Monday, 21 May 2018

Re-reading the Lindop biography of Charles Williams

I have been re-reading the biography of Charles Williams by Grevel Lindop, published in 2015, and which I reviewed at the time. I was surprised to notice that it was as much as three years since I read it; because since then I don't think I have seriously read (or re-read) any of Charles Williams's works - it seems that the biography all-but finished-off Charles Williams as a significant writer, for me...

Re-reading makes clear why. I find it an almost-literally painful experience to read this biography - except for the earliest chapters, concerning CW's childhood and youth. Once Williams has married, and had an unloved/ disliked son; and has engaged with the Rosy Cross ritual magic group, and especially when he begins his tedious and disgusting relationship with Phyllis Jones - he loses me.

The documentation of a recurrent, addictive, unresisted (indeed rationalised and celebrated) cycles of manipulative and exploitative, sadistic/ psychologically-vampiric relationships with young women - on the excuse that these energised the writing of poetry - is another seedy and sickening aspect. It is actively unpleasant to dwell in this 'world', I find.

And, in general, I find Williams to be a wholly dishonest person - in all the writings and all the reports of interactions, there is a person of total self consciousness; who never did a spontaneous action, never spoke or wrote an unguarded word...

Now, of course, this is a disease; it was (to some extent) a dispositional, inbuilt thing - but one can see that these vices were deliberately, effort-fully, developed and strengthened by Williams (especially by his use of magical rituals) - and always with the excuse of needing to do so, to write poetry...

In considering Charles Williams, everything hinges on the poetry... Yet I find the poetry, essentially, worthless - in the sense of not being poetry at all; and performing no essential function; doing nothing distinctive or indispensable...

I consider it to be contrived, pseudo-poetry; concocted from a talent for verse, and pretence. In this it is not unusual; because I consider very nearly all modern and modernist poetry to be of this kind - indeed almost everything that puts itself forward as highbrow poetry for the past century... real poetry is extremely rare (even among the output of real poets).

CW is an example of a very common post-romantic phenomenon - someone who wants to be a poet - but cannot discern poetry, therefore cannot know that they are not a poet (or else deny what they know: that they aren't) - there is a dependence on the evaluation of others.

Throughout his life, by the evidence or multiple letters, Williams never knows whether his work is any good; he cannot tell whether he has written well or not - he cannot discern poetry, which is the basis of being a poet (and a critic, for that matter).

(Astonishingly, CW seems never to have mentioned in print the best living Eng. Lang. poet of that era: Robert Frost. Since everybody knew all-about Frost at that time; this can only mean Williams was unable to discern Frost's poetic greatness.)

Most of CW's published poetry is off-the-cuff doggerel; some is deft rhyming; but his most prestigious poetry - in Taliessin Through Logres - was (Lindop reveals) an editorial collaboration with Ann Ridler... No real poetry can be an editorial collaboration, and this is not real poetry but a simulacrum in the modernist style (which is, itself, only very seldom and peripherally capable of real poetry).

As for CW's literary criticism - it is undermined by this same lack of discernment. More specifically, Williams is unable to detect the presence or absence of that special lyric quality that defines and distinguishes poetry. Probably this is linked with Williams being 'tone deaf', insensitive to and unable to hear music as music; or know when he was singing accurately - because, at root, poetry is song.

So, I am saying two things here; the first is that Charles Williams was overall not a good writer (not a poet at all); and secondly that this was related to an extremely deep and continuous pretentiousness, insincerity... dishonesty.

Lindop makes clear what was scattered throughout the previous biographical information - Charles Williams was a man who played roles all the time, with everybody, including himself - and if there was a real CW - a CW who was communicating-directly and spontaneously, a CW who dropped the pretence - then nobody ever seems to have seen it; nor does it ever appear in his writings.

It is also clear that Charles Williams was a man who suffered - all the time, hour by hour and day by day (you can see this in the photographs, back to childhood); and for that I feel very sorry. But how did he deal with it? It seems to me that in his twenties, Williams chose a path of play-acting, power-seeking, pleasure-seeking, and palliation; he tried to distract himself from himself,and from the human condition, by pathological busyness, pathological socialisation, strategies of self-indulgence... and this negated any possibility of genuine achievement as a writer, and indeed genuine friendship...

There were plenty of people who regarded themselves as good friends of CW, but nobody who CW regarded as a good friend. Everybody seems to have been hoodwinked by him, in one way or another - because he hoodwinked himself; how life was an endless process of hoodwinkings, 24/7.

Thus I return to my conclusion of the original review: the main interest of Charles Williams is the effect he had on others; and ultimately this reduces to the many ways that other people projected-onto him - saw in CW and his play-actings and writings what they wanted or needed.

Thus Charles Williams's best work is something of an ink-blot - there are potentially fertile ideas outlined, hinted-at; but never actually-actualised in the text. His characteristic ideas such as Romantic Theology, Exchange, Substituion...are interesting ideas, which he fails to develop interestingly. For example, he made romatic theology into a far-fetched system of symbolism; he made exchange and substitution into a quasi-bureaucratic system which he dictatorially imposed on his followers.

My favourite of his works, the novel The Place of the Lion is like this. It is a great idea for a novel - I've read it several times; but the reader has to make the novel out of the ideas... it isn't achieved. The novel is technically inept (at the level we find it hard to know who is speaking, and what is happening), and the climactic and key passages don't come-off. Yet, for Lewis and Tolkien this book was exactly what was needed when they came across it, and they were able to complete the novel in their own minds, in line with its aspirations, in a way that stimulated their own imaginations.

But it is no accident that Charles William's reputation essentially died with the man.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Tolkien and fandom

When I first became interested in JRR Tolkien in the middle 70s, there was not much attention paid to him by the British mass media - but when there was, there was always some reference to the popularity in US college campuses, and to phenomena such as the 'Gandalf for President' lapel button, and graffiti along the lines of 'Frodo Lives'. Then The Lord of the Rings (LotR) movies in the early 2000s triggered another - much larger - wave of mass-, and the social-, media fandom.

When I consider the phenomenon of Tolkien popularity represented by the Gandalf for President button, I can find no relationship at all between that and what I value in Tolkien or LotR, with what is actually-in Tolkien; indeed the joke political slogan is the antithesis of what the LotR represents ex-plicitly, im-plicitly and every kind of plicitly... Saruman for US President/ Sauron for UN President would make a great deal more sense.

In their way, 'fans' of Tolkien are sincere; and may expend a great deal of time, money and effort in their fan activities. Yet, in the end it gets the participants nothing-at-all - it corrupts Tolkien rather than learning from him.

Fandom - but its appetite for novelty, and it mass nature, always corrupts; and always corrupts in the direction of prevalent mainstream ideology: whether that be 60s hippiedom, late 70s environmentalism, or - since the 80s and increasingly - the various facets of the sexual revolution, political correctness and 'social justice'.

Instead of learning-from Tolkien; it is quite normal for fans to read-into Tolkien whatever happens to be the current nihilism, hedonism, materialism, atheism... somehow fans find in Tolkien exactly what they seek - or else try (in effect) to 'teach' Tolkien about feminism, socialism, radical sexuality... whatever - for example via the vast mass of fan fiction (including 'slash' fiction) that quite explicitly inserts this kind of stuff into Tolkien's world.

Other fandoms are closely analogous - revealing that this is a property of fandom rather than being related to specific authors or their work. In Harry Potter, another work of Christian fantasy with traditional values at its heart; the main fan website was initially obsessed with the 'shipping' (romantic relationships between) the main characters, in all possible and inconceivable combinations. Later the web pages and fandoms were quite explicitly and systematically enlisted for a check-list of current social justice campaigns, such as agitation for same sex 'marriage' legislation. And the fans duly complied, with apparent enthusiasm and zeal.

Or Brandon Sanderson - I recently attended a talk, reading and book signing done by Sanderson; which was packed with hundreds of fans who turned-out and paid money to be there... and I say fans, because in the Q&A session every single one of the couple of dozen questions was related to the most trivial, ephemeral and superficial aspects of his work. There was not one single interesting, insightful, or challenging question asked by this mass of people; not the slightest indication that the novels were anything other than depictions of magic systems and 'cool' personalities.

Sanderson is an active Mormon, and all of his work is permeated with a serious consideration of religion and spirituality; both on the surface and as underlying structure. But it was clear that for Sanderson's fandom this was of sub-zero interest - invisible and irrelevant. 

The phenomenon of fandom is therefore at best trivial and fashion driven, there being more in common between fans (regardless of what they are fans-of) than between fans and the subject of their fanaticism. Fandom is corrupting and destructive of whatever is good in the authors and works that get caught-up by it; and in its advanced form, fandom embodies subversion and inversion of whatever is specific and distinctive in its subject matter; the aim being to reinterpret and rewrite it in line with currently-dominant, top-down, manipulative social campaigns that ultimately emanate from (and are funded by) the global Establishment elites.

So the phenomenon of fandom is a product of evil purpose; and has a malign influence all-round. No wonder that the elderly Tolkien was so confused and appalled by its first stirrings in the 1960s, and by the 'Gandalf for President'-type expressions.

Journalists thought that this was 'ungrateful' of him, because masses of fans led to more sales and more money in Tolkien's pocket.

But Tolkien was not a 'professional author' - he wrote from the heart and for the highest motivations. And he realised that fandom had nothing to do with him or his work; but on the contrary was the attempted obliteration of his work, the attempt to harness his books for a dark agenda.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Tolkien as a 'spiritual father' - the experience of author Vox Day (Theodore Beale)

I have been let down by all of my heroes and role models. Not some of them. Not most of them. All of them. Except one.

I was taught to save by my father. When I bought my first house, he very generously wanted to help me and even offered to contribute something to the down payment. I declined when I found out that I had more money in the bank than he did. He joked that his companies were his savings account; we all know how that turned out.

I was taught character, courage, and taking responsibility by my grandfather. Towards the end of his life, having exhausted his resources on caring for my grandmother, he walked away from the beautiful, twice-mortgaged house he had owned for three decades and left it for the bank.

I was taught leadership and personal sacrifice by my uncle. After attaining fame and great power, he was awarded an important position at one of the most corrupt organizations in the world. He did not resign from it when its crimes were revealed to the public.

I revered Umberto Eco for his great learning and his intellectual insight. When I read Belief or Nonbelief, his debate on religion and God with Carlo Maria Martini, the Roman Catholic cardinal of Milan, I was astonished and bitterly disappointed by the shallow, superficial, and petty nature of his arguments.

I admired and looked up to one of my father's friends of more than thirty years. I considered him to be the epitome of a good, smart, successful, civilized man. I could not believe it when my father asked him to be a character witness at his trial, and he demurred for fear of how it might look and what people might say.

I always considered The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius to be the philosophical gold standard and Aurelius himself to be an exemplary man. Then I read more human history and realized that his son and successor was Commodus, and that he had uncharacteristically failed to prepare an adequate succession plan for the empire over which he ruled.

I cannot tell you how many authors I perceived to be great, only to learn that they were charlatans, conceptual plagiarists, plodders, experts in literary sleight-of-hand, learned historians rather than brilliantly original creators, and in some cases, the apparent beneficiaries of a sprinkling of pixie dust by a flighty passing muse.

Do I look down on any of these men because they lacked the perfection that I naively perceived in them? Do I reject their teachings? By no means! To the contrary, their failings only served to teach me that they were mortal men, not demigods, and that I, too, can hope to surmount my own failings and character flaws. They remain my heroes and my role models today, I merely see them in a more mature and realistic light that shows their strengths in contrast with their weaknesses.

The fact that your heroes are not perfect does not make them any less heroic. It actually makes them more heroic, because their failings are a glimpse into the struggle they faced, every day, with the manifold temptations of a fallen world.

Who was the one hero who never let me down? JRR Tolkien. I loved his books deeply and passionately from the time I read the first page of The Two Towers, and everything I have since read of his, and everything I have subsequently learned about the man has only given me more cause to admire him. One reason that it takes me so much longer to write Arts of Dark and Light than other fiction and non-fiction is that I am always striving to write something I consider worthy of Tolkien's influence, and of which he would approve if he were ever to read it.


I found the above piece resonated with me - not so much because of being 'let down' by nearly everybody, but because of the warm-hearted and graceful tribute to JRR Tolkien - the recognition of his rare integrity and goodness. This is a major factor in Tolkien's influence among serious and long-term readers.

For me, Tolkien was a major part of my Golden Thread. Before I became a Christian this was the case, and Tolkien was a major factor in my becoming a Christian - interesting, mainly by some of the posthumous pieces in History of Middle Earth and a fanfiction inspired therefoem.

The idea of regarding Tolkien, and the Inklings more generally, as spiritual advisors is very much the root and inspiration of this blog.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

The Music of the Ainur - A guest post from John Fitzgerald

And thus was the habitation of the Children of Ilúvatar established at the last in the Deeps of Time and amidst the innumerable stars.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion


There are a wealth of creation myths to be found in the world, both now and throughout history. The best known, perhaps, is the one given in the Book of Genesis. But every religion has a creation myth, as does every mythology. There are scientific creation myths too, the Big Bang being the most obvious example, a transposition into scientific language of what other creation myths use poetry or stories to convey.

This multitude of accounts offer different approaches to the same mystery. They tackle the big question - why is there something instead of nothing? Viewed this way, all creation myths are worthy of respect. They are all laudable, all noble attempts at translating into human terms an act of creation on such a spectacularly large scale that it defies our minds' ability to comprehend it. None of us were there, after all, 'in the beginning', so it's impossible to say with the degree of certitude required in a court of law, for instance, that one myth is true and another false.

What I would say, however, is that some myths feel truer than others, and that what feels true for one person might feel less true for another. This sense of truth - this 'inner compass' - could well be subjective, therefore, coloured by our ancestral past and our religious and cultural upbringing. But that is no reason to distrust or disbelieve it. Quite the reverse. That very subjectivity is what makes it most real and true for us as unique, unrepeatable individuals. It connects us with the deepest part of our being, that secret chamber where the still, small voice points the subjective self towards the objective truth of God. Our deepest desire, as Ignatian spirituality emphasises, is also God's deepest desire for us.

The creation myth which speaks most powerfully to me is undoubtedly J.R.R. Tolkien's, Ainulindalë: The Music of the Ainur. Ever since I first read The Silmarillion at school in the 1980s, I have wished that this was the official Christian creation story. The Genesis account, if I'm honest, has never sparked my imagination or inspired any deep thoughts or feelings, whereas Tolkien's myth energises me on all levels. This, I believe, is due to the simple fact that Genesis is a Jewish creation myth, and I am not Jewish but Anglo-Irish. When I say this, I don't mean any slight on the Jewish people, who were and are a remarkable race who bring so many good things to the world. But the fact that Tolkien was attempting to write what he called 'a mythology for England' speaks volumes here. His writing is geared towards the European (and particularly British) imagination in a way that the Old Testament, through no fault of its own, is not. Maybe on some level Tolkien saw a gap where a native creation myth should be, and Ainulindalë is his attempt to fill it.

Some might find the high, remote style of Ainulindalë off-putting, perhaps, but there's a spaciousness and depth to the writing, I feel, which brings a real sense of the timeless and archetypal to the page. There's a warmth and musicality at work as well which tempers the text's severity and brings an extra dimension to a narrative which might otherwise come across as somewhat dry and abstract.

Ilúvatar, Tolkien's creator God, fashions the Ainur first of all, mighty angelic intelligences, 'the offspring of his thought.' He proposes a musical theme and commands the Ainur to take it up and develop it. They respond in some style, making a music so beautiful that Tolkien says it will not be equalled until the end of the world. As the music proceeds, however, it is marred by the discordant motifs introduced by Melkor, the most powerful and gifted of the Ainur. He wants to bring in his own ideas, rather than those suggested by Ilúvatar. There is a clash, and many of the Ainur become disheartened and lose their way. Ilúvatar introduces a second theme, which is spoiled again by Melkor's innovations. Undeterred, Ilúvatar launches a third theme, and this time, no matter how hard Melkor strives for mastery, he cannot drown it out. On the contrary, his discordance is taken up into the wider music and becomes part of that very theme which Melkor is trying to undermine. Ilúvatar brings the music to a close and shows the Ainur what they have created with their voices. They see the newly-minted Earth spinning in the void and the unfolding of its history. 'Behold your Music!' says Ilúvatar. 'This is your minstrelsy; and each of you shall find herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added. And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory.'

There are echoes of other creation myths here, of course, most notably Aslan's singing Narnia into existence in The Magician's Nephew and the Gaelic story known as The Earth-Shapers or The Shining Ones. In the Irish tale, it is the Earth itself that does the singing. Unformed, mis-shapen, and tormented by primordial monsters (a little like those in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft), the Earth dreams of beauty and expresses its longing in the form of a song which reaches the ears of Brigid, 'the keeper of the sacred flame', who resides with the other Lordly Ones in Tir-na-Moe. Brigid convinces her brethren to descend with her to the Earth and save it from its distress. They bring with them the four Hallows - the Sword of Light, the Spear of Victory, the Cauldron of Plenty, and the Stone of Destiny. With the aid of these sacred objects, they drive back the monsters, heal the wounded Earth, and create a fresh, new world.

Evil is active in each of these three creation myths (as it is in Genesis, of course) - the fallen angel, Melkor, in Ainulindalë; the corrupted queen, Jadis, in The Magician's Nephew; and the primal monsters in The Shining Ones. Tolkien's depiction of evil is subtly and skilfully done. Melkor falls by degrees - from frustration at not being able to use his talents the way he wants, to a fixation on following his own way rather than Ilúvatar's, to a flat-out refusal to countenance the good and a determination to destroy not just Ilúvatar's music but the whole new world the Ainur are labouring to build.

It didn't have to be this way. It remains a mystery what greatness Melkor might have achieved had he chosen to use his gifts as Ilúvatar intended. He falls into the trap of thinking that 'his way' and 'Ilúvatar's way' are different and that Ilúvatar wants to thwart and stymie his potential. Nothing could be further from the truth. Melkor's deepest desire for himself and Ilúvatar's deepest desire for him are one and the same thing. But through pride and arrogance, Melkor turns his face from truth and sets out on a path of destruction - of the world around him, of others, and ultimately of himself.

It is a futile endeavour though. Ilúvatar's third theme shows us that the machinations of evil only serve in the long run to give rise to new and undreamt of forms of good. Ilúvatar hides the Flame Imperishable in the secret heart of the world. Melkor searches for it, but in vain. He is looking in the wrong places - in self-promoting fantasies of power, glory and domination. But we can find it. All we need do is stay true to ourselves and our creator. It's easier said than done, of course, but we should remember that the final destiny of men and women - 'the Children of Ilúvatar' - is hidden even from the Ainur who sang the world into being and is known to God alone. 

This tells us that the work of creation is still ongoing and that we have a special, as yet unknown, part to play in its unfolding. We are called to become co-creators with the Divine. Nothing less than that. We are not there yet, perhaps, but the grandeur and suggestiveness of J.R.R. Tolkien's creation myth (together with the whole of his oeuvre) certainly helps point the way.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Barfield's understanding of the necessity for the completion of Romanticism

Barfield's understanding of Romanticism as an uncompleted destiny is of primary importance to an integrated view of The Inklings. Barfield articulated this very clearly in Romanticism Comes of Age (1944) as well as subsequent books; but none of the other Inklings seems to have understood or been-persuaded-by the argument.

(Probably they were put-off by the fact that Barfield drew much of his understanding from Rudolf Steiner, and referenced Steiner's work frequently. Because although Steiner was certainly a genius of world historical importance (Barfield seriously and coherently compared him with Aristotle); he was also wrong about most things, most of the time - and in a peculiarly gratuitous and overwhelmingly prolix fashion.)

In a nutshell, Barfield saw Romanticism as a necessary but unfinished, indeed corrupted, development of human consciousness. Therefore, he saw the only viable option for modern Man as the completion of this change.

What happened to Romanticism, according to Barfield, was that it arose in the late 1700s and initially was taken forward very promisingly in practical terms by Wordsworth and Blake in England and Goethe in Germany; and was very fully theorised by Coleridge... but that it was soon diverted into modernism - that is metaphysical materialism/ positivism/ reductionism/ scientism - in the forms of varieties of atheism, political radicalism and sexual revolution. 

By contrast, although both Tolkien and Lewis embodied Romanticism in much of their work, and were anti modernism in all the forms described above - they advocated and adhered a return to pre-modern states: Traditionalism.

In sum, rather than moving-through Romanticism to a new form of consciousness (along the lines theorised by Coleridge); Tolkien and Lewis attempted to fuse Romanticism and Tradition, or perhaps to use Romanticism as a means for returning to Tradition.

The completion of Romanticism is therefore still an uncompleted project! Indeed, the whole issue has proven to be very difficult to discuss at all. Coleridge never succeeded in making himself understood by anybody! - arguably until Barfield himself brought together and interpreted many scattered passages (e.g. especially in What Coleridge Thought, of 1971).

It is no mystery to me why the project of Romanticism remains uncompleted - to complete Romanticism requires:

1.  A rapid (not incremental) and wholesale (not partial) replacement of fundamental metaphysical assumptions concerning the basic nature of reality.  And...

2. This task must be done actively, voluntarily and explicitly by each person as an individual.

By contrast, the modern prevalent perversion of Romanticism (i.e. atheist, materialist, leftism) was introduced incrementally, unconsciously, by mass influences and in a top-down fashion; such that the whole system of modern Western thinking is commonly unrecognised and denied, is incoherent and self-destroying, is dishonest and relativistic.

Could Tolkien and Lewis have followed where Barfield was leading? It is hard to imagine - since they would need to be convinced of the impossibility of Traditionalism and also of the possibility, and goodness, of completing Romanticism. They would need to acknowledge that Romanticism was, in its original impulse, not merely a 'reaction' to industrialism and materialism; but an embryonic new form of consciousness. Romanticism-completed would (even without Steiner) also have struck at the particular self-definitions of Tolkien and Lewis's different, but in this respect similar, definitions of Christianity in terms of creeds, institutions, and authority...

Tolkien and Lewis would therefore surely have found it difficult to distinguish between Barfield's suggestions for a completed-Romanticism and the modernism they opposed root-and-branch. Nonetheless, we can - looking back on the Inklings and perceiving them as a spiritually-coherent group who themselves had a destined role to play in the development of Western consciousness - ourselves do the work that Tolkien and Lewis could not, and would not have done. Which is to complete Romanticism with the help of their imaginative literature.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Review of The Flame Imperishable by Jonathan S McIntosh

Jonathan S McIntosh. The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St Thomas and the metaphysics of Faerie. Angelico Press: Kettering, Ohio, USA. 2017. pp xv, 289.

For about a year, from late 2009 into 2010, about a year after I became a Christian - I was 'smitten' by the 'Thomist' philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas (and intending, probably, to become a Roman Catholic via the Anglican Ordinariate route).

I had already encountered 'Thomism', in the work of GK Chesterton, and EF Schumacher's Guide for the Perplexed - and most significantly in After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre who convinced me that the philosophy of Aquinas was the only rigorous, coherent, comprehensive system of metaphysically-rooted philosophy that had ever been devised. My Aquinas binge of 2009-10 confirmed that opinion from a mainstream Christian perspective...

Since that time I have travelled to an almost opposite extreme - first via the less-rigorous but more intuitively-satisfying Platonism of Eastern Orthodoxy; then to the almost-unknown, almost-totally unappreciated, and almost-opposite world of Mormon theology - where I have solidly set up residence for the past five-plus years (as a 'theoretical Mormon' - but not a member of the CJCLDS).

This, then, is my background with respect to Thomism: one of great respect, past enthusiasm and a partial knowledge (which never got so far as to read Aquinas himself in any quantity - just excerpts; but mostly books-about Aquinas).

In The Flame Imperishable, Jonathan McIntosh argues that JRR Tolkien's work was written from a background in Thomistic philosophy - which Tolkien absorbed during his childhood, especially; and furthermore that Tolkien's major work in the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion was written such as to be compatible-with the basic principles of Thomism.  

This, McIntosh proves! - at least to my satisfaction; although I was already inclined to assume this was true before I read his book.

The Flame Imperishable is uncompromisingly a scholarly monograph - closely modelled on a PhD thesis; with the characteristic virtues and limitations of such a form. That is, it is thorough, impartial (presenting many sides of each argument in some detail; its conclusions are expressed with due reservations; and its language and structure are subordinated to these formal imperatives.

Which means the text is dense, incremental, even-toned - and, in sum, not at all an easy read! On the other hand, its appeal goes somewhat beyond the interests of professional scholars. I can, for example, think of quite a large number of Roman Catholic bloggers and authors who have a great interest in Tolkien's work - and these would certainly find that The Flame Imperishable added depth of understanding to their engagement with Tolkien - and probably too with Aquinas.

For me, the book was hard to get-into because my own metaphysical assumptions are so very different from those of Thomism - so that after reading not many sentences I would often turn aside and write notes from my own contrasting assumptions. In other words; McIntosh is right about Tolkien - but not about me! - and therefore reading it took on aspects of a debate.

In the end, speaking personally as a person who is fascinated by metaphysics and thinks-about it every day, and thinks it is the most important single thing for the modern world! - I found this book was an education, a stimulus to clarify my own philosophical ideas; and yet also a confirmation that I personally was correct in rejecting Thomism; whose baseline assumptions seem to me (the more I dwell upon them) so unnatural, so counter-intuitive, and such as to lead to what I would regard as reductio ad absurdum in some very important places. 

But Thomism still is, and probably always will be, the most rigorous of comprehensive systematic philosophies - and if that is your priority, then you probably ought-to know more about it. So long as you are prepared to work through slowly, you could (I think) learn Thomism from The Flame Imperishable, via your existing interest in Tolkien*.

*Note: An alternative, or preliminary, would be Ed Feser's Aquinas of 2009; which well communicates the intellectual excitement of such a wide-ranging - indeed all-including - philosophical system. 

Sunday, 18 February 2018

If WW II was an allegory of Lord of the Rings...

A first version of the following post appeared a couple of years ago, and proved popular among some people - including Fantasy author L Jagi Lamplighter. I though I'd re-run it, lightly edited and slightly expanded...

In his Foreword to the 1966 Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was at pains to emphasise that the book was Not an allegory: in particular it was not an allegory of the 1939-45 World War:

The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.

We could, inverting Tolkien's point, play with the idea of what would have happened in WW II if it had followed the lines of LotR...


The One Ring = The Atom Bomb

Sauron = Hitler
Mordor = Germany under National Socialism

Saruman = Stalin
Isengard = Moscow

The Free Peoples = USA and UK

The plot would focus on the destruction of the Atom Bomb (and implicitly all knowledge required to make it) by a small team of English patriots led by George Orwell, who infiltrate Germany and destroy the evil research establishment which is making the A-bomb.

The team are 'helped' by a slimy little creature called Mussolini, who gets them into the lab but intends to seize the death weapon for himself.

The climactic end would be the death of Mussolini; killed when the ready-for-use bomb prototype explodes in his face as he tries to steal it. A chain reaction speads through Nazi HQ and Hitler and his Nazi-Nazguls are caught in the conflagration, ending the National Socialist regime.

Orwell and his 'batman' servant Monty are airlifted from the blazing ruins at the last moment. 

Europe comes under the rule of the restored King Albrecht - the exiled Duke of Bavaria, and heir to the United States monarchy. He had been given the throne by popular acclaim during the course of the war, and is now ruling from his palace in Richmond, Virginia.

The Holy Roman Empire is thus restored. 

En route there would be the destruction of the Soviet Union, the restoration of the Tsar, and the exile of Stalin.

After Moscow is obliterated by enraged Finns wearing Mech suits; Stalin makes his way to England, where he is welcomed by the quisling Communist Prime Minister, Konni Zilliacus. Stalin swiftly invites foreign mercenaries, takes over in a secret coup, enslaves the native English and manages to pollute or destroy much of the countryside before Orwell and his English patriots return and raise a successful counter-revolution.

After the scouring of England, the defeated Stalin is stabbed by his creepy deputy Lavrentiy Beria - who is immediately executed by a mob of pitchfork-wielding rustics (despite Orwell's protests...).

England repudiates industrialisation, is demilitarised, sealed against immigration, and made into a clan-based dominion ruled by benign hereditary aristocrats - under the personal protection of King Albrecht.

Orwell, traumatised and made consumptive by his wartime experiences, sails West toward the sunset in a small boat and eventually arrives in... Ireland; where he ends his days peacefully as a subsistence crofter...

(No wonder Tolkien cordially disliked allegory, 'in all its manifestations'...)

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Tolkien and Giants

Tolkien included Giants in several of his stories - although not in The Lord of the Rings - despite their appearance in The Hobbit. This was natural, since there is abundant evidence for the historical reality of Giants - including in Britain, where they were the first inhabitants. Giants are, understandably therefore, probably more evident and important in the oldest English history/ legend/ folklore than elves, dwarves or dragons.  

How to discover more about such matters? Well, Geoffrey of Monmouth had access to a now-lost book of the deep and mythic history of Albion - a book which, I imagine, would have provided almost exactly what JRR Tolkien felt was missing from his country's culture - 'a mythology for England'.

Our modern Geoffrey - Geoffrey Ashe, the Greatest Living Englishman - made a really excellent job of filling this gap with his Mythology of the British Isles of 1990.

Ashe uses Monmouth's book as a skeleton, fleshed out with all other available and relevant sources to provide a clear and concise mythical account at the start of each chapter, followed by scholarly commentary and footnotes.

If someone extracted the mythical sections, and arranged them sequentially; when imaginatively-illustrated and published as a unity, this could make a wonderful Child's History of Albion.

The first Geoffrey - of Monmouth - clearly influenced Tolkien who draws upon it often (as have so many hundreds or thousands of other writers for many centuries - including Shakespeare, via Holinshead), but the 'flavour' of his great book was not really to Tolkien's taste. It is, indeed, over-filled with bloodthirsty battles, intrigues and deceptions. But then, so are the Norse Sagas...

Nonetheless, Monmouth's is our best annalistic source for mythically imaginative hints of deep truths from our island's story; hints that may intuitively be developed into real myths.

And our contemporary Geoffrey has made from it an even better resource for modern fantasy writers.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Tolkien nods - the introductory description of Arwen

I am currently reading aloud The Lord of the Rings, as a bedtime book; and am again absolutely delighted by it. I find every scene, indeed almost every sentence, to be effective and beautiful.

But yesterday I came across the introductory description of Arwen - as observed by Frodo at a feast in Rivendell; and I realised explicitly something which has nagged at me ever since I first read the book. In his writing at this point, Tolkien fails to communicate the beauty of Arwen.


In the middle of the table, against the woven cloths upon the wall, there was a chair under a canopy, and there sat a lady fair to look upon, and so like was she in form of womanhood to Elrond that Frodo guessed that she was one of his close kindred. Young she was and yet not so. The braids of her dark hair were touched by no frost, her white arms and clear face were flawless and smooth, and the light of stars was in her bright eyes, grey as a cloudless night; yet queenly she looked, and thought and knowledge were in her glance, as of one who has known many things that the years bring. Above her brow her head was covered with a cap of silver lace netted with small gems, glittering white; but her soft grey raiment had no ornament save a girdle of leaves wrought in silver.

So it was that Frodo saw her whom few mortals had yet seen; Arwen, daughter of Elrond, in whom it was said that the likeness of Lúthien had come on earth again; and she was called Undómiel, for she was the Evenstar of her people. Long she had been in the land of her mother's kin, in Lórien beyond the mountains, and was but lately returned to Rivendell to her father's house. But her brothers, Elladan and Elrohir, were out upon errantry: for they rode often far afield with the Rangers of the North, forgetting never their mother's torment in the dens of the orcs.

Such loveliness in living thing Frodo had never seen before nor imagined in his mind; and he was both surprised and abashed to find that he had a seat at Elrond's table among all these folk so high and fair. 


It should be noted that Tolkien does a great job of communicating the beauty of Goldberry, and Galadriel - and the special appeal of Eowyn. It is only Arwen where he fails.

I recall, when first reading the book back in 1973, being astonished by the appearance of Arwen to marry Aragorn after the ring had been destroyed - having entirely forgotten about her and who she was; and being even more astonished that Eomer could regard her as more beautiful than Galadriel (in his discussion with Gimli) - since I had a very clear impression of Galadriel's beauty, and none at all of Arwen's.

(By comparison, if Goldberry had turned up at the end of the story, I would certainly have remembered her. Not least because I had a clear picture of her in my mind.)

I think it can easily be seen how the passage on Arwen, which I quote above, fails: she is introduced as looking like Elrond - who is a male; the writing tries to describe her beauty by negatives (young yet not so, hair touched by no frost, grey eyes like cloudless night, flawless skin...); there is too much point by-point description of her features and clothes, without ever putting the 'pieces' together...

And, there is no impression of the effect Arwen has on those around her. The hobbits are stunned by Goldberry's beauty; and the Fellowship almost paralysed by that of Galadriel... Here we have a brief, ineffective paragraph on what Arwen does not look like - then we are off into history and background information.

So, here is a very rare, and yet narratively important, place where Tolkien nods, or lapses. It causes a structural fault in the book - small but significant.

Why here? Most likely because Arwen was a visual reincarnation of Luthien, and Luthien was based on Tolkien's wife Edith - and Tolkien was (understandably) perhaps somewhat impaired in his ability to evaluate his own writing objectively (i.e. for its effect on the reader) when it came to writing about his own wife.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

One of the most interesting books I have ever read... My Amazon (mini-)review of Sauron Defeated

Sauron Defeated: The End of the Third Age (comprising The History of the Lord of the Rings, Part Four; The Notion Club Papers; and The Drowning of Anadune). Being the Ninth Volume of The History of Middle Earth. J. R. R. Tolkien (Author),‎ Christopher Tolkien (Editor). Houghton Mifflin; Boston &NY, USA. 1992, ix, 482 pages. 

This book has three great strengths:

1. Two versions of the delightful Epilogue to the Lord of the Rings. This was the original ending of LotR, and remained so until an advanced stage in the book's production; and Tolkien seems always to have wished it had remained in place but was persuaded to delete it by some of his friends.

2. The Notion Club Papers - an extremely important unfinished novel by JRR Tolkien in a 'modern' setting but with much reference to space and time travel. This was written in the middle of composing the Lord of the Rings, so has Tolkien at the height of his powers. Also, there are many coded clues to Tolkien's own deepest, and secret, beliefs.

3. Several alternative version of the history of Numenor, with a lot of extra (and more vivid) detail than can be found in the LotR or Silmarillion.

Without exaggeration, and speaking as a long term Tolkien fan, this is one of the most interesting books I have ever read.

(NOTE: If this review from 2011 encouraged a single extra person to read Sauron Defeated, I will count it worthwhile.)