Saturday, 29 March 2014

My attempt at a group portrait of the Inklings


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

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).


Sunday, 23 March 2014

Is it immature to regard Tolkien as a great writer?


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


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).