Friday 4 November 2011

Discussion of The Lord of the Rings

What follows is a hitherto unpublished discussion of The Lord of the Rings by Gregory Glazov and Stratford Caldecott. (And if Tolkien interests you, you might also like to take a look at Andrew Abela's article "Shire Economics".)

Glazov: Many thanks for sharing a little time with us. The issue that I am excited about and wish to explore with you concerns the nature of a spiritual book. In a BBC interview I heard a few years ago between J.K. Rowling and Stephen Fry, when they were discussing C.S. Lewis and his book The Magician's Nephew, Rowling said that she always understood the pools between the worlds to be a metaphor for books. This also translates into understanding the Wardrobe of The Lion, the W, and the W, as a metaphor for a book… What I like about this metaphor is that it catches the fact that a book is a vehicle that can transplant us into another world, open our eyes to things we've never seen before, allow us to share in the adventure of the protagonists, broaden our world view, nurture ourselves and then return into our own world enriched. I especially like how in The L, W and W, the children, having befriended Aslan/Christ, are told that they would be returning to their own world and needing to learn to relate to him by his name in this world and then how their return to this world is depicted as being attended with suspense and a sense of adventure. C.S. Lewis thereby communicates very well that this same adventure is open to us readers to have as well, whereby the journey to Narnia through his book and back again gives us fresh eyes to believe and recognize the presence of Christ in our own lives and live more fully and adventurously with him. This I understand, but I'd like to take these insights deeper. What are some things that you might like to add here?

Stratford: I like Rowling's insight. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is like that too – very deliberately on the author's part, since the characters in the story often comment on the "tale" that they are in. The reader is hauled in by the ears, as Sam is hauled in through the window of Bag End in the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. By "listening in" to the story he becomes personally involved, and in fact the whole journey to Mordor and back is his adventure as much as it is anyone's. Another moment worth remembering is when Frodo sees Lothlorien for the first time. Tolkien, and I think Lewis, believed that in a fairy story, real, created things such as metal, horses, and trees are manifested in glory (Excalibur, Anduril, Pegasus, Shadowfax, Yggdrasil, Telperion). The effect is to give a glimpse of the real world transfigured (or, as Tolkien would say, “enchanted”). Thus the reader of The Lord of the Rings, entering the imaginative world of the novel, may have a similar experience to that of a character entering one of those "pools" in the Wood, or (one of my favourite scenes) Frodo entering the Elvish landscape of Lothlorien: “A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever.” That is the experience we have, as readers, when we read a good fairy tale, and why we keep coming back for more – why we find it a wholesome and healing experience to do so.
   In one of his letters (Letter 131 in the published collection), Tolkien says a bit more about that "light" that shines within a good story. He calls it “the light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or subcreatively) and ‘says that they are good’ – as beautiful.” It is the light that takes us back to the very Beginning of things. That's what his "Elves" are all about. And the important point is that when Frodo leaves Lothlorien – as we leave the novel, by setting it aside or coming to the end – he will in some sense always remain there, out of time. "When he had gone and passed again into the outer world, still Frodo the wanderer from the Shire would walk there, upon the grass among elanor and niphredil in fair Lothlorien."

Glazov: I have been researching and writing a short booklet on the prayers Glory Be and the Gloria recently. One of my interests is to understand and explain why we should give glory to God not just for what was in the beginning or what will be forever and ever but for what is now, given that the "now" is so intertwined with sorrow and grief. As a biblical scholar I am aware of how psalm scholars divide the psalms into psalms of orientation (those that praise God for the goods of creation), disorientation (the laments) and reorienation (the praises and thanksgivings that transcend the phases of disorientation). As a Catholic, I relate these three phases to the three traditional groupings of the mysteries of the Rosary: the Joyful, the Sorrowful and the Glorious. I intuit that the Christian tradition has here defined glory by distinguishing it from joy through the interposition of sorrow. This is to say that Glory involves a transformation or transfiguration of reality in a way that presupposes sorrow and transcends it. The challenge is to explain how this transpires organically, in life. How does sorrow turn to glory? In the course of preparing this booklet I was also underlining all the glory motifs I could find in the works of Tolkien and Lewis, which are many. One theme that I was very interested to understand occurred in the initial pages of The Silmarillion describing the creation of the world. There, each angel sings a theme that God gave him to sing with a view to intertwining it with others so as to make a great music. The music foreshadows the history of the world. Morgoth, the fallen angel or Satan, seeks to mar the music and destroy the harmony. In a series of movements, God works to work Morgoth's disharmony into a greater harmony: "And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Iluvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other... essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern... into the devising of things more wonderful, which he (that attempteth the alteration) hath not imagined." 
   So are we – and how are we – to translate the perception of the light that shines within a good story into a perception that the same transpires in our own world and lives? How does sorrow increase beauty and lead to glory? And as for moving out of time, how is this movement to be mediated? What are some further ways in which Tolkien's stories illustrate these mysteries and sustain us with hope in the midst of sorrow?

Stratford: What Tolkien is trying to express using mythopoeia is what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls the "theo-drama" based on the interplay of created and uncreated freedom. The message of his story is that by acting rightly we tune ourselves to the beautiful music, we become part of it. By acting out of harmony with others, we become part of the alternative music that he says is "loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated". In the end, whatever is of value in the second music is subsumed and transfigured by the first – evil can create nothing of itself, and whatever it achieves by marring the good can be turned by the good into an opportunity to make something "more wonderful". So "in everything God works for good with those who love him" (Romans 8:28). Tolkien shows us how to act, how to "work for good", through the way his characters behave. For example in The Lord of the Rings, the various members of the Fellowship manage to act with courage and kindness and wisdom even when evil appears to be triumphing all around them. Aragorn's very name (in Elvish "Estel") means "Hope", and he demonstrates the kind of heroism that is based on doing the right thing because it is right, even when we have no idea how it will turn out – a hope founded not on some prediction of advantages to be gained, but on the nature of things. This is the contrary of modern moral thinking based on "consequentialism". 
   At the end of the passage you quoted, God stands up and brings the Music to an end with a single chord "deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament". That could be a reference to the Last Judgment, which is brought about through the Incarnation and Passion of Christ, for that is the supreme case of bringing good out of evil. This, the final chord, integrates all the notes and themes of the Music, but in a way that could not have been predicted by Angels, Elves or Men. It is worth noting that Tolkien actually builds a prophecy of the Incarnation into the story of Finrod and Andreth (published posthumously), in which he speaks of the possiblily that Eru, the One God, might enter into the creation and heal it from within. So Tolkien's mythopoetic account is consistent with the Christian answer to the problem of evil. Jesus, on the Cross, accepts all that evil can throw at him, even allows himself to be killed, but turns it all into a story of love. In the end, love proves stronger. Sorrow is turned to beauty and joy.

Glazov: Yes, you told me about this piece, the Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth, and having read it, it remains for me one of the most consoling and hope-sustaining texts I know, since it is all about the grounds for hope in the nature of things, and also about the consolatory value of words and conversation, but I also want to express wonder over this last insight of yours into the deeper meaning of that phrase "deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament" in its context and for explaining how it may be understood in a way that does not integrate evil into the final harmony and does not make the ultimate harmony dependent upon evil but allows evil to be an occasion for goodness to reach deeper and higher levels. And I can see how this explanation can also have profound pastoral and vocational worth. But let us turn to a related concern the expression of which I don't notice very clearly in Tolkien but which interests me, namely prayer. Now I know that from one perspective, Tolkien's work is a fictional, secondary world, and is, as such, an exercise in creative imagination. On the other hand, it is a concerted exercise on his part in understanding the nature of our existence. Now given this second point, why is it that his characters hardly ever pray, save perhaps when they sing what may be taken as hymns? If human beings and elves are the children of Eru, the One God, why is there so little consciously manifest spiritual communication between them in the realm of prayer? Even in our own world, way before Abraham, in the most primitive of times, "men still called upon the name of God" (Gen 4:26). But in Tolkien such prayers are at a minimum. How come? What are the lessons to be drawn from this as to his views on prayer and on the way we should conduct our own lives?

Stratford: Given the way thousands of Tolkien fans dress up as Elves and Wizards one must be grateful that he wasn't too explicit about religious practices in Middle-earth. One might by now have a number of Ring-inspired churches. I doubt, though, that he would have considered that as a possibility while he was actually writing the books in the 1940s. He tells us somewhere that in the pre-Christian, even pre-Judaic era where his stories are set, the One God was so “remote” that prayer to him would have seemed impossible. You could only approach the Divine through the intermediary beings, the Valar, who “knew him” face-to-face. The Elves venerated and invoked Elbereth, for example, even though they were aware that she was a created being. But "prayer" in the explicit sense of words or thoughts addressed to Eru would only become possible when Eru began to reveal himself to Men in preparation for his own Incarnation. In that sense the world of Middle-earth is a world in a state of "waiting" for God, without fully realizing what it is waiting for – without knowing any kind of Covenant. The only portrayal of a "pagan" religion among Men in Tolkien's work is the cult of Sauron in Numenor, which was obviously a kind of Satanism. 
   Now all of this strikes us as most peculiar when we come to the Shire, which resembles the rural England of Tolkien's childhood. Hobbiton is an English village with a pub but no parish church – hardly possible! Yet by omitting all reference to a religion among the Hobbits, Tolkien is able to produce quite an effective commentary on post-Christian, "postmodern" Britain – if you take the Scouring of the Shire into account along with the Long-Expected Party. The philosopher Nicholas Boyle has even suggested that the Shire represents (for Tolkien) an England deprived of Catholic Christianity by the Reformation, with the Scouring a prophecy of the return of the Old Faith. I think that is pushing things a bit! To find Tolkien's views on prayer and the Christian life there are two places we can look. Firstly, as a Catholic father he could speak quite openly about prayer and the spiritual life in letters to his children. Many important letters on this subject (for example Letter 250, which is partly about his love for the Eucharist, and Letter 310, about the meaning of life) are published in the official collection. Secondly, we can look within the book itself, provided we look beneath the surface. In his well-known 1953 letter to Robert Murray, Tolkien says it is BECAUSE the work is Catholic that he has cut out "practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and its symbolism." So we should not expect to find the Lord's Prayer in Elvish, but we can find Tolkien's understanding of the "religious element" of life embedded in the symbolism and the story.

Glazov: There is something jarring to me still about the absorption of the religious element (of things like prayer) into the story and its symbolism, but it is addressed by understanding that this absorption and absence were the result of a conscious intention and revision on Tolkien's part and that the search for what he thought about this element is better satisfied in his letters and explanations of the symbolism of his work than in his work. Perhaps we should turn to Tolkien himself in bringing this conversation to a close. Could we synthesize what we spoke about by clarifying the reason why you gave Gandalf's epithet, "the keeper of the secret fire" to Tolkien in your book about him? I have a few hunches, one of them being the identification in Tolkien's writings of Gandalf with the angel Olorin who, before his incarnation as Gandalf, would frequent men and inspire them with faith and hope without revealing himself to them, and whose name is connected with the concepts of "dream" and "artistic imagination." Would it be right to connect him with the keeper of that "light" you spoke of earlier that shines within a good story, “the light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or subcreatively)" and says that they are good and beautiful – the light that takes us back to the very Beginning of things? That fire or light that Gandalf seeks to sustain in Tolkien's world, Tolkien is dedicated to in ours. But what Tolkien is dedicated to is illuminating the salvific importance of the "light of art undivorced from reason" that shines in good stories. If this is ok, I'd now like to make a huge leap and suggest that the humble hobbits in Tolkien's world, to whom few but Gandalf pay attention, correspond in some way in our world to good stories, faerie to whom few of the wise of this world pay serious attention, but at a severe cost. Taking the analogy further would suggest that the salvation of the world depends in large measure on theologians recognizing the key role that humble good fairy stories have to play in bringing humanity onto the winning side of the good in its battle vs evil. I haven't said this very well. Can you clarify it?

Stratford: A servant of the Secret Fire would be more appropriate than "keeper", and I think is what I hinted. The Fire is with God, and kept by Him alone. Ultimately, it is none other than the Holy Spirit. So I guess I would make a distinction between the Fire and the light we are speaking of. The Fire is the power of making real. When Melkor sought to create a world independently of God, he needed the Secret Fire to make it possible, but "he found not the Fire, for it is with Iluvatar". Without the Fire, all he could do was copy and spoil. The light of "art undivorced from reason" is I suppose a kind of radiance from the Fire, or a reflection of it, not the Fire itself. Here Verlyn Flieger's book Splintered Light would be most helpful to read. Notice that Tolkien says it is a light "that sees", and so it must also be a kind of primordial consciousness. (Another of the Inklings, Owen Barfield, would have appreciated that, since his big theme was the evolution of consciousness.) That little quote we are discussing, from a footnote in Letter 131, is very condensed. The Light or consciousness of Valinor enables us to "see things... scientifically (or philosophically)", to imagine them by seeing them "sub-creatively", AND to recognize them as beautiful and good. Tolkien associates the Fall with the "divorce" of the first two, which he calls reason and art, and implies that once that divorce has taken place in our consciousness, we can no longer see things in the way the Creator sees them, as "beautiful". (A connection could be made here with what Hans Urs von Balthasar said about the loss of a sense of the importance and meaning of beauty in the modern world.) 
   So I would call Tolkien a "keeper", if you like, of the Light of Valinor in the sense that his work was intended to heal that divorce, to reawaken that primordial consciousness in his readers. In fact back in 1916 he even wrote in one of his letters about his mission as a writer being to "rekindle an old light in the world". He was writing to one of a group of schoolfriends, who felt they had been collectively granted "some spark of fire" to kindle that light. It turned out to be true, and Tolkien was the one who carried the spark, or through whom a glimpse of that light was passed on to us. You are quite right. The Hobbits and their stories embody the "old light" that is in danger of dying out in the world – just as much as the Elves do. In fact the Elves represent it to the Hobbits, and the Hobbits represent it to us, because they are closer to us than the Elves are. We get drawn into the story through the Hobbits, and with the Hobbits we are changed by their experiences. We start to be able to see the Elvish light.
Theologians need to see that they can't help us by using "reason" divorced from "art". Unless their work is imaginative as well as rational they won't be able to show us the light that comes from the Creator.

Glazov: Perhaps this is a good place to end a conversation on the light and glory to be found in our world through the mediation of fairy stories and imaginative literature. What you say suggests that it might not be inappropriate to commence a gentle campaign for Tolkien's beatification and perhaps canonization, who knows?, that could begin with a collection of testimonies to the spiritual nourishment that he may have provided to thousands of people, in ways analogous to those of Lewis and Newman. Are there any hearts and minds in the hierarchy who would be positively responsive to such a desire and credit it? Von Balthasar would have been one of them were he still alive. You probably know of others. Do you think it's a worthwhile venture?

Stratford: I would love to be able to say yes, and I certainly believe that Tolkien must be in heaven. The impact of his books cannot be overestimated, and he was instrumental in the conversion of C.S. Lewis, and thus at least indirectly in the conversion of many others. I think many Catholics would attribute their conversion in part to the influence of his writings on their imaginations, making goodness and providence more intelligible to them – myself included. But there are many saints in heaven who were never formally canonized and never will be. The process of canonization is extremely complex in cases like this, and I am not sure it would even be a good idea to try to get it started. Something similar has been mooted from time to time about Chesterton, because he inspires great devotion and his writings are so full of Christian wisdom. In Chesterton's case it would almost be easier, since his life was explicitly devoted to defending Catholic faith, and there is plenty of testimony to his personal virtues. But even there the cause for canonization has not even been started, and may never be. Tolkien is more complicated, even by his own account. And who would give testimony to his holiness? His colleagues were sometimes bitchy about him, his family probably had mixed feelings and in any case would not want to encourage a religious "cult" around him. That leaves the fans, who admittedly leave little tokens and symbols of their love and votive offerings on his grave in Oxford (I have noticed a woollen eagle, a sheep, scraps of paper inscribed in Elvish, rosary beads, action figures...). But the Church would want more than that. A few miracles would be needed, but first they would have to establish heroic virtue. My own view is that we should thank him in prayer for what he has written, that we should learn from him and study him by all means, praying for him and his family at All Souls, and if we are privately inclined to ask for his intercession, as someone we believe to be close to God, there is nothing to prevent it. No need to worry that he doesn't have his own feast day in the calendar! I trust that does not disappoint you.

Glazov: No it doesn't disappoint me. It's rather fitting really and helps to conform Tolkien to his character Niggle in Leaf by Niggle in a manner that suggests that that story, about the journey through purgatory of a man dedicated to a painstaking realization of the painting of his dreams/imagination, a Tree, but accomplishing no more than one of its leaves on account of constant interruptions and demands on his charity by his neighbors, and meeting little but contempt from the practical world, is autobiographical. It looks forward to the debate he anticipated about his career, reflecting real worries about the judgement he would receive but also a real hope of intercession by his guardian angel. It suggests that he had faith that his life task and vision would serve as a doorway and a gate to the realization of his dreams beyond all measure in heaven, where he would see not only the leaf he sought to realize but the tree and forest and world to which it was attached. I don't know of a more consoling or inspiring text. I've given it to several people who I think are Niggles at heart and it sustained and consoled them beyond measure. On the other hand, it might be enough to think of Tolkien as a Bilbo or a Frodo or a Sam, rather than as a Gandalf, for the labours he undertook, and not give up the hope that, were the first two analogies to apply, the cardinal analogues of Gandalf in our world might commemorate his memory by saying he deserves a publicly recognized place on a ship to Valinor. But as you've alluded to his family, then Sam-Christopher, might be the better judge of this as you say. Would Christopher reciprocate his father's identification of him with Sam (I recall this from somewhere) by identifying his dad with Frodo?

Stratford: I couldn't say anything about Christopher's present view, since I don't know the family well enough. It isn't easy to identify the author, let alone his son, with any one character. Tolkien senior at one point tells us that he feels more like Faramir than any of the other characters – and he also identifies deeply with Beren, whose name is inscribed on his tombstone along with "Luthien" referring to his wife. However, your question brings up an interesting point that takes us in a way to the heart of the books. If you read the series of volumes Christopher edited and published after his father's death under the title "History of Middle-earth", you see that the father-son relationship is closely related in Tolkien's own mind to the theme of storytelling. Over and over again in the early years of his project, after the First World War, he started, and then abandoned, attempts to "frame" the stories that were to become The Silmarillion by developing a plausible account of the "transmission" of the tales. The final version of The Lord of the Rings, as you know, purports to be a transcription of the "Red Book of Westmarch", which originates in the memoir that Bilbo is seen to be writing in Rivendell, which he then hands over to Frodo to complete, as his "heir", and Frodo in turn passes on to Sam. In the posthumously published "Lost Tales", the one who collects the narratives is a man called Eriol, who comes to the island of the Elves from the north of what is now the European mainland and hears the history of the Elves in the "Cottage of Lost Play". The island itself is later conquered by Eriol's sons (Hengest, Horsa, and Heorrenda) and becomes known as "England". In Tolkien's later writings, Eriol becomes Aelfwine ("Elf-friend", which you remember is also one of the names given to Frodo), and by 1937 in "The Lost Road" and 1945 in "The Notion Club Papers" Aelfwine is just one of a series of father-son pairs, descended in direct line from Elendil of Numenor, who share a kind of inherited memory of the island's fall. Tolkien and his son Michael (who was born in 1920) were haunted by exactly such an apparent "memory", a dream of great wave drowning a green land. It would, of course, be neat if the son who shared the dream had been Christopher, who was the one who went on to become the "heir", but nevertheless the idea of inherited memory suggested to Tolkien a non-technological means of time travel that would enable him to root his stories even more firmly in the reality of our present.
   The metaphor of the "leaf" and the "tree" that you found in Leaf by Niggle is tremendously relevant to all this. Not only is each of Tolkien's tales merely a leaf on the great "Tree of Tales" that he tries to sketch out in The Silmarillion, but he sees himself as a leaf on a great tree of ancestors, and the stories are a way of connecting himself and his people, the English, back to Numenor/Atlantis, back to the Elves, and ultimately back to the stars and the first light of creation. It is a vision of history in which we are all connected through a great story that begins in God and returns to him, woven of human freedom under divine Providence, a tale of loss and tragedy and defeat that culminates in eucatastrophe and ends in the healing of all sorrows. This is the landscape and the reality that is revealed to Niggle after his death. Tolkien wrote in one of his letters to his son Michael in the dark days of the Second World War, "The link between father and son is not only of the perishable flesh: it must have something of aeternitas about it. There is a place called 'heaven' where the good here unfinished is completed; and where the stories unwritten, and the hopes unfulfilled, are continued. We may laugh together yet...."

Gregory Glazov teaches at Seton Hall Seminary in New Jersey.

No comments:

Post a Comment