Friday, 18 July 2014

Review of The Simarillion audiobook, read by Martin Shaw, 1998

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The Silmarillion: Of Turin and Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin.
Audiobook (on cassette tape) 1998.
Comprising unabridged segments from the 1977 Simarillion edited by Christopher Tolkien assisted by Guy Gavriel Kay.
Read by Martin Shaw. (Approximately 3 hours in total).

Rating - Three stars from a possible five.

*

I regard these tapes with a rather mixed attitude, due to my reservations about the 1977 Silmarillion.

http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/how-tolkien-could-should-have-published.html

On the plus side, Martin Shaw reads very well - with a powerful focus and a convincing pronunciation of the Elven language parts. Certainly, I found it much easier and more enjoyable to hear The Silmarillion read aloud, than I do to read it myself (which I almost never do).

In this sense, this audiobook serves a very valuable purpose.

*

But it does nothing to dispel my reservations about The Silmarillion - indeed it has extended and amplified them!

I now feel that there are profoundly alien elements in The Silmarillion, which are carried over from Tolkien's earliest days as an immature writer, when his work was of the natyire of pastiche: I am thinking particularly of the tales relating to 'the children of Hurin' and especially Turin.

I have previously written that I believe Christipher Tolkein made a serious error in leaving-out from teh conclusion of the 1977 Silmarillion the prophecy of Mandos of the return and final defeat of Morgoth, and especially concerning Turin's role at the end of time - thereby eliminating ultimate hope from the Silmarillion:

http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/what-is-point-of-tale-of-turin-turambar.html

*

I reinforce this criticism, and would add that it is alien and almost monstrous to create a book which is about the utter destruction of hope: this is profoundly un-Tolkienian (if we assume that Tolkein true and deepest nature is seen in Lord of the Rings and the other mature stories such as Leaf by Niggle and Smith of Wootton Major).

It feels to me that the Tale of Turin - and the surrounding Children of Hurin material - is alien to the work of Tolkein - and was probably been passively and inappropriately carried over from the Finnish Kalavela 'rewrite' era of Tolkien's youth - and being retained in the Legendarium for sentimental rather than artistic or moral reasons.

The basic set-up of this story is totally at odds both with Christianity and with the way that Middle Earth functions as a whole; because the misfortunes are described as inescapably fated, and driven by Morgoth's specific malice towards Hurin.

This set-up has many, many problems!

1. It is not clear why Morgoth should have such a specific malice against Hurin and his family - when there were so many others Morgoth would plausibly have been equally or more likely to focus his hatred upon.

2. Morgoth (a picture of Satan) should not be able to affect the fundamentals of human fate by his malice; because Morgoth was almost nothing but malice - and if this malice is allowed to affect fate, then it makes resistance to him unnatural and futile; and makes Morgoth more powerful than Eru and the Valar.

3. Hurin, Turin and the rest should not be helpless against Morgoth's malice - when it is absolutely vital - in terms of the metaphysics of Arda - that they remain free to choose, to choose Good, and to escape Morgoth's will. But in this part of the Simarillion, fate is seen as evil, inescapable; and the humans like helpless puppets writhing and squirming against the strings which inexorably control them.

But this is monstrous - indeed blasphemous! - from the moral world which Tolkien created in Lord of the Rings; and indeed in many other parts of the Silmarillion.

*

So, whatever its virtues as a free-standing story, isolated from the Legendarium - the story of Hurin's children, and especially of Turin Turambar - are completely wrong from the perspective of Tolkien's mature works - and should not be included with them; and especially, should not be integrated with them!

**

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy - thirteen years on...

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Thirteen years ago I went to the cinema to watch the first Peter Jackson movie of The Lord of the Rings, and within four minutes from the title I was absolutely convinced that this was going to be a great experience of my life:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhjDnrw34QA

My enjoyment was helped by the fact that back in 2001 I had not read LotR for quite a large gap of years. I had dipped into it frequently, but I had not read it all nor sequentially. Therefore I was not much aware of the many detailed changes and omissions made by the Fellowship of the Ring movie.

Anyway, I enjoyed it as much as any movie I have ever seen. And when I saw the DVD extended version, I liked it even more.

The Two Towers was considerably worse as a movie - badly edited, with a ridiculous 'Aragorn is dead... NOT' addition, and a real mess being made of the Ents - which somewhat overcast the perfection of Gollum.

The Return of the King marked a return to the very high level of the first movie, with perhaps the best moments of the whole series in the charge of Rohan across the Pelennor Fields and Eowyn's slaying of the Nazgul and his steed - and (strangely, perhaps) the lighting of the beacons of Gondor.

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Thirteen years on, I am unfortunately more aware of the bad aspects of the treatment, script, directing and acting - yet I still rate LotR as one of the very greatest of all movies.

Why? Two major reasons: the mise-en-scene and the music.

1. The mise-en-scene includes the design - by illustrator Alan Lee (mostly) and all the other aspects of the visuals, as chosen and implemented  by Peter Jackson.

This was quite simply a revelation to me. For example, in the above opening sequence, I had never been able to form in my mind a picture of Sauron, or a picture of the battle of the Last Alliance in Mordor, or what Hobbiton actually looked like.

Suddenly, there it all was! Just as I would have wished to imagine it, but had failed.

2. The musical score, by Howard Shore, is by far the best music ever written for any movie (except, of course, I haven't seen every movie - or anything like!). It is not just an enhancement of emotions, and extremely beautiful and thrilling qua music; but - especially at the very end - pretty much carries the main narrative in all its turns and closures, in a manner that can only be compared with Wagner.

*

Aside from this, the script, the direction and the acting are good enough on the whole not to spoil the visuals and music - and often enough better than that; with many delightful touches from Gollum, Sam, Merry and Pippin, Gandalf, Denethor, Wormtongue, Eowyn...

But on repeated viewing the faults do rather stand out; and it was extremely dismaying to see them repeated and so much amplified in the Hobbit movie (I could only stomach part one) - where they they were no longer able to be sufficiently compensated by visuals and music.

Still and all - I continue to cherish the Jackson Lord of the Rings movies for what they did so well - for their revelations that filled in where my imagination failed - and for their overall truth to the story and message of the Book.

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Friday, 6 June 2014

Tolkien and Lewis - Juvenile nonsense for immature escapists? Or serious literature for desperate situations?

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From Windows to eternity by Jenny Roberts (1999)

[Scene - Moscow, USSR, 1984. On a covert and illegal mission to deliver Bibles to persecuted Orthodox and Baptist Christians.]

Only the day before, another Russian Orthodox believer, an art historian who had been put into a psychiatric hospital when at the age of sixteen, he professed faith in Christ, had summed up his country by an apt comparison.

"Tell us about the Soviet Union" I had asked this man.

"This is the land of Mordor". Then he added, with a smile into his greying beard, "You are hobbits!"

He was, of course, referring to Tolkien's epic novel The Lord of the Rings... People we visited loved this novel; they typed it out in its entirety and passed it to one another.

They loved C.S Lewis too, his Narnia stories, and it seemed to me that I had stumbled into a land which, like Narnia, lay under an evil spell, where, memorably, 'it was always winter and never Christmas'. 

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Sunday, 1 June 2014

Review of JRR Tolkien - Beowulf: a translation and commentary

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Beowulf: a translation and commentary; together with Sellic Spell. By JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien. HarperCollinsPublishers: London, 2014. pp xiv, 425

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For reasons which others may be unlikely to share, for me for this was the most enjoyable posthumously published work of JRR Tolkien for the past decade.

This is because I was reading the book from my love of Tolkien and my fascination with his mind - and from this perspective it was a revelation.

I should be quite candid and admit that the poem Beowulf does nothing-much for me - I find it pretty uninteresting and difficult to plough-through. I dutifully ploughed-through Tolkien's translation of the poem, except for the bits when my concentration wandered and I was taking nothing in; and it seems much better than the other translations of Beowulf I have tried to read - but still, I didn't really enjoy it. Nor did I really understand what was going on - I could not really follow the poem.

There is also a Tolkien composed fairy tale called Sellic Spell (tale of wonder), which is an idea of one of the 'sources' for Beowulf - and a rhyming poem. These were fine, and I am glad to have read them; but did not make much of an impact on me. 

*

However - it was when I broke off reading the translation and turned to Tolkien's commentary that my enjoyment became spontaneous, and dutifulness turned to sheer fascination.

These notes to Beowulf show, in detail, by multiple worked examples, and as if 'live' and in-action, Tolkien actually at work as a philologist; without compromise and on his subject of subjects - operating from his deepest and most spontaneous motivations. This was what he did, this was his meat and drink.

I knew about Tolkien as a philologist, from reading the superb work of Tom Shippey - but this was the first time when I had a sufficiently large and concentrated dose of Tolkien on the job to perceive for myself, at first hand, what Tolkien was up-to - and how his style of philology (now extinct) operated.

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Tolkien's style of philology combined several activities now separated into specialisms. Some of it was editorial and paleographic - a matter of trying to read a damaged and corrupted manuscript when some words were were lost, others wholly or partially illegible; and where the whole was distorted by later copyists errors (and where the copyist only partially understood what he was copying).

On top of all this, the sheer paucity of Anglo Saxon writing which existed and survived, means that pretty much every word of every manuscript, plus those from related manuscripts and cultures (eg Icelandic) must be brought to bear. So, in one very obvious sense, Tolkien's style of philology is extremely detailed and an extremely close reading.

*

But in another sense, this activity is extraordinarily wide-ranging, inclusive and creative. These old style philologists worked like artists - no, they worked as artists because they knew that they could only do their job via a profound understanding of, sympathy with, the language and culture of those societies from whom the manuscripts originated.

Tolkien's philology was therefore rooted in his deep and spontaneous love of these 'Dark Age' cultures - Anglo Saxon England and the 'Germanic' - Gothic and Scandinavian - roots and branches leading to it, from it, and sideways in cousinly relation. Tolkien himself could only explain this love in terms of heredity from his mother's side of the family, in the West Midlands of England.

So, the whole scholarship as depicted in the Beowulf commentary is driven by an intense and personal concern with Anglo Saxon society - Tolkien finds himself with only fragments to work with, but relies upon this extraordinarily detailed and empathic scholarship to fill the gaps and draw-out the meanings.

*

This explains why I cannot really respond to Beowulf itself, but respond so strongly to Tolkien's commentary - because the commentary reveals that the poem is almost incomprehensible to the modern mind; and incomprehensible in multiple ways, from my ineradicable confusion over all the people whose names begin with H, the detailed genealogy, and feuding based on transgressions which seem trivial; and indeed the actual nature of Anglo Saxon and related societies - their concerns and interests, their morality, their motivations... all are alien in the extreme. The rhetorical conventions (such as kennings, and extreme understatement) are also traps for the inexpert.

Also, much of the poem (and much that is important to its effect) is in the form of references to other works well known at the time but now either the province of experts, informed guesswork - or just lost and utterly obscure.

The modern reader can only really misunderstand and mis-appreciate Beowulf. Even the idiosyncratic charms of stressed alliterative verse would not have been apparent to its audience, because for them that was the only kind of English verse that had existed for many centuries (the traditional of alliterative verse existed in England for much longer than has, yet, the current tradition of rhymed and/or iambic (blank) verse.

*

So for those fascinated by Tolkien the artist, the commentary is sheer delight. It also (and perhaps most importantly) contains some passages of writing in Tolkien's best and most profound style - where his deepest personal concerns come very close to the surface (from pp 349-50):

But the special situation of the English - a people amid the ruins, cut off from their old lands, the lands of the heroes of their ancient songs, and gradually as their knowledge grew feeling themselves to be in the Dark Ages after the departure of the glory of Rome - gave special poignancy to this feeling, and special pictorial vividness to it. 

Both of the passages from Beowulf... are filled with the vision of deserted and ruined halls... "he sees... the hall of feasting, the resting places swept by the wind robbed of laughter - the riders sleep, mighty men gone down into the dark..."

Nobody would have better understood or been better able to play Hrothgar's part than [King] Alfred - who won his mother's praise for... the lays of his northern heroic fathers - and yet felt himself almost alone in the Dark Age, attempting to save from the wreck of time some sparks surviving from the Golden Age, from Rome and the mighty Caseras and builders of that fallen world.

*

Finally, I must express gratitude (the word seems too feeble), yet again, to Christopher Tolkien for his indefatigable work on the books by his father which continue to emerge despite that CRT is now 89. Christopher is the perfect companion and guide to the works of JRRT; and I get great pleasure from reading his words and comments and interpretations; and from the shape he has given the many,  many posthumous volumes he has by now brought to our eager attention.

Furthermore, the love of his father which is expressed by Christopher's editorial activity and by his profound sympathy with his father's world, is a beautiful and inspiring thing.

May God bless him.

*

Note added to explain my non-responsiveness to Beowulf qua poetry:
 http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/poetry-in-translation-why-it-is-bad-and.html

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Why modern man is like the orcs

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Continuing from an argument presented in:

http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/unrepentant-orcs.html

It seems that it is not a case of orcs being inevitably damned - qua orc (they are not born-into a state of damnation - that could never happen in a world created by a good God); but a matter of orcs never, as a matter of fact, repenting their sins.

It is as if their nature and training and circumstances combine such that orcs will never admit to themselves (or to God) that they have erred or sinned; they are never humble; they are motivated (and controlled) by negative emotions such as pride, hatred, greed, idleness, fear...

Such people exist. But with people we can never be 100 percent sure (as we are with orcs) that one of them, one day, may not take what seems the very simple step of fully acknowledging their own defects.

But the difference between orc-like people and actual orcs is 'merely' a matter of hostorical probabilities - the likelihood of repentance being, say 0.1% for the most evil man, and zero percent for an orc.

In practice there are plenty of people who could repent, but don't - don't get anywhere near repenting no matter what happens to them. They always blame others for everything; always see themselves as the victim.

Orcs are simply these people taken to the limit.

How does this happen? Because first Morgoth, then Sauron, create societies of inverted virtue; where evil is the good, ugliness is a positive, lies are approved, virtue is punished - and orcs are brought-up in such a depraved society so they know nothing else.

In other words, pretty much the same as modern Men under political correctness, or Communism - except these are not (yet) so overwhelmingly, monolithically inverted as the societies of Morgoth or Sauron.

So what would happen if an orc was born and raised among good men, elves or hobbits? I predict he would be like a bad man, elf or hobbit - that is to say he would (due to his inbred, ruined nature) be as bad as a bad man, elf or hobbit - but not necessarily any worse.

Would he be capable of repentance? Maybe - in fact yes! At least as capable as a bad man, elf or hobbit. Which is to say: very unlikely, but not impossible.

*

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Why is the Lord of the Rings so good at nourishing the spiritual flame?

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While it is possible to interpret the Lord of the Rings as containing many Christian, and specifically Roman Catholic, symbols and references - this is not obvious, and indeed any reference to the regular, daily partaking of Mass (which was the focus of RC spirituality in Tolkien's day) in the life of Middle Earth is completely absent.

Likewise, Middle Earth has many resemblances to the pre-Christian pagan world - except that there is no paganism at all! - indeed, no church or formal religion of any kind.

And in this respect, Tolkien's world is completely 'unrealistic' - at least in terms of all known earthly and human societies (which have always been very religious; at least, until the past few decades when the Mass Media has taken-over).

*

And yet, the Lord of the Rings is a spiritually awakening, nourishing and sustaining book - a strongly spiritual work - at least, for those of certain aesthetic tastes and a certain cast of mind - as I can attest from decades of personal experience; and as I can perceive from the speech and writing of many others.

How is it that an apparently non-religious work seems to be able to maintain a spiritual perspective in people, despite its almost complete lack of religion?

*

I think the answer is metaphysical - in other words, it is related to the basic set-up of imagined reality which structures the story and the ancillary material.

When people say that Middle Earth seems real - realer, in a sense, than this earth - this is what they probably mean.

It is not convincing characters, nor detailed landscapes and maps, nor the specifics of languages and history that sets Tolkien's mythic world apart from any other I have encountered; it is a step back from all that: the sense that everything fits together in a deep and coherent fashion.

*

And I mean everything fits together - from the individual pieces of dialogue and the micro-decisions of characters right up to the sweep of the War of the Ring and behind it the History which led to that war.

I do not mean that this was fitt-ed together - explicitly or deliberately by the author - but that it sprang from a comprehensive 'metaphysical' imagination concerning the whole nature of reality in Middle Earth.

So all the details - small and large - grew from and within that metaphysical imagination.

*

So we may read Lord of the Rings, at least to some extent, from a God's eye view - giving a comprehensive and detailed vision of what happens and why in a convincingly simulated world - therefore we understand the essential nature of Middle Earth (its meaning, purpose and relationships) in way we cannot understand for this earth we live in.

But the fact that it was written by a Man, and the preconditions of human creativity, means that there is a necessary - although very general; non-religious, non-denominational - spiritual relationship between Tolkien's imagining and reality.

Therefore, it is possible (for those who most strongly respond to it) for Lord of the Rings to work at a very deep, subliminal level for Christians and pagans and atheists alike (and, presumably, other religions too).

*

What effect this spirituality has is another matter: clearly this kind of deep but generic spirituality lacks the power, specificity and strength that a religion may have for a devout and active adherent.

But, on the other hand, it seems that many denominations and religions lack, or are deficient in, exactly the kind of spiritual depth and overview which Lord of the Rings supplies.

And such people may (often without realizing that this is what they are doing) compensate for this religious deficiency - at least to some extent - by a complementary and imaginative identification with Middle Earth.

*

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Review of 1968 BBC documentary 'Tolkien in Oxford'

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ON_dD-LKlCA 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/writers/12237.shtml

*

Duration 26 minutes

In a nutshell, this is a treasurable 15 minute documentary consisting of interviews-with and comments-from Tolkien - all indispensable; plus some very fine readings from Lord of the Rings by the actor Joss Ackland (who has also acted CS Lewis in the original Shadowlands, and performed The Screwtape Letters on Audiobook)...

BUT this wonderful 15 minutes is bracketted and interspersed by about ten-minutes-worth of some of the most embarrassing interviews I have ever seen, made-up of material from (presumably) Oxford university students - in addition being interrupted, and generally spoiled, by ineptly pretentious and profoundly disrespectful technical and editorial gimmickry.

So - you have to watch this documentary; but it will make you cringe, and cringe, and cringe again.

*

Friday, 4 April 2014

The strange opening scene of The Lord of the Rings

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I have read The Lord of the Rings many times over many years; but it has only recently struck me that the book begins strangely - in the sense that I had, in a way, completely forgotten what is the opening scene; or, at least, my memory had placed this scene somewhat later.

The opening scene is a conversation among peripheral-character hobbits at the Ivy Bush inn, presided over by Sam's father - The Gaffer Gamgee; and whose only significant other character is the nasty miller Sandyman.

*

It is interesting and peculiar that Tolkien chose to open his epic romance with such a scene. The Hobbit has nothing similar, since we have seen Bilbo talking with dwarves, elves, men and a wizard - but the book lacked hobbit to hobbit interactions.

So one purpose served by this scene is to give the Hobbit fans a better idea of the characteristics of hobbits - which was indeed the primary intention of LotR.

*

What are these characteristics of hobbits?

Well, they seem - at this point - to be exactly like the kind of rural folk of the south of England that lived around me as a child, and not-at-all idealized: the Ivy Bush conversation has just that tone of spiteful gossip, ameliorated by a loyalty which is primarily to family, then to village, then region, then to the race of hobbits - and which stops at that point.

This is the typical 'peasant' insularity and almost delight in suspiciousness - a determination to be 'down-to-earth' shrewd, nobody's fool...

*

So there is a suspicion of the Hobbiton Hobbits towards the strange Bucklanders 'a queer breed, seemingly'; but mitigated by local-familial connections 'After all his father was a Baggins.'' And towards non-Hobbits who Sandyman regards as 'outlandish folk' - such as dwarves and 'that old wandering conjourer, Gandalf'.

And a suspicion of anything 'above' the mundane and everyday concerns of 'Cabbages and Potatoes' - and the Gaffer pours scorn on Sam's interest in 'stories of the old days', 'Elves and Dragons' and even worries that Bilbo has taught him to reading and write - 'I hope that no harm will come of it'.

*

Tolkien's enjoyment in writing this scene is palpable, and the language is beautifully judged to communicate a great deal on many levels. But what a strange way to begin the book!

On the face of it, and I am sure in practice, it is very off-putting to open proceedings in such an apparently leisurely fashion (in retrospect we can perceive that there is no padding, everything is there for a reason - but that is not how it looks at first reading); with a bunch of genuinely-ignorant yokels gossipping at the local tavern.

There is some important plot and character exposition, but in an almost perversely-unsophisticated way - because it comes via narrowly parochial rustic speech and concerns of the protagonists.

In practice, the scene probably serves as a filter, to draw-in 'people who like this sort of thing' and discourage those who don't; and also it demonstrates that The Shire is no idyll; but on the contrary, aside from the diminutive stature of its occupants, almost indistinguishable from the English countryside of a century ago.

*

Saturday, 29 March 2014

My attempt at a group portrait of the Inklings

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A few months ago, I asked why there was no group portrait of the Inklings - and hoped that somebody would soon have a try at one

http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/wanted-group-portrait-of-inklings.html

Still not response - so today I sat down and had a try myself.

Unfortunately I cannot draw - nonetheless here it is:

The First Ever Group Portrait of the Inklings:


For Heaven's sake - it shouldn't be difficult to do better than that!

So please, someone, do it!

**


Note: What I was attempting is Tolkien vigorously making a point to Jack who is rather smugly avuncular; Warnie looking at his brother with deep affection, 'Humphrey' Havard  apparently dozing (like his alter ego Dolbear in the Notion Club Papers) - and Charles Williams looking partly louche - partly saintly (eyes directed Heavenward).

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Sunday, 23 March 2014

Is it immature to regard Tolkien as a great writer?

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Do I still think, as I did then, that Tolkien was the greatest writer in the world? 

In the strict sense, no. 

You can think that at thirteen. If you still think it at fifty-three, something has gone wrong with your life

Terry Pratchett, writing in Meditations on Middle Earth edited by Karen Haber, 2003. I have added the emphasis.

*

This is an important challenge to Tolkien's stature as a writer and as a thinker - it is, indeed, the crux of the wide divergence of opinion regarding the evaluation of Tolkien.

On the one hand, is a strong taste and preference for Tolkien fine and dandy for teenagers, but a sign of immaturity in an adult - as Pratchett argues from his own experience?

Or, as I would argue, is the opposite the case - that Tolkien is fundamentally a mature taste; and it is Pratchett whose evaluation is adolescent?

*

I should immediately at this point correct any impression that I dislike Pratchett's work; on the contrary I regard Terry Pratchett as my favourite fiction writer alive in Britain today. I think he is blimmin' marvellous. Which is why he is worth debating.

*

What lies behind this is a traditionalist - and religious - perspective; in confrontation with a progressive - and atheist - perspective: Tolkien is himself, and speaks on behalf of, the traditionalist Christian; Pratchett is himself, and speaks on behalf of, the modern, secular, Leftist and indeed politically correct perspective of modernity.

To the traditionalist, progressivism is immaturity - it is a refusal to grow-up (what I have 'famously' termed psychological neoteny); while to a progressive, traditionalism is a refusal to grow up - it is a 'clinging' to childhood certainties and structures.

*

So what we have here is a very profound distinction between two utterly different philosophies of life. And it comes through in multiple ways.

Pratchett is topical and satiric, Tolkien is timeless and humorous; Pratchett is cynical, Tolkien is pessimistic; Pratchett's best work has a female-centred perspective, Tolkien's is a Patriarchal world: Pratchett's world is full of antiheroes, there are none in Tolkien; in Pratchett's world the highest values are kindness, the relief of suffering and tolerance - and cowardly selfish people are regarded with affection, in Tolkien's world the highest values are love and courage; for Pratchett equality and counter-cultural rebelliousness are positive values, while in Tolkien deference to hierarchy and obedience are positive... and so on.

These are two utterly different world views - and it is natural that from TP's perspective Tolkien is out of date, and indeed has an immoral basis which can only be acceptable when firmly placed in an ironic frame - or else is regarded indulgently as a teenage phase or craze or fad - which sensible people grow-out-of.

*

In my opinion Pratchett's work is very uneven in quality - and sometimes very shallow; but it is interesting that the best characters in Pratchett, and the most moving situations and incidents, are very traditional: Granny Weatherwax is hardly a progressive, Tiffany Aching is a great traditionalist, and Vimes's primary quality is decency - a very old-fashioned virtue.

So Pratchett, unavoidably - in pursuit of depth and truth - must include traditionalism and an implicit real-religiousness - inside his essentially modern, progressive, satirical, cynical, atheistic and politically correct framework.

There it is somewhat ironic, distant, against-the-grain and deniable - but it is what gives the best of Pratchett's work the warmth and heart which makes it so worthwhile.

*

Nowadays, Terry Pratchett is best known outside his fiction for two 'causes':

1. Militant atheism - as a prominent member of the Humanist Association.

2. Proselytizing advocacy of euthanasia - specifically, the view that people should be humanely murdered when their lives have reached a certain threshold of suffering, or lack of dignity, or when they do not experience enough pleasure or satisfaction.

So, from TP's current perspective, this is what mature adults believe and how mature adults behave - thus naturally Tolkien is necessarily immature

*

Pratchett is, indeed, an absolutely mainstream, counter-cultural, rebellious 'radical' - in that he has accepted a knighthood from the monarch (SIR Terry Pratchett), and supports medical research charities (for dementia) and is a major contributor to a trendy animal charity (Orangutans) and all the rest of it - all very highly socially acceptable stuff.

By contrast, it would be, in the UK, a disciplinary/ sacking/ imprisonable/ hate crime offence to read-out certain passages from Tolkien's letters to certain people in certain situations. After all, Tolkien was a traditionalist Roman Catholic - and it is utterly beyond the pale for anyone to articulate, never mind to advocate, Christian views in the public arena in Britain today.

*

So we have the usual modern situation that the supposed radical is feted and fashionable; while the views of a reactionary and conservative have become so truly counter-cultural as to be dangerous - requiring coordinated suppression from the state; and a taste for literature rooted in the values and perspectives of centuries is regarded as immature.

To label Tolkien as an immature taste is not just a slander, but also a hinted threat - the threat that if you have not grown out of Tolkien, if you have not stopped taking him seriously, before you reach adulthood; then you are either a bit of a joke, or else potentially in trouble - and if ridicule is not enough to make you abandon your loyalty, then other and even nastier methods can and maybe will be deployed...  

*

Friday, 7 March 2014

Seven books about Tolkien I do NOT recommend

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Looking through my bookshelves I have, over the years, bought several books about Tolkien which I consider to be a waste of money and the time spent reading them.

In order to save others (or, at least, those 'others' who share my tastes and preferences) from the same mistakes, I list here my NOT recommendations:

1. Tolkien: a biography by Michael White - NOT

2. Defending Middle Earth: Tolkien, myth and modernity by Patrick Curry - NOT

3. A look behind the Lord of the Rings by Lin Carter - NOT

4. There and back again in the footsteps of JRR Tolkien by Mathew Lyons - NOT

5. Tolkien and the Critics edited by ND Isaacs and RA Zimbardo - NOT

6. A Tolkien Compass edited by Jared Lobdell - NOT

7. Understanding Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings by William Ready - NOT (except that this one is so bad that it is almost enjoyable).

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Friday, 7 February 2014

Who are the Children of Ilúvatar?

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The usual answer is Elves and Men.

But the correct answer is Elves, Men, Angels (Maia) and the Valar including even Melkor/ Morgoth and Manwe.

These are all the same species or kind, evidenced by the fact that they all look pretty much the same - varying mainly by size - and can interbreed. 

*

So the Maia are known to be lesser than the Ainur, but of the same kind - and the Maia Melian married and had a child with the Elf Thingol; their half-Maia half-Elven child Luthien had a fertile marriage with Beren; and there were Elf Human marriages between their descendants including Idril and Tuor, and Arwen and Aragorn. 

Furthermore, there was at least one probable recorded marriage of a Silvan Elf and a Prince of Dol Amroth. 

So clearly Men and Elves and Maia were of the same kind, and Maia are Valar - so all of these are, it seems, Children of Iluvitar. 

*

Only the primary creator God (the One, Illuvatar, Eru) is set apart as a being of different kind, and outside of the world...

But wait! If we go back to the Lost Tales to try and recover Tolkien's original conception and image of the nature of Illuvatar; in The Music of the Ainur (the Ainur being the senior Valar) we find:

"Behold, Illuvatar dwelt alone. Before all things he sang into being the Ainur first, and greatest is their power and glory of all his creatures within the world and without. Thereafter he fashioned them dwellings in the void, and dwelt among them, teaching them all manner of things, and the greatest of these was music."

And dwelt among them! 

*

So, by joining and building these speculative inferences; it seems to be implied, or perhaps simply assumed, that The One, Illuvatar/ Eru is also man-like - God with body, parts and passions!

So, the Father of the Children of Illuvatar is of the same kind as His Children.

*

Of these various beings, it seems that only Men are 'mortal', in the sense that at death their spirits leave the world of the 'dwellings' that were fashioned in the void for Valar and Elves; thus Men are only visitors to these dwellings in the void. 

After death, it seems, Men's spirits leave these dwellings in the void and go to where Illuvatar also dwells; and this can be seen as a higher destiny for Men.

Men are the same kind as Illuvatar the creator and Father, and share his dwelling after death; and the Children of Illuvatar (Valar, Elves and Men) are a chain of familiarly-related beings, a 'Heavenly' Father with sons and daughters... 

*

The saddest thing about all this is that the family seems to be sundered - with Elves and Valar remaining in the world while Men and Illuvatar will gather outwith that world.  

So, the greatest hope of universal salvation is for a New World, an Arda Remade, where all the Children of Illuvatar can come to dwell again together - as indeed was prophesied, or hoped-for, by Finrod:

http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2008/09/tolkiens-marring-of-men.html

*

Thursday, 6 February 2014

What is the meaning of Tolkien's King Sheave legend?

*

From  JRR Tolkien The Lost Road edited by Christopher Tolkien (History of Middle Earth Volume Five) , 1987

http://www.thetolkienwiki.org/wiki.cgi?KingSheave/ProseVersion

This is my favourite rendition of the versions of the legend Tolkien prepared from various ancient sources including Beowulf, and from his own imagination. It is a very beautiful, haunting, mysterious story.


**

To the shore the ship came and strode upon the sand, grinding upon the broken shingle. In the twilight as the sun sank men came down to it, and looked within.

A boy lay there, asleep. He was fair of face and limb, dark-haired, white-skinned, but clad in gold. The inner parts of the boat were gold-adorned, a vessel of gold filled with clear water was at his side, [added: at his right was a harp,] beneath his head was a sheaf of corn, the stalks and ears of which gleamed like gold in the dusk. Men knew not what it was.

In wonder they drew the boat high upon the beach, and lifted the boy and bore him up, and laid him sleeping in a wooden house in their burh. They set guards about the door.

*

In the morning the chamber was empty. But upon a high rock men saw the boy standing. The sheaf was in his arms.

As the risen sun shone down, he began to sing in a strange tongue, and they were filled with awe. For they had not yet heard singing, nor seen such beauty. And they had no king among them, for their kings had perished, and they were lordless and unguided.

Therefore they took the boy to be king, and they called him Sheaf; and so is his name remembered in song. For his true name was hidden and is forgotten. Yet he taught men many new words, and their speech was enriched.

Song and verse-craft he taught them, and rune-craft, and tillage and husbandry, and the making of many things; and in his time the dark forests receded and there was plenty, and corn grew in the land; and the carven houses of men were filled with gold and storied webs.

The glory of King Sheaf sprang far and wide in the isles of the North. His children were many and fair, and it is sung that of them are come the kings of men of the North Danes and the West Danes, the South Angles and the East Gothfolk. And in the time of the Sheaf-lords there was peace in the isles, and ships went unarmed from land to land bearing treasure and rich merchandise. And a man might cast a golden ring upon the highway and it would remain until he took it up again.

*

Those days songs have called the golden years, while the great mill of Sheaf was guarded still in the island sanctuary of the North; and from the mill came golden grain, and there was no want in all the realms.

*

But it came to pass after long years that Sheaf summoned his friends and counsellors, and he told them that he would depart. For the shadow of old age was fallen upon him (out of the East) and he would return whence he came. Then there was great mourning.

But Sheaf laid him upon his golden bed, and became as one in deep slumber; and his lords obeying his commands while he yet ruled and had command of speech set him in a ship.

He lay beside the mast, which was tall, and the sails were golden. Treasures of gold and of gems and fine raiment and costly stuffs were laid beside him. His golden banner flew above his head. In this manner he was arrayed more richly than when he came among them; and they thrust him forth to sea, and the sea took him, and the ship bore him unsteered far away into the uttermost West out of the sight or thought of men. Nor do any know who received him in what haven at the end of his journey.

Some have said that that ship found the Straight Road. But none of the children of Sheaf went that way, and many in the beginning lived to a great age, but coming under the shadow of the East they were laid in great tombs of stone or in mounds like green hills; and most of these were by the western sea, high and broad upon the shoulders of the land, whence men can descry them that steer their ships amid the shadows of the sea.

**


The legend of King Sheave featured in Tolkien's unfinished novel The Lost Road of 1936 and its revised version The Notion Club Papers of 1944-6. Clearly it fascinated Tolkien, and seemed significant.

On the one hand this purported to be history, and Sheaf was listed as an ancestor of the real-life Kings - and therefore a direct ancestor of the current Queen of England!

On the other hand the legend is clearly mythic, and indeed magical.

*

What are the striking features?

1. "they had no king among them, for their kings had perished, and they were lordless and unguided."

A strange situation - a lordless people, unguided? Usually somebody takes over, siezes power, when the king's line dies-out. This sounds much like a metaphor for the human condition.

2. "He was fair of face and limb, dark-haired, white-skinned, but clad in gold."  "he began to sing in a strange tongue, and they were filled with awe. For they had not yet heard singing, nor seen such beauty." 

A marvelous boy is washed ashore, and this unguided people are smitten by his beauty and the beauty of his singing. They recognize him as a gift for their good, destined or intended to be their leader, and make him such.

3. "he began to sing in a strange tongue".

Sheaf is not of their people, he is from else where, another culture.

4. "Song and verse-craft he taught them, and rune-craft, and tillage and husbandry, and the making of many things... the dark forests receded and there was plenty, and corn grew in the land; and the carven houses of men were filled with gold and storied webs. The glory of King Sheaf sprang far and wide ... His children were many and fair... of them are come the kings of men ... there was peace in the isles, and ships went unarmed from land to land bearing treasure and rich merchandise. And a man might cast a golden ring upon the highway and it would remain until he took it up again."

The golden King has all virtues - wisdom, the arts, craft, the secrets of agriculture; he was a great military leader, he was a patriarch with many sons, he established peace and honesty.

5.  "Sheaf summoned his friends and counsellors, and he told them that he would depart. For the shadow of old age was fallen upon him ... he would return whence he came... But Sheaf laid him upon his golden bed, and became as one in deep slumber"

In the mortal world, Sheaf ages, and comes to a time when he needs to return; but he does not die - instead voluntarily falls into a deep sleep.

6. "the sea took him, and the ship bore him unsteered far away into the uttermost West ... Nor do any know who received him in what haven at the end of his journey.

*

Who was Sheaf? Where did he come from? What was his purpose?

In the context of Tolkien's other work it seems that Sheaf was a Vala or Maia, one of the gods or an angelic representative of similar order to Melian or Gandalf (also Saruman and Sauron).

Indeed, since Sheaf had sons, the closest parallel is specifically with Melian.

Melian (although not 'sent' to do this) wed the High Elf Thingol and their daughter was Luthien who married Beren and thereby brought an elvish (and Maian) strain into Men's ancestry - with descendants such as Earendil, Elrond, Elros and the Numenoreans, Arwen and Aragorn: people whose influence in Middle Earth was profound.

*

Thus Sheaf is a male equivalent of Melian - but Sheaf married and had children ('sons') by a mortal woman, or perhaps many women; whereas Melian married an 'immortal' male elf.

Sheaf came from the West - therefore was, presumably, 'sent' by the Valar - to lead wisely and well; to bring prosperity, peace, beauty and good order; and to infuse the blood of humanity (especially the legitimate kings) with the nobility of the gods.

Presumably, when his mortal frame wore-out, Sheaf returned to the West, there to resume his angelic form.

(Rather as did Gandalf the Grey return to the West when slain, returned in spirit presumably, to be restored to his resurrected (?) and perfected body back to Middle Earth - at least for a short period.)

Ultimately, all this is suggested by Sheaf's coming from The West, from his personal qualities, and his return to The West.

*

King Sheave is one of several Tolkien stories when 'healing' - knowledge, beauty, order - comes to a society from elsewhere - from The West.

The return of the Noldorian High Elves is one example. Although a very mixed blessing the Noldor did indeed bring arts, crafts, sciences and beauty of life - for example in their great cities such as Gondolin, Doriath and Nargothrond; or the realm of Lothlorien.

Then there was the return of the Numenoreans from The West to Middle Earth, to found Gondor and Arnor. 

And in Smith of Wooton Major, Faery is to the West of the village; and from Faery comes that which elevates and ennobles mundane life - coming via messengers such as the eponymous Smith and his grandfather.

And of course Tolkien's earliest legendarium (Lost Tales, from the 1914-18 world war) had its origins in the story of an Aelfwine (elf-friend) character who sails to - and establishes human contact with - 'Elfland', Tol Eressea, the island of elves to the West.

This theme and basis for the Legendarium continued through thirty more years, including the (finished) Quenta Silmarillion, the unfinished Lost Road and the unfinished Notion Club Papers - after which the idea was finally abandoned.

*

But, the intriguing thing about all this is that - plausibly, by Tolkien's understanding of such things - it really happened!

King Sheave 'really happened' in the sense that the evidence that it (or something like it) happened is, while somewhat slim and scattered, of the same general type and authority (ancient writings) as 'normal' historical evidence used to establish 'normal' historical events.

No wonder Tolkien was fascinated.

*

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Tolkien: first contact - circa 1970...

*

The very first time I heard about Tolkien was when aged about ten or eleven, when a friend played me a few minutes on a cassette tape from what he called 'a fairy tale for grown-ups' called The Hobbit.

It was from the (apparently?) long-lost 1961 BBC Radio adaptation read by David Davis - who was one of the best and favourite performers on children's radio during my childhood

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Davis_(broadcaster)

Here is a snippet of his voice - although when I knew him it had matured to be a little deeper and more 'gravelly' than here:

http://www.radioacademy.org/hall-of-fame-member/david-davis/

I was intrigued - but did not get around to reading The Hobbit for myself until I was 13, under the influence of another friend who perhaps lent me a copy.

I loved it so much that I did not want to read The Lord of the Rings because I knew that it did not have very much more about Bilbo - I just wanted another book all about Bilbo.

Still, eventually (i.e. after a few weeks resistance) I read LotR; and the rest is history...

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Review of JRR Tolkien audiobook Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Orfeo - read by Terry Jones (1997)

*

Rating - three stars (out of five)

This is a complete recording (on four CDs) of Tolkien's translations of three Middle English poems, plus his introductory editorial comments.

The actual material, and what Tolkien has to say about the poems, is excellent - consequently I have listened to this audiobook set many times over the past several years.

If I had a gun held to my head, I would need to acknowledge that I do not think Tolkien's translations capture the spirit of the original poems - in particular, Pearl in its original language seems to me one of the very greatest of poems in my experience - and I don't think that greatness comes through in the modern English version. Nonetheless, it is very helpful in appreciating the original - and I think that was Tolkien's primary intention.

My major reservations about this audiobook relate to Terry Jones as the reader.

To be brutally honest, he is inadequate. His voice is not very pleasant to listen to for long periods, he has several intrusive speech impediments; and worst of all he is not a good enough actor or dramatic reader.

Jones does his best, and his main virtue is an earnest sincerity - so that I do indeed listen to these CDs with enjoyment. But they could be so much better with another reader.

Terry Jones is best known as one of the Monty Python team, and it might seem surprising that he was even considered for this job. But the reason is fairly obvious in the sense that Jones is a 'professional' medievalist who has published a monograph on The Knight's Tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, plus some popular history (albeit he is a skeptical, debunking and anti-Christian kind of medieval historian - of a sort which would have been uncongenial to Tolkien and even more so to CS Lewis).

On the whole, this is the weakest by-far of the Tolkien audiobooks I have encountered - but it is likely that we will be stuck with this version for some considerable time to come, because I don't suppose that there is much demand for recordings of these works.

*

Saturday, 28 December 2013

A Notion Club FanFiction

*

I was pleased to discover this FanFic by 'shakespearianfish': Further Entries of the Notion Club Papers.

https://www.fanfiction.net/s/9947242/1/Further-Entries-of-the-Notion-Club-Papers

Very well done, I thought - an accurate pastiche of the original NCP style and characterization.

More please!

*

Monday, 16 December 2013

Light on a very strange personality: Review of Charles Williams' letters to his wife 1939-45

*

To Michal from Serge: Letters from Charles Williams to his wife Florence 1939-1945

Edited by Roma A King. Kent State University Press: Ohio, USA. 2002. pp 315

*

I have spent a leisurely couple of weeks reading these letters - selected from almost-daily missives over nearly six years - having at last found a not-wildly-overpriced secondhand copy after a few years of waiting.

These letters are very well worth reading for the scholar of Charles Williams life and works - somebody such as myself; but would be almost totally without interest for anybody else.

*

(Note: Michal and Serge were pet names: Michal for Florence and Serge for Charles.)

The reason for their limited appeal is that there is very little in these pages of letters except:

1. Microscopic discussions of money - down to the level of shillings earned and spent.

2. Repeated and prolonged (and un-convincing) praise of Michal by Serge.

3.  Complaints of misery, discomfort, loneliness etc.

*

There is almost nothing about The Inklings, or even CS Lewis - who Williams was in real life often meeting (with Tolkien, Warnie, Havard and others) for a few hours on Monday mornings (in various places, to read and be read to by Lewis and Tolkien) rooms, Tuesday lunchtimes (at the Bird and Baby pub) and Thursday evenings (for Inklings meetings in Lewis's rooms at Magdalen College).

There is almost nothing about Williams' incessant socialising and conversing with his wide circles of 'disciples', admirers, acolytes - such as his future biographer Alice Mary Hadfield; and almost nothing of his actual work at his employers: the Oxford University Press.

If indeed he was doing any significant work at the OUP. CW did so much of his own book and essay writing (for money), reviewing other people's books (for money), tutorial work and lecturing in Oxford (for money) and around the country (usually free) - not to mention the socialising - it seems that the OUP position by this time was simply a sinecure!

*

So what about the focus on money? This goes way beyond anything reasonable or sensible - indeed, it is an act of self-justification. Williams is telling his wife, over and over again, that he is working to get her money - which he sends in dribs and drabs enclosed with most of the letters - ten shilling notes (that is half a pound), mostly pounds, the occasional two pounds... meticulously documented in terms of their provenance.

My interpretation is partly that these were a bribe for the continued affection and attention of Michal, and partly a displacement activity - by writing about money all the time and everyday, CW was able NOT to write about a lot of other things.

*

What about the over-the-top praise of Michal?

One might initially suppose that for a husband to write wild overpraise of his wife day after day for six years - he would have to mean what he said... but on reflection I think almost the opposite was the case.

What kind of wife demands to be called a genius, compared with a goddess, credited with superhuman powers of goodness, intuition, inspiration and so on; day after day, year after year?... what reasonable wife could endure it?

My firm conclusion (consistent with other sources of information I have found in memoirs) is that Charles Williams wife was a Psycho Hose Beast^, a High Maintenance Woman, an hysteric, an extremely unstable neurotic.

Therefore Michal apparently demanded incessant, ludicrous over-praise, and was so jealous that Williams could not write positively about anybody - not even his best men friends such as CS Lewis and TS Eliot - without immediately denying his affection for them, denigrating them, stating that he would always rather be with his wife instead.

Indeed, I infer that CW was completely sincere in his wish to live with Michal (if in almost nothing else); he stated, and I believe, that it was the only way he could find rest in this life; lacking which his life was always a matter of being 'on show', and with a mask in place, and unsettled, and not-at-home.

Williams really, really wanted to live with Michal - as husband and wife (and also, he very powerfully missed the physical side of marriage - especially sleeping next to each other and entwined, as well as sex).

Yet Michal would not be with him. What kind of wife lives apart from her husband for six years - living here and there, in London and out of it, sometimes with people she loathes - because she doesn't like Oxford? Answer: the kind of woman who does not want to live with her husband, and who will seize upon any excuse NOT to live with her husband.

*

Why this terribly sad situation?

Obviously there were faults on both sides, and especially Charles' previous infatuation with the secretary Phyllis Jones, which he never completely broke free from; plus presumably his weirdly ritualistic 'use' of young women as a source of energy to sublimate into his writing...

I infer that Michal was already, by nature, extremely unstable and neurotic; and the Phyllis Jones business unleashed this with extraordinary and permanent force - one observer said that it made the main topic of her conversation for many years after Charles died.

So there was probably a considerable element of Michal punishing Charles, and punishing him day after day for year after year; but also this behaviour probably came naturally to her as a mixture of her dependence on him with her anger and revulsion at his betrayal.

*

The modern reaction to CW's situation - is why did he put up with it? Why did he not just 'dump' Michal? Perhaps to take-up with one/ several/ many of his young female admirers - who would have been only too willing to oblige.

There are many reasons (including morality) but at root Williams did not want to - he wanted Michal back, and that was the only thing he wanted because it was an absolute necessity to his psychological survival.

Thus the tedious harping on the money he brings in and sends to her, the wild overpraise, the pandering to her jealousy by including many spiteful (and dishonest) remarks about the people he lives among; and the massive act of self-censorship going on in these letters - which represent a real but tiny minority chunk of CW's Oxford life, such that the reality of 90 percent of his waking life as seen by everybody around him including those very close to him; is utterly excluded from these letters.

*

Another factor is CW's son Michael (note the 'e' in the name). It is one of the most disappointing aspects of this not-very-well-edited volume that there is almost no information about Michael Williams (1922-2000) who is a major focus of CWs concern, indeed his desperate worry over the whole period of these letters - but especially the early years.

In fact, CW's evident and active concern for his son is one of his most likeable and 'human' qualities; any father can empathize with this, and it is greatly to CW's credit.

It is clear that Michael had some undefined psychological problems, and also that he had suffered some kind of illness in his teens which threatened his eyesight - and perhaps caused or threatened some kind of permanent problem either of mental handicap or psychotic or neurological type.

But although this is my own area of medical expertise, there just isn't enough information provided here to give more than the vaguest idea about what the problem was. Charles and Michal obviously knew what the problem was, so it never gets spelled-out in correspondence - but the editor should have found-out and told us!

The fact that in the last couple of years of this book, Michael was reviewing books for the prestigious (and paying) magazine Time and Tide, shows that he must have been intelligent and had considerable ability as a writer - yet he is always talked-of as being unstable, irritable, prone to outbursts of bad manners, lacking in application, prone to unreasonably strong dislikes (of Oxford, for example), and so on.

The editor needed to tell us about this - but he didn't; and I can't discover anything anywhere else. Yet Michael seems like he was probably some kind of missing 'key' to Charles Williams personality and behaviour.

*

So these letters provide vital information for the Charles Williams scholar - albeit mostly indirectly and by omission.

For me, the letters demonstrate that Charles Williams is not to be trusted in his evaluations of his wife, since his behaviour is not consistent with his statements.

Indeed, there is very little in these letters which can be trusted because the content has been so selected, slanted and distorted for the consumption of Michal/ Florence: they are fundamentally evasive, and they 'ring false' at many or most points throughout.

*

Also these letters are of near-zero literary value; and this is related to their falseness, and their extreme degree of self-censorship.

They reveal a fundamental problem with Charles Williams as a person, which spills over into Williams as a writer; which is that Williams' personality was compartmentalised, un-integrated.

So that while Lewis and Tolkien are the same person in their fiction, non-fiction and letters - and both were among the greatest of letter writers, from a literary perspective - Williams was by contrast a collection of hermetically-sealed masks (!), and his work is therefore extremely uneven in quality - according to which mask he is wearing; often lacks depth (because of the partiality of perspective); and almost-never attains the heights of either Lewis or Tolkien.

*

Yet it is hard to blame Williams for this; indeed after reading these letters I do not really blame him. He had great gifts - as were apparent to men of genius such as Eliot, Auden, Lewis and others; and he helped many people greatly; but he found life terribly difficult; almost a minute-by-minute struggle to find the energy and motivation to keep going.

I don't know whether many people would have done much better than CW did, given his inner trials.

All in all, I feel very sorry for Charles Williams. 

*

But Williams' fundamental flaw (for which I do blame him) was dishonesty - not by making up lies, but in the more insidious form of incomplete and misleading factuality.

At some point (and perhaps under intense and sustained pressure from Michal?) he took a step into a life of deception, and compartmentalisation; and this infected his work, and severely-limited his achievement so that Charles Williams will never be popular, nor indeed readable outside of a small 'cult'.

To Michal from Serge documents the end stage of this process - but although it was the end, with Charles dying suddenly, during a 'routine' abdominal operation to treat 'adhesions' from a previous operation, I did not detect any sense that his life's work was complete, or that he was 'ready to die'.

Quite the opposite - Williams' life was opening-out, with a delayed flowering and general success - many opportunities ranging from a Readership or Tutorship at Oxford, or a Professorship at Birmingham University (offered him, but turned-down)...

Had he lived, who knows what he might have gone-on to do?

But in the event, he didn't; and we must make what we can, of what we have: which is a lot.

*

^Note: the term 'psycho hose beast' comes from the brilliant 1992 movie Wayne's World, and is self-defining in that context.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Review of the new Hobbit movie - The Desolation of Smaug

*

There is no review of the second Hobbit movie - The Desolation of Smaug.

I'm sorry, but I just can't face it.

I'll take a look when it comes onto TV; and I can use fast-forward.

*


Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Tolkien's stinking Nazgul-pterodactyl in Lord of the Rings (probably) came from Charles Williams' Place of the Lion

*

I was always puzzled why the pterodactyl-bred, fell, winged beast upon which the King of the Nazgul rode should smell foul - since I would not expect a reptile to smell overpoweringly bad.

But I suspect that the idea of a reeking pterodactyl came from Charles Williams novel - The Place of the Lion - which Tolkien read in 1936

http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/tolkien-and-lewiss-annus-divertium-of.html

In the following excerpt it can be seen that the Nazgul's steed is indeed implied to be a pterodactyl (or some kind of dinosaur bird) and also that it stinks.

From The Battle of Pelennor Fields - The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien - 1955.

The great shadow descended like a falling cloud. And behold! it was a winged creature: if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers; and it stank. A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, fingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil. And the Dark Lord took it, and nursed it with fell meats, until it grew beyond the measure of all other things that fly; and he gave it to his servant to be his steed. Down, down it came, and then, folding its fingered webs, it gave a croaking cry, and settled upon the body of Snowmane, digging in its claws, stooping its long naked neck... Suddenly the great beast beat its hideous wings, and the wind of them was foul. Again it leaped into the air, and then swiftly fell down upon Éowyn, shrieking, striking with beak and claw.

*

And in the following excerpt can be seen the stinking pterodactyl making its earlier appearance:

From The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams - 1933.

As she gazed she heard another sound above, and looked up to see the earlier horror flying round in circles high over her. There she stood on the edge of a swampy pool, with the pterodactyl wheeling round in the sky, and one remote companion. ... Her voice failed; she heard herself making grotesque noises in her throat, and suddenly over him there fell the ominous shadow of the pterodactyl.

(...)

It was five minutes to eight. She thought abruptly, as she very often
did, "O I must get it." Doctor of Philosophy--how hard she had worked
for it! The...O the smell!

In full strength it took her, so violently that she stepped backward and
made an involuntary gesture outward. The horror of it nearly made her
faint. It must, she thought, be something to do with these new houses;
some corrupt material had been used. The smell was corruption. Something
would have to be done; the Council Surveyor must be called in. Perhaps
it wouldn't be so bad downstairs. Her window faced the fallen houses;
the dining-room looked the other way. She would go down and see.

As she moved the sunlight that was over her papers, except for the light
shadow that she herself cast, was totally obscured. A heavy blackness
obliterated it in an instant; the papers, the table, all that part of
the room lay in gloom. The change was so immediate that even Damaris's
attention was caught, and, still wrinkling her nose at the appalling
smell, she glanced half round to see what dark cloud had suddenly filled
the sky. And then she did come much nearer to fainting than ever before
in her life.

Outside the window something was...was. That was the only certainty her
startled senses conveyed. There was a terrific beak protruding through
the open window into the room, there was the most appalling body she had
ever conceived possible; there were two huge flapping wings; there were
two horrible red eyes. And there was the smell. Damaris stood stock
still, gasping at it, thinking desperately, "I'm dreaming." The beastly
apparition remained. It seemed to be perched there, on the window-sill
or the pear-tree or something. Its eyes held her; its wings moved, as
if uncertainly opening; its whole repulsive body shook and stirred; its
beak--not three yards distant--jerked at her, as if the thing were
stabbing; then it opened. She had a vision of great teeth; incapable of
thought, she stumbled backward against the table, and remained fixed.


**

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Wanted: A group portrait of an Inklings meeting

*

It seems extraordinary, almost unbelievable, but so far as I know - nobody has yet done a group portrait of an Inklings meeting.

But if anyone could do this - whether a detailed drawing, or a painting; and do it reasonably well, reasonably authentically - then I think it would be used all over the place.

Certainly I'd love to put any such attempts onto this blog - as I did with some pictures of The Notion Club:

http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/notion-club-visualized-by-afalstein.html

Get to it - you artists!

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I was thinking of something along the lines of Poet's Pub - below; by Alexander Moffat - showing the circle of writers associated with Hugh MacDiarmid in an amalgum of their Edinburgh Rose Street 'watering holes' such as the Cafe Royal, Milne's Bar or the Abbotford:

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Numenor as a nation of Elf-Friends

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The concept of Numenor entered Tolkien's Legendarium in 1936 (according to the introduction to The Lost Road, by Christopher Tolkien) - a couple of decades after the world was first conceived in the Lost Tales - during Tolkien's military years of World War One.

This entailed inserting a Second Age into the chronology of Tolkien's world - which was a lot of work and added many complications including a 'Second Fall' of Man - as he called it. The First Fall of Man was a fall into worshipping Morgoth as if he was The One God, and that came before the Elves met Men, and thus before the recorded history of the Simarillion).

So I think it is reasonable to assume that Numenor served some very important function (or functions) for Tolkien - brought something or some-things he had come to regard as vitally important.

So, the question is what was the function of Numenor in Tolkien's world - why did he feel a need to insert a 'Second Age' into his chronology?

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My answer is that in essence Numenor served as a bridge between Elves and Men (the relationship of which is the main underlying theme of Tolkien's stories - taken as a whole).

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1. Geography

In the first place, Numenor is physically situated between Elfland and England (or The British Isles) - much closer to Elfland (Tol Erresea) but a 'half-way-house' nonetheless.

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2. Racial characteristics

Numenorean-Men are mid-way between Elves and Men, share characteristics of both; in a sense Numenoreans are 'mortal Elves' since they combine (almost) High Elven artistic and scientific skills and 'magic' (healing, intuition, far-sight, fore-sight etc) with Man's mortality; regarded as the Gift to Men from Eru - that gift being the privilege to leave the confines of the world after death (therefore with the hope of true immortality, rather than the Elvish prospect of life in this world serially continued, but until the end of the world only).

Indeed, it seems that the Valar may have been hoping that the Numenoreans would have been better than either Elves or Men - the best of both worlds, in effect!

And perhaps in a sense Numenoreans were the best-of-both, at first; although they ended-up being the worst of both worlds (High Elvish power with Mannish greed and impatience...) - since neither Elves nor ordinary Men ever did anything of such appalling blasphemy as to make war upon the Valar in their own domain.

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3. Ennoblement of Men

The Numenoreans were the basis for the ennoblement of Men by Elves - both by blood and by blessing.

By blood because of the infusions from those rare marriages between Men and High Elves - Beren and Luthien (half High Elf, half Maia - minor god), Tuor and Idril, and much later Aragorn and Arwen.

(Perhaps of relevance is the union of a Numenorean Prince of Dol Amroth with a Silvan Elf - but from the rather casual and indifferent way this is mentioned and its vaguely legendary status, it seems that marraiges between Men and Silvan Elves may have been bother commoner and less much significant than when High Elves were involved - http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Princes_of_Dol_Amroth ).

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But also by blessing.

I have commented that High Elves seem able to make a Man (or Hobbit) into an Elf-Friend by simply pronouncing it:

http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/i-name-you-elf-friend-blessing-of-frodo.html

To be an Elf-Friend is to be a partly Elven in terms of certain 'magical' enhancements, and to have a partially Elven nature implanted.

Similarly, but much more powerfully, the Numenoreans seem to have been given a blessing by the Valar - to make them into a race of (as it were) permanent Elf-Friends.

This seems to be a necessary explanation because it seems very unlikely, almost inconceivable, that all the Numenoreans get their Elvish enhancements by genetic descent from Elros - the brother of Elrond and original Half-Elven Founding Father King of Numenor.

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Also, Tolkien once said (I think in one of his Letters) that the union of Aragorn and Arwen and the residual Numenorean lineage of Arnor and Gondor was (fictively) how later, modern man had been ennobled (somewhat) with an Elvish strain.

My feeling is that this was not meant to be a direct genetic kind of inheritance, but a more diffuse and spiritual kind of blood relationship; which also involved some kind of 'blessing' conferred by the greater on the lesser - analogous to Gildor and Frodo.

But that notion is very speculative indeed!

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Monday, 28 October 2013

Lord of the Rings: "Deeply sad, almost without hope..." True - but only in a literary sense

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On page 200 of his (indispensable!) collection of essays Roots and Branches the greatest ever Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey describes The Lord of the Rings as "deeply sad, almost without hope".

Of course he is correct, right down to the 'almost' - but this quality is, to a very significant extent:

1. A contingent artifact of the publication history of Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion of 1977.

2. True of LotR as a literary work, but not true of Tolkien the man.

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A. The sadness and almost-hope-less-ness of LotR is a contingent artifact of the last-minute deletion of the Epilogue

http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/the-epilogue-to-lord-of-rings-what.html

which would, to my mind, have left the reader with a most positive and less pessimistic sense of the story.

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B. Furthermore, the original frame for the LotR - which involved some English (or proto-English) person receiving the legends of the Elves (or Numenoreans) by travel to Elfland, Faery or Numenor, was a more positive frame - in the sense of implying some special role or destiny for these legends.

http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/i-name-you-elf-friend-blessing-of-frodo.html

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C. When LotR is interpreted in the light of the Silmarillion, then the fact that the transcendentally hopeful Second Prophecy of Mandos was omitted from the Silmarillion of 1977 makes it an almost wholly sad story.

http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/what-is-point-of-tale-of-turin-turambar.html

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D. Also, the decision to omit The debate of Finrod and Andreth from The Simarillion of 1977, robbed it not only of what would have been perhaps its most moving piece of writing, but of its strongly implicit link to the incarnation of Jesus; and the ultimate optimism of Christianity.

http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2008/09/tolkiens-marring-of-men.html

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And finally, Tolkien's works can be seen as exemplars of his philosophy of subcreation described in On Fairy Stories, which essay ends with a tremendous expression of Christian hope:

http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/epilogue-to-on-fairy-stories.html

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In conclusion, The Lord of the Rings, as published, and considered as a literary work, is indeed 'deeply sad, almost without hope; furthermore the available biographical information suggests that Tolkien was himself often deeply sad, and also pessimistic about the future of this world; but although both sad and pessimistic, Tolkien-the-man was not 'without hope' - and was quite the opposite - Tolkien was profoundly hopeful, convinced in his hope.

http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/was-jrr-tolkien-pessimist-no-not-really.html

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Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The wind siezes them and drives them away... Failing to get to Faery: Tolkien's strangely lame recurrent plot idea

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For a period of about thirty years - stretching from his earliest sketched and planned stories published in Lost Tales all the way down to The Notion Club Papers - Tolkien recurrently noted what seems like a very bad idea for a plot, which is that someone has a long and hazardous voyage to the land of the elves - and then just as it comes into sight, sound or smell they get driven back to mortal shores.

I present three excepts, with bold emphasis added to the relevant passage:

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From 1920 - The History of Eriol or AElfwine, Book of Lost Tales Volume 2 - page 327:

The night-flowers are opening in Faery,' said AElfwine; 'and behold,' said Bior," 'the Elves are kindling candles in their silver dusk,' and all looked whither his long hand pointed over their dark stern.

Then none spoke for wonder and amaze, seeing deep in the gloaming of the West a blue shadow, and in the blue shadow many glittering lights, and ever more and more of them came twinkling out, until ten thousand points of flickering radiance were splintered far away as if a dust of the jewels self-luminous that Feanor made were scattered on the lap of the Ocean.

'Then is that the Harbour of the Lights of Many Hues,' said AElfheah, 'that many a little-heeded tale has told of in our homes.' Then saying no more they shot out their oars and swung about their ship in haste, and pulled towards the never- dying shore. Near had they come to abandoning it when hardly won. Little did they make of that long pull, as they thrust the water strongly by them, and the long night of Faerie held on, and the horned moon of Elfinesse rode over them.

Then came there music very gently over the waters and it was laden with unimagined longing, that AElfwine and his comrades leant upon their oars and wept softly each for his heart's half- remembered hurts, and memory of fair things long lost, and each for the thirst that is in every child of Men for the flawless loveliness they seek and do not find.

And one said: 'It is the harps that are thrumming, and the songs they are singing of fair things; and the windows that look upon the sea are full of light.' And another said: 'Their stringed violins complain the ancient woes of the immortal folk of Earth, but there is a joy therein.' 'Ah me,' said AElfwine, 'I hear the horns of the Fairies shimmer- ing in magic woods -- such music as I once dimly guessed long years ago beneath the elms of Mindon Gwar.'

And lo! as they spoke thus musing the moon hid himself, and the stars were clouded, and the mists of time veiled the shore, and nothing could they see and nought more hear, save the sound of the surf of the seas in the far-off pebbles of the Lonely Isle; and soon the wind blew even that faint rustle far away.

But AElfwine stood forward with wide-open eyes unspeaking, and suddenly with a great cry he sprang forward into the dark sea, and the waters that filled him were warm, and a kindly death it seemed enveloped him.

Then it seemed to the others that they awakened at his voice as from a dream; but the wind now suddenly grown fierce filled all their sails, and they saw him never again, but were driven back with hearts all broken with regret and longing.

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From 1936 - The Lost Road (HOME Volume 5) - page 80

The  Straight  Road.....  water (island  of   Azores?)..... off.

AElfwine [?restores?restrains] Eadwine. Thinks it a vision of delirium.

The vision of Eressea and the sound of voices.

Resigns himself to die but prays for Eadwine.

Sensation  of  falling.

They come down in [?real] sea and west wind blows them back.

Land in Ireland

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From 1946 - The Notion Club Papers (From HOME Volume 9) - page 278

Treowine sees the round world [?curve] below, and straight ahead a shining land before the wind siezes them and drives them away.

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So - what is going on?

I noticed this passage because it seems so clearly inadequate as a plot climax: to endure long voyages and great hardship, to get within sight of Faery - but to fail to land there!

(Unless AElfwine did not actually drown but reached the shore alive - but this then leaves the needless complication of explaining how he returned to the British Isles without a boat.)

Furthermore, the rationale behind these stories was (apparently) Tolkien's need to explain how it was that the knowledge of the elves had come down to modern men. The whole reason (it seems to me) for these Western voyages in search of Elfland was so that men could meet the elves and discover from them their legends.

So the West-voyaging character - initially called Eriol (one who dreams alone), then AElfwine (Elf-Friend), and later seemingly Arundel (Elf-Friend) Lowdham and his friend Jeremy from the Notion Club - was supposed to be the link between modern England and the ancient myths of Faery.

Why then do these drafts have this character apparently failing to land?

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I suspect the reason would, if known, be enlightening of Tolkien's motivations in writing his legendarium - perhaps of his ambivalence about the project, or an anxiety - so that he had a tendency to shy-away from the necessary plot at the last moment. That, at least, is what it looks or feels like, to me.

I have a theory. My theory is that Tolkien had himself visited Faery - presumably in vivid and memorable and true-seeming dreams, of the kind which are all over his works - but he was ambivalent about revealing either this fact or the information he derived in any direct way.

Of course, we eventually got to hear about the history of Erresea and Valinor withot menition of any intermediary Man such as Eriol. AElfwine or Lowdham - all mention of which was deleted from the Lord of the Rings as it appeared, without this kind of framing device.

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The actually-used fictive framing device is that Bilbo and Frodo (plus Sam and Merry) supposedly wrote the information used in the Hobbit and LotR in The Red Book of Westmarch, having consulted with Elrond and other experts; and the Red Book had reached Tolkien by unexplained routes, and he was merely an editor who made stories from this source.

But before Tolkien reached this partial-solution, his last attempt at the Eriol/ AElfwine explanation was in The Notion Club Papers - and it may be that the Saint Brendan poem 'Iram' included in the NCPs contains the answer, encoded:

‘O! stay now father! There’s more to say.
But two things you have told:
The Tree, the Cloud; but you spoke of three.
The Star in mind you hold?’
‘The Star? Yes, I saw it, high and far,
at the parting of the ways,
a light on the edge of the Outer Night
like silver set ablaze,
where the round world plunges steeply down,
but on the old road goes,
as an unseen bridge that on the arches runs
to coasts than no man knows.’

‘But men say, father that ere the end
you went where none have been.
I would here you tell me, father dear,
of the last land you have seen.’
‘In my mind the Star I still can find,
and the parting of the seas,
and the breath as sweet and keen as death
that was borne upon the breeze.
But where they they bloom those flowers fair,
in what air or land they grow,
what words beyond the world I heard,
if you would seek to know,
in a boat then, brother, far afloat
you must labour in the sea,
and find for yourself things out of mind:
you will learn no more of me.’
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It may be that, like St Brendan, Tolkien knew from 'direct' personal experience (I mean, by vivid visionary dreams) what was in the Lands of the Gods and Elves - but that he felt he could not, or should not, speak of it - and his message was that if we would seek to know, then in a dream-boat far afloat we must labour in the sea of myth, and find for ourselves these things out of mind; because we will 'learn no more of' Tolkien.

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