The steward of Middle-earth

By | December 10, 2018

Hannah Long writes:

Around the time Christopher [Tolkien] was commissioned an officer in the RAF in 1945, [J.R.R.] Tolkien was calling his son “my chief critic and collaborator.” Christopher would return from flying missions to pore over another chapter of his father’s work. He also joined the informal literary club known as the Inklings. At 21, he was the youngest—and is now the last surviving—member. The band of friends—J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, and Charles Williams, among others—would meet at Oxford’s Eagle and Child pub or Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen College to chat about literature and philosophy and to read aloud portions of works in progress.

Christopher was recruited to narrate his father’s stories. The group considered his clear, rich voice a marked improvement over his father’s dithering, mumbling delivery. Lewis had recognized the brilliance of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work from the first moment he encountered it, and for years remained Tolkien’s only audience. Dyson, not so appreciative, exclaimed during one reading, “Oh, not another f—ing elf!”

Poet and scholar Malcolm Guite argues that the Inklings, despite their profound differences (Tolkien was an English Roman Catholic, Lewis an Ulster Protestant, Williams a hermetic mystic) refined and supported each other in their common literary mission.

“They’re not often noticed by literary historians because . . . in terms of English literature, the self-defining mainstream of 20th-century literature supposedly was high modernism, shaped by Joyce and Eliot,” Guite said in a 2011 lecture. But “there was actually . . . something quite radical going on in that group. Together, they were able to form a profoundly alternative and countercultural vision.” Guite emphasizes, in particular, the Inklings’ shared desire to respond to the materialist, largely atheistic cohort whose voices dominated the world of letters.

Although the Inklings are often accused of escapism, nearly all culture was engaged in a sort of dissociation because of the carnage and devastation of the First World War. Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger writes that Tolkien was “a traveler between worlds,” from his Edwardian youth to his postbellum disillusionment. It was this “oscillation that, paradoxically, makes him a modern writer, for . . . the temporal dislocation of his ‘escape’ mirrored the psychological disjunction and displacement of his century.”

High modernism found that escape in science, creating a stark divide between the material and the spiritual. This technical, technological, atomizing approach turns up in The Lord of the Rings with the villainous wizard Saruman, whose materialist philosophy dismisses the transcendent. Early in the book, Saruman changes his robe from white to multicolored. He explains, “White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” Gandalf replies. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

Saruman ignores that his dissection of color has eliminated something greater than the sum of its parts; he has lost view of the transcendent white light. For the Inklings, the medium of fantasy restored—or rather revealed—the enchantment of a disenchanted world. It reinstated an understanding of the transcendent that had been lost in postwar alienation. [Continue reading…]

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