Nicola Alter has a great piece on J.R.R. Tolkien at Thoughts on Fantasy. Anyone who admires Tolkien will enjoy this review of his special genius and unique contribution to fantasy fiction. As Alter says:
People often forget that Tolkien was also a linguist and a poet and a university professor. He invented new languages. He wrote literary essays, many of which discuss his work. He was a friend of fellow fantasy author C.S. Lewis, and the two were members of the same informal literary discussion group.
Tolkien was not only writing amazing fantasy novels, he was also reflecting on his own work and on the fantasy genre itself. One of Tolkien’s famous essays is called On Fairy Stories (Tolkien called “fairy stories” what we would today call “fantasy”) – a speech he wrote and then later published.
I read On Fairy Stories several years ago for an essay I was writing, and recently revisited it to answer a related question on Quora. When I did, I was once again astounded by the eloquence and intelligence of this man. It struck me that in its fledging years, as the fantasy genre was growing in popularity, it couldn’t have had a better champion. He was not just someone writing brilliant fantasy, but also someone analysing it, promoting it, and defending it against critics who dismissed it as useless or escapist or literature fit only for children.
I’m presently reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s commentary on his translation of Beowulf. Not only does Tolkien deliver an energetic and loving rendition of this classic adventure, he also shares his insights into the rich and vigorous culture that produced it. As the poet W.H. Auden once declared, encountering Tolkien’s long-sighted and perceptive observations on Beowulf is an “unforgettable experience.”
And it still is.
“In truly good writing no matter how many times you read it you do not know how it is done. That is beacause there is a mystery in all great writing and that mystery does not dissect out. It continues and it is always valid. Each time you re-read you see or learn something new.” ― Ernest Hemingway
Fred on the Head has posed an interesting question: Do you re-read?
To this I can only plead: Guilty.
There are about a dozen works I find myself returning to, and for exactly the reason Hemingway cites above. In fact, three of Hemingway’s works are on my list: The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Killers, and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. For me, they never lose their power to amaze and teach. Even when my intention is to analyze, I end up getting lured in once again by the robust narrative.
Mishima’s Patriotism leaves me reeling each time I experience it. What a show: breathtaking eroticism and rapturous prose made all the more vivid and potent by the blunt reality of sepukku. Whoa.
Among the classics, I keep returning to A Midsummer’s Night Dream and Beowulf more than any of the others. And I’m in the process of travelling to Mordor once again with the Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve almost finished The Two Towers, and am just as carried away by Tolkien’s imaginative world-building as the first time I experienced him.
All good friends I could never get tired of.
Writing in the latest Imaginative Conservative, Jay Wesley Richards and Jonathan Witt offer a useful summary of Tolkien’s themes in Lord of the Rings. They point out that Tolkien’s epic is a war tale that was not intended to be an allegory, but still applicable to the issues of the time in which it was written. I’d add that Tolkien’s insights are applicable to many current issues as well.
In response to the early criticism that the methods of Sauron’s forces and those of the Fellowship are “indistinguishable” since each side kills the other, Richards and Witt note that the Fellowship observes Just War theory: They fight aggression, they fight honorably, and, as far as circumstances allow, they are charitable to those they defeat in battle. But such acts rise from a fundamentally different worldview from their enemies:
There is also the stark difference between what Brian Rosebury calls “the diversity of good and the sameness of evil.”Among the free peoples of Middle-Earth there is widespread and mostly tolerated diversity, which extends to what does not happen. For instance, King Théoden and later Aragorn might have tried to insist that a primitive and ancient people known as the Woses join their military alliance. Instead Théoden takes the gracious help they offer, and both he and Aragorn honor the Woses’ desire to otherwise stay out of the war.
Compare this to the homogenizing slavery and oppression of those who bow the knee to Mordor. The contrast is stark enough that only a reader blinded by a philosophy of war devoid of even the crudest nuance could miss it.
I think that’s the key to understanding the differences between Sauron and the Fellowship, as well as the difference between totalitarians and small “r” republicans. The desire to flatten reality and make all the same drives all totalitarians, whether Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot. One of Russell Kirk’s principles of conservatism tell us, “They [conservatives] feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.”
The notion that one possesses an absolute and universal truth is too often used to justify the initiation of violence to enforce that truth. As Tolkien counseled, men are not wise enough to choose for all. Now that lesson is certainly applicable today.
Over at the Imaginative Conservative, Benjamin Welton has a great article on a neglected Russian painter whose central theme was the re-imagining and refinement of Russian mythology. Nicholas Roerich’s mission, says Welton, was analogous to what Tolkien aimed for in TLOTR. And it turns out that Roerich also inspired none other than Lovecraft:
The American pulp writer H.P. Lovecraft spoke often of his appreciation for Roerich and once wrote to his friend James F. Morton that “there is something in his [Roerich’s] handling of perspective and atmosphere which to me suggests other dimensions and alien orders of being – or at least, the gateways to such.” Notably, Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness was influenced by Roerich’s renderings of Tibet’s glacial precipices.
I was greatly pleased by the news that J.R.R. Tolkien’s son discovered his father’s manuscript of an original translation of Beowulf and had it published. And this thoughtful review in The Catholic World Report is just as enjoyable. Tolkien’s inspired translation is a forceful reminder that whatever perversions and distractions may delude and ensnare modern man, certain truths endure:
At the least, we can say that there is more reality to Old English folklore than in the perverse fantasies by which Americans now live. When a society promotes disloyalty and monstrosity so far as to celebrate dragons and vampires and witches, when respectability-craving “conservatives” can always find reasons to compromise with the next phase of an ongoing anti-Christian revolution, when piles of gadgets and toys and luxury goods are offered in compensation for the loss of faith, family, and roots—why, in such times we could do worse than to recall Beowulf’s trusty kinsman Wiglaf, who lives by the dictum that “[k]inship may nothing set aside in virtuous mind.”
This reminds me of Sam Francis’ review of James C. Russell’s The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity, which argued that northern European Christianity was heavily influenced by the pagan worldview of its adherents. Unlike the “world-rejecting” Oriental religions, northern Europeans embraced and celebrated the world, including their past:
The saints and Christ Himself were depicted as Germanic warrior heroes; both festivals and locations sacred in ancient Germanic cults were quietly taken over by the Christians as their own; and words and concepts with religious meanings and connotations were subtly redefined in terms of the new religion. Yet the final result was not that the Germans were converted to the Christianity they had originally encountered, but rather that that form of Christianity was “Germanized,” coming to adopt many of the same Indo-European folk values that the old pagan religion had celebrated.
I think J.R.R. Tolkien would approve.
Hwaet! Comes news that J.R.R. Tolkien himself translated Beowulf as a young scholar and set it aside in a desk drawer. Now his son has had it published.
Time to break out the mead! To Heorot!