Thursday, 22 September 2016
Charles Ridoux essay on Tolkien's Visionary Legendarium translated by John Fitzgerald - A Guest post
Charles Ridoux (b.1946) is a French astrologer, theologian and philosopher, living and working in Normandy. He is also a keen student of Medieval and modern literature, with a particular passion for the works of F. M. Dostoyevsky, Vladimir Solovyev and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, alongside the Arthurian mythos and J.R.R. Tolkien's Legendarium.
M. Ridoux has published a book-length study on Tolkien (Le Chant du Monde, 2004), as well as numerous shorter pieces, such as the essay translated by myself below: J.R.R. Tolkien's Legendarium: A Visionary Opus for the Twenty-First Century. My hope, in translating this piece, is that it can serve to give a flavour of the depth and breadth of its author's thought and help bring his work to the wider audience it deserves.
Ridoux is a scholar of the old school - without ego, loyal to his metier, and happy to beaver away in the shadows, gazing up at the stars like Doctor Cornelius in Prince Caspian, searching the skies for the meaning and pattern so conspicuous by its absence in the contemporary West. Steeped in the Traditionalist thought of Rene Guenon and his school, his astrological labours lift the curtain on some of the deeper realities at work behind the daily procession of news and current affairs.
Charles Ridoux has a profound affinity and connection with the Sacred. We see this especially in his love for The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, and his instinctive response to the richness of Tolkien's religious symbolism. Linked to this is his awareness and affection for what this blog calls Albion and the great cycle of myth and story surrounding Joseph of Arimathea and Glastonbury. This essay, I believe, shows both these aspects of Ridoux's worldview. Any hints of literary clumsiness, I hasten to add, are entirely due to my own shortcomings as translator.
For those who read French - to view M. Ridoux's website and all available articles, interviews and astrological reports and forecasts (including a new one on the U.S Presidential election) please go to www.ridoux.fr
J.R.R. Tolkien's Legendarium: A Visionary Opus for the Twenty-First Century
Once upon a time there lived a man, born under Antipodean skies, who contemplated the Southern Cross the moment he opened his eyes. He came into the North, gazing at Arcturus and the Great Bear's seven stars. Long ago, in ages past, this man had been granted the gift of waking buried memories. It is thanks to him that we know now how Varda fashioned a myriad of stars to celebrate the waking of the Elves at Lake Cuivienen. So, as Orion crosses the purified heavens of our ice-bound winters, we remember Orvandel and the glory of the Silmaril burning on Earendil's brow.
Charles Ridoux, Tolkien, Le Chant du Monde
J.R.R. Tolkien's stated literary aim was to create a 'mythology for England'. The Legendarium that he has given us is much wider and more spacious than that. It is a visionary opus for the twenty-first century - breathtaking in its sweep of time and space; awe-inspiring in its cosmic range and aspiration. Tolkien reconfigured the mythologies of Northern Europe in the light of the Gospel, achieving a fresh and dynamic synthesis of European traditions. He brings to today's de-Christianised, de-mythologised world a high and noble frame of reference, offering those born into our century - challenged as they are by a culture of nihilism and death - reasons to live and to rebuild a society where the good, the beautiful and the true will once more be held in the highest esteem.
Tolkien's Legendarium spans all historical and archaeological ages, reaching back to the Ainur's Great Song of creation and forward to the consummation of this age, the advent of a new creation and the sound of a new Great Song, sung by elves, dwarves and men, sharers of the burden and the glory of the War of the Ring and the end of the Third Age.
These are the characters, throughout The Lord of the Rings - singing the ancient songs and evoking the legends of times past - who give the text its multi-dimensional resonance and depth. The means by which this effect is achieved has a unique and distinctive character. Rather than deploy a deceptive narrative technique to create an illusion of historical depth, the novel's songs and legends guide the reader back to times gone by in Tolkien's own life, to texts conceived and written long before its publication in 1954 or even that of The Hobbit in 1937. We have to go back as far as the First World War and the appalling suffering of the Somme - Tolkien's closest friends falling all around him - to find the genesis of his mythology and the first written fragments of his Legendarium.
The distant ages alluded to in The Lord of the Rings, therefore, were given life many years before the book was completed, but remained concealed from the public until after Tolkien's death in 1973 and the publication - thanks to the good offices of his son, Christopher - of The Silmarillion four years later. It is important to remember, however, that The Silmarillion is, in many respects, a mere summary of an enormous number of pieces - historical, philosophical, linguistic, etc - which have only become available since the publication of The History of Middle Earth between 1983 and 1996, a monumental body of work, which highlights magnificently the linguistic fidelity and skill of Christopher Tolkien.
J.R.R. Tolkien worked independently of great contemporaries, such as Mircea Eliade and Georges Dumezil, who sought, like him, to revive and rekindle the study and appreciation of mythology. His voice joins with theirs, however, in the way he opens up and unveils the cosmic, fashioning a world that astonishes the reader with its scale, immensity and chronological flair.
This emphasis on time - time's elasticity in particular - superbly analysed by Verlyn Flieger (the finest, along with Tom Shippey and Joseph Pearce, of Tolkien's English-speaking critics) reveals the extent to which Tolkien can be heard articulating the pre-occupations of his own epoch, fully deserving thereby the accolade of 'author of the century' given him by British readers in 1996. There are many levels and riches yet to be explored in his oeuvre, however. Taken in its totality, the confidence in life that Tolkien's writing displays and the simple joy it elicits - illuminating hearts and minds worldwide - will ensure that Tolkien remains, for decades to come, an 'author of the century', for the twenty-first as much, if not more, than for the twentieth.
Tolkien conceived and wrote his epic in the context of a Europe devastated by two world wars that stripped the continent of political agency and transferred power to the USA in the West and the Soviet Union in the East. The exceptional character of these two nations - America and Russia - was already clear to nineteenth century thinkers like Tocqueville and Chateaubriand, and it is in these countries that Tolkien's work has been most rapturously received - to the point of excess at times - in the USA during the 1960s and in Russia since the fall of Communism. Clearly, the Legendarium responds to a deep and genuine religious need - particularly acute, perhaps, among those who have been deprived of an authentic spiritual life by political materialism in its various guises. Rather than the 'mythology of England' Tolkien intitially set out to create, therefore, it is to the contemporary world as a whole - fragmented, dissipated and corroded by the acid waters of globalisation - where his clarion call of faith and hope carries its significance today.
This trumpet blast, as we have seen, has its origins in a blend of European traditions. Tolkien is unique among writers in fashioning such a remarkable synthesis: the indigenous mythologies of Northern Europe on the one hand and the transcendent message of the Gospel on the other, proclaimed to the four corners of the earth. 'Tolkien's world,' as the French critic Pierre Jourde remarks, 'is orientated towards a vast synthesis of all the key constituents of Western spirituality.’
Writing at the end of a decade of revolutionary tumult and spiritual aridity, Chateaubriand brought the perennial religious and artistic witness of France - a witness made Christian by the Baptism of Clovis in 496 - to a young, spiritually-hungry audience with his Genius of Christianity (1802). The youth of our era have a similar need for an alternative vision to the technocratic mesh that hems them in. Tolkien offers them the mythical treasures of Northen Europe, lit from within by his Christian faith. But where Chateaubriand rekindled the sacred flame among a people still deeply wedded to the Christianity of their fathers, Tolkien addresses a public divested of faith, yet compelled nonetheless to find reasons to live and to reconnect with the wellspring of their individual and collective being.
We should keep in mind, however, that Tolkien was neither a theologian nor a philosopher, despite his work touching on areas relevant to both theology and philosophy - death and immortality, for example, as well as the nature of time and space, the transmission of thought, ultimate ends and the mystery of evil. Tolkien was a poet and an artist, and when it comes to connecting with the hearts and minds of men and women, it is often the word and touch of a poet that carries more weight than the academic discourse of philosophers or theologians.
Tolkien is widely (and rightly) considered as one of the great twentieth-century Christian authors, despite his creating a secondary world free from any explicit reference to Christianity. The Incarnation of the Creator into His creation is hinted at - nothing more than that - throughout the Legendarium as the 'great hope' of men. But the leading values in Tolkien's world are clearly and unambiguously freighted with a Christian spirit - the focus on humility, for instance, and the decisive role given to the humble. The more politically active characters learn to consciously refuse the temptation of power over the souls of others. This rejection of the 'will to power', whether in the service of good or evil, is one of the principal themes in The Lord of the Rings, ruling out definitively any Nietzschean reading of the text.
Tolkien, we can safely say, is a Christian writer addressing a society which is no longer Christian. He is also a Medievalist and a philologist - an enthusiast for texts often regarded today as unreadable unless translated into a modern language and accompanied by a wealth of annotations. As both storyteller and academic, Tolkien's role appears to be that of a 'linkman' - a bridge-builder between tradition and modernity - facilitating the transmission of Europe's primordial heritage to contemporary conditions. This heritage belongs to those Europeans who have recognised, guarded and preserved the immeasurable worth of their native mythologies. These have in no way have been rendered obsolete by the Christian revelation. On the contrary, the light shone on them by the mystery of the Incarnation has exalted and raised them to a higher level.
It is a highly dynamic synthesis. In The Lord of the Rings, for instance, Tolkien presents the reader with a pivotal moment in the history of the Legendarium - the end of the Third Age and the beginning of the Fourth. Middle Earth's rich and textured history inspires profound nostalgic sentiments throughout, yet opens out finally, like a flower, onto a future charged with limitless hope, the promise of the Incarnation and the coming of the Creator into His creation, prophecied long before in the dialogue of Finrod and Andreth.
The mythological and Christian motifs in Tolkien's work do not appear at the same stage or time, though they do form a continuity. The mythic elements, symbolised by the stars and their Queen, Varda, take precedence in the early phases of the Legendarium, where the narrative focus is on preparing the world ready for the Children of Iluvatar. They slip into the background when the 'Sun of Justice' comes, born at the winter solstice and triumphant by his death on the cross (March 25th according the the Medieval tradition - also Tolkien's date for the fall of Barad-Dur). The light of the sun, though infinitely brighter than that of the stars, does not cancel them out, however, but surrounds and includes them in an all-embracing light without shadow. Christ came to accomplish, not abolish, the Law of Moses and the Hebrew prophets, but He came also to perfect and integrate the partial truths contained in the many and varied mythologies of antiquity. The multi-layered symbolism of Romanesque and Medieval Christianity bears eloquent witness to this.
A key paradox, as alluded to above, is that Tolkien created this synthesis of traditions for the benefit of a world that is now largely both de-mythologised and de-Christianised - a world that has turned its back on Golgotha and Olympus. In the midst of this deeply anti-traditional milieu, a world undergoing a perpetual crisis of values, we observe - to the fury of certain literary critics - the unfolding of a remarkable phenomenon: a Christian author's novel, imbued with Christian values, universally acclaimed by readers who, though they may no longer practice the faith, remain marked by the cultural legacy and imprint of Christianity. While the twentieth century was without doubt the century par excellence of atheism and unbelief, it was also that of the most severe anti-Christian persecutions since Diocletian. The return to the source that Tolkien offers contemporary readers, therefore, is by no means a passive retreat towards an idealised paganism. Here again, Tolkien shows himself as a profoundly anti-Nietzschean figure. In Tolkien's Legendarium, as we have seen, power lies at the behest of those who refuse the will to power - a reversal of Nietzsche's moral deconstruction. Not that Tolkien argued against the use of force per se, but that he rejected force when it prioritises power over love.
Tolkien's Medieval points of reference have little in common (even when King Arthur is referred to) with the French-inspired body of legends known collectively as the 'Matter of Britain'. He believed that Arthur was a Briton rather than an Englishman, and his dream of chiselling out a mythology for England led him to follow his inspiration, in harmony with his childhood reading, in the mythologies of Northern Europe - Germanic, Scandinavian and Finnish. Among these Nordic classics, it is worth highlighting in passing the influence of the Finnish Kalevala, a text which Tolkien refers to on more than one occasion in his letters as the 'germ' of his earliest mythological writings.
Tolkien occasionally evokes, in his Legendarium, a certain high, otherworldly beauty that many associate with the Celtic mindset and its influence on North-Western Europe. We need to bear in mind, however, that this was a beauty rarely found in authentic ancient Celtic culture. This beauty, for Tolkien, is an ideal - see, for example, his depiction of Lothlorien in The Fellowship of the Ring.
This is an element which comes across clearly in Father Louis Bouyer's account of his friendship with Tolkien. Father Bouyer, who was directly inspired by Chretien de Troyes in his novel Prelude á l'Apoclaypse (written under the pseudonym, Louis Lambert), is undoubtedly more attracted, as a writer, than was Tolkien to this Celtic influence - this 'genius of place' - to the forest of Paimpot first of all, (which Father Gillard, rector of Trehorenteuc, helped him discover), but principally to the town of Glastonbuy, its distinctive conical hill - known as the Tor - and the nearby Wearyall Hill, where, according to legend, Joseph of Arimathea planted his staff in the ground on arrival in England. The following morning, the story says, the staff had taken root and grown into a miraculous thorn tree. In his Les lieux magiques de la légende du Graal, during a fascinating discussion on Arthurian iconography, Bouyer highlights the new role given to this mythopoeic faculty by the Christian revelation - to prepare for and anticipate the ultimate hope - the transfiguration of all things – while perpetuating the imperishable character of the ancient myths, repositories of mankind's earliest intuitions concerning human and cosmic life:
These myths, however provisionary and imperfect their understanding may be, give voice nonetheless to a certain dawning consciousness - a watching and a waiting and an uncertain, semi-aware kind of love - which the Bible brings into the light of day and the Gospel responds to - uniquely - by the definitive act of the Creator God entering into and transforming the stream of history.
Tolkien, along with Bouyer, is at pains to emphasise that this revelation was not sent from God to uproot man from hearth and home, terrain rich in myth and mystery for many millennia prior to the Incarnation. On the contrary, it came to open up new perspectives and depths, revealing, through a mythopoeic understanding, unknown and unsuspected angles of vision in the great, pre-Christian mythologies.
The lack of any explicit reference to Christianity in Tolkien's oeuvre only serves to make plain the deep and abiding Christian themes underpinning his mythology. The discreet workings of Providence lie at the heart of his work, together with the turning away from a deceptive worldly immortality in favour of the eternal life suggested by the theme of a new Great Music to come at the consummation of the age. Many readers have responded sensitively to this message quietly and unobtrusively diffused throughout his work. This extract from a letter to the author quoted by Iréne Fernandez in her study highlights this very well: 'You have created a world where a kind of faith seems everywhere present, without one being able to recognise the source ... like a light emanating from an invisible lamp.'
It is thanks to his notion of sub-creation, elaborated in his essay On Fairy Stories that Tolkien achieves such a stunning synthesis between the mythological backdrop which forms the substance of his Legendarium and the salt of the Christian faith which animates it, gives it form and orientates it towards the great hope of the Second Coming. In making clear the secondary nature of his artistic creation vis-a-vis the Divine creation, the author escapes the Promethean temptation of substituting man for God. At the same time, in presenting his oeuvre as a 'creation', Tolkien pays homage to the pre-eminent dignity of the sons of Adam, as shown in Genesis in Adam's naming of the creatures. Sub-creation bears witness to man's dependence on God, but also to the fact that Adam was created in 'the image and likeness' of God. As Verlyn Flieger explains, the Divine Word, the instrument of creation, corresponds (on an earthly level) to our human words, which, in this fallen world, turn so often into mere verbiage. They can also instigate, however, a path of return towards unity and co-operation with God, whether through art - especially its highest 'Elven' form, which Tolkien calls 'enchantment' - or through prayer.
Humphrey Carpenter, in his biography, refers to Tolkien as a 'conservative of the old school' - not a defender of plutocratic or technocratic interests, but a champion of traditional social structures, where everyone, great or small, occupies their place in the social order in harmony and rapport with the cosmic order. One can understand perfectly, therefore, the virulence of Tolkien's 1941 judgement on the Nazis who, far from exalting traditional values, profoundly perverted them and contributed thereby to rendering traditional thought highly suspect to succeeding generations:
I have in this war a burning private grudge against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler for ruining, perverting, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.
Tolkien's unabashed hostility toward mass phenomena and twentieth-century totalitarianism, be it Communist or National Socialist, is especially clear in his description of the servitude imposed on the inhabitants of the Shire in the chapter towards the end of The Lord of the Rings called The Scouring of the Shire. Sharky's band of brigands remind us of the Soviet political of the 1920s and 30s - by the terror they inspire, certainly - but above all by the heavy pretension, at once solemn and ridiculous, of an administrative jargon captured perfectly here by Tolkien's ironic pen: 'You're arrested for Gate-breaking and Tearing up of Rules and Assaulting Gate-keepers, and Trespassing, and Sleeping in Shire-buildings without Leave and Bribing Guards with Food.'
Tolkien's aversion to industrial society does not, however, lead him to become a partisan of a political ecology severed from its traditional roots. He is no 'hippy'; no counter-cultural leftist. Tolkien's critique of the modern world is not founded on a call to subversion, but rather on an invitation to rediscover the path of tradition, stemming from the dual European heritage of Christianity and mythology. Because of this, Tolkien is able, for example, to lionise chivalry and warrior virtues, while expressing compassion towards all beings through the theme of victory born out of weakness, the weakness which gives witness to the all-powerful Divinity continually at work in the world. What is also remarkable in Tolkien is his profound respect for the liberty of each and every person and his categorical refusal to allow the manipulations of propaganda to browbeat his heroes. Finally, and most importantly of all, what particularly animates his oeuvre is a simple and joyous love of creation. As Elrond remarks in reference to the three rings of the Elves: 'Those who made them desired neither power, nor domination, nor riches. They sought understanding instead, and the ability to heal and create, so that all things might be held and preserved without stain.'
There are the values - evident not only in Tolkien's writings but also in his life, as seen in his letters and in his love for his four children - which we believe can have a positive influence on young people in the current context of a world at the end of its cycle, sinking in nihilism. In the mid-1960s, at the time of the Uranus/Pluto conjunction, the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Tse Tung in China engendered the ferocious Red Guards, infamous for their extreme brutality and by the irrepairable damage caused to some of China's most ancient monuments. Their goal was to destroy all traces of traditional society, and this is how thousands of sculptures and temples (Buddhist mainly) came to be destroyed. The Great Wall of China no less was flattened in part and the Imperial Palace itself in Beijing was only saved due to the direct intervention of Chou En Lai.
The Cultural Revolution, moreover, revealed a horrific will to suppress - through a refusal of identification - all possibility of pity towards its victims. They were stripped of human dignity and treated like animals. Several millions were exterminated. The Red Guards had a network in every school, factory and administrative centre. They seized, they interrogated, they tortured without remorse, installing a climate of terror and picking houses at random to find compromising proofs of deviance. At the same time, professors and intellectuals were sent into the countryside to be 're-educated' by manual labour. A sizeable minority of the urban youth suffered the same fate during the decade that followed.
Today, as this Uranus/Pluto phase reappears, the jihadists of Daesh, Al-Quaida and others present the same explosive cocktail, blending ideological fanaticism with existential frustration. These 'knights of the void', masked and clad in black, these unconscious disciples of a terrible Divinity, fascinate and bewitch all over the world, especially in the decaying heart of old Europe, a continent divested of her grandeur and undermined from within by numerous debilitating subcultures, her youth tormented by an emptiness of soul, easy prey for this culture of death, and going so far as to invoke, with a deadly insouciance, demonic powers who do not fail to respond to their appeal. This was the case, tragically, in Paris on November 13th 2015 at the Bataclan, when the killers began their massacre at the moment the American group The Eagles of Death Metal started their song Kiss the Devil:
Who'll kiss the Devil? Who'll love his song?
I will love the Devil and his song. I meet the Devil, and this is his song.
A few weeks earlier, in a Bucharest nightclub on Friday October 30th 2015, around fifty young people - boys and girls - perished. There, it was the metal group Goodbye to Gravity with their song The Day we Die:
We're not numbers, we're free, we're so free,
And the day we give in is the day we die.
This all calls to mind Tolkien's unfinished story The New Shadow, set a century after the fall of Sauron, where we see the youth of Gondor practicing dark arts in secret societies, perversely fascinated by the brutality and barbarism of the Orcs. Though it is true that in the general downward drift of 'cyclical descent' moments of traditional renewal are possible - the reign of Elessar, for example - these temporary restorations are inherently fragile and always in danger of disintegration from within. Battle must constantly be joined, therefore, against our tendency to slide into ever more subtle, ever more sinister forms of barbarity and nihilism.
Tolkien is by no means alone in suggesting to us a path of ascent towards the true Light. We think, for instance, of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had the courage (his weakness being his strength) not only to confront the all-powerful Soviet bureaucracy, but also to dig down to the very roots of Communist evil in The Red Wheel, his masterful study of the origins and development of the Russian Revolution.
We could also consider the noble figure of Eugenio Corti, author of The Red Horse, as well as the more discreet stance taken by Ernst Wiechart who, in his two novels, one set on the eve of the First World War (Les Enfants Jéronime) and the other at the end of the Second World War (Missa Sine Nomine), shows himself a worthy witness to the savagery of his epoch and also as a true poet of the forest, sharing with Tolkien a deep love for trees, plants, woodland and all kinds of greenery.
The great difference, of course, is that these writers (except for Solzhenitsyn in his non-fiction) exported the turmoil of their times through the essentially nineteenth-century medium of the European realistic novel. Tolkien's Legendarium, by way of contrast, is rooted in a secondary universe of immense vitality and imaginative power - its atmosphere saturated with the marvellous in every page, every paragraph, every line and every word.
December 10th 2015