‘Mythopoeia’

To one [C.S. Lewis] who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’.

Philomythus to Misomythus

You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.

At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;
and as on page o’er-written without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
an endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,
each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.
God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.
The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain’s contortions with a separate dint.
Yet trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen
and never were so named, tifi those had been
who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.
Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers bencath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-pattemed; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.
The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?
All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise — for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is deadly certain: Evil is.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.
-J.R.R. Tolkien

Friday Flotsam: On Professor Tolkien and Related(?) Matters

1. I have been reading the letters of Professor Tolkien lately, mostly straight through, though sometimes jumping about when I want to find his views on something specific. Mostly I read it because I enjoy his company, as it were, and I feel as though I am getting to know him personally as a man. He was, of course, a genius, but what is rather more important than that what might be called a deep soul. There are great wells of sensitivity in him. I almost wrote ‘of poetical feeling’, but that doesn’t really convey the right idea. When two people love one another very deeply, they naturally come to know one another intimately, which adds further depth to their love. Some men are like that with the works of God, able to put their hands down into creation itself as it were and perceive the startling pattern and order and beauty of all these unique natures acting out creation (for creation isn’t a moment of time long ago, it’s the unfolding process all around us: a created thing doesn’t merely ‘exist’, part of its being is to act and be acted upon).

It is the sort of thing that a modern or a scientific mind tends rather to impede than otherwise, as looking at things too mechanically: e.g. continually asking “what is the good of the thing?” what which we mean “how can this thing make someone’s life a little longer, a little more secure, and a little more comfortable?” But the thing I’m talking about is a matter of seeing the good in a thing itself, as what it is.

Of course the trouble with trying to describe this is just that it doesn’t go into scientifically precise language, or if it does I’m afraid I don’t have the vocabulary for it yet (and if I did, you the reader probably wouldn’t, rendering the whole thing a glorified glossary). My point is that Professor Tolkien had this perception in abundance. He was something of an atavism: a man whose tastes and mindset were rather more of the high Middle Ages, though flavored through with that distinct character of Victorian and early 20th-century England (which is a topic all in itself).

In any case, I’m much enjoying spending time with the Professor and basking in his rich sanity.

2. It is also quite interesting to see men from different perspectives. Professor Tolkien offers a number of insights into Professor Lewis, obviously his dear friend for many years (and even after their friendship cooled he still refers to him with great affection and admiration). Among other things he refers to Lewis’s strong anti-Catholic prejudices, something that only rarely comes out in Lewis’s own writings (as he didn’t think it his place to deal with inter-communion debates, at least not publicly). Those who say that Lewis was ‘almost a Catholic’ frankly need to read more of the man: he shared many distinctly Catholic views and was friends with many Catholics and admired nuns, but his northern-Irish upbringing had left very strong roots of aversion to the Church herself (it would be an unpardonable license of me to speculate on why). That comes out even on a close reading of his religious works (e.g. his insistence that ‘the Church’ means ‘the invisible body of all believers’: one of his less coherent ideas). There’s one letter where Tolkien notes that Lewis, though otherwise as anti-Red as any man, yet had a blindspot for believing everything the papers said about Franco and the situation in Spain, refusing to hear a word in his favor or to believe the stories of priests and religious being massacred, though quick to credit tales of Protestant preachers being mistreated. He was “very quiet” after an evening with Roy Campbell, who had been in Spain and fought on Franco’s side.

It’s rather startling to find such a failing recorded, not just because it’s recorded of such an otherwise astute and good-hearted man, but also because it’s so familiar to us today. This is one of those moments where, as one of my college professors put it, the intervening years simply melt away. Though as Tolkien pointed out in commenting on the event, hatred of, or at least aversion to Rome is really the only justification for Anglicanism (St. John Henry Newman made a similar point, and it was one of the reasons he left the Anglican communion. I’d like to find Tolkien’s view on St. Newman (as an extra-extra aside, I’m finding it tricky to find a good shorthand to address this particular saint, since we also have St. John Neuman of Philadelphia. I’m reduced to addressing him by his full name every time. I rather think he finds the conundrum amusing) ).

3. I hope no one thinks I’m criticizing Professor Lewis in any of this: he’s well beyond my criticism, and as noted Professor Tolkien still fought tooth and nail against those who bad-mouthed him even after their friendship had cooled. I just think it’s interesting. We have to remember that in reading what men wrote, especially what they wrote for publication, we’re getting a very select view of them, often the very best that they have to offer, heavily polished and reflected over. That’s why, in Lewis’s own works, one is sometimes rather surprised to find him referring to his own bad temper, or to his many other, less mentionable sins. We don’t associate the erudite, warm-hearted voice of the author with the things he describes of himself. Unless, of course, we reflect on how different we are from what we ourselves write.

4. This took a different direction than I intended. I wanted to comment a bit on the Amazon ‘Lord of the Rings’ series (sic), or at least what little I’ve heard of it (i.e. that some moron wanted his own version of Game of Thrones and so appropriated Tolkien for the purposes, since the Shadow can only mock and cannot make). The most, ah, illustrative incident I’ve encountered is a tweet from whatever orc now runs ‘theonering.net’ justifying their desecration of the Professor’s work by claiming that Tolkien was ‘woke’.

Yes, the most prominent reactionary author of the 20th century, the devout Roman Catholic and Medievalist who despised ‘progress’ and who described himself as possibly “a non-constitutional monarchist” is claimed for the anti-reality brigade. May them and all their works be thrown down and forgotten.

(He also justifies the race-swapping on hand by claiming Tolkien ‘never described his character’s color’, indicating the idiot never actually read the books, given the number of times the descriptors ‘fair’, ‘swarthy’, and so on are used).

I think Professor Tolkien himself expressed my feelings best (writing of Prof. Lewis’s death): “I wish it could be forbidden that after a great man is dead, little men should scribble over him.”

5. On the other hand, I’ve also seen defenders of Tolkien claim him for the Libertarian camp, which is equally absurd. The trouble, I think, is that we today have a very limited idea of politics and worldviews: we misunderstand things because most of us only have two or three categories in which to put them (we always like to say “there are two kinds of people in the world….” Makes things so much simpler). Partly this is a consequence of our liberal heritage: liberalism always presented itself as the great foe of tyranny, which basically meant that anything not liberal was tyrannical and anything liberal was freedom (e.g. King Louis trying to enforce the established rules of the Estates General is tyranny. Confiscating the property of the Church and giving it to rich industrialists and landowners is freedom).

This tendency is reinforced by the American tradition of having two viable political parties, the platforms of which are an absurd hodgepodge of mostly unrelated positions.

The idea that someone can stand at right angles to both sides, or dispute the fundamental principles at work in both, never really enters our heads. So we try to squeeze all varieties of Monarchists (and there are probably at least as many varieties of Monarchism as there are of Liberalism, just that Monarchists tend not to feel obligated to impose their own version upon the rest of the world as the only means to liberty) or other reactionaries into the liberal-made boxes, with the result that their actual positions fly over our heads.

6. I think most people today, even those who love his work, don’t really grasp what Tolkien’s position was. They know it appeals strongly to them, and so they hunt out and focus on whatever is closest to their own point of view.

But the common appeal, I think, is the aforementioned ‘depth of soul’, which is so rare today and was never common to the degree that Tolkien had it and combined it with genius. Most examples of it are behind difficult, archaic language and obviously alien (to us) points of view, but Tolkien is a near contemporary of ours who brings all that sort of thing forward in an almost familiar way.

Basically, moderns are starved for real myth and depth and Tolkien is one of the few places they find it (his many imitators, even the talented ones, I think grasp at something they lack the background or ‘content’ to create).

All this sort of thing ought to be found in the Church, and still can be for those willing to look, but alas, the majority of the stewards of the Church are as orcish, small-minded, and materialistic (in assumption if not in belief) as most of their contemporaries and so tuck away the really appealing elements that people are starving for into the backroom as something shameful while emphasizing the same shallow, boring junk that people can get everywhere else.

7. Wow, that one took some twists and turns. Probably annoyed just about everyone at some point in that.

Tolkien’s Answer Summarized

There is a famous story about what happened when Professor Tolkien was approached about the possibility of a German version of The Hobbit in 1938. Of course, this was when the criminal Nazi government was in charge of the nation, so before the German publisher would undertake a printing they, of course, had to inquire whether he was sufficiently diverse racially pure.

Professor Tolkien found the whole notion disgusting and drafted two possible replies, both of which conveyed his intention to ‘let the German edition go hang’ if it meant playing along with this nonsense. Part of the unused (and more acid) letter ran as follows:

“I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”

The full letter and an account of the story can be found here. Or it could be summarized as follows: