Tolkien on Longing (excerpt)

What's also notable about THE LORD OF THE RINGS is, for a book as long as it is, many of its readers reread the novel many times over. Yet despite its enduring popularity, Tolkien is often held in complete disregard by the literary establishment.

The real question is why? In the literary climate that is characterized by modernism and post-modernism where the twentieth and twenty first century is a wasteland why does a "series" of fantasy novels become one of the most beloved works in modern times?

It's because the power of myth over the human imagination works wonders, creating a longing and a hunger that, Tolkien argues, is met by the Christian religion. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis are the flip-sides of the same coin, with Lewis giving us accounts of the longing and Tolkien providing the books that would create that longing. And what about the longing? It's that longing for Myth, that love for those beauties which Tolkien shows us in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. It's that longing that sets man apart from all other creatures in the universe: a craving for beauty and for joy. The German word for this longing is "senhsucht". In a time characterized by fast-food, cell-phones, materialism, superficiality, the account of a Hobbit working against all odds in a mythic landscape so captures the human imagination (and this is NOT hype) that an entire genre is created. It is because of how Tolkien so masterfully handles Myth that he has been so highly treasured by such a large fan base.
Joseph Pearce - Tolkien: Man and Myth, Ignatius (1999)
The Eden “myth” was at the very heart of Tolkien's creation of The Silmarillion, as well as being at the very heart of the Creation myth contained within it. Tolkien's longing for this lost Eden and his mystical glimpses of it, inspired and motivated by his sense of “exile” from the fullness of truth, was the source of his creativity. At the core of The Silmarillion, indeed at the core of all his work, was a hunger for the truth that transcends mere facts: the infinite and eternal Reality which was beyond the finite and temporal perception of humanity.
Review of The Lord of the Rings –

Thû and Huan

Thus came Thû, as wolf more great
than e'er was seen from Angband's gate
to the burning south, than ever lurked
in mortal lands or murder worked.
Sudden he sprang, and Huan leaped
aside in shadow. On he swept
to Lúthien lying swooning faint.
To her drowning senses came the laint
of his foul breathing, and she stirred;
dizzily she spake a whispered word,
her mantle brushed across his face
He stumbled staggering in his pace.
Out leaped Huan. Back he sprang.
Beneath the stars there shuddering rang
the cry of hunting wolves at bay,
the tongue of hounds that fearless slay
Backward and forth they leaped and ran
feinting to flee, and round they span,
and bit and grappled, and fell and rose.

Then suddenly Huan holds and throws
his ghastly foe; his throat he rends
choking his life. Not so it ends.
From shape to shape, from wolf to worm,
from monster to his own demon form,
Thû changes, but that desperate grip
he cannot shake, nor form it slip
No wizardry, nor spell, nor dart,
no fang, nor venom, nor devil's art
could harm that hound that hart and boar
had hunted once in Valinor. 

The Geste of Beren and Lúthien

J.R.R. Tolkien
(lines 2,740 to 2,769)


[Image: Vitali Linitsky "Christmas Visitation]

When we were lost in the night
Down grass-paths old,   
Miserable, without light,
Hungry and cold,
Then your voice cried 'Hush !' through the dark.

We saw no lantern nor heard
Any man near:
But we stood still at the word
With hope to hear,
For your voice cried 'Hush !' through the dark.

When Satan had hold on me
To make an end,
In heaven, in earth, I could see
Sign of no friend :
Then your voice cried 'Hush !' through the dark.

Does one draw near where I grope,
To put off death ?
I see him not, nor have hope,
Yet hold my breath :
For your voice cried 'Hush !' through the dark.

Charles Williams
Poems of Conformity (1917) 

Lewisian Ents?

Lucy woke out of the deepest sleep you can imagine, with the feeling that the voice she liked best in the world had been calling her name. She thought at first it was her father's voice, but that did not seem quite right. Then she thought it was Peter's voice, but that did not seem to fit either. She did not want to get up; not because she was still tired - on the contrary she was wonderfully rested and all the aches had gone from her bones - but because she felt so extremely happy and comfortable. She was looking straight up at the Narnian moon, which is larger than ours, and at the starry sky, for the place where they had bivouacked was comparatively open.

"Lucy," came the call again, neither her father's voice nor Peter's. She sat up, trembling with excitement but not with fear. The moon was so bright that the whole forest landscape around her was almost as clear as day, though it looked wilder. Behind her was the fir wood; away to her right the jagged cliff-tops on the far side of the gorge; straight ahead, open grass to where a glade of trees began about a bow-shot away. Lucy looked very hard at the trees of that glade.

"Why, I do believe they're moving," she said to herself. "They're walking about." She got up, her heart beating wildly, and walked towards them. There was certainly a noise in the glade, a noise such as trees make in a high wind, though there was no wind tonight. Yet it was not exactly an ordinary tree noise either. Lucy felt there was a tune in it, but she could not catch the tune any more than she had been able to catch the words when the trees had so nearly talked to her the night before. But there was, at least, a lilt; she felt her own feet wanting to dance as she got nearer. And now there was no doubt that the trees were really moving moving in and out through one another as if in a complicated country dance. ("And I suppose," thought Lucy, "when trees dance, it must be a very, very country dance indeed.') She was almost among them now.

The first tree she looked at seemed at first glance to be not a tree at all but a huge man with a shaggy beard and great bushes of hair. She was not frightened: she had seen such things before. But when she looked again he was only a tree, though he was still moving. You couldn't see whether he had feet or roots, of course, because when trees move they don't walk on the surface of the earth; they wade in it as we do in water. The same thing happened with every tree she looked at. At one moment they seemed to be the friendly, lovely giant and giantess forms which the tree-people put on when some good magic has called them into full life: next moment they all looked like trees again. But when they looked like trees, it was like strangely human trees, and when they looked like people, it was like strangely branchy and leafy people - and all the time that queer lilting, rustling, cool, merry noise.

"They are almost awake, not quite," said Lucy. She knew she herself was wide awake, wider than anyone usually is.

C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian (1951)

Sweeter than Honey?

"More to be desired are they than gold, yea than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb"*.

One can well understand this being said of God's mercies, God's visitations, His attributes. But what the poet is actually talking about is God's law, His commands; His "ruling" as Dr. Moffatt well translates in verse 9 (for "judgements" here plainly means decisions about conduct). What is being compared to gold and honey is those "statutes" (in the Latin version "decrees") which, we are told, "rejoice the heart". For the whole poem is about the Law, not about "Judgement" in the sense to which Chapter I was devoted.

This was to me at first very mysterious. "Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery" -- I can understand that a man can, and must, respect these "statutes", and try to obey them, and assent to them in his heart. But it is very hard to find how they could be, so to speak, delicious, how they exhilarate. If this is difficult at any time, it is doubly so when obedience to either is opposed to some strong, and perhaps in itself innocent, desire. A man held back by his unfortunate previous marriage to some lunatic or criminal who never dies from some woman whom he faithfully loves, or a hungry man left alone, without money, in a shop filled with he smell and sight of new bread, roasting coffee, or fresh strawberries -- can these find the prohibition of adultery or of theft at all like honey? They may obey, they may still respect the "statute", but surely it could be more aptly compared to the dentists's forceps or the front line than to anything enjoyable and sweet.

C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms,
Chapter VI "Sweeter Than Honey" (1955)

*Psalm 19

The Other Mrs. Moore

[Image : Quarry Church]

"There was in the grounds of The Kilns when I arrived there, away over beyond the desolate tennis court, a small two roomed weather-board shack. It was almost completely overgrown with creepers and bushes and was evidently not in use for any purpose. When I asked Fred Paxford about it he told me that it had been "Mrs Moore's house", and it had been built for her use. On further inquiry I came to understand that the "Mrs Moore" in question had been a family friend and had fallen on hard times and thus had been brought into the household in Ireland to "help", and that when things became very hard in her later life, Jack and Warnie had "rescued" her, brought her over from Ireland, and built that little bungalow for her so that she could spend her declining last years in peace and without worry.This information may or may not be completely accurate as it was gleaned over a period of time; neither Jack nor Warnie would ever openly talk about their charitable works.

The little house later became my "Gang Hut" (rather a posh one actually as it had two rooms and a coal fired heating stove) and also an alternative "sleep-out" bedroom for me to use when I was feeling adventurous or whatever.I visited Mrs Moore's grave only a few weeks ago as it happens in order to point it out to some visitors. She shares the burial place of her Earthly residue with that of the other Mrs Moore, at Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry.

Douglas Gresham - Lenten Lands (1988)

"I myself am not fit to run a henhouse"

I think Lewis was so compelling because, first, he was incomparable at evoking "joy" as he defined it. Whatever idea and yearning for "heaven" I ever had came from Narnia. Second, I think he had an intuitive -- not theoretical -- grasp of psychology -- he was one of those people who reads his own mind so well, he knows a good deal about how all human minds (and wills and emotions) work.The bickering of the children in The Magician's Nephew, Eustace's redemption in Dawn Treader, the seeds of human hatred elucidated by Screwtape -- and above all, the parental love turned to jealous gall in Till We Have Faces -- his greatest imaginative leap and rendition of the romance of the soul --have a kind of easy, intimate verity that give his spiritual dramas life.

At the same time, when it came to doctrine and apologetics, I think he was an unwitting sophist -- an honest sophist, if that makes any sense, because he fooled himself first.

He had a ridiculously thin dodge against the then au courant Freudian claims that God was the expression of various unconscious wishes: that we have equally strong unconscious wishes for there to be no God. Not true, where he was concerned. His need is palpable -- and poignant, given the brutalities and deprivations of his childhood and early manhood -- his mother's death at eight, a school he called "Belsen" and others almost equally brutal, and then a stint in the trenches beginning on his nineteenth birthdy and ending months later with a serious wound (he found school more trying). If anyone ever needed an omniscient, omnibenevolent parent, it was CSL.

His motives can't be proved. Fair enough. What's palpably ridiculous are his warmed-over medieval arguments for the objective truth of Christian doctrine. One was that Christ had to be "either a God or a devil" - or self-delusive megalomaniac, as we'd now say. While sniping at the imperfections of scientific Biblical scholarship, Lewis shut his eyes to the painstaking work of two centuries that convincingly discerned different voices, sources, periods, influences on Biblical text. There's also no recognition in his work that people from different eras might perceive and express truth differently -- i.e., that someone in an earlier era who claimed to deliver God's words directly might be neither a fraud nor God's stenographer.

Then there's the cultural chauvinism in his claims that other religious traditions foreshadowed or provided latter-day distortions of Christianity -- the one truth, which worked like something "gradually coming into focus." And the absurd argument that God would create the physical laws of the universe in part to get our attention by His deliberate breaking of them through miracles. And his over-correction of what he called (this may be a paraphrase) our era's chronological snobbery -- an assumption that new ideas are inherently superior to old ones. Lewis, making the opposite error, refused to acknowledge any lasting advances in political ethics or developments in our understanding of human rights.

What's all this got to do with your conservatism? Lewis's politics in the broadest sense, I suspect, inform yours. He's one of your conservatives of doubt -- dubious about the efficacy of human attempts to permanently improve human life. He's a democrat (small d, believer in democracy) by default, of the Churchillian school that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the alternatives. His own formulation was that democracy is necessary because human corruption means that no individual or small group can be trusted with power. That's true, and salutary.

What Lewis lacked was any sense that participating in political life is part of what makes us fully human -- and the corollary, that a people's meaningful participation in politics could permanently advance human welfare. Strange, for a man steeped in Greek literature -- no sense that man is a political animal. He charmingly wrote, "I myself am not fit to run a henhouse." Well, neither am I. But that doesn't mean I have no role or responsibility in governance, and that if all were well I'd live like one of Lewis's Narnian badgers, in peaceful quietism. And while you, Andrew, are a very political animal, you share Lewis' unduly limited sense of what government and politics can accomplish. I recognize, with Obama, that Reagan had a lasting insight, and that the lasting pressure he put on liberalism not to bloat government, not to intrude it into every aspect of our lives, not to let it suck any more resources out of the private sector than it needs to perform its functions at maximum efficiency, is salutary. But to go from there to an assumption that government can't improve on its furtherance of commonwealth, that it can't fairly counteract rising income inequality or spread the most fundamental risks, like illness or destitution in old age, more effectively than it does now, is defeatist.

Phillip Pullman, author of the fantasy series His Dark Materials, has attacked Lewis with Oedipal fervor as being politically repressive, indoctrinating children to be obedient uber alle -- obedient to manifestly present gods and kings. There's an element of truth in this. Lewis sees human beings essentially as subjects, not citizens. In Lewis' fantasy, kings rule for the benefit of the governed, subject spontaneously offer up their loyalty, chivalry works as advertised, and the good guys' wars are always purely defensive. But Pullman misses Lewis' core anti-authoritarianism. When Lewis said that the desire to be left alone is as strong as the desire for a heavenly father, he was speaking to the heart to the extent that he did heartily want to be left alone, and he wanted everyone else to be, too. His benevolent rulers don't intrude in their subjects' lives. He had a great imaginative grasp of tyrants whose core assumption is that their subjects exist to serve them. And he provides for children the great pleasure of well-dramatized rebellions against bullies and tyrants. In fact Pullman respects raw power more than Lewis does, and he's more dogmatic in his anti-monotheism than Lewis ever was in his 'mere Christianity.'
The Atlantic ~ March 2009