip and Carol Zaleski's outstanding 2015 Inklings biography, The Fellowship. These two paragraphs, in my view, illustrate and explain exactly what the Inklings were (and are and will be) all about:

Fan fiction, derivative fantasy novels, and sophomorphic imitations aside, it is plain that Tolkien has unleashed a mythic awakening and Lewis a Christian awakening. Tolkien fans are often surprised to discover that they have entered a Christian cosmos as well as a world of Elves and Hobbits; fans of Lewis's apologetic writings, on the other hand, are often discomfited when they learn about their hero's personal life, his relationship with Mrs. Moore, his hearty appetite for drink and ribaldry, and his enduring affection for the page and planetary gods. But Tolkien's mythology was deeply Christian and therefore had an organic order to it; and Lewis's Christian awakening was deeply mythopoeic and therefore had an element of spontaneity and beauty often missing from conventional apologetics.

The Inklings' work, then, taken as a whole, has a significance that far outweighs any measure of popularity, amounting to a revitalisation of Christian intellectual and imaginative life. They were twentieth-century Romantics who championed imagination as the royal road to insight and the 'medieval model' as an answer to modern confusion and anomie ... Even when they were not on speaking terms, they were at work on a shared project, to reclaim for contemporary life what Lewis called the 'discarded image' of a universe created, ordered, and shot through with meaning.


Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. New York:  Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2015, p.510.




Friday, 25 November 2016

The Eighth Narnia Book - a guest essay by John Fitzgerald


But for them this was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle

*******

Theologians of the Orthodox Church talk often about the Eighth Day - the great day of Eternity that will dawn at the consummation of this age, once the seven Biblical days of creation are completed. The light of this Eighth Day to come shines on and around us even now, but our spiritual vision seldom seems sharp enough to sense it. Sometimes, however, it bursts through into human consciousness, the Transfiguration of Our Lord on Mount Tabor being the outstanding example, a prefiguration of the Heavenly City and the regenerated, phoenix-like world to be revealed at the end of time.

It's no overstatement to say that C.S. Lewis's Narnia books played an analogous 'Eighth Day' role for me as a boy. Between 1979 and 1982, from the ages of 9 to 12, I lived and breathed the rich, suggestive air of Narnia. It felt like home; my natural element. Before I'd even read a word of Lewis I had stood enchanted in our suburban South Manchester bookshop, captivated by the cover of The Last Battle - the bonfire, the stable, Jill's bow and arrows, Eustace's sword, and the mighty red lion emblazoned on Tirian's shield. One Friday night as well, in January or February 1981, I had a particularly numinous dream, which saw me personally involved in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, playing my part in the battle to liberate Cair Paravel. Afterwards, Aslan sat us all down in the courtyard and told the most fantastic story, which I was sure I'd be able to remember when I woke up, but which, by breakfast time, was already escaping my memory. It was a bright blue late winter Saturday, and in the afternoon my Dad took me to Old Trafford to watch United play Leeds. We got caught up in a spot of hooliganism, I recall, on the Mancunian Way after the game, but for all the excitement - both the football and the fisticuffs - it's the afterglow of Aslan's story in my young mind that makes that day so memorable.

It's clear to me now, thirty-five years on, that the Narnia stories plugged a huge spiritual hole in my life. Together with Roger Lancelyn Green's mythic retellings (especially his King Arthur book) they filled the sacred space that my ancestors had known since time immemorial but that had been left empty for me by the abolition of the Latin Mass in 1970. And what Lewis did for myself - a Romanised Gael from the North West corner of the Empire - he did for countless boys and girls around the world, with all kinds of backgrounds and all manner of circumstances, and goes on doing today. He is a storyteller and a witness, a prophet and a bard, a princely, and surely heaven-sent counter-presence to the demythologised, dechristianised temper of our times.

*******

The early-1980s, in Britain, felt like an especially intense time to be a pre-adolescent. It was an era of style and colour, but also of riots, recession, and the ever-present threat of nuclear catastrophe. A local newspaper ran a series of articles on Nostradamus, and I was convinced that the end of the world was at hand. I also believed, at that time, that there existed an eighth Narnia book, not a continuation (as in Neil Gaiman's The Problem of Susan) nor fan-fiction, but something on an altogether different level - a secret, hidden text that contained the essence and magic of Narnia, distilling it into a story, like to the one that Aslan had told us in the courtyard, setting off in its readers and hearers a reaction akin to Jewel's in The Last Battle: 'I have come home at last! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.'

I was certain that before the final conflagration took place this book would reveal itself and make its holy yet homely presence felt in the world. I hoped and prayed that I might be present when it did, and often I would imagine our school's classrooms and corridors dissolving and giving way to the stone passageways, cavernous halls and lantern-lit chambers of the Grail Castle itself. In a tiny chapel, I was sure, at the top of a spiral staircase, the Grail and the eighth Narnia book stood between the candles on the altar, waiting for the appointed hour - the Kairos, the supreme moment - to roll around at last.

It's interesting, looking back on it all now, to see how much has changed in our world but also how little. We live, after all, in equally uncertain times, and many's the moment when I see, or think I see, the mise en scene of my current working life - the computers, the drinks machines, the carpeted stairs - collapse and reconstitute themselves into the form and fabric of Carbonek Castle. And I'm there -sprinting through the echoing throne room, then up the spiral staircase, starlight glinting through the narrow slits of windows. At the top I find a wooden door, closed but with a soft and radiant light spilling out onto the floor at the bottom. I turn the handle - push, pull and shove - but there's no give and the door stays shut. I bang my head on the wood in frustration, then stiff my mind and pray: 'Oh God, if ever I've done anything good in my life, give me a glimpse please of that which I've always seeked.' The door swings open and next thing I know I'm kneeling down, gazing into the heart of the Grail's golden blaze as it fills the room and bathes my soul in its healing, transfiguring light. 

There are six tall candles on the altar, three to the Grail's left and three to the right. I see flowers as well, and a flicker and swish in the air like the beat of angels wings. An ancient, bearded priest in green - Joseph of Arimathea himself, perhaps - sits on the right, while three men kneel with heads bowed low right in front of the altar. I can't see their faces, but I know who they are - Galahad, Percival and Bors - the three Grail knights. Standing on the left is a female figure robed in red with a face like the sun, holding an open book in her hands, silver in colour with a mighty red lion emblazoned on the front. She reads aloud - sings rather - in a language I don't know but for some reason am able to understand as well as if it's my own. Her chant - high, strange and wild - reverberates around the chapel and I recognise and remember what it is she's singing - the long lost story, no less - the story Aslan told us in the courtyard, the selfsame tale, I realise now, that Lucy read in the Magician's Book in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the one about the cup and the sword and the tree and the green hill, the one she rates as the loveliest she's ever read and that Aslan promises to  tell her again and again for ever and ever.

Over-excited and carried away, I scramble up and dash into the room, arms outstretched. But a puff of wind laced with flame blinds and singes my eyes, and I'm ushered out of the room by a host of invisible hands and bundled down the stairs. Darkness engulfs me and when I come to I'm somewhere else altogether. A fresh, briny, morning smell, probes and pushes my mind awake. I'm met by lapping waves in front, white cliffs behind, and a canopy of pale blue, seagull-flecked sky high above. There's sand beneath me, rough and bristly to the touch. I stumble to my feet. The sun, rising behind the cliffs looks huge, five or six times its normal size. That's when the other smell hits me - familiar and reassuring - the smell of breakfast - fresh coffee and roasting fish. Something catches my eye, small and bright, towards the sea and to my right. It's a lamb, tending a cooking fire  and a burnished bronze coffee bowl. 'Come and have breakfast,' he says in his milky voice.

'This is all a dream,' I say to myself. 'Like the one I had about the fight at Cair Paravel when I was a kid.' I look behind me again, fully expecting to see the big sun vanished and the fixtures and fittings of the office restored to their habitual reality. But no, it's still there, even bigger than before if anything. I can look straight at it too, without even needing to shield my eyes.

I crouch down, pick up a fistful of sand - spiky and spongy at the same time - and watch it trickle down and stick to my fingers. It's unmistakably real. And there's a brightness in the air and on the ground and a joy in my heart which assures me that this is no dream. Then I start to understand. The dream, in fact, is over. This is the morning. The dawn. The Eighth Day has begun.

I stand up, turn and face the sea, and walk towards the Lamb.




Tuesday, 8 November 2016

That Hideous Strength - A delightful and insightful review by Felix Kent

From http://the-toast.net/2014/07/14/that-hideous-strength/
(Note: Felix Kent is a woman -- the only woman I have heard-of named Felix)

“The same girl who had first let her in had apparently just opened the door and was still standing in the doorway. Jane now conceived for her that almost passionate admiration which women, more often than is supposed, feel for other women whose beauty is not of their own type. It would be nice, Jane thought, to be like that — so straight, so forthright, so valiant, so fit to be mounted on a horse, and so divinely tall.”

–From That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis

I can’t have been more than ten when I went through my copy of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes with a bottle of Wite-Out and felt pen, determined to, at any point when Petrova’s appearance was mentioned, change the text. In the book, or at least in my mind, she was ugly, and not in the ugly-duckling way of so many children’s book characters (Sylvia’s views on her interesting looks notwithstanding), but straightforwardly un-pleasing to look at.

She was also the only character available for me to identify with. I lacked the talents of Posy and the charm of Pauline. And I was damned if I was going to think of myself as ugly.

I did not finish this task, being lazy and also left-handed and not able to write small enough in the book to make it look nice, which drove me nuts.

In my early teens I read C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. I loved Out of the Silent Planet. Perelandra I found too anxiety-provoking to really enjoy; I can’t handle books where the drama comes from one character hovering for much of the book on the verge of making a terrible mistake.

“Don’t read That Hideous Strength,” my mother said. My mother is a great C.S. Lewis fan, also a believer, in the religious sense. One of my best sources for what to read. And a woman who grew up in the Fifties and became an academic. Became, like Ransom, the trilogy’s main character, a philologist.

“Why not?” I said. I don’t think my mother used the word “yucky” in her reply, but that was more or less what she meant.

I went ahead and read the book anyway. It’s my favorite of the series; it’s probably the C.S. Lewis book closest to my heart, in that it’s the one that I think about the most when I’m not intentionally thinking about anything.

I am not one of those people who have read all of C.S. Lewis; I tell you that because you may be one of the people who has. I’ve read the Narnia books, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and the Space Trilogy. I read bits and pieces of Till We Have Faces, which my mother says is the best. I saw the movie Shadowlands, and I cried and I cried and I cried.

I am not pretending to expertise here.

It’s my favorite despite the fact that Jane, the main character, is not altogether a likeable female character. She condescends to Ivy, whose husband is in jail, and Mrs. Dimble, who is Christian and does not pretend to academic attainment. (Jane is a graduate student who has recently married an academic.) Also she is not as smart as she thinks she is.

I like it partly because it is so painstakingly accurate in so many things. This, for example, is the single best description of looking at things from a moving vehicle that I’ve ever read:

And in between the stations things flitted past, so isolated from their context that each seemed to promise some unearthly happiness if one could but have descended from the train at that very moment to seize it: a house backed with a group of haystacks and wide brown fields about it, two aged horses standing head to tail, a little orchard with washing hanging on a line, and a rabbit staring at the train, whose two eyes looked like the dots, and his ears like uprights, of a double exclamation mark.

I can’t even tell you how many times I have felt like I needed to get out of the car immediately and start a brand new life for myself because of exactly that phenomenon, and I have never seen it put into words so perfectly anywhere else. And then there’s the coziness that comes from having most of the main characters in a tiny island of safety while the world falls to pieces around them and there’s the toasted cheese and there’s academic politicking leading to the triumph of evil and there’s Merlin and there’s a bear.

But I really want to talk about the dresses. Towards the end of the book, as good is triumphing over evil, most of the non-evil female characters gather together in a room called the Wardrobe. They have been instructed to choose dresses. They are not given any mirrors with which to see how they look in these dresses. Each of them tries on only one dress, chosen for them by the others.

The dress chosen is always perfect, captures their essence. Camilla, who likes weather and horses, wears “a long slender thing which looked like steel in color though it was soft as foam to the touch. It wrapped itself close about her loins and flowed out in a glancing train at her heels. ‘Like a mermaid,’ thought Jane; and then, ‘like a Valkyrie.’”

Jane, who is the main female character, on the other hand, “could see nothing specially appropriate in the robe which the others agreed in putting on her. Blue was, indeed, her color but she had thought of something a little more austere and dignified. Left to her own judgment, she would have called this a little ‘fussy.’ But when she saw the others all clap their hands, she submitted.”

When I read this book I longed to be Camilla, just like when I read The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford I longed to be Linda. Which of course rules me out from being a Camilla or a Linda; Camilla would never dream of wanting to be anyone but herself, a little like Diana Mitford thinking in prison how lovely it was to be herself, but without the Nazism.

The quality of wanting to be somebody else is a quality that Jane has in spades. “Supposing all those people who, from the bachelor uncles down to Mark and Mother Dimble, had infuriatingly found her sweet and fresh when she wanted them to find her also interesting and important, had all along been simply right and perceived the sort of thing she was?”

If you haven’t read the book, and were starting to wonder where the yucky parts come in, this is where they come in.

The sweet-and-fresh business didn’t bother me much at the time I first read the book. Probably because I grew up in a world and family where I felt interesting and important and also it was assumed I would have to get a job one day to support myself. But the part about the fussy dress, that ate at me a little bit.

I asked my mother, trying not to tip my hand, which of the dresses she thought I would have been assigned, if I had been there in the room. This was in the old days, when there were no Buzzfeed quizzes to answer these questions for you, and so you had to open your soul to people in that pathetic kind of way.

She said that she thought I would be given Jane’s.
I said, tentatively, if she thought I might be really more like Camilla. My mother is kind. She didn’t laugh at me. Maybe, she said, maybe.

Not too long ago. I went shopping for a dress to wear at my wedding. I had to try on a lot of dresses. There was no magic dress that revealed the essence of my soul. I tried on a lot of dresses. Some I looked better in than others.

In every C.S. Lewis book I’ve read there are things that stay with me and then there are things that I vehemently disagree with. That’s nothing special to C.S. Lewis — one of my favorite all time books, D.H. Lawrence’s Studies In Classic American Literature has this to say about women:

“The very women who are most busy saving the bodies of men, and saving the children: these women-doctors, these nurses, these educationalists, these public-spirited women, these female saviours: they are all, from the inside, sending out waves of destructive malevolence which eat out the inner life of a man, like a cancer.”

(I would much rather be send out waves of destructive malevolence than sit there being sweet and fresh, but that’s just personal preference.)

What I find so difficult about reading C.S. Lewis, though, is that he really fights any attempt to take the parts you like and leave the rest. He’s really down on that. You get one dress, and you don’t get to choose that dress for yourself.

You don’t even get to see yourself in the mirror once you’ve got the dress on. You don’t get to take out your white out bottle and rewrite things to suit yourself.

And probably that’s also part of what I love about That Hideous Strength. Because there’s always a fascination in having someone else tell you who you are, even when it’s horrifying.

Once I was fifteen and on the shuttle that takes you from the airport to the longterm parking lot with my mother. We were on our way back from Seattle and our flight had been delayed and I was busy freaking out over not getting my homework done. I was whining. A middle-aged guy with his wife across from us looked at my mother indulgently. He said that I reminded him of one of his two daughters. One of his daughters was very organized and didn’t procrastinate and didn’t panic, and the other one was just like me.

I hated that man. I still hate that man twenty some years later. I want to tell him that he didn’t know the first damn thing about me.

But of course, just like Jane, I worry that he was right about me all along, that all those unpleasant voices, some external and some coming from inside the house, are right about me.

There’s not a damn thing to be done about it. I put on my dress, look at myself in the mirror. I think I look pretty good.