Tolkien as linguo-mystic

I’ve been rather distracted by some books on Tolkien and by some of his more marginal material. And I’m afraid I may be only at the beginning of the distraction, that the distraction could become a project in its own right. Perhaps distraction is the wrong word, then, because of its privative and negative sense: one is drawn or dragged (trahere) against one’s will and better judgment away from one’s goal. But though I have been forcibly moved, it has been into rather than away from what interests me most in the art of writing, and for that matter in metaphysics and language, in music and the natural world. And something is becoming clear to me that I’ve lost sight of since I was a teenager, and that is the way you can become totally immersed, in an almost participatory fashion, in fictional worlds, in an author’s whole oeuvre and universe and the thought, the way of thinking over many years, out of which that world of words comes. I see that one could easily teach an entire semester’s course on Tolkien’s work — if one did not, in fact, compose an entire curriculum around it. Want to learn Quenya? That’s two semesters prerequisite in Finnish and two in Latin. I can’t remember the last time I was as excited by and immersed in the total work of a writer as I seem now to be with respect to Tolkien. And it’s not like I haven’t read the man before. Heck, I heard and internalized The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings before I could very well read at all. But it’s a good while since I did more than glance here and there in the old philologist’s work, and I had never, until recently, begun to dig very far into the ancillary and unfinished opuscules. Christopher Tolkien completed his monumental editorial project, the twelve-volume History of Middle Earth, when I was about fourteen, and I was vaguely aware of it, I think I even read one or two volumes. But that was getting toward the time when I began to feel a need to put aside fantasy, and even (foolishly) to become embarrassed by it or at least uneasy, for the sake of other forms of literary art such as French poetry, and Dostoevsky, and Bob Dylan — all which stuff, by the way, has far more to do with Tolkien than I realized twenty years ago.

Well, then, I’ve been reading Tolkien’s minor works, i.e. some of his poetry that did not appear in the larger fictions and the short stories; and also the essays. I’ve also been reading insightful works by Tom Shippey, Jonathan S McIntosh, and Stratford Caldecott on Tolkien’s style and mythopoeia and metaphysics and even, as I would call it, his ‘linguo-mysticism.’ And then there are his letters, which are of enormous interest not only in elucidating the creative work, but I should think as well for all writers interested in the relationship between the craft or style of fantasy and mythoi, the substance of it. They contain a good deal of spiritual wisdom and sobriety into the bargain. I am only getting started on the letters. But what I really need to give a thorough inspection is the History of Middle Earth. Particularly I’m eager to read the “The Notion Club Papers,” which in conjunction with the short stories (especially “Leaf by Niggle”) would seem to constitute the author’s clearest metafictional thought.

But I digress. The larger point is that Tolkien, as I am somehow only now realizing, was a writer on the order of, say, Spenser; or, to use more modern examples: James Joyce, John Cowper Powys, Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner and Marcel Proust. I might throw in Virginia Woolf and Herman Broch as well, and not even get started on poets. Why this odd bunch? Two things are striking about Tolkien: his total commitment, as a writer, to a single, unified world or cosmos; and the origin of his work in a fascination with the innermost essence or heart of language — several languages in particular, and language as such — which is the root and genesis of his peculiar, quasi-mystical insight. Tolkien himself attributed his creative work to these twinned sources, which he would sometimes call mythopoeia and glossopoeia, the creation of story-worlds and in a unique way of language, and therefore of unique, new languages. He was, then, a master stylist, in the ranks with Shakespeare and Milton and, again, Spenser, all of whom were really more than stylists, they practically reinvented English for themselves. (It would be interesting to compare Tolkien as a stylist, really a polystylist, with some roughly contemporary reworkers of English whom we might better describe as archaists, viz. Charles Doughty, Robert Bridges, and E R Eddison… another time.) But call it style anyway, and say that for Tolkien, style was inextricable from what we now might call world-building. That modernist company I listed all had a philological bent like Tolkien’s (though none were the trained philologists Tolkien was), and they all, like him, went deep in place, which is to say in history or in memory. And they all knew a kind of metaphysical awe that spurred their writing. Perhaps crucially, the worlds that these writers shaped both are and are not this real world. And their commitment was near-total, i.e. their writing seemed to exist in the service of their worlds and the kinds of language necessitated by those worlds, rather than the worlds and styles existing as epiphenomena of the writing, as usefully consistent settings and thematically appropriate styles. However, this is not to say — at least not for Tolkien — that world was ontologically prior to language. Indeed, either the reverse obtains or, for Tolkien, world and word are coeval.

One of the aspects of Tolkien as a writer that I most appreciate, and which I suspect many other of his fans appreciate whether consciously or not, is that he evidently thought a great deal about the musicality of language, whether in its most wrought form, poetry, or in prose style, or in the essential defining characteristics of a language, what he called its word-forms and phonaesthetics. And he thought about all this in a very personal way. In a lecture concerning his interest in Welsh philology (not his area of academic expertise, and so something he was not obliged to study very much) given the day after The Return of the King was published, Tolkien speculated:

Language — and more so as expression than as communication — is a natural product of our humanity. But it is therefore also a product of our individuality. We each have our own linguistic potential: we each have a native language. But that is not the language that we speak, our cradle-tongue, the first-learned. Linguistically we all wear ready-made clothes… But though it may be buried, it is never wholly extinguished, and contact with other languages may stir it deeply.

He goes on to say that “Gothic was the first [language] to take me by storm, to move my heart.” Strong words. And they ring very true to me — not necessarily Tolkien’s particular preferences in philology, but this notion that we have an inborn set of linguistic predilections. You can see this very clearly in a child learning to talk. My young son runs about all day blurting syllables and learning how to put sounds together, sometimes saying actual words and using them as language, i.e. correctly, but much of the time just clearly playing with phonemes. Most of these he is picking up from his parents — but how does he choose which syllables to practice, if not by sheer preference? And what to make of the sounds he plays with that do not seem to be part of English?

Some of us sheepishly carry on with this sort of thing far past childhood. Not only do we pursue other languages, as much for the aesthetic pleasure as anything else (a pleasure that may derive, if Tolkien is right, from those languages offering us something of the contours of our ‘native language’ that we don’t get enough of in our own regular speech), but we actively invent new languages. That Tolkien was able to do so quite extensively and rigorously is, I think, a large part of the success of his legendarium. He developed a phonaesthetics that appeals to many readers: there is pleasure in the Elvish languages themselves, apart from the sense of a world that their significant presence in the mythoi suggests.

But suggest a world the invented language most certainly does. Glossopoeia implies and entails mythopoeia. In his lecture “A Secret Vice” (that is, inventing languages), given in 1931 (six years before The Hobbit was first published, and thus before anyone had any notion of what Tolkien was up to in his spare time), the man who studied Finnish on a whim and felt compelled to cross-breed it with Latin and his own ‘native language’ in order to invent Quenya, speculated that

For perfect construction of an art-language it is found necessary to construct at least in outline a mythology concomitant… because the making of language and mythology are related functions; to give your language an individual flavor, it must have woven into it the threads of an individual mythology… your language construction will breed a mythology.

There is certaily nothing amiss in discussing the pleasure of glossopoeia. Art is made to give pleasure and entertain, as Tolkien himself would assert in a later preface to The Lord of the Rings. But saying in what the pleasure of glossopoeia consists is another matter. Tolkien goes on in the lecture to admit that he was “most interested perhaps in word-form in itself, and in word-form in relation to meaning (so-called phonetic fitness).” There is, I submit, a certain degree of mystery in this kind of thing. Around the same time that Tolkien was talking about word-form matching meaning, the highly poetic Swiss Neoplatonic (and, incidentally, Catholic) philosopher Max Picard was high up in a valley somewhere near the Italian border writing a book in which he declared that in every language there will be certain words that are “darlings” of the language, in which the “soul” of the word fills out its “body” perfectly. He adduces Baum and Himmel in German as examples. Probably one either has sympathy with such notions or one does not. It is certainly not arguable in regular academic exposition, which is no doubt part of the reason Tolkien, an academic, always felt shy about his literary efforts, rooted as they were in this very intimate and unique relationship with and sense for the music of language.

It is exceptionally difficult to talk about the musicality of language. It is a concept that is anteriorly metaphorical, and to make matters worse, the individual or subjective element in how we perceive musicality — the fact that we are each, in weighing and tasting a line of verse or a sentence of prose, dealing with an utterly personal linguistic experience and our own ‘native language’ — can make analytical discussion of this aspect of literary art frustrating. But it is sometimes possible to describe what one perceives and enjoys in the musicality of language. In “A Secret Vice” Tolkien concludes by reflecting on poetry (and I would say the same applies to prose):

The word-music, according to the nature of the tongue [sc. language] and the skill or ear (conscious or artless) of the poet, runs on heard, but seldom coming to awareness. At rare moments we pause to wonder why a line or couplet produces an effect beyond its significance… So little do we ponder word-form and sound-music, beyond a few hasty observations of its crudest manifestations in rhyme and alliteration, that we are unaware often that the answer is simply that by luck or skill the poet has struck out an air which illuminates the line as a sound of music half-attended to may deepen the significance of some unrelated thing thought or read, while the music ran.

And in a living language this is all the more poignant because the language is not constructed to do this, and only by rare felicity will it say what we wish it to, significantly [sc. semantically], and at the same time sing carelessly.

This is still, it strikes me, a very poetic or figurative way of saying what is going on in the musicality of language. Like I say, we are dealing with a deeply entrenched metaphor when we talk about the music of language. Describing the grammar or historical provenance of a passage, and then comparing it to the semantic sense, will never yield a full explanation of art’s mysterious marriage of form and content.

I want to end this prolegomenon to a discussion of the Ainulindalë (“the music of the Ainur” according to the subtitle) by observing that for Tolkien the musicality of language was apparently bound up with another sort of perception. Recall the connection between glossopoeia and mythopoeia. I read in Stratford Caldecott’s book The Power of the Ring that C S Lewis, in composing an obituary for Tolkien, described him as having traveled “inside language.”  And Caldecott then records that, according to Verlyn Flieger, a fellow academic once said to Tolkien, “You broke the veil, didn’t you, and passed through?” Evidently Tolkien then admitted that he had. If I have time, I intend to track down this reference (Caldecott’s notes and citations are appallingly incomplete), for this is beyond question the language of religious mystery, which is not language Tolkien would have treated lightly. The only elucidation I can supply at the moment is from the same point in Caldecott’s book. (I have foolishly relinquished the library copy of Shippey’s Author of the Century, or else I could find there, if memory serves, a reference to the incident I am about to report.) When he was still quite young, Tolkien encountered two lines in an Old Saxon poem which moved him in a way that, since it cannot have come only from the sense, must have come to some degree from the music of the lines. In the “Notion Club Papers,” Caldecott reports, Tolkien described reading the lines from Cynewulf, which contain the word Earendel (morning star), in this way:

I felt a curious thrill, as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English… I don’t think it is any irreverence to say that it may derive its curiously moving quality from some older world.

As we know, he would go on to grasp, and really to discover, that world magnificently. I am going to next be talking about the Ainulindalë, which is an account not of the discovery of a world now passed, but of the creation of the world still extant. I am going to be talking about phonaesthetics and glossopoeia and music in the Ainulindalë, the last both as a figure and as the language of the piece itself, i.e. its prose style or its specific and varied musicality. I felt it was best to share these thoughts on Tolkien’s ideas and experiences of linguistic musicality first. When I can get my hands on the “Notion Club Papers” and perhaps read more in his letters and track down that source in Flieger’s work, I may have more to say about Tolkien’s insight into the musicality of language, and his understanding of the relation between that kind of music and mythopoeia.



Interlude: Some thoughts on finishing a MFA and on the idea of a literary education

At the University of Cincinnati I wrote my senior thesis for the English Department on the work of the 17th century poet Katherine Philips. Her poetry is strictly disciplined, and her thought is mystical but carefully balanced, poised, not an access of vague and visionary wonder. As to Philips’ craft, her style you might say, it was neither like Donne’s nor like Herbert’s, whom I’d been studying and admiring when I first discovered Philips, nor, despite her friendship with the man, in the vein of Henry Vaughan. Rather, Katherine Philips was among the inheritors of Ben Jonson. Hermeticism combined with intellectual rigor and strict classicism of prosody is not something you often find. It is a combination I appreciate, and I heartily recommend Philips to fans of 17th century poetry. One phrase from Philips’ poetry has stuck with me for fifteen years — in fact, if I remember correctly, it is the phrase around which I constructed my entire thesis:

Passion hath violent extremes, and thus  
All oppositions are contiguous.

I’ll tell you this right now: if you want to win my heart, rhyme on a logical connector and then use that connector to turn what should be a simple statement of self-evident truth into one of mysterious causation. I bring up Philips’ phrase because I find that it’s knocking around in my mind once more as I reflect on the course of my literary education, or formation as I would prefer to call it, which is now concluding. The oppositions, or opposite poles, of my formal education in literary and linguistic matters are contiguous. I once thought of these poles as antagonistic, but now I see they are complementary and kin. It is what lies in the middle that is incommensurable and, I have come to think, something that I could have done without.

My institutional literary formation beyond high school came about in three stages: a BA in English and Classics; a PhD in English which I abandoned after five years, taking only a MA; and the MFA in creative writing (fiction). These degrees represent three distinct types of formation, respectively in philology, criticism, and practice. If there is another type of literary formation (apart from simply acquiring life experience), I do not know what it would be. There is the stuff with which one makes (philology), the meaning that is supposed to inhere in the thing made (criticism), and the making itself (practice). As I say, it is the middle portion about which I would here express strong reservation, and even repudiate. The common-sense notion would hold that criticism is the most important aspect of an education in letters, that philological learning is valuable only as a means to developing a critical acumen, and that practice is unnecessary except for those who would like to be writers. At this point in my own experience, I do not agree with any of that. Now I will see if I can explain why, but please don’t take any of this as argument. Really, all I am attempting is a distillation of and reflection upon my experience of these three types of literary formation.

I sometimes like to tell myself that I read widely, but I know this is untrue, at least in comparison with the way I read between the ages of about sixteen and twenty-two. It was the most adventurous and exciting time, intellectually, in my life. (And maybe more than just intellectually — but then, excitement isn’t all there is to life.) All forms of literary art appealed equally to me in those days — realism, fantasy, verse, prose. I also had a strong sense that there was a canon, a certain civilizational “deposit” (as David Jones would call it), which I had to master. The University of Cincinnati was at that time still a fairly traditional place, and the curriculum was set up in such a way that one could proceed methodically through the tradition at least of English literature from the early medieval or Anglo-Saxon epoch to the present. That is more or less what I did, I started with such Old English literature as remains and I went up to about, say, David Foster Wallace, who was then still living and at the height of his fame.

But there was another aspect to that phase that was equally important, and that was the study of foreign languages. I already knew French pretty well upon arriving at the University, so I was able to pursue a minor in French literature. But the much more important language study occurred with Greek and Latin. I was also able to look into Old English, Irish and Welsh (I can’t say I learned these languages, but I studied their basic structures and vocabularies and phonetics — tasted them, as Tolkien said in a lecture on Welsh), and I began to study German (modern standard) and Italian (medieval Tuscan, to be more accurate). I don’t mean for any of this to sound impressive, though I recognize it may sound like boasting. But an important point I want to make is that it really isn’t all that impressive. If it seems that way it’s only because the nature of our educational system in the US is such that the acquisition of foreign languages is treated as a supplementary activity and not as the foundation of learning to think in the first place. Throughout most of the history of quasi-formal education, the acquisition of at least one foreign tongue from an early age has been standard. It is only by dint of speaking the lingua franca as one’s native language, and living in the most powerful country in the world isolated by two oceans, that most Americans have come to think of acquiring foreign languages as a somehow specialized or exotic education.

So why did I want to make the literary, historical and linguistic study of languages — philology — the basis of my own education? I think it was because I perceived that the writers who made the greatest impression on me had been formed philologically. I am talking about Tolkien, Joyce, T S Eliot… and then if you go back to the earlier periods, Chaucer and Spenser and Milton were multilingual and interested in the history of the languages they knew, and this in such a way that it served as a basis for their literary art. I had the opportunity to attempt to fashion myself in their image, so that is what I set about to do. Such a self-fashioning (to steal and repurpose Greenblatt’s term) just seemed to me the only literary education there was. You read widely and you read in the original languages where possible. You also read deep in history, and the upshot would be that the world would be an immense and ancient and poetic place for you, because it would be layered in three thousand years of one’s civilizational inheritance. And to some extent, I did manage to realize this vision.

But I would later perceive that there is a problem with the vision. I’ll address the problem at greater length when I discuss David Jones’ work, but in brief it is this: that civilization, the fruition of the Axial Age in the Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian world of the Mediterranean basin and the European subcontinent (or in other words what we call, somewhat absurdly, Western) — that civilization is, to anyone who has studied it in any depth, very clearly coming to an end now. Even as Western technology and social structures spread over the entire planet, the actual roots and essence of that Western culture are deteriorating and disappearing at breakneck speed. If the world feels like it’s flying apart, that’s because it is. The most basic assumptions about human nature, about moral and epistemological authority, about the existence of a transcendent origin of reality and a cosmic order in line with that origin — all of the assumptions that have prevailed for two or three millenia are being extinguished. (Nobody really doubts this. We call the condition “postmodern,” and it seems to be lasting longer than we thought it would, all post- and not pre- anything, at least not yet.) Another paradoxical development is that, again, even as the superficial aspects of contemporary Western culture and Western technology spread over the world more ineluctably than ever they did in the Colonial Era, the large-scale power dynamics of that Colonial Era are being undermined. This transformation is altogether just and right, but it carries with it the consequence that the canon I learned so passionately in my youth has been provincialized. The provincializaton of the canonical literary deposit is not in itself a problem, it is in fact a more truthful perspective, though an undeniable fact is that it entails a devaluation of credentials for those of us who have staked our education on it. It is the lapsing, even among those who are its historical heirs, of belief in the truths of the deeper Western tradition, with its sources in the philosophical systems originating in Greco-Roman antiquity and the social and cosmological vision that came from the Jewish and Christian religions, that more drastically devalues the literary deposit, and can even evacuate it of meaning. In other words, the traditional philology in which I’m steeped is rapidly dwindling in relevance. So it seems to me, and so it has seemed to plenty of others before me — to the T S Eliot of The Waste Land, for instance, or a generation later to the great critic George Steiner.

I am mostly going to skip over the second phase of my literary formation, the PhD school. To be blunt and quick about it, I think the interpretation of literature, or what we now call criticism, is almost totally useless and phantasmagorical. It is all too easily made the thrall of ephemeral ideological programs. That’s one problem with it, but not actually the bigger problem. The bigger problem is that a work of art doesn’t mean anything other than itself. Art isn’t mean to lie around inert, interpreted by experts, it’s meant to function dynamically within a living symbolic structure, a culture. I think Ananda Coomaraswamy was very right about this. Whatever can be paraphrased in a work of art is either not of its essence, or else it is ineffectual, the ghost of a meaning that was once not known about but believed and lived. The present hypertrophy of our collective critical faculty is not like the birth of Western philosophy in Ionia 500 years before Christ, nor like the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century; it is instead entirely deconstructive and knows nothing of wonder. Rather than awakening its disciples to the beauty and truth and goodness of the literary artifact, our criticism teaches them to see in it little more than a record of power struggle, an eternal return of repression and oppression and subversion. Paul Ricoeur famously called this way of thinking a hermeneutics of suspicion.

Not all literary scholarship is worthless. Whatever scholarship still aspires to philological goals is certainly valuable. But scholarship that takes one or another form of so-called critical theory as its point of departure or espouses the hermeneutics of suspicion is the clumsy tool of a displaced brahmin class, evidently self-serving and hopelessly abstract. The ideal is real, and so is the concrete, the particular. What lies in between — the ghostly abstractions and paranoias of the self-appointed moral guardians and technocrats of contemporary Western culture — is unreal. So I believe. As far as literary formation is concerned, because I believe what I do, I find the intermediary stage of my own formation to have been largely a waste intellectually. It was not a waste practically, since it gave me another five years in which to read, to study languages, and above all to teach undergraduates. I value what there is to be valued, and I remain grateful for all the privileges I have been accorded, hoping to use them well. But one does have to come sometimes to certain negative conclusions. There is no young person I know, no matter how intelligent or literarily inclined, to whom I would today recommend the study of literature at the doctoral level. Not, at any rate, if such a person wished to cultivate in herself an ever more nuanced and potent sense of wonder and joy in the literary artifact.

But the MFA is another matter. It’s true, creative writing has long since become an institution in the US, and taken as a whole it does indeed suffer all the hyper-professionalization, intramural squabbling, and self-absorption at the cost of scope of vision that any institution inevitably suffers. However, that said, the Master of Fine Arts is still — or at least it has been for me — true to form. That is to say that it is not plagued by the sort of illusive intellectuality that vitiates literary criticism. The MFA is mainly the dispassionate, guild-like study of a craft. I cannot overstate how much I have valued such study. What I mean when I say the MFA is contiguous with a philological formation is that it deals with particulars, it gets into the real, visible structures and techniques of an art form, which happen to be very hard for moralists to colonize. When you study literature the way you do for a MFA, you learn something undeniably real and tangible and immediate about the world. I have found that the MFA therefore builds well on a philological foundation, though of course one can do it without that and still profit from it. In fact, studying creative writing could go a long way to making up for what one misses out on philologically. I hope it has done this for me. But really the two approaches to literary discipleship are, as I said above, complementary. They might be undertaken in tandem for non-utilitarian purposes, i.e. not so that one might work as a translator (you know, all those high-paying jobs at the UN translating Old English…) or become a published author, but so as to learn about the world as it appears to us and precedes all more practical considerations: the world as language, that in which we live and move and have our being.

So, to recapitulate: Language, in all its concreteness and historical particularity and individuality, is real. Ideas are also real. Abstract programs of interpretation are not to be confused with ideas and are significantly less real than language and ideas. The best literary formation is a preparation for reality in all its presence and all its transcendence. So I would eschew the descent into ungrounded abstraction that is “critical thinking” and advocate for the immersion in real knowledge, the knowledge of forms, that is philological and compositional training. In philology and in the study of literature as an art form that one may learn to imitate, even if as an amateur or as an exercise, the world takes on a granular and complex texture, but at the same time one learns to perceive how idea inheres in form. And one develops a comparatist and practical instinct. You learn to see how different languages approach the same problems of articulation, and likewise you learn alternative approaches for problems in composition. I’m not advocating everyone with literary inclinations get a MFA. There should still be an institutional distinction between people who want to be professional about writing — who want to enter the guild — and those who are pursuing the craft only for non-utilitarian reasons. But if I could reconfigure how literature is taught, so that it might come again to feel like a vital thing, not only a deposit but a heritage, I would slash all the crap about critical this and critical that, and I would replace it with traditional philology and training in literary composition. This is how things seem to me after two decades of sustained study, in three modes, of language as an art, and of thinking as I go about what allows one to appreciate the most intimate textures and attune oneself to the subtlest and deepest resonances of the literary artifact, whatever it still retains of the Western civilizational legacy. I am for the earthy and particular, the real locution and the living metaphor that is the idea; and against moralism and abstraction.

Let me admit again that I have not argued anything here. Perhaps someone reading has done a PhD in literature more or less recently and got more out of the experience than I did. I’m well aware that plenty of people — they used to be my colleagues — would find a rejection of critical thought such as I have expressed here to be morally reprehensible. Looking ahead, I will say, apropos of some of the notions articulated here, that I am interested in David Jones’ thought largely because he was preoccupied by how one makes art in the midst of the lapse of a civilizational order. For Jones, such an order is a system of living signs, efficacious signs, signs that are believed in and not merely known about. The artist, according to Jones, works with signs. What happens, then, if the artist’s material is no longer valid, if in other words he no longer shares a language with the bulk of his peers? One of the reasons I am interested in various kinds of literature that can be called fantasy is that I believe these genres contain the remnants of the civilizational deposit, the arsenal of signs, symbols, images, archetypes et cetera which used to be real to the mass of people of whatever educational level. What I suppose I’m trying to do here is to practice a different sort of literary criticism, not theoretical in motivation but philological — that is, to appreciate and contemplate for love of the word.

p.s. And I promise no further rants about cultural politics.





New projects

It proved unfeasible for me to publish essays on this blog while finishing my MFA. But earlier this week I handed in the creative portion of my thesis. To congratulate myself on the work now done, I wandered yesterday through the ninety-degree heat — one month ago we were without power for two days due to an ice-storm… presumably some time between then and now there was springtime, but if that happened I don’t remember it — I wandered into our local record store, a surprisingly friendly and unpretentious place as record stores go, and treated myself to Herbert von Karajan’s 1979-1980 recording of Parsifal. I have never listened to this music on vinyl before, with all the ceremony and aura that entails, not to mention my toddler’s newfound fascination with the turntable. The recording is one of the great musical accomplishments of the 20th century. Immediately upon purchasing it I decided I would turn soon to a project I’ve had in mind for a long time, namely a comparison of the medieval original, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, and Wagner’s mystical and musical drama.

You don’t hear about him in English-speaking countries today, but Eschenbach was one of the great poets. I mean the analogy fairly precisely and do not exaggerate his praise when I say he wrote the Iliad and Odyssey of the Christian Middle Ages. He is emphatically, utterly, essentially, and in all respects and degrees not Dante. Eschenbach stands toward the beginning of the High Middle Ages and Dante, a century later, more toward that epoch’s end. If you want a rollicking good time and the most mystical and dramatic and in places solemn storytelling possible, Eschenbach is your man — as I will hope to show. If I had my druthers I’d teach Eschenbach to high school or college students instead of half the novels they’re made to read… but that’s another discussion for another time. I have sometimes wondered if Eschenbach was a superb storyteller and a man of vision because he was a bona fide knight. And I have consequently also wondered if more modern writers, especially those of us given to fantasy, wouldn’t be better off if we were also knights. But that, too, is a discussion for another time.

The point of all this is to say that I hope to start writing soon about the Holy Grail and Parzival story, as transmitted in Eschenbach’s version and Wagner’s. I like this idea of reworking material. It is an old idea. Better yet: it is an old idea of what to do with old ideas. The sense of antiquity, of historical depth is ingredient to much fantasy. Along the lines of reworking old material, I would also like to take a look at Karen Ullo’s version of the Cindarella story. She — that is, Karen Ullo, for I refer to all my authors in this way, along with the possessive pronoun — has been lying around on my desk for months, next to the canonical source of Cindarella, the seventeenth century Frenchman Charles Perrault, who moved in a very interesting literary milieu. I say that because Perrault’s milieu was nearer to our own, in terms of its concerns with gender politics, than that of probably any other time or place.

Before all this, though, I still have a thing or two to say about Tolkien. That will start going up in a few days. It’s hard to bring to mind a writer with a more developed sense of the depth and, so to speak, the pastness of the past, than Tolkien, particularly as that depth and layering  and remoteness manifests in verse and prose style. But if I had to supply his equal in that concern, I would likely nominate the Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones, Tolkien’s contemporary and coreligionist. Jones wrote some difficult but also very beautiful modernist poetry. In my opinion his book The Anathemata is the finest of all the ambitious modernist long poems (yes, it beats the Cantos and Paterson and Stevens and Hart Crane and all those guys with the only near-contender being Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, and with the proviso that T S Eliot’s Four Quartets do not comprise an ‘ ambitious modernist long poem’). Some of Jones’ literary output (he was also a visual artist) has recently been reissued, including his essays, which will likely be the focus of my blogging. Jones had insightful, unique things to say about the ontological status of art, and about the way an artist relates his religious commitments and the practice of his craft.

My largest project, now that I have, for a little while, the freedom to read whatever I like, is to get through the entirety of Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle. I have only ever read the first portion, the tetralogy called The Book of the New Sun, and that was almost a decade ago. The Solar Cycle includes twelve “science-fantasy” books published by Gene Wolfe between 1980 and 2001 and takes its name from its constituent parts: The Book of the New SunThe Urth of the New Sun (a coda to the first tetralogy); The Book of the Long Sun (another tetralogy); and The Book of the Short Sun (a trilogy). I haven’t undertaken a reading project of this kind in a long while. In Search of Lost Time, which is comparable to the Solar Cycle in length, took me six successive summers, whereas I would like to read the Solar Cycle in not more than six months and if possible in as little as three. Probably the last time I concentrated like that on such a mass of material from a single author was when I was reading Edmund Spenser for what I thought would be my PhD dissertation. I do have a thing for very long works, extended projects that occupy a writer over the course of a career or clearly take up, in the form of a fictional or visionary world, the bulk of the writer’s mind. If I make it through the Solar Cycle, the most fitting follow-up to such a project would be, I think, Doris Lessing’s (yes, that Doris Lessing) epic science fantasy, Canopus in Argos

My understanding is that Lessing’s epic is supposed to be informed by her involvement with Sufism, in much the way that Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle is an architectonic working out of much of his thought and experience as a Catholic fantasist. This is of course my overall project as a writer and really in my whole life, this inquiry into how fantasy, the perception of transcendent reality, plays out in religious thought and experience on the one hand and in literary art on the other. There is both mystereion and mythos or if you prefer a different and analogous Greek pair, symbol and allegory; and if you prefer Latin then religio and fabulae. Such pairs cannot be divorced, but that does not mean their relationships are placid and static. My MFA thesis — which, fear not, I will refrain from discussing further here — was a novel about this dual refraction of fantasy, specifically as viewed under the rubric of what the philosopher calls the problem of evil. This ‘problem’ is not specifically what goes wrong, but the fact that things go wrong. The difference between the What and the That is the difference between physics and metaphysics. In the literary artifact and in the religious sacrament, though in different ways, the two are indissoluble at a conscious and at a supra-conscious level. We will see David Jones talk about this union using the Catholic terminology of the efficacious sign.

Anyway, this is all just to say that I will be writing on here again, hopefully with some fairly major momentum now that I am, at least in theory, sort of, maybe, a free man. Before I turn back to Tolkien, though, I’d like to share some reflections on the now eleven years I’ve spent in formal, post-secondary study of literature… coming right up.




On the irreplaceability of Han Solo

Where would I be without Facebook? It furnishes such a rich profusion of writing prompts. The other morning I encountered a most enlightening query regarding Star Wars, to wit: If you could only bring one of these characters back to life, which would it be? The options were: Han Solo; Anakin; Padme; Yoda; Obi-Wan; Qui-Gon. There is, of course, only one answer that any sane person could supply to such a query:

Han Solo.

You don’t even have to think about it, do you? I tried out the question on my wife, listing the options in the order given above, and she stopped me before I finished saying “Obi-Wan,” because the answer was so obviously Han. I’ve been trying to think about why it has to be Han, why my interest in Star Wars came to an end with the death of Han Solo, if not long before, with the end of Return of the Jedi.

Many of the comments on FB in support of resurrecting other characters (Han was preferred by the clear majority) were speculations regarding plot, the things that could happen differently in the plot if this or that character were to come alive again. This was illuminating, because it helped to show what is unique about Han Solo, namely that after his rescue from Jabba the Hutt and subsequent resuscitation, which made for an excellent story (and let’s note in passing that just a few years later Star Trek would pull off the same feat in The Search for Spock) — after The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo’s importance to the plot was over. And when Solo is most important to the plot — when he’s frozen in carbonite — he’s not really Han Solo, because he’s… frozen in carbonite. On the other hand, all other characters fulfill their plot-roles precisely by acting according to who they are.

What I am getting at here is that the other main characters are defined by their roles in the story. They are, in fact, not really characters as we think of them in the modern sense, but types in a great, sweeping archetypal fantasy of good versus evil. But is Han Solo really a character in that modern sense inherited from the development of the novel? It could be fairly easily argued that he is not, that he is just as stereotypical as anyone else: the independent-minded gunslinger, loyal to his friends but ultimately only looking out for himself (but capable of some moral improvement or an instinctual sense of the good), as he plies an amoral life in a lawless world.

I don’t think Han Solo stands out because he’s a character in a fiction populated otherwise only by types. (There is one exception, at least potentially, to this critique of the other figures in the story, and that is Leia. She doesn’t quite get to flourish like she deserves but she has the makings for a more complex person — in fact a genuine literary character — in a way no one else does, not even Han. Note that we tend to care more, I think, about her bond with Han than with Luke.) Han Solo stands out because he is a light from another world, and whatever he comes into contact with shines in a different light than it otherwise would.

The world Han Solo comes from is the world of grim and gritty low comedy. (Leia does not come from this world, but she has comedic potential — part of what makes her so much more complex than others — and Han serves to actualize some of that potential.) Han is the paragon figure of that world, along with his sidekick, and there are of course other representatives sprinkled throughout, including all of the droids. But Han stands alone for comedy in its deeper sense, as the genre of the lowly, but the lowly that is capable of rising to heights unknown to the world of tragedy. The genius of Star Wars, or much of it, is to combine the lowliness of comedy with the loftiness of tragedy, and indeed to surpass that loftiness. It is a difficult achievement, for the two modes represent cosmic visions that are difficult to reconcile.

To elevate comedy, to allow stories enacted by menial folk and desperados, the luckless, the lonely, the unloved and the seemingly failed, to rise to a level of meaning and beauty previously only perceptible in stories of valiant heroes and magically powerful divine or semi-divine figures. — This is, historically, in European civilization at any rate, a result of the influence of the Christian story in the Gospels, as predicated upon and prefigured in the Hebrew Bible. Many have felt it important to note this elevation of comedy and the fusion of it with tragedy, from Nietzsche to Auerbach, Rosenstock-Huessy and, perhaps, Tolkien. In the work of that last we see how the addition of comedic characters — for that is what the hobbits are, and Gollum — transfigures what would otherwise be a heroic tale and, we can assume, a tale of defeat. Doesn’t Star Wars do the same thing?

From the point of view of pure tragedy, Luke’s quest to overcome his father’s legacy is the heart of Star Wars, for tragedy is about inherited and ineradicable guilt. But from the point of view of the higher comedy, the heart of the story is the marriage of Han and Leia, the redemption of the tragic cosmos through its union with the comedic. Their marriage may be contrasted with that of Anakin and Padme, who are two types from the same literary and spiritual world, namely tragedy. The doomed union of Anakin and Padme serves only a purpose within the plot (that is why it is doomed), while that of Han and Leia is the telos of the plot, it stands beyond the story as its triumph.






Point of order re: the universe(s)

I ran across a thing on Facebook today. It was a query, to wit: “Who created the greatest universe?” Six possible answers were provided, in the form of authors and their iconic works of fantasy. They are, I shouldn’t be surprised to learn, the six highest grossing fantasy franchises: Star Wars; Star Trek; Dragon Ball; Lord of the Rings; Harry Potter; Game of Thrones.

One of the larger points I am always trying to make is that geography matters, place matters. And for the love of the Actual Maker of the Actual Universe (and all potential universes, if you want to get technical about it), correct terminology matters. A universe is what it is: the extent of created reality. If you don’t believe in the transcendent, if you don’t distinguish creator and created, then the universe is just the totality of existence, even whatever, if anything, lies the other side of a black hole, or on the inside of the inmost folds of the eleventh dimension of quantum space, or what have you. That’s what the word ‘universe’ means. It doesn’t mean ‘fictional world,’ or ‘world in which a fiction occurs.’ If it meant that, then every fiction could be said to occur in its own universe. I don’t find this a helpful way of thinking about fiction, as it would make it impossible to think that one fiction could be part of a larger category of things we call fiction, and I take the essential unity of all fictions to be a very important point. But anyway, the point here is that, metaphysically speaking, no writer has ever created a universe.

However, there is a genre of fiction that posits an unreal setting, that is to say, a setting that is not supposed to be in any way connected with this world, or universe: not through somebody’s dream; not set in some heretofore overlooked corner of the Earth that can only be accessed by (for example) a very irregular and unusual train service; not some version of this Earth that is pretty much exactly the same as the one we know but with vampires or witches or whatever; not some alternative dimension accessed through a magical piece of furniture that is located in a fictional representation of this universe; not a galaxy far away (but in this universe, because what else could it be said to be far away from unless it were from us who live here in reality?); not a historical world of long ago, or this universe at some future time — none of that, I’m talking a totally fictive universe. The strictest definition for modern fantasy fiction that I can think of is the one that defines the genre as fiction that is understood, within the implicit logic of the fiction, to occur nowhere in this universe. In the case of this strictly defined fantasy, which is most contemporary high or epic fantasy, the author can be said to have, in a way, created a (fictive) universe, i.e. a (fictively) ontologically autonomous reality.

And guess what? Of the six options listed in the query that got me thinking about this, only one, George R R Martin’s, meets this criterion. All five of the other options are supposed, within the logic of the fiction, to occur in this universe. So there’s the correct answer: Martin wins by default. And that is all the more I will say about something I saw on Facebook. But maybe I’ll say later why I think the distinction at play here matters.


The Thief in the Cave (part 1)

A piercing glimpse of joy… a gleam coming through. This is what Tolkien leaves us with, what he insists fantasy offers, in his seminal essay, “On Fairy-Stories.” But what does this sort of statement really mean? How does it play out in literary fantasy — to begin with, in Tolkien’s own work? It may be helpful to reflect on the two neologisms Tolkien coined in “On Fairy-Stories,” subcreation and eucatastrophe. This two-part essay will do so by reference to key moments in The Hobbit, particularly the fifth chapter, wherein Bilbo steals the One Ring from Gollum. But first, I’m afraid, it is necessary to tarry in the world of contemporary literary fiction.

When we look to the origins of modern fantasy fiction, as when we look to the origins of its medieval ancestor, we encounter, in its most essential form, the Christian worldview. This is a fact of literary history, regardless of whether one believes of the Gospel story, as Tolkien states in the epilogue of “On Fairy-Stories,” that “there is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true.” So in striving to understand what fantasy fiction is, or offers, we have to reckon with the Christian worldview. That worldview is defined in two ways, as a story of the redemption of the earth and its creatures, indeed of the kosmos entire (we’ll come back to that Greek word); and, consequent to that redemption, as a vision of the world, even in its unredeemed aspect, as a sacramental order. Another way of putting this vision is to say that it sees the universe as a single glorious sign of itself in its transfigured or redeemed state. And when we can perceive that signification, we might say, as Tolkien does, that we have caught a glimpse of something otherworldly or seen by an otherworldly light, though the other world is also, paradoxically, simply the world. Tolkien famously wrote to his son in 1945, that “certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile.'” Here again is the language of glimpses.

But this is not quite the glimpse offered by fantasy; it is more like a prelapsarian memory. From the Catholic point of view that was the author’s, the end of the Christian story is not a return to Eden, not a restoration or repetition of the primal unfallen condition. Rather we could call the memory of Eden something like a necessary, or at least a fertile, precondition for glimpsing the otherworldly light that fantasy looks for. But I don’t want to reckon first of all and directly with theology. Although literature is inherently metaphysical, it is not, even when written by authors of religious conviction, theology by another means. The purpose in reading works like Tolkien’s — or, if you prefer, explicitly metaphysical (and non-Christian) works like E R Eddison’s fantasies from the same period, or Mervyn Peake’s symbolic Gormenghast, or David Lindsay’s allegorical Flight to Arcturus — is not to arrive at a series of theological or philosophical propositions. The meaning of a work of art is precisely itself, not a paraphrasing of its thematic content stated in another discourse… But I am getting ahead of things.

For literary critical reasons it is necessary to deal with the Christian origins of fantasy, but for those same reasons it is equally necessary to demonstrate that the visionary content of fantasy is not the purview only of Christian tradition. It is not even restricted to the perspective of religious people generally. Lest you worry all this business about light from another world is the escapist claptrap of religious maniacs, I offer you the words of Karl Ove Knausgaard, self-avowed atheist:

What I ought to do was affirm what existed, affirm the state of things as they are, in other words, revel in the world outside instead of searching for a way out, for in that way I would undoubtedly have a better life, but I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t, something had congealed inside me, a conviction was rooted inside me, and although it was essentialist, that is, outmoded and, furthermore, romantic, I could not get past it, for the simple reason that it had not only been thought but also experienced, in these sudden states of clearsightedness that everyone must know, where for a few seconds you catch sight of another world from the one you were in only a moment earlier, where the world seems to step forward and show itself for a brief glimpse before reverting and leaving everything as before

The last time I experienced this was on the commuter train between Stockholm and Gnesta a few months earlier. The scene outside the window was a sea of white, the sky was gray and damp, we were going through an industrial area, empty railway cars, gas tanks, factories, everything was white and gray, and the sun was setting, the red rays fading into the mist, and the train in which I was traveling was not one of the rickety old run-down units that usually serviced this route, but brand-new, polished and shiny, the seat was new, it smelled new, the doors in front of me opened and closed without friction, and I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, just staring at the burning red ball in the sky and the pleasure that suffused me was so sharp and came with such intensity that it was indistinguishable from pain. What I experienced seemed to me to be of enormous significance. Enormous significance. When the moment had passed the feeling of significance did not diminish, but all of a sudden it became hard to place: exactly what was significant? And why? A train, an industrial area, sun, mist?

I recognized the feeling, it was akin to the one some works of art evoke in me… it was striking to me that they were all painted before the 1900s, within the artistic paradigm that always retained some reference to visible reality. Thus, there was always a certain objectivity to them, by which I mean a distance between reality and the portrayal of reality, and it was doubtless in this interlying space where it ‘happened,’ where it appeared, whatever it was I saw, when the world seemed to step forward from the world. When you didn’t just see the incomprehensible in it but came very close to it. Something that didn’t speak, and that no words could grasp, consequently forever out of our reach, yet within it, for not only did it surround us, we were ourselves part of it, we were ourselves of it.

I see half a dozen important elements in this remarkable passage from the first volume of My Struggle:

  1. (fear of) escapism.
  2. sudden, unlooked for quality of the visionary moment.
  3. importance of objects natural as well as man-made.
  4. joy of such an intensity that it is confused or somehow bound up with pain.
  5. our experience of the chasm that extends between reality and its representation, i.e. an experience of art.
  6. awareness, within the art, of intimate participation in the visionary world but at the same time of the ineffability of that world and our participation in it.

I would say that these are all essential elements of fantasy, and all are addressed in one way or another in “On Fairy-Stories.” What I am calling the ‘visionary world’ of Knausgaard’s experience is, I believe, none other than Tolkien’s ‘Faërie.’ But isn’t this to turn the tables? Am I not taking what Tolkien called subcreation and positing it of the creation, of nature itself, if not of a super-nature? I believe that I am not. The ‘higher’ reality or super-nature that as rationalistic (if also emotional and Romantic) a man as Knausgaard perceives through the appearances of the primary, mundane world is one and the same reality as that to which a fantasist gains access. What I always want to do is to get away from the idea that fantasists, or storytellers generally, simply ‘imagine’ their stories and, in the case of fantasists, their worlds. That is how it feels and how it seems some of the time, to both reader and writer, but it cannot be all that is actually going on.

One of the reasons that it cannot be all that is going on is that if it were, fiction would be practically worthless, an idle entertainment or, if we are to accept an argument much older than the terms it adopts today, perhaps (though this is by no means demonstrably the case) good for cultivating ’empathy.’ But at the end of the day, fiction can be, in a universe foreclosed to the transcendent (other realities, like those of the sempiternal and eternal), only a circumlocutionary way of stating things about reality, which in such a universe means only the everyday world that cannot — how could it? — step forward, out of itself. Fantasy fiction, in this scenario, would be an especially inefficient way of making circumlocutionary statements about this diminished reality. Why not simply talk directly and clearly about the world? Because we are not, when we become participants in the action that is storytelling, talking about just the world. We are always talking about the other world as well: the world to which art grants us partial access.

The final point in the passage from Knausgaard is of utmost importance. I mean this business about artistic inadequacy — say, rather, the way even the most masterful artwork is overwhelmed by what it would depict. For all the earthy detail and world-building of fantasy, art is only an approximation or analogy of what the writer has intuited. The subcreation exceeds the subcreator’s vision: it is largely the purview of its readers, but even they can never exhaust it any more than they can exhaust the wealth of meaning that the primary creation possesses by the very fact of its gratuitous being. This is why Tolkien speaks, at the end, of fantasy as something that “rends indeed the very web of story.” If fantasy is a vision of the transcendent, how could it keep from rending a purely human and finite construction such as art? Language comes up short, but this can be triumphant failure. We see this peculiar triumph in art — in its visionary, as opposed to its diagnostic (or realist), function — as we see it in prayer and liturgy. Prayer and liturgy, or sacrament, rely on a special kind of signification, the so-called ‘efficacious sign.’ I don’t quite want to claim that a work of art, fantasy or otherwise, is such a sign, but I suspect there is an analogy to be made between visionary language and sacrament, the gist of which is that language that has been fashioned into the particular form that we call fantasy does not serve so much to gain for us something we retain in an unaltered state, as it does to open us to something dynamic and transfiguring, which will come on its own terms whenever it pleases and quite unconcerned with our conscious beliefs or wherewithal, as it seems to have done for Knausgaard.

But for now let’s leave this apophatic and mystical line of thought and focus, if we can, on what fantasy positively achieves. To briefly summon Knausgaard once more, there is a passage toward the end of the second volume of My Struggle where he declares that he writes “to recapture the world.” (It’s worth noting that the writing he was doing at the time that he, as a character, utters this statement, is not the autobiographical, seemingly hyper-realist novel in which we read the statement, but a book about angels, or the disappearance of angels, called A Time for Everything.) In any case, the phrasing may seem aggressive (bear in mind it is a translation), but one can read this as a somewhat desperate attempt to assert the ontological, as opposed to the merely rhetorical, power of language. He is concerned, it seems, not with predicating things about the world, but with re-presenting, making uniquely present to consciousness, through the medium of language, what is sometimes called the presence of the tangible, sensible things of the world. The realness of reality: Knausgaard expresses a hunger for it, alarm at the sense of its slipping away. I would suggest — and this is contentious, I cannot begin to prove it — that ‘recapturing the world,’ evoking the presence of things, is the same action as catching a glimpse of the world when it steps out from itself or catching a ray of the light of Faërie when it breaks through the superficial appearance of the world. Knausgaard has simply asserted as a deliberate aesthetic project what elsewhere we saw him describe as an involuntary experience.

Now recall what Tolkien said in “On Fairy-Stories” about the peculiar lucidity and vividness of subcreation. It was in reading fantasy, he said, that he “first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.” Words and things (both natural and artificial, though only artificial in a basic way) — of what else are sacraments made? Bread, wine, water, oil; not to mention bells, candles, incense, vestments, and so on — for all religions. But to be sure, we require words as well, not the things only, to gain access to the presence of things or see them in the light of FaërieIt is a strange and often unfortunate truth of our kind that we frequently fail to see the good that is right in front of us in the primary world but recognize it all too poignantly when we see it reflected or represented elsewhere — in the other worlds of story or of memory. This is why Tolkien talks about the potency of words as well as the wonder of things, and why Knausgaard could not write of his mystical experience for long before he invoked the aesthetic distance between us and the world, which art provides: it is into that distance that the world steps forth or is revealed in its supernatural aspect.

And so it is that The Hobbit is full of things and also full of artifice. That is to say that it does not conceal its artifice but sets it out in plain sight for our appreciation, so that we should not lose the aesthetic interval between ourselves and the world in either its natural or its supernatural aspect. There are many methods for doing this in fiction, and Tolkien employs several of the most venerable. The first, most time-honored method comes into play from the first page, in the sentences: “This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure… you will see whether he gained anything in the end.” And, “I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays.” This is not just narrative omniscience — a style, by the way, that has become as rare these days as hobbits, though it was the basis of nearly all narrative until the 20th century. No, this is more precisely an omniscient narrator who is omniscient because he is a storyteller. Look, there you are! Right there on the first page, addressed by the person who is kind enough to tell you a story. You’re engaged in the act of storytelling and you should realize that your part is as crucial as the storyteller’s, for it is a joint effort, this business of storytelling. With such a narrator it is impossible to forget you are involved in so weighty an action as storytelling, impossible for you to be duped into losing yourself in a world that is merely ‘realistic,’ which is to say no world at all but the pale shadow of one. The storyteller is able to present a subcreation, a proper world, only because he or she is a storyteller, and so you consciously approach and view that world through story but you do not enter it. Without that distance between ourselves and the subcreation, we in fact do not have a world to enjoy, we are instead lost in the middle of things, swept up in a chain of events we cannot understand, in an indefinite terrain. — More on this matter of a world in a moment.

I would submit the many instances of poetry in The Hobbit as another example of the cultivation of aesthetic distance. Verse is by its nature formal, stylized, crafted, blatantly artificial. You’re not supposed to forget you’re listening to poetry when you hear it, and the same is true a fortiori for poetry that is sung. Whenever we see a character singing or reciting verse, we have art-within-the-art. But the paramount instance in the book of artificial language is the brilliant set piece of chapter five, “A Game of Riddles.” Nothing is more obviously artificial than a game that is made out of poetry. And it is in Bilbo’s life-or-death game with Gollum, in the lightless depths of a goblin-infested mountain, that the simple good things of the earth shine in all their brilliance. The setting could not more perfectly offset — usually by contrast but, paradoxically perhaps, at least once or twice by coincidence — the answers to the riddles. They are as follows: mountains; teeth; wind; sun on daisies; darkness; eggs; fish; the domestic scene of a man sitting on stool at table with a platter of fish and cat by his side; and finally, time — then Bilbo’s cheating question concerning the immediate and tangible, which he asks accidentally (just as he answered the last riddle): “What have I got in my pocket?”

I will have more to say about “Riddles in the Dark” in the next post. For now I simply note that fiction — and for peculiar reasons, as Tolkien admits in the essay, for some it is only that fiction which posits another world and thus never loses sight of itself as fiction — such fiction is a frame for the things of the world, subcreation the frame without which we cannot bring the creation into focus. But we need something more than language (or another artistic medium) and the secondariness or distance it provides, if we are to catch the much sought after glimpse of things in the light of Faërie. We need the sense of a world, or to use the Greek word, kosmos. I bring in the Greek because it carries two explicit senses that our English word either lacks or does not necessarily possess. The Greek word for world connotes order, on the one hand, and adornment on the other. One could say that to the ancient Greek mind, a world is an order of adornment. So it was to the Hebrew mind as well, in its mythical account of the creation of the world. In that story, not only is the universe created in an orderly manner, but it is finally pronounced good, and indeed very good. That is to say that there is a gratuitous beauty to the order of the world, that it is created in joy, endowed with a kind of being of its own that is good because it is endowed. In the case of literary fantasy, this endowment is palpable in the artificiality of story and of verse, as I’ve said. Could it be that the subcreation of modern fantasy is distinguished from creation in the first instance by being manifestly a world, or kosmos; whereas for us today in the West the universe is a kosmos only in visionary moments or by way of faith? Is this what makes modern fantasy modern, or rather anti-modern? Be that as it may, the logic Tolkien implies is simple enough: by virtue of its being a clear world, subcreation points us back to the creation and offers that primary world to us with the insistence that it, too, is a kosmos, could we but perceive it as such.

The kosmos of fantasy, being not only order but adornment, is desirable, as Tolkien says, but what is good about it that it should be so desirable, in what does its adornment consist? I believe that what fantasy offers is a world of aesthetic perfection. It is very obviously not a world of perfected justice. So whatever degree of reality we accord the fantasist’s subcreation, it is not a reality where beauty and justice are as yet commensurate — at least not on the surface. I have never had any patience for people who call fantasy escapist because it lacks a suitably downtrodden peasantry or something along those lines. As a visionary, rather than diagnostic, mode of writing, fantasy tends to bring into its ken a different aspect of injustice, one that is less political and social. It is better fitted to represent what you might call spiritual warfare, both between and within individuals. If you want to read Turgenev or Dickens or Balzac, you can go to the nearest library and have at it. Although as it happens I think there are plenty of fantasies that do represent the mystery of natural evil and systematic oppression or exploitation of masses of people — and of the earth itself. I think of Tigana or The Fifth Season, for example.

Visionary fantasy offers no escape from passion and desire, or — as the example from Knausgaard expresses — from pain and moral confusion. I will discuss the moral dimension of “Riddles in the Dark” in the sequel when our focus will move from subcreation to eucatastrophe. I want to end this excessively long rumination by gesturing to a different kind of pain. Even in the domain of aesthetic perfection — those worlds of warriors and dragons and the like that Tolkien speaks of finding obviously desirable when he was a youth — there is something heartbreaking. Perfection is not really the word for the fantasy aesthetic, because we never attain to perfection even in imagination. Beauty is painful. It is painful because it demands a response and the response we can give is never adequate but only a reminder of our finite capabilities and apparently infinite desires. No art, no moment in daily life, offers more than a glimpse of Faërie or can do more than prepare us for the next such moment we are vouchsafed, be it on the page or on the street. The visionary moment, the glimpse, in part because it is ephemeral and in part because it is ineffable, partakes of that pain that is inextricable from joy.



The Eros of Fantasy

The previous post, no more than an aside, drew attention to a remarkable sentence in J R R Tolkien’s essay, “On fairy-Stories.” In fact that entire piece of writing — I hardly want to call it an essay — is remarkable. To be sure, it is one of the seminal efforts to theorize literary fantasy, and in the essay Tolkien offers a number of useful distinctions and formulations, but if “On Fairy-Stories” is theoretical, it is so in a more basic, ancient sense of the term that is closer to the notion of contemplation — or, so as not to commit an injustice against the mystical tradition, what we might call discursive meditation. In any case, it is far more than an effort in literary criticism, as I hope to demonstrate. All quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the essay.

One of the more unfortunate elements of Tolkien’s essay is its title. It is almost impossible for a native English-speaker, particularly one living in the 21st century, to take seriously any utterance involving the word “fairy.” The trouble is that “fairy” does not mean, or did not originally mean, what we take it to mean. Tolkien points out the confusion that entered English when we took Faërie from the medieval French. Fairy is not a creature but a place. Perhaps it would help if we didn’t say “fairy” but “Faërie”; that is, “fah-ay-ree.” And you have to make sure you get a nice guttural ‘r’ in there… Anyway, fairy-stories, so to call them, are therefore “stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.” And so fairy-stories are not necessarily concerned with fairies at all. For as Tolkien continues to explain, “Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” That is our earth he is talking about. But as for a definition of Faërie itself, Tolkien proceeds with caution:

Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole… Faërie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic — but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific magician.

We are accustomed to seeing fantasy fiction — essentially what Tolkien means by the term fairy-story — defined by its use of magic. I have always resisted this definition of fantasy, perhaps because I have sensed that, to reverse Tolkien’s formulation, if fantasy is defined by magic then that magic is a place, a world, a realm, a dimension, which in one strand of the European tradition is called Faërie; it is not some mechanism or technical system. So when I come upon a statement such as the following, which is to be found among the submission guidelines of a prominent publisher of fantasy, I am perturbed: “Any magical system must be both rigorously coherent and integral to the plot.” This ‘magic’ is no more than technology by another name, or Tolkien’s lower, vulgar form of magic. He goes on to further define this lower magic, the only kind that is usually meant by the term anymore, as one that “produces or pretends to produce an alteration in the primary world… it is not an art but a technique [we would now say technology]; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.”

Even a higher form of magic will not suffice for Tolkien as the defining feature of fairy-stories. It is a matter of recognizing deeper purpose. Note the appearance in the last sentence quoted of the idea of desire. We are beginning to approach the heart of the matter. Of magic — the higher, more mystical or at least mysterious kind — in the literary genre that treats of Faërie, Tolkien makes this important reservation:

The magic of Faërie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operation: among these are the satisfactions of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depth of space and time. Another is to hold communion with other living things. A story may thus deal with the satisfaction of these desires, with or without the operation of either machine or magic, and in proportion as it succeeds it will approach the quality and have the flavor of fairy-story.

“On Fairy-Stories” is concerned, above all, with desire, with certain primordial human desires, as the author says. But which desires exactly? The two that Tolkien enumerates above hardly exhaust the matter. As the essay proceeds the sense of what I would call the Eros of Fantasy expands. It may be possible to name other specific desires, but I come to think there is a single great desire in back of it all (or, if you must, One Desire to Rule Them All). The great fantasist’s instinct for this one desire, he avows, goes back further than youth and early manhood — further than his introduction to philology and war. Thinking of the fairy-stories he read as a boy, Tolkien claims that he knew then that they “were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.” Again there is the question of the specific desire, but in this instance we have a clearer answer than this or that primordial urge or intimation. Instead Tolkien makes mention of the settings of the stories he loved, some of them, for example the sagas, ostensibly set in this world. It is that setting — if that is not too deadened and weak a word for it — that seems to be important, for it is “such lands,” he says, that “were preeminently desirable.”

But this is still only to say that Faërie itself is desirable, and that we would therefore seek it out in writing fairy-stories (or fantasy, as we would now say). What does it mean to say that the lands of Faërie are preeminently desirable? I can’t get away from this notion of place. The most basic question to ask about a place would seem to be, Where is it? But the answer, in the case of Faërie, is complex. Before I come to Tolkien’s answer to that question, consider that a way of answering what it means to desire this land of Faërie is to desire a kind of magic, or we could say a kind of making. There are two neologisms that have entered the language, at least among small circles of adepts, from Tolkien’s essay. One of them is subcreation. One of Toalkien’s crucial points in the essay is that fairy-stories, or literary fantasy frequently includes, in the form of the magic or enchantment that one encounters in fantasy, fictional instances of subcreation. “The primal desire at the heart of Faërie,” declares the fantasist, is “the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.” That is to say that the enchantments, as Tolkien calls them (as opposed to mechanistic magic), often ascribed to those who dwell or venture in Faërie are supreme images of our creative drive; furthermore, fantasy fiction itself is, to a limited degree, this kind of creativity — but Tolkien, being metaphysically precise and moreover a Catholic Christian, calls it subcreation. For our author — or explorer — of Middle Earth, subcreation is celebration and an act of beauty, and it is what some might prefer to call humanistic and affirmative:

At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art. That desire is only cheated by counterfeits, whether the innocent but clumsy devices of the human dramatist or the malevolent frauds of the magician. Uncorrupted it does not seek delusion, nor bewitchment nor domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.

In the next post I will suggest that what fantasy presents, in a humanistic language, is an aesthetically perfect world. Another writer than J R R Tolkien would have ended his lecture or essay with the above statement. But that is not where “On Fairy-Stories” ends. Where we go from here is perilous territory indeed. A great many of the admirers of Tolkien’s Middle Earth literature do not share — as, for the record, I do share — Tolkien’s religious and metaphysical commitments. That is to be expected and nothing to be condemned. But “On Fairy-Stories” is very much a personal essay in that its highest theory comes to us from its author’s deepest convictions about the nature of reality.

For Tolkien, the prototype of all fantasy was the story of the Gospel. That is to say, the Incarnation of the Word of God, his Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, and the redemption of man and all of creation. That “all of creation” is important. Tolkien believes that God is the God of elves as well as of men. He also asserts that the creatures of Faërie are more natural or nearer to nature than human beings — this is something he understands not only from his faith but from his philological researches. There is a passage, to which I will return in the next post, that evinces the fantasist’s understanding of fantasy as a genuinely cosmic vision: “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.” For now, simply consider the extraordinary conclusion to the essay, in which the fantasist, speaking of the Christian revelation, describes the ultimate fantasy:

Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels and of men — and of elves. Legend and history have met and fused… in fantasy man may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true. And yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

Not everyone will be able to assent to such a statement. But at least within the context of the essay, of its author’s beliefs, we can finally say that we are able to answer the most obvious question about Faërie: Where is it? In fact, though, we had the answer at the beginning: Faërie is this very world in which I type these words. But it is this world transfigured, this world illuminated by an otherworldy light, this world when it has become a new heaven and a new earth. The world is already is that. The eternal is by definition not some future, some destination in time. The fairy-story, thus, is what reveals the eternal world in which we already live. Tolkien uses language that reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s wonderful lines, There is a crack, a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in. His other famous neologism in this essay is eucatastrophe. He describes this literary hallmark of fantasy as “a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.” What does it mean to rend the web of story if subcreation is a kind of storytelling? And what is this gleam, a gleam of what? We shall see…