Saturday, 24 June 2017

Half-way-through review of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time fantasy series

I am currently reading an extremely-long (14 volumes, each about 1000 pages) fantasy novel serial called the Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan (the pen name of James Oliver Rigney Jr. - 1948-2007) the totality of which was published between 1990 and 2013, having been posthumously completed by Brandon Sanderson.

I say 'reading' but in fact I am listening on audiobook - the readers are the husband and wife team of Michael Kramer and Kate Reading - who are first-rate exemplars of this difficult craft.

I came to Wheel of Time via the wonderful novels of Brandon Sanderson, who completed the series; and a further link is that Sanderson's audiobooks are also done by Kramer and Reading.

Apparently Jordan's The Wheel of Time is very well known in the USA, where it was a 'best seller' - that is not the case in the UK; where these books are not stocked by shops or libraries.

It is a large commitment to begin such a long haul, and I rather doubt whether I would have done it if I had had to read rather than listen; but I am delighted by the experience so far. First thing every morning, and doing doing chores, and at other times - I listen to the books and am transported into a vast world populated by numerous characters.

What I like best about the Wheel of Time is that the invisible authorial presence, behind and permeating the text, is one of a wise and good man. That makes a big difference for me; because I find most authors to be ultimately untrustworthy - most good writers are, indeed, bad Men. 'Robert Jordan' was clearly a fine person.

The structure of the narrative is more like a serial than a single multi-volume novel or sequence of linked novels; when there is such extreme length, the overall story is backgrounded, and functions mostly as a thread to join-up the various scenes, and from which to develop character. The books are capable of depicting beauty and horror, moving me to tears, making me laugh, and sustaining my attention and interest. As a prose stylist Jordan is therefore good-enough - but not great or special.

(Something similar applies to JK Rowling, and to several other major fiction writers such as Charles Dickens. Not all great novelists are great writers - and most great writers are not great novelists.) 

Why is the book so very long? The main reason is that there is a large cast of characters - six main characters, but dozens of others from whose perspective we get to see things. The reason why the books are long is the detail - the scenes are described in more minute detail than I have come across elsewhere (except, significantly, in Brandon Sanderson - who I guess may have learned this from Jordan). Reading the scene therefore takes longer than the scene would take in real time - which is a 'Wagnerian' way of doing things.

(Wagner's operas, or at least the late ones, can be enjoyed only once it is understood that events on stage are happening in 'super-slow-mo'; the orchestra, not the voice, describing the smallest nuances of what the characters are thinking and feeling.)

The main strength of Wheel of Time is that it does extremely-well what Fantasy is supposed to do: it makes an inhabitable world in which the eternal and essential human things are dominant - a world of truth.

The importance of Fantasy is that the everyday modern world is one of lies and triviality; so people like myself almost need the Fantasy genre in order to 'exercise' the proper priorities and evaluations.

If you like the sound of what I have indicated, then I would recommend Jordan's Wheel of Time. Don't think of it as being 'like' some other author. WoT does what it does supremely well - and it is a delight to be able to enjoy it day after day, week after week, month after month... and still not have reached the halfway mark!

Friday, 16 June 2017

Owen Barfield's Metaphysics

Owen Barfield, much like Rudolf Steiner before him, regarded himself as doing a mixture of 'scientific/ empirical' and epistemological research - but to understand him I believe we need also to know (or infer) the fundamental, metaphysical assumptions which underpin and make sense of the rest.

By scientific/ empirical I mean especially Barfield's work on 'philology - the history of word meanings and their transformations; and what that history implies about the societies using the languages. And by epistemological I mean the philosophy of how we know, the basis or justification for understanding.

But underneath both of these are the metaphysical assumptions about the way that reality is 'set-up' - its structure, meaning, purpose etc; including what is our own personal stake in reality: e.g. Why we should care about this stuff! Why it is important to us individually and in what way?


So Barfield describes the evolution of consciousness - how it began with disembodied, spirits in Original Participation - a diffuse, interpenetrating consciousness in which we were mostly unaware of our-selves as distinct and free.

Then the middling state (which we are still inside) during which our selves became separate, agent, and free - but at the cost of losing the awareness of other selves and everything else - until we are selves cut-off fro reality, without participation...

And the future state of Final (final because fully-divine) Participation in which we are both aware of ourselves as autonomous, agent and free - and also participating in the creation and knowledge of all other reality, including other selves and beings.

But what is missing from the above is an explanation of Why all this happens; what is it all For? Who (or what) was it that set up this vast evolutionary scheme - and what is it all intended to achieve?

If we are indeed aiming at Original Participation - then what then? What is Original Participation needed for, in terms of the basic general set-up of reality?


I think the answers to all of these are implicit, and in some brief passages explicit, in Barfield's work - but these aspects are easy to miss in the books and essays; they are not given great prominence - nor are they set out plainly as the basis of further argument. Exactly this is what I hope to do.

In this task I have been greatly helped by the work of William Arkle, a little-known spiritual philosopher of the generation after Barfield, whose work I know about due to having lived in the same Somerset village as a child.

Arkle's great importance was in recognising the need to be absolutely clear about these ultimate, underpinning Why?, Who? and What for? kinds of question for the modern Man. Such things used to be able to be taken from granted - as I suspect they were, pretty much, by Owen Barfield; but no longer.

Arkle saw that this deep level of explanation is in fact the single most important thing to get clear and explicit - such that we can grasp and understand it intuitively and personally; and indeed so that we can decide whether or not this is something we which to live-by, cooperate-in and work-for.

If we are not clear about this, then we will always feel a deep sense of confusion about our destiny and how it fits with the ultimate scheme of things.

Naturally there will always be a sense of mystery about the human condition and Man's place in it; but lack of any reasonable clarity - even thought necessarily simplified - seems to be proving lethal to many people (who have apparently just-about 'given-up' on anything more than merely getting-through to death as comfortably, or at least painlessly, as possible).

Therefore, I think there is a story to be told about the underpinning assumptions of Owen Barfield's main work.


I will try to explain this in more detail elsewhere; but in a nutshell I believe Barfield assumed that God, creator of reality, had the goal of raising Men up to the same kind of fully-divine consciousness that He possesses.

The reason that God would have such a goal is something I have not found in Barfield; but Arkle's insight is that it was a deep longing of God for friends; that his human children should (eventually) grow up and mature to become the fullest and highest possible friends on the same level (rather as a Father's ultimate and ideal goal might be for his children to become adults who, voluntarily and with the highest possible assent, become his loving friends and co-helpers in the unending work of creative endeavour).

Creation was made with this as its major purpose; and the way that it was to be achieved was by a very extended scheme of evolutionary unfolding, akin to the growth and development of living things; but with the added complexity that each Man must consent to every step on the way.

In a nutshell, the world is a place for experiencing and learning - and including experiencing and learning to love (this view is more explicit in Steiner, but I think Barfield would have endorsed it). 

This process has several related but not identical aspects - the evolution of the earth and surrounding regions, evolution of human society, and evolution of each individual human self; all of which are extended across a very long timescale (probably many thousands of years).

Because this is a plan, some aspects of the future can be prophetically known - but because of the increasing autonomy and agency of individual human selves, the results are not precisely predictable, and there is potential for greater or lesser delays and departures from the plan.

Because God is creator, and we are his children; we have the possibility of a direct, inner, intuitive understanding of what-is-going-on: Which is how Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield were able to know about it. 

Something of this kind (in approximate outline) is, I think, helpful - and for some people, such as myself, essential - in getting the full picture of Barfield's work.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Big honour for me! - I'm on the Home Page of the web pages of the Owen Barfield Literary Estate

I'm feeling highly honoured that the new Home Page of the  Owen Barfield Literary Estate web pages includes my summary of the core of Barfield's 'message':

Owen Barfield (1898–1997)

Our destiny is to become both conscious and free

Barfield was writing for everybody and for all time — his core concern was nothing less than the divine destiny of each individual person and of all people collectively.

Barfield's immediate relevance is profound; it is to solve the core problem of modern times - which is 'alienation': i.e. the deep sense of meaninglessness, purposelessness, and isolation from people and things.

The understanding which makes this possible is that history, the present and the future can be understood as aiming at both consciousness and freedom (where consciousness means awareness of our thinking and ourselves, and freedom refers to free will, or human agency).

Barfield's scheme is that humans began as conscious-but-not-free; and we evolved — evolved in the sense of changing by unfolding according to a (divine) developmental plan — to become free but not conscious (which is where we are now, in modern times — unaware of meaning, purpose, relation) — and we ought to be aiming at the condition where we are both self-aware and fully-conscious. Engaged with (and participating in) reality as free agents.

Even more briefly, humanity began as conscious, became free; and is destined to become both — simultaneously.

Barfield proposes real, coherent, and clear answers to the most fundamental problems.

— Courtesy of Bruce Charlton

Thursday, 4 May 2017

The universal realm of the dream world in The Notion Club Papers - Tolkien's personal beliefs and experiences

Sleep experience, especially dreaming, lies near the heart of The Notion Club Papers (NCPs). One aspect of this is that there are multiple references to the idea that the dream world is a realm of experience which is universal - in other words, dreaming is a single, vast domain - with distinctive qualities, different from the waking state - that is potentially accessible by all people.

For example, through the course of the the NCPs, club members begin to dream of the same Numenorean material; and eventually Lowdham and Jeremy come to meet each other in dreams, and share a dream of a sea voyage in Anglo Saxon times.

Prior to this, Lowdham has learned of two languages in dreams, while Jeremy has had visions. Frankley receives in a dream the long poem about St Brendan (Imram) which also refers to Numenor.

The NCPs open with a description of how Ramer, by a course of practice and training - and with the assistance of Dolbear - becomes able to travel both in time and space in his dreams; visiting other planets, and seeing a from-above vision of the sped-up history of Oxford across many centuries.

In the discussions; club members refer to actual and possible encounters with hostile spirits during dreams - making the NCP dream world reminiscent of the Ancient Egyptian 'underworld' Duat/ Dwat where resided the gods, including malign 'demons' such as Set.

The 'plot' of the (incomplete) NCPs could, indeed, be said to be about how the club learns the shamanic practice of 'lucid dreaming' - that is conscious and purposive dreaming - as a way of contacting and learning-from a 'spirit world' which includes not just objectively-accurate historical data.

Such ideas are quite general in ancient and esoteric cultures; but are specifically similar to the 'Akashic Records' mentioned by various mystics, including Anthroposophy founder Rudolf Steiner. The Inkling Owen Barfield (Jack Lewis's best friend from Oxford days) was perhaps the leading Anthroposophist writer in England, and several other Lewis's close friends were also Anthroposophists: e.g. Cecil Harwood (who became Lewis's literary executor) and and Walter O Field (who was a companion on walking holidays).

The idea of a universal dream realm is also quite a common feature in fantasy fiction; I am currently reading Robert Jordan's vast The Wheel of Time epic (regarded by some as the greatest world-building fantasy since Tolkien) where the dream world of Tel'aran'rhiod has a vital and frequent role in the plot.

The importance of the dream realm is that it is also the mythic realm - and this links it (in broad terms) with Jung's Collective Unconscious. The NCPs assume that dream experiences are potentially real experiences - with waking-life consequences - as when the storm from The West which destroys Numenor breaks-through to wreak havoc on the modern day British Isles.

The idea is that knowledge may be obtained and communications may happen in dreams that are otherwise inaccessible to the waking state. The challenge for the Notion Club is to become conscious in dreams, to gain some control over the dreams while they are happening, especially so as to direct them - and also to remember and recount to the other club members what has happened.

I strongly doubt whether there was any direct influence of Anthroposophy on Tolkien (despite that one listed member of the Notion Club was the parodically-named Ranulf Stainer!) - but there is an unwitting convergence between the aims of the Notion Club members, and aims of Rudolf Steiner's spiritual exercises; which are supposed to have the side-effect of inducing 'lucid dreaming' with awareness of the dream state, increased recall and some degree of control of dreams.

At any rate - the broad idea of a universal dream world seems to have been one which at least fascinated Tolkien - but most likely was also an idea that he personally believed-in and had personally experienced.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Our destiny is to become both conscious and free - Owen Barfield in a nutshell...

Owen Barfield's nature and achievement is usually under-sold by a partial, and therefore misleading, summary; that states Barfield's goal was to prove by evidence that human consciousness had evolved; and that this evidence was provided mainly via 'philological' investigations into the changing meaning of words.

Of course Barfield did this - but he did so much more, and this achievement served a much bigger purpose than usually realised.

The problem is that the above description sounds like an essentially academic type of activity - and therefore of interest mainly to academics - presumably those concerned with the meanings of words.

But in fact; Barfield was writing for everybody and for all time - and his core concern was nothing less than the divine destiny of each individual person and of all people collectively.

Barfield's immediate relevance is profound; it is to solve the core problem of modern times - which is 'alienation': i.e. the deep sense of meaninglessness, purposelessness, and isolation from people and things.

The understanding which makes this possible is that history, the present and the future can be understood as aiming-at both consciousness and freedom (where consciousness means awareness of our thinking and our selves, and  freedom refers to free will, or human agency).

Barfield's scheme is that humans began as conscious-but-not-free; and we evolved - evolved in the sense of changing by unfolding according to a (divine) developmental plan - to become free but not conscious (which is where we are now, in modern times - unaware of meaning, purpose, relation) - and we ought-to-be aiming at the condition where we are both self-aware and fully-conscious - engaged with (and participating-in) reality as free agents.

Even more briefly, humanity began as conscious, became free; and is destined to become both - simultaneously.

So Barfield 'in a nutshell' is so much more than a scientist-philosopher of language and its change; he is a thinker about the most fundamental problems.

And Barfield is not merely an analyst of problems: he proposes real, coherent, and clear answers to these most fundamental problems.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Owen Barfield's remarkable prophecies of 60 years ago

From Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield, 1957.

Science, with the progressive disappearance of original participation, is losing its grip on any principle of unity pervading nature as a whole and the knowledge of nature. The hypothesis of chance has already crept from the theory of evolution into the theory of the physical foundation of the earth itself; but more serious perhaps than that is the rapidly increasing "fragmentation of science" . . . There is no "science of sciences"; no unity of knowledge. There is only an accelerating increase in that pigeon-holed knowledge by individuals of more and more about less and less, which, if persisted in indefinitely, can only lead mankind to a sort of "idiocy" . . . a state of affairs, in which fewer and fewer representations will be collective, and more and more will be private, with the result that there will in the end be no means of communication between one intelligence and another.

This has, indeed happened - with the added twist that people lack any explicit awareness of the fact; since they lack even the capacity to represent the problem to themselves. Furthermore, there has been a dual change: shrinking of interest into ever-more-micro specialisms combined with a narrowing of the criteria for evaluation. Not only do we lack a 'science of sciences' but we lack any overall evaluation by which we might judge whether science is progressing or regressing, making sense or degenerating into incoherence.

(see the chapter "Micro-specialization and the infinite perpetuation of error" in my book Not Even Trying: )

It may be objected that this is a very small matter, and that it will be a long time before the imagination of man substantially alters those appearances of nature with which his figuration supplies him. But then I am taking the long view. Even so, we need not be too confident. Even if the pace of change remained the same, one who is really sensitive to (for example) the difference between the medieval collective representations and our own will be aware that, without traveling any greater distance than we have come since the fourteenth century, we could very well move forward into a chaotically empty or fantastically hideous world. But the pace of change has not remained the same. It has accelerated and is accelerating. We should remember this, when appraising the aberrations of the formally representational arts. Of course, in so far as these are due to affectation, they are of no importance. But in so far as they are genuine, they are genuine because the artist has in some way or other experienced the world he represents. And in so far as they are appreciated, they are appreciated by those who are themselves willing to make a move towards seeing the world in that way, and, ultimately therefore, seeing that kind of world. We should remember this, when we see pictures of a dog with six legs emerging from a vegetable marrow or a woman with a motorbicycle substituted for her left breast. 

Barfield is here describing the capacity of imagination to make things worse rather than better - that a recognition of the power of imagination can be used to re-construct the world with dishonest purposes. As with the corruption of science, this works by changing both sides of the equation.

In the past sixty years; this has been the malign effect of the mass media. The mass media have grown and developed an addictive hold over The West; and thereby substantially gained control over the imagination - which it uses on one side to subvert and on the other to fill the mind with virtual realities; until the psychological effect is that the media have displaced reality as perceived by personal experience and reflection.  

A clear current example is in the realm of sex and sexuality. With respect to the sexes; on one side - the media (and its allies in professional academia) have incrementally reduced the understanding and distinction of male and female sexes into being regarded as nothing more than a mere social convention based on reactionary manipulations; and on the other hand claiming that surgical and pharmacological technology can change a man into a woman or vice versa. The resulting mixture of blatant falsehood and aggressive assertion (backed by state power) has (deliberately, strategically) thrust a profound confusion into societal discourse with an already massive and still growing destructive potential that affects both individuals and communities.

As for the domain of human sexuality; what would have been regarded (at the time Barfield was writing) as a chaotically empty and fantastically hideous world has come to pass. Many features of our contemporary world - a world actively endorsed and increasingly enforced by modern ruling elites - was depicted by Barfield in his 1984 novella Night Operation.

The appearances will be ‘saved’ only if, as men approach nearer and nearer to conscious figuration and realize that it is something which may be affected by their choices, the final participation which is thus being thrust upon them is exercised with the profoundest sense of responsibility, with the deepest thankfulness and piety towards the world as it was originally given to them in original participation, and with a full understanding of the momentous process of history, as it brings about the emergence of the one from the other.

Barfield was a Christian; who understood the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ as an event of cosmic significance - the inflexion point of human (and divine) history. He saw history as centred upon the divine destiny of enabling the increasingly divine nature of each person and of humankind in general - of both Men and Man.

And the centre of this divine destiny is the evolution of consciousness towards the god-like state of Final Participation - that is full consciousness of everything; which is a necessary prerequisite for becoming full Sons and Daughters of God.

Yet our divine destiny of Final Participation has been ignored, then rejected, by nearly all individuals and all the Western societies; and this is the cause of Barfield's prophecies negative coming true - indeed leading to a spiritual situation even worse than he articulated.

On the other hand; it is not too late. As individuals we may - by our irresistible free agency - choose to return to the path of destiny; and if enough individuals do this - then so will society at large. 

Friday, 28 April 2017

How important were The Inklings to The Inklings?

Were The Inklings merely a club of Jack Lewis's friends, or were they a self-conscious and ambitious group with a cultural agenda? The answer is that there is evidence on both sides...

I have just listened to an audio recording Owen Barfield being interviewed in 1987, in which (from about 11 minutes) Barfield describes the Inklings on the lines of it being mostly a convivial conversation club - and down-playing any great significance or ambition for the group.

Among the other regular Inklings; this was also the view of 'Humphrey' Havard (a point he made in an audiotaped interview at the launch of Humphrey Carpenter's Inklings book of 1978). It was also the view of Hugo Dyson - who actively disliked the readings. Overall, I think that Warnie Lewis probably also mainly valued the social aspect. Although it was indeed Inklings stimulus and critique that made Warnie into a published historian of 17th Century France - his books were not concerned with any cultural agenda.

As for Charles Williams, it is much harder to say. Warnie Lewis's evidence suggests that he was the most regular attender (aside from the Lewis brothers) between 1939 and his death in 1945; which given the sheer busyness of Williams's life suggests that the group served an important function for him. Furthermore Diana Pavlac Glyer has documented several ways in which Williams's writings were directly affected by Inklings influence.

On the other hand, Williams tended t deny the significance of The Inklings meeting when writing to his wife or talking with his friends and colleagues associated with the Oxford University Press. The question is whether CW was being honest about this - my impression is that he was not; and was 'playing-down' the influence and importance of the Inklings meetings in particular, just as he played-down the importance of his time at Oxford in general.  

However, I think it is clear that for Tolkien and Lewis the Inklings meetings were part of a broader cultural effort - a highly ambitious attempt to change the direction of Western civilisation. That this was an aim of Tolkien goes right back to his schooldays, and has been documented by John Garth in Tolkien and the Great War; and it seems to have been sustained (in various modes) throughout most of his life.

And Lewis also had a cultural agenda, as seems obvious from his output for at least 25 years from the early 1930s (and The Pilgrim's Regress) until the Narnia Chronicles - and most obviously in those wartime and Inkling's influenced books That Hideous Strength and The Abolition of Man.

So a full answer to the question of the importance of The Inklings to its members would be very different for each of the members. The group was, overall, more important for the writers among the group than to non-writers (such as Havard and Dyson); and among the writers it was most important to the two most historically-important members: JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.

After the Inklings evening meetings stopped in the late 1940s, and Lewis and Tolkien drifted apart through the 1950s - especially when Tolkien finished The Lord of the Rings; and Lewis wrote the Narnia books (which created a rift), took a job in Cambridge, and married - their interests and the nature of their output changed and their cultural ambitions faded 

For those who regard Tolkien and Lewis as authors of major cultural significance, therefore, The Inklings must also be regarded a group of major cultural significance - even though the group was probably merely an enjoyable 'talking shop' for many or most of its other members.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

What is Myth? Answers from Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield

Edited by me from Romantic Religion: a study of Owen Barfield, CS Lewis, Charles Williams and JRR Tolkien. by RJ Reilly (1971) - republished version of 2006 from Lindisfarne Books, Great Barrington, MA, USA; pages 214-5. My editorial interjections are in [square brackets].

Barfield sees both myth and language itself as existing in the form of unconscious meaning before the existence of any individual thinker. Both myth and language point-back towards the pre-human time when all that existed was spirit, un-individuated meaning; the original phase of the cosmic evolution.

These myths (the Paradisal myths, for example) therefore suggest truth in a quite literal sense: they allude to the original 'way things were'.

[That is, myths allude to Original Participation.]

Both Lewis and Tolkien, by contrast, speak of the possibility of all myths being 'true' in some other existence than our own. Williams, too, feeling the call of myth, goes so far as to adapt the Arthurian Myth as a kind of objective correlative for his religious views.

But, quite plainly, Barfield has explained the origin and force of myth in a way that the others have not. They have used myth in various ways and with varying degrees of effectiveness, but they have not really said why. Or rather, Lewis, Tolkien and Williams have have used myth, or they have made-up new myths, as a means of avoiding conceptual argument, or as a means of speaking symbolically rather than rationally.  

There is nothing wrong with what Lewis, Tolkien and Williams do in using myths, so far as it works. But to the extent that it can be reduced to a set of rational propositions, it must strike the reader as making myth into something closer to allegory than to true myth.
True myth - in Barfield's terms, and in reality - is nearly impenetrable; because there are no 'ideas' in myth for the reader to penetrate to.

For Barfield, myth is the closest thing in Man's mental life to pure pre-logical thought; meaning which the rational intellect has not yet ordered. Myth is more of an experience than a 'thought' at all.

Barfield argues that the function of the imagination in the future will be to discover 'clear and distinct ideas', but it may discover these in the forms of William Blakean 'beings' rather than as concepts - these beings being explicable in something analogous to the way that the beings of the old allegories like Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress are explicable.

[Examples of such 'beings' would, presumably, include Steiner's demonic influences Lucifer and Ahriman - which Barfield also describes in detail in Unancestral Voice.]

NOTE: The above passages strike me as a highly insightful analysis of a topic of vital importance.

In particular, I am impressed by Reilly's point that neither Tolkien nor Lewis (in particular) really justify the importance and specific value of myth in their writings; but Barfield does - assuming that one can accept, at some level, Barfield's point that, in some literal sense, myths refer to the nature of our experience during a previous state of spiritual reality.

For Barfield (and Steiner), this previous state would be modern people's earlier incarnations at an earlier point in the history of earth; for Mormon Christians and some others, myth could refer to our pre-mortal, pre-incarnated life as spirits.

Monday, 20 March 2017

The importance of music in Life - the example of Owen Barfield

In understanding a person from the past, or even someone still alive - we tend to study heir works, their ideas, their personal experiences - we may look at their intellectual biography in terms of their reading, education, and groups in which they participated... But an aspect that is almost inevitably neglected, when it is an important factor, is music.

The importance of music can also be studied in terms of what kind of music a person most liked, perhaps their experiences of concerts and their own musical activities - singing, playing an instrument, choirs and orchestras...

But none of this gets close to understanding what music meant to that person.

This came to my mind recently in relation to Owen Barfield - because classical music was extremely important in his life. 

For example, OB told his biographer Simon Blaxland de-Lange that music was even more important for him than language - which is remarkable given that Barfield's reputation mostly rests on his studies and interpretations of language.

In a biographical note, Marjorie Lamp Mead wrote that: "throughout his life, Barfield’s love of music was a strong force.  For as much as he desired to be a poet, Barfield viewed music as the essential element in his life – even in preference to poetry."

Barfield's main modern editor, Jane Hipolito, wrote to me that Barfield had a deep love for, and considerable knowledge about, classical music - including most of the great composers and all of the major genres. She also said that when listening to music with Barfield she noticed that he paid total attention to the music with exclusion of all other activities - with an intensity that she has only seen matched by a few professional musicians. 

But the solid facts that Barfield experienced music with intensity, and that he himself regarded music as having primary importance in Life - are matters that we find it hard to make use of in understanding the man. 

Or, at least we find it impossible to use such information in any systematic biographical way - it is evidence, but evidence that we can weave-into our usual biographical accounts. We somehow cannot use musical appreciation as 'evidence' - and indeed even the word 'appreciation' trivialises what was actually a vital experience.

And this is an indicator of the limits of how we understand other lives by using biographical 'fact's. I am not saying that understanding of another person is impossible - in fact I am sure it is possible; but that this understanding does not and cannot emerge-from an assemblage of facts-about-them. 

Friday, 10 March 2017

The real, the true and wishful thinking

For those who dislike Fantasy in the Tolkien tradition, the whole thing is an exercise in wishful thinking: escapism, cowardice, snobbery, nostalgia... Fantasy is equated with the unreal, and its methods contrasted with truth.

For those who revere Fantasy - at its best the genre is seen to be precisely about reality.

If truth-telling is equated with describing what is real; then Fantasy is perceived by those who love it as telling the truth about reality; by contrast with mainstream fiction which has been, for a century, fundamentally un-truthful - because depicting a false and unreal world.

The 'mainstream' world - in so-called real-life as well as in fiction - is actually both false and unreal; because it is godless, meaningless and purposeless; whereas all the best fantasy is the opposite (whether implicitly, or explicitly). 

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Once and Future Charles Williams

The Once and Future Charles Williams

Bruce G Charlton

Journal of Inklings Studies. 2016; 6 (1): 151-6

Like most people, I came to Charles Williams via my interest in J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis; specifically, via Humphrey Carpenter's group biography The Inklings (1979).

The problem is that none of Williams's works is a real masterpiece, or at least not generally regarded as such; and all of the best work is difficult. The big question, then, is: what is the argument for a continuing engagement with Williams?

Grevel Lindop’s main reason is that he regards Williams’s last two collections, Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, as remarkable works, and Williams as a great poet. I myself think Taliessin over-edited and artificially-contrived (betraying its origins as a line-by-line collaboration with the poet Anne Ridler); and while I find Summer Stars to be more fluent and effective, I don't very much like it.

My own reason for a continued interest in Williams, rather, has been his status as a Christian. He was, indeed, one of the four main literary Christians of the mid-twentieth century Anglican revival, which was the most recent significant Christian revival in England. The others were C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and Dorothy L. Sayers, who were all friends and strong admirers of Williams – to whom might be added W.H. Auden as a less direct and more ‘last minute’ Christian figure (he converted late in 1940 and never took a public apologetic and evangelical role).

Reading this biography, it becomes clear that whether one is interested in Williams primarily as a poet or primarily as a Christian turns out to make a very big difference, because Lindop reveals clearly and unambiguously, for the first time, the extent to which Christianity and poetry were at war in Williams's life - and in particular, the extent to which Christianity was sacrificed to poetry.

Before Lindop, it was generally known that Williams was adulterously in love with Phyllis Jones in his last two decades; that he also had warped sexualized interactions with Lois Lang-Sims during his wartime years in Oxford; and that there were other, rather imprecise, accounts of ritual magical-sadism with young female ‘disciples’. But the sheer extent and intensity of Williams's activities along these lines was never before explicit.

Before this new biography, I did not realize, for example, that CW had had intense love relationships with both his main early biographers, Anne Ridler and Alice Mary Hadfield. Furthermore, Lindop quotes extensively from the correspondence between CW and Phyllis Jones, and I never before realized how sexualized the relationship was.

Indeed, in my interpretation, it was primarily sexual, even though the sex was not consummated in the biological sense. The relationship strikes me as deeply maladaptive, in that it was apparently a case of mutual dependency. Both Williams and Jones were mostly unhappy, and frequently wretched, in the relationship; but neither could find the strength to break away. It was apparently addictive: Williams was addicted to the sexual frisson and seductive teasings of the young woman - she gave him energy; Phyllis was addicted to the attention and worship of the older, clever, creative man - he made her feel special.

To summarize the problem for those of us who primarily value Charles Williams the Christian, Lindop’s revelations make clear that Williams strategically used the role of confidante and spiritual adviser for young women to 'groom' them into gratifying his desire for ritualistic, petty sadism. He did this in order to become sexually excited, and then he channelled this excitement to write poetry. This was done, or attempted, time and again with multiple women.

In general, it seems the sadism was, as I said, petty – involving stuff like pinching and slapping palms, back, or buttocks with pencils and rulers. There was quite a bit of master-slave-type play-acting, including by letter and telephone; and an authoritarian / bullying element in his advising and teaching. In general, the record indicates that the young women did not much object to this, and most remained on good terms with him, often very good terms.

Of course there may well be others we don't know of - indeed I would expect that there would have been many young women who must have been appalled, frightened or disgusted at the turn of conversation from this previously kind and charming and spiritual man; women who immediately fled, and left no trace on the records. Nonetheless, whatever the young women felt personally about being sexually used as poetry-stimulants; there is no doubt that this kind of behaviour was dishonest, manipulative and categorically un-Christian.

The evidence presented by Lindop is consistent with Williams's assertion that he engaged in this ritual sadism with attractive young women mainly in order to write poetry. And for whatever reason, it apparently worked: it achieved its goal. Williams thought of it as a magical process, to do with the generation and transformation of sexual into creative energies.

So this was the Poetry versus Christianity trade-off to which I referred. In order to write poetry, or write better poetry, Williams deliberately, strategically, repeatedly behaved in an un-Christian manner. And this is, inevitably, potentially very significant for an evaluation of Charles Williams as both a public Christian teacher and a theologian.

At the same time, Williams had remarkable qualities as a man. Many regarded him as something like a saint - or if not, then someone of exceptional spiritual experiences and insights, and therefore capable of providing great help to many people, of whom Lewis, Eliot and Sayers are merely the best known. All this was what I first heard about Williams, and it remains true.

What of William’s role in the Inklings? Probably the mainstream understanding is of Williams as very much the third Inkling, far behind Lewis and Tolkien; or maybe the fourth, coming behind that oldest important collaborator of Lewis’s, but infrequent Inklings attender, Owen Barfield. Williams’s earlier biographers and memorialists have downplayed the significance of the Inklings for Williams himself, pointing out that he had completed most of his main work before 1939; and this is reinforced by Williams’ lack of attention to the meetings in his surviving wartime letters to his wife, and memories emanating from his older friends and disciples.

But on the other side of the coin there is considerable albeit indirect evidence that during the period between 1939 and William’s death in 1945, he was the spiritual and intellectual leader of the Inklings: the de facto ‘President’ of these informal meetings (with Jack Lewis as ‘Chairman’ and Warnie as ‘Secretary’).

In all regular groups of friends there is a dominant figure - one who is the main authority, the final court of appeal, who controls the discourse. And I think this is the role that Williams took over from Jack Lewis. In support of this idea, Warnie Lewis’s diary records Williams as the most regular attender at Inklings meetings (presumably after himself and Jack); Warnie says he knew Williams better than any other of the Inklings, and he was clearly central to the group.

After 1945, when the young John Wain attended Inklings meetings as an undergraduate, he said that the group had been permanently wounded by the death of Williams - which is further indirect evidence for Williams' key role.

But the first reason to believe this is that Williams was a dominant man: someone who (in his own distinctive way) dominated almost every human situation in which he found himself. On top of this, Williams was (1) the oldest of the regular Inklings; (2) by far the most published - the senior author among those present; (3) the best connected of the Inklings, with friends and colleagues among major and famous literary figures of the era; (4) a ‘metropolitan’ figure, prestigious in London intellectual circles - in this sense a wordly man, compared with the 'ivory towered' dons; (5) in effect, a ‘professional’ theologian, whose books were read, pondered, discussed, by academic theologians and eminent priests – Williams had for some time been invited to contribute essays, books, reviews and plays on theological matters.

And Williams was a successful poet, regarded at the time as one of the most important of that era. Tolkien and Lewis had both intended to be poets (first and foremost) in their early adulthood. Neither had succeeded; but Williams had.

Finally, when Jack Lewis and Tolkien first read William’s The Place of the Lion in 1936, it may have been the single most important catalyst for their later success as writers of ambitious, intellectually serious, adult fantasy; leading immediately to their embarking on what became Lewis’s Space Trilogy and Tolkien’s (unfinished and in his life unpublished) Lost Tales / Notion Club Papers (which was eventually absorbed into the Numenor aspects of The Lord of the Rings) – all of which works have clear Williams-esque influences.

Thus Williams’s membership of, and position in, the Inklings was something that had been pre-prepared for at least three years. So, if that was the past; then what is a probable and desirable future for Charles Williams’s reputation?

He could, of course, continue more or less as he has for the past half century – being invisible to the mainstream except as a minor Inkling; with a tiny, albeit prestigious and devoted, following as a poet and/or a Christian theologian. Indeed, if Williams continues to be remembered for his published books, I think this almost must be the case; since none of these have passed the test of posterity to become regarded as first rate of their kind.

But I can imagine a different and much more exciting future, which involves Charles Williams as a personality, a character; the lynch-pin around whom revolved the most significant intellectual figures of what was the last (and may be the final) significant Christian revival in Britain – a nation that was still ruler of the largest empire the world has yet seen.

This would regard Charles Williams as a phenomenon far bigger than his books; and in that respect of a similar nature as, although lesser stature than, Ben Jonson, Lord Byron, or Ezra Pound, all of whom (though their published work does not perhaps equal that of their greatest contemporaries) psychologically dominated their intellectual and literary circles.

Among people such as Eliot, Sayers and the Inklings, Williams was, I think, acknowledged as The Master: the final authority on the deepest matters: a living, breathing, inspiring, creative exponent of spiritual and mystical Christianity as it affected the modern world. And he achieved this, as I said, not mainly through his writing, but firstly by his teaching and secondly by his conversation: by personal interactions.

In other words, Charles Williams exerted his most important role by charisma: this is where the essence of Charles Williams’s influence resided. Consequently, the most hopeful future for Charles Williams – the future I would most like to see - is, I believe, in works of creative imagination.

I can imagine Williams as the semi-fictional protagonist of novels, ‘biopic’ movies, television series or some other narrative art. Done well, such media offer the best and only possibility of re-capturing the charisma, the full impact and fascination, of Charles Williams; and perhaps even restoring him to a central position in the intellectual and spiritual life of those wartime years of Christian revival.

It is this future which Lindop’s biography has made possible. The core written legacy of those vital Inklings years certainly belongs to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien; but we now have enough facts, hints, and clues to recreate a dynamic picture of the essential facilitator: Charles Walter Stansby Williams.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Review of The Celian Moment - selected essays by Charles Williams

Charles Williams. The Celian Moment and other essays. Edited by Stephen Barber. The Greystones Press: Carterton, Oxfordshire, 2017. pp xxvii, 127.

This is the first book-length selection of essays by Charles Williams since 1958 (The Image of the City, edited by Anne Ridler); this volume enables Inklings scholars to continue the business of evaluating Williams's stature.

The most significant works here are probably 'The Office of Criticism', which was the introduction to English Critical Essays: Twentieth Century - which Williams ghosted under the name of his Oxford University Press 'girlfriend' Phyllis Jones in 1933; 'The Celian Moment' which was Williams's introduction to the 1935 Gollancz-published volume The New Book of English Verse; 'The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins' which was CW's introduction to the 1930 OUP volume of the same title; and 'Ourselves and the Revolution' from a book called Russia and the West of 1942.  

The other essays did not make much impact on me - positive or negative; most seemed fairly routine commissioned work. And 'Religion and Love in Dante' was a presentation of the same argument as in The Figure of Beatrice (1943) - a book I do not enjoy, and which I find unconvincing and indeed tendentious.

(The review of TS Eliot's Four Quartets - in the form of a 'Platonic Dialogue' with four participants - struck me as arch and evasive to the point of obfuscation.)

The Office of Criticism and the essay on GM Hopkins are high quality literary criticism, which illuminate their subjects. These were matters which came from the heart for Williams, and subjects which he had long brooded upon - but about which he had no personal 'axe to grind'.

The Celian moment focuses on a putative idea that several of the great poets, as well as some of the very good 'minor' ones, all depicted a similarly-themed 'moment' in their work, the nature of which Williams tries to characterise.

However, Williams absolutely fails to convince the reader of the validity of his claim! My impression was that Williams merely found what he was looking for; and that he was looking for it, for the wrong reasons.
In other words, this essays lies within the reality-distortion field set-up by CW's infatuation with Phyllis Jones in particular, and various young women sex objects in general. This type of systematic extra-martial infidelity is something that Williams repeatedly attempted to justify and theologise in numerous writings (including The Figure of Beatrice). For me, the primary interest of The Celian Moment was, therefore, partly psychopathological, and partly as contributing evidence of the corrosive effects of unrepented sin.

Ourselves and the Revolution has a similarly negative, albeit interesting and illuminating, importance for the scholar of Williams; and his political Leftism. The first and most obvious feature is the extraordinary defensiveness of the essay - Williams's political perspective on the USSR  surrounded by so much obscuration and qualification as to be extremely hard to pin down.

But a careful reading indicates that Williams's stance is essentially pro-Communist in the sense that he is prepared to take the Revolution at its own valuation, and judge its intentions as sincere and - broadly - having been fulfilled. He lays great stress on the assumption that the revolution was about feeding the hungry - and that this was  successfully achieved. "The masses that are working and fighting in Russia are men and women of full stomachs, and even (in the ancient sense) of a high stomach." "The Russians of late have been (one gathers) reasonably fed but not altogether free; we [in Britain and The West] have been free, but not anything like enough fed." [High stomached means something like bold in spirit, haughty, aggressive.]

We now know (some of us know, at least) that the Soviet communists used deliberate famine as a political weapon, killing many (but uncounted and unrecorded) millions of their own citizens in the Ukraine (for example) by starvation. The allegedly 'high stomached' Red Army apparently advanced with their officers walking behind (not leading), their guns pointed at their own men and ready to shoot anyone who showed an inclination to retreat. The Russians later lost approximately ten men for every German killed, when advancing to conquer Eastern Europe.

So Williams's political views were objectively wrong - whether from ignorance (although there was plenty of real, observational evidence of the evils of Communism available to a member of the Metropolitan intellectual elite - such as CW); or wilfully (due to prejudice borne of wishful thinking); nonetheless it is important that this aspect of Williams is on record.

This collection is therefore well worthwhile for its best pieces and its general depiction of CW's level of work; although the evaluative significance is, unsurprisingly, considerably less than that of the 1958 selected essays which had 'first bite at the cherry' of William's oeuvre.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Review of The Return of the King cartoon movie 1980

This 1980 made for TV cartoon version of the second half of The Lord of the Rings (LotR) comes from the same stable as The Hobbit of 1977 - which I recently reviewed positively:

But if the Hobbit is worth four stars (from a possible five); the Return of the King (RotK) is worth no more than two stars - and is a shambles all-round.

It could be said that it was an impossibility to make a really good movie from just the second half of LotR (the first half having been already made for cinema in the horrible Ralph Bakshi version of 1978; a film which I disliked so much that I will neither be re-watching, nor reviewing, it!). But even making all allowances, RotK is unenjoyable and unsuccessful in all important respects.

On the plus side - the animation quality is much better than with The Hobbit of 1977 - albeit there is a very irritating and unconvincing overuse of a technique of 'shaking' alternation of pictures, back and forth between two images, and supposed to represent something like anger or fear.

And there are a couple of good pieces of music- one lovely melody reused from The Hobbit and applied to the Gray Havens departure:

 And the legendary/ notorious 'Where there's a whip' is just a terrific song!

 (Although you can see there is shameless multiple re-use of animated segments.)

I don't think it is worth describing in detail the changes made to the story to accommodate the story - in a nutshell, the story is done as a flashback with the conceit of its being told to some of the Fellowship back in Rivendell after it is all over by a minstrel from Gondor. Not many of Tolkien's own words are used - and the dialogue often seems vulgar and inept.

The bulk of the depicted story is focused on Frodo and Sam escaping Cirith Ungol and then walking through Mordor to the Cracks of Doom, which makes for a miserable, visually-dull mood.

The most bizarre scriptwriting decision was to take Frodo to the point of claiming the ring and standing on the brink of the volcano - then having him go insane and get lost in the Cracks of Doom with Sam (and Gollum) searching for him for many days; until the Army has arrived from Gondor at the Black Gate...

The RotK of 1980 is not an actively-unpleasant movie, but it is just a waste of time to watch it except as a curiosity.

Eowyn and the Witch King is pretty good:

And at the very end, there is a very appealing notion from Gandalf, in response to a question about what will happen to hobbits in the future: he points-out that Frodo is taller than Bilbo, and Merry and Pippin taller than Frodo - and that Hobbits seem to be turning into Big People and blending with men - and he finally 'turns to camera' with an aside that some Men of the future (implicitly those watching the movie) may have more than a little bit of Hobbit in them... Nice!

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Understanding the implications of Owen Barfield's Final Participation

In the beginning Men were merely primordial selves immersed in the ocean of universal consciousness; and the history of everything has included the progressive and incremental separation of these selves from the universal primary reality.

We began as immersed in universal reality - joined with everything, and everything joined with us - with permeable selves... We end with a Self that is aware of its own separation from things, from other people, from memories - and even from its own thoughts...

Why? Because separation is necessary for freedom, for agency; we must first be separate in order to be free. And free in order, ultimately, to share the divine status of the Creator - because God is free.


This separation of the self can physically be be imagined as a process of precipitation - of solid bodies coming from gaseous spirits.

Or as a biological analogy; as development. A baby lives at first in the ocean of amniotic fluid, inside the mother; and only gradually, incrementally, does the baby's self become separate from the mother's self - first by birth, then by development and increasing independence... but only in adolescence does the child at some point become existentially separate - an agent.

And once reached, and attained, that cannot be undone - he can get stuck in adolescence, or move on to adulthood; but he cannot return to childhood. Consciousness, separation, can temporarily be obliterated by disease, or intoxication - or suspended during sleep - but is essentially permanent.

(Incarnation is an example. When we became embodied, we could not return to the spiritual state; the preceding spiritual being could not be restored - because our selves are in our bodies, and if the body is then subtracted, what remains is not what there was before. Therefore after death the only alternatives are resurrection - with a renewed body - or else a fundamental change of the spiritual self with loss and distortion.)


So we begin by participating in the whole of reality - that was given. But our selves were only feebly independent, and not sufficiently separate that we could be free agents. Then a process began in the history of the human race, which is recapitulated in individuals - we developed agency by separation of the self from everything else.

At some moment the self is cut-off from everything else - and therefore unfree, because isolated. So there is a step beyond, which is a return to participation with universal reality.

Universal reality is always there - that is, everywhere - we used to be in reality but the future, the destiny, is that we should think reality.

The self now needs to - voluntarily and by an effort - engage with universal reality in a free relationship; knowing that this is happening.

The task or destiny is to re-engage with universal reality - which is everywhere for everybody, as it always has been, in a deliberate, explicit, way. This is not a matter of 'thinking about' universal reality - it is a matter of thinking-universal-reality; in other words, by thinking to become part of it.


But universal reality is everything - does this mean we can know everything? Not exactly and not in practice.

It does mean that there are not ultimate limits to knowledge - excepting other selves, which lie outside the system. But in practice we must navigate through this unbounded and vast world of universal reality - and for our experience to lead to valid knowledge, we ourselves must be Good and the experience we encounter to be undeceptive.

In practice, we navigate universal reality with love. It is love which leads us to the people (and entities) we can learn from; it is love which leads us to the truth rather than the falsehoods and misleadings, the evil entities, which also lie within universal reality.

Love is the cohesion and structure of everything in God's creation. And love is our safe-guard against the possibilities that would emerge is we were motivated by power, or even merely by 'curiosity'.  

Imagine yourself as a self, guided by love, navigating the ocean of universal reality! That is the possibility. It is love which guides us to our Heavenly families and which guides them to us; it is love which guides the great composer to the beautiful music with universal meaning; it is love which guides the real scientist to the intuitive truths about reality...


So participation is given, knowledge is given... but what must be achieved is the autonomy of our-selves; and having been achieved the destiny is to return to participation; to take it up again but not to be inside it, but outside of it while yet part of it.

In a sense, with Final Participation, the vast world of universal reality is experienced as 'within us' - within our thinking. Instead us us being immersed in the ocean - the ocean is, somehow, in our own thoughts! And therefore we engage with the ocean from a place outside the ocean - and our relationship with the ocean is one of self-awareness, purpose and will.

And this is, of course, a godlike state; in the sense that a god is a cause not a consequence; outside the system and not contained-in the system; a creator not that which is created. And that is the whole point! For us to become adult, grown-up children of God, we must become like God in our nature, including our consciousness.

This moving towards divine consciousness can only happen by our choice, as an act from the agent-self.


Therefore, the task is to set-aside nostalgia for the original state of immersive participation: this is now impossible. It is to acknowledge the state of Modern Man as an error - a failure to move-on; a perpetual adolescence in which freedom has reached the absurd and self-refuting point of existential isolation - and got stuck.

Universal reality awlays was and still is there. We have cut-ourselves off from it. This was necessary as a phase - but is lethal as an end-point. We must re-engage with universal reality - and again participate in that universality; but from outside - in purposive thinking from our true selves.

Participation is given, knowledge is given, even love is given; but from where we are now, we need to make the choice and effort to acknowledge then create a new autonomous and free relationship with this reality.

Our task is to re-engage with universal reality in what eventually may become fully divine consciousness, but at first will be a partial, distorted and temporary kind of divine consciousness; which is thinking engaged with universal reality, and guided by love.

(The above is a development of the ideas of Owen Barfield, which were substaintially influenced by Rudolf Steiner.)

Monday, 30 January 2017

Implications of Owen Barfield's Evolution of Consciousness

When Owen Barfield described the evolution of consciousness, he used 'evolution' in a pre-Darwinian sense of a developmental change analogous to the fertilised egg 'unfolding' to become a mature, adult organism.

In other words, Barfield regarded evolution not merely as change, but as purposive change, change with an aim or 'teleology'.

If the evolution of consciousness has a unified purpose and aim (isn't just a different purpose and aim for each entity), then this implies that there is a deity - as the source of purpose. Therefore, the evolution of consciousness is a consequence of some divine plan.

What could this divine plan be? For many Christians it will be 'theosis' - or the process of Men becoming more and more like God; aiming at becoming Sons and Daughters of God.

So, the evolution of consciousness is about our consciousness - that is, our way of thinking - becoming more divine, more like God's way of thinking.

This is a measure of the importance of the evolution of consciousness; and the need for it. Our life on earth is about 1. Accepting that salvation which is the gift of Jesus; and 2. Theosis - or working on the task of making ourselves more divine in our nature.

The moral aspect of theosis is very well known - but the consciousness aspect of theosis is almost wholly neglected - especially in mainstream Christian life.

In theosis we are not supposed only to 'do the right things', nor even to think the right things - but to think in the right way...

We should strive for a divine quality of thinking.

That is how important the evolution of consciousness is.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Negative feelings about The Silmarillion of 1977

Although I have quite recently read and listened to the audiobook of The Silmarillion several times with some appreciation; my reaction to this work remains coloured by my first encounter; still retains much of the negative affects from my earliest encounter.

The Silmarillion was published on 15 September 1977; after some four years of ever more impatient waiting and speculation following the death of the author.

The publication date was just before I left home to go to medical school - which was itself a time of intense ambivalence; of excitement and expanding horizons mixed with loneliness and homesickness.
I therefore bought The Silmarillion as soon as it was available, and of course took it with me to stand on the bookshelf in my room, but I didn't read it immediately. Instead, I saved-up actually reading it until I had arrived at college.

My excitement at reading this volume, at long last (as it seemed to me), was therefore bound-up with my excitement at leaving the family and beginning university. Tolkien, especially Lord of the Rings, stood for much that was best about my teenage years - and I was hoping that this spirit would be extended into the new era.

My sense of anticipation was therefore about as great as was possible. Yet I was so disappointed with the Silmarillion that I did not even manage to finish it - or rather, found myself skipping largish sections to get to the last chapters. So, it was less 'disappointment' than an actively-unpleasant experience - I would have preferred, indeed I expected, something much like the Appendices of The Lord of the Ring; but I was actually offered something that seemed more like the Old Testament.

In The Silmarillion there was no editorial voice (such as was present in the Prologue and Appendices of LotR) to mediate between myself and the events described (these editorial voices were sometimes Tolkien at other times Bilbo or merry or various others). Instead, there were just these rather dull, bare-bones accounts of the doings of Valar and Elves; each free-standing and disarticulated; and with no hints of how to make sense of them.

At any rate, this was my negative impression - and this accounts for my residual sense of distaste on seeing that spine on my book-shelves.

Clearly I was not also, and Christopher Tolkien expressed regret for exactly the problems that most struck me, when he came to embark upon the History of Middle earth - and he certainly set them right.

In stark contrast was my encounter with the Book of Unfinished Tales, which was published in 1980 but which (thanks to the above aversion) I only read in about 1986, when I found a copy left behind in a holiday cottage in Keswick. I liked Unfinished Tales so much, that I always carried it around since; still have the same dog-eared paperback copy; and before long it kick-started a Tolkien resurgence of interest - strengthened by reading the Biography and Selected Letters and Tom Shippey's 'Road to Middle Earth' (again, rather later than their actual publication).

And this second phase never stopped but has continued up to the present. But still, deep down, I hold my grudge against the Silmarillion of 1977...

More on this theme:

Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Romantic Theology of the Inklings (considered as a complementary group)

Here, I am further exploring the idea of The Inklings as a complementary group entity; which I began recently:

Charles Williams named the concept of Romantic Theology as a Way of Affirmation of Images (or Christian Via Positiva) - in other words the Christian life rooted in marriage and (implicitly) family. CW's own life did not live-up to this ideal - in that he was an unfaithful husband and resentful father; however in many respects that of Tolkien did.

Tolkien was a devoted family man - and this extended to writing fairy stories of mythic quality for his children; most famously The Hobbit, but perhaps most significantly The Father Christmas Letters the writing and illustrating of which extended over his four children and twenty-five years.

Owen Barfield, in his early essays collected as Romanticism Comes of Age, clarified that 'Romantic' also had a profound meaning of being the - uncompleted, and indeed culturally distorted or abandoned - next stage of the Western evolution of consciousness that was destined (i.e. divinely-intended) to follow after the Industrial Revolution.  

So Romantic Theology can be understood to mean Romantic in both a personal (CW) and cultural (OB) sense.

CS Lewis took at least two major Christian themes from literary Romanticism. One (from the likes of Longfellow and Wagner, as well as direct from the primary sources) was the spontaneous human appeal of Paganism - especially that of the Scandinavian pagans - and that this could be seen not as opposed to Christianity, but as a partial precursor. Thus Christianity includes all that is best in paganism; and should be seen as a completion of paganism.

Lewis's other leading Romantic idea was that Christianity was of Joy - which was his term for Novalis's Sehnsucht. Lewis interpreted Joy as a yearning for something beyond this world; and the fact of this yearning as evidence of the reality of what was ultimately yearned-for – to be found in the world beyond human mortal life.

Tolkien apparently agreed with Lewis concerning the positive values of Northern paganism – and also used a version of the Joy argument in an implicit fashion for example in his essay On Fairy Stories; and the posthumously-published Debate of Finrod and Andreth.

In the (posthumous) Notion Club Papers, Tolkien also pursued the Romantic idea that Myth was more primary, real and important than History - and that an ideal for the future would be the recovery of the mythic attitude on Life.

Tolkien and Lewis shared the view of history as divided between pre-modern and modern - and beyond modern lay only the End Times. Williams saw a desirable possibility of a future Christianity overall at least the equal, perhaps better than, any phase in the past - although this is mainly hinted-at rather than made explicit.

But Barfield (taking his lead from Coleridge) took Romantic Theology as the destined future of Western Man, and a living possibility - to be achieved via a further evolution of consciousness into what he termed Final Participation. Final Participation could be understood as a qualitative step in theosis - or the task of becoming like God during mortal life (itself a major theme of CS Lewis).

For Barfield, Romantic Theology is something only possible to man after modernity (after the Industrial Revolution) has led to the development of the autonomy, agency - indeed freedom - of The Self; it is a positive choice to re-connect with the rest of creation, understood as both alive and conscious; and this re-connection (history becoming myth) is achieved by Love.

Taking all four of the main Inklings as providing different and complementary components; we can therefore discover in the work of the Inklings nothing less than a well-rounded and multi-disciplinary account of a new - and I would say deeply inspiring and motivating - Christian theology.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Review of The Hobbit animated movie 1977

The Hobbit - Script by Romeo Muller, made for TV on 1977 by the Rankin/ Bass Studio (78 minutes)

Although my first view about a decade ago did not leave much of an impression; I recently rewatched this cartoon Hobbit, and enjoyed it considerably - being very impressed by the seriousness of intent that went into making it.

(Especially by contrast with the unskilled, self-indulgent and irresponsible Peter Jackson Hobbit movies which I find excruciatingly awful - except for the occasional scene such as Bilbo and Gollum.)

Aspiring screenwriter-adaptors could study Romeo Muller's truly masterful reduction of the approx 250 pages of the book into just about 80 minutes of movie; without any rushing or haste, with full value given to the key scenes - and focusing on the most psychologically important moments (e.g. Bilbo's interactions with Gandalf and Gollum, the sunlight on the keyhole, Bilbo's courage in creeping down the tunnel to Smaug, the conversation with Smaug, his scene at Thorin's death bed). This little cartoon gives the heart of the Hobbit.

Why isn't it better known then? The problem is the cartooning - or rather some of it. The backgrounds are very well done, indeed rather beautiful in a Japanese precursor-to-Ghilbli kind of way; but the characterisation of some characters is frankly hideous. To be fair, Gandalf is fine, Gollum is fine... but Bilbo himself is horrible, the dwarves pretty silly, the elves absurd, and Smaug is more like a long-necked fat pussy-cat than a dragon. The 'battle' of the Five Armies is just embarrassing.

Furthermore that actual animation, the movement of the cartoon, is very poor - jerky, insufficient frames, and indeed extremely crude - for instance in the movement of Smaug's jaw which looks like a piece of cut-out card being slid back and forth (rather like Captain Pugwash, which was done by real time filming of actual cut-outs). This was probably not the fault of Rankin/ Bass because animation was at a very low ebb in 1977 (the tide began to turn in 1978 with Watership Down - which is beautifully painted, but - again - jerkily animated).

On the plus side; the voice acting is excellent; for example Thorin is done by the great Hans Conreid, who was the Disney's Captain Hook - perhaps the best ever vocal characterisation? 

The songs are good - and even have a touch of magic about them:

I would recommend watching the movie, while doing your best to ignore the crudity of animation - and appreciating some wonderful cinematic story-telling.

Here is the whole movie (albeit with Spanish subtitles)


Thursday, 12 January 2017

Fantasy fiction is more important than ‘real life’: completing the argument of JRR Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories

By Bruce G Charlton

Published at L Jagi Lamplighter's blog:

JRR Tolkien’s most famous and influential essay, and indeed by far the most famous and influential essay on the subject, was On Fairy Stories. This was originally a lecture delivered in 1939 at the University of St Andrew’s, Scotland; it was published in a revised and expanded form in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, 1947 and reprinted in other volumes many times since.

The crux of the essay, and the reason for its large influence, is a defence of the value of Fairy Stories for an intended adult audience. Indeed On Fairy Stories became, pretty much, the standard explanation of, and rationale for, the genre of Fantasy Fiction - which is now a large and significant phenomenon in modern publishing.

Tolkien’s basic argument is that the author of Fantasy is creating a ‘Secondary world’ with features that are both wonderful (typically magical) and internally-consistent. And this Secondary world potentially offers a sympathetic reader the triple benefits of Recovery, Escape and Consolation.

As such, On Fairy Stories serves to justify the Fantasy genre; but on the other hand it does implicitly consign Fantasy to Secondary status as contrasted with the Primary world. Tolkien presents a strong case that Escape and Consolation are legitimate wishes. However, at the end of the day these are (merely) psychological justifications – ways of saying that Fantasy makes us ‘feel better’ in legitimate ways.

I believe that Tolkien’s argument can legitimately be extended to a stronger sense, which offers a ‘primary’ status to Fantasy fiction when understood in the context of the modern, mainstream world of public discourse. More specifically, I believe that Tolkien’s argument about Recovery contains the seeds of a much more powerful explanation of Fantasy being (at its best) more real than (so-called) ‘real life’.

That Fantasy is (in some important respects) more real than real life I will take as an assumption rather than trying to argue; because it is something that all serious Fantasy readers already know to be true from personal experience (and it is, of course, why we continue to read Fantasy). But what is so-far lacking, and what Tolkien may be seen to imply, is an explanation for why and how it is true.

I think an explanation is valuable, and perhaps necessary, if fantasy, as a genre, is to be regarded (whether by ourselves, or more generally) as more than just a pleasing pastime – as something that is of potentially great cultural importance.

Tolkien’s argument about Recovery is that the material of magic, wonder, the fantastic - and the imaginative inhabiting of a different and complex but internally-consistent world - are what allow a refreshment of our appreciation. So we come to appreciate the basics of this (primary) world, now refreshed because we have come across bread, stone, trees in a new and unfamiliar context; and we also appreciate Men anew because we have met elves, dwarves and hobbits.

This is true but I think it underestimates the profundity of what Fantasy can do; especially when it is contrasted with the modern world. The key to the value of Fantasy – here and now – is its contrast with the modern world: Modern ‘reality’ is most deficient in the most important aspects of Life. And this is because modern reality is, mostly and ever-increasingly, a mass media-generated ‘virtual’ kind of reality.

Thus modern ‘Primary’ reality is deficient in terms of lacking destiny, meaning and purpose for Life; in its ignorance, denial, or blind terror of ageing and death; in terms of regarding the Human Condition as a mixture of mechanical determinism and random chaos; in its regarding of the major virtues of Love and Courage as mere products of social-conditioning and evolution; and its understanding that Tolkien’s joyful ‘eucatastrophe’ – the unexpected ‘turn’ of events in a Fairy Story that snatches the Happy Ending from apparently-inevitable defeat – is merely a statistically improbable coincidence… The above is not exhaustive – in particular the modern lack of a living and over-arching religion; and indeed lack of any spiritual reality and depth to experience - is another vital deficiency of the Primary world as we experience it in The West.

But this list suffices to illustrate why, in our kind of world, Fantasy may be much more than just a pleasure or a preference. And why Fantasy does not simply enable a Recovery of appreciation for the basic essentials of Life – much more importantly, Fantasy may be our only sustained experience in which these real-realities are encountered.

The staleness and superficiality of modern life is a consequence of the way in which modern reality is the product of modern theories – the ‘ideologies’ that arise from science, law, politics, sociology etc. but which we mainly learn from the mass media; and to a lesser extent from a corrupted system of formal education, corporate advertising and official propaganda.

But how is it that Fantasy may be able to supply what the Primary word so horribly lacks? Well, Tolkien all-but said it – the creation of another internally consistent world of wonders provides us with stimuli, with perceptions, that do not automatically get plugged-into the subversive and inverting theories of modernism. The magic and wonders of Fantasy quite naturally and spontaneously attach themselves to our built-in, universal concepts – the mythic understandings and interpretations of the ‘collective unconscious’, or our shared divine-endowments. And it is these universal concepts which enable us to apprehend and share reality.

So the fictional experiences of Fantasy are not just apparently but literally more real than everyday Life in the modern world. They are real because they are understood by means of the eternal, the universal, the Human, the God-given; whereas the Primary world is perceived, but not understood, merely by the manipulative and dishonest and ever-changing abstract theoretical ideologies of our time and place – ideologies such as the dreary incoherence of Leftist ‘identity’ politics, antiracism, feminism, economic hypotheses, anti-colonialism, and the ever-mutating lies and inversions of sexuality and the sexual revolution.

In sum; Fantasy fiction (Fairy Stories) may currently be the only source of sustained and convincing ‘good metaphysics’ available to many people in The West: our only access to the eternal and universal truths of real reality – as contrasted with the despair-inducing, hope-less, meaningless, purposeless fake-realities of modern life.

Seventy years after Tolkien’s essay was first conceived, we are in a situation that Fairy Stories have become something close to a necessity for those who want to experience Life as it could and should be experienced… even more, a necessity for those who want to live in the real world; rather than the hellish-yet-addictive media-Matrix of alternating distractions, intoxications, lust and fear which is the world of mainstream public discourse.

Consequently our demonic overlords hate, hate, hate real Fantasy (and Tolkien above all) and do their best to ignore or mock it – or else they reinterpret and subvert it in terms of the incoherent tendentiousness of modern ideologies (such as those deadly meditations on racism and sexism in The Lord of the Rings…). Or else they create fake-Fantasy which incorporates exactly those false ideologies to which Fantasy offers us a Real Life alternative. Instead of wonder and magic, we get parables of multiculturalism or gender-bending… just like modern, mainstream, bureaucratic ‘real life’.

I would therefore suggest that we should now drop Tolkien’s idea of Fantasy being a Secondary reality, in favour of a recognition that – at its best – Fantasy is now the Primary world. Fantasy fiction is therefore a way in which we may potentially (albeit partially and intermittently) escape The Matrix imposed upon us to our detriment; and begin living from true, universal and vital concepts: living real lives from the solid ground of universal metaphysics.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Review of Tales from the Perilous Realm - Brian Sibley's 1992 radio adaptations of Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wooton Major, Leaf by Niggle and some Lord of the Rings scenes featuring Tom Bombadil

I came across this little gem while browsing a list of JRR Tolkien Audiobooks available for download - it is a set of four dramatised radio programmes broadcast on the BBC in 1992.

What filled me with anticipation was that they were done by Brian Sibley. He did the excellent dramatisation of Lord of the Rings; as well as the almost miraculously good BBC Narnia Chronicles. When I approach Sibley's work I do so with pleasure and confidence that it will be sympathetic to the spirit of the original work, as well as creatively inspired.

I wasn't disappointed.

The whole collection is framed and linked by the device of having Tolkien as an avuncular narrator; who at times interacts with the characters. The role is played by Michael Hordern, who was Gandalf in Sibley's LotR, and one of the very greatest English actors of his generation. 

Farmer Giles of Ham

This was wonderful - full of delightful touches, such as having Garm the Dog brought forward as a developed 'sidekick' character. Brian Blessed was a terrific Giles; as well as the beautifully-judged voice acting, picturing Blessed was just right (Blessed is a superb actor, as well as being the most famous shouter in the world). I could not have imagined this done better - funny, with many characteristic cod-learned asides, and some gently touching moments.

Smith of Wooton Major

The original is an extremely beautiful and perfect high fantasy; and Sibley has lightened it and injected some hunour for a radio audience by framing the narrative as an autobiographical story told to some children at his forge by the eponymous Smith. This is successful, and broadens the appeal; but at the cost of losing some power from the impact of some of the most effective scenes in the original; and the end fails to achieve a full sense of closure. Smith is very well played by Paul Copley, with his trademark rural Yorkshire accent - in theory this sits oddly with the West Country accents of everyone else in the cast, but in practice it didn't seem to matter.

Leaf by Niggle

This is again a creative adaptation of Tolkien's perfect short story - to create an equally perfect play which moved me to tears more than once (tears of joy) - it really is inspiring. Niggle was played by Alfred Molina, who is an actor whose early work I regard as often touched with genius - and it  certainly was here. The interactions between the Tolkien Narrator and Niggle are beautifully contrived and performed. Really lovely.

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil

This is at a lower level than the three preceding pieces, and is best regarded as a Bonus. It is a kind of 'out-take' from Sibley's script of the Lord of the Rings dramatisation, done with a different cast. It covers three section. The first is from entering the Old Forest, the capture by Old Man Willow and rescue by Tom. I found this satisfying, without being fully engaged by it.

The middle section covers In the House of Tom Bombadil - and this was very good indeed! Tom and Goldberry are given Irish accents, which worked for me - although I always imagined them as dwelling in Tolkien's native Worcestershire. Bombadil is a very difficult role to pull off, I should think; and Ian Hogg captured all the aspects - including both the rather irritating heartiness of a stereotypical Old Salt seafarer with revelations of sudden depths, sensitivities and poetry.

The final section covered Fog on the Barrow Downs - and I did not find this effective. The lead-in to the capture was so brief as to seem perfunctory, and in general this somewhat superfluous scene failed to engage me. This is indeed was of the less effective parts of the original book, with too many similarities to the previous Old Man Willow adventure, and the Barrow Wight failing to achieve a genuine presence and identity. 

Overall, this is a really good set of dramatisations - I found I wanted to re-listen to the whole thing after only a week; and I anticipate coming back to them many times; as I have done with Sibley's other work.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Does The Notion Club's fictional response to Ramer's story in The Notion Club Papers recall the real life reception of Tolkien's Lost Road?

In the feigned Foreword to the supposed First Edition of The Notion Club Papers (NCPs), the 'editor' describes the work as nothing more than a literary curiosity; but when he adds a Note to the 'Second' edition he reveals the real importance of the work in the parting phrase that refers to "the strange processes of so-called literary 'invention', with which the papers are largely concerned".

The phrase 'so-called' and the quotes around 'invention' are (presumably) intended to imply that the editor regards the work as not having been invented - but a true account.

I return to re-read the NCPs every year or so, and on the current encounter it struck me that - given the NCPs history of having been read to The Inklings, as a light entertainment initially (later ripening to an extremely ambitious conception - perhaps the most ambitious work Tolkien ever projected) - the very first significant incident of the book seems likely to refer back to an actual incident in an Inklings meeting.

What happens is that Ramer (who is substantially a Tolkien alter ego, being a philologist and science fiction/ fantasy writer; although not the only Tolkien alter ego in the NCPs) has just read a story to the Notion Club.

The club responds to Ramer's story with various jovial and satirical comments, the substance of which is that they liked the story, which we don't know much about, but which apparently was set on another planet; but found the 'frame' describing getting-to and back-from this planet unconvincing and contrived, while the story itself had the ring of truth.

Indeed, some of the club members intuit that the story was not entirely fictional, in the sense that it seemed as if Ramer had actually 'been there', in the world he described. Later, Ramer reveals that this is true - he has actually visited this other planet, in reality - but in a dream.

If we suppose that Tolkien was writing this episode based-upon an actual occurrence in an Inklings meeting, which seems likely; what story of Tolkien's might it refer to?

The most obvious example is beginning of the unfinished novel The Lost Road (posthumously published in 1987 as Volume Five of The History of Middle Earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien). The Lost Road fragment was originally (probably) written during 1936-7 (in November of 1937 a version was submitted to Unwin publishers, but rejected).

However, Tolkien had clearly been looking again at The Lost Road before embarking upon The Notion Club Papers; because in a letter to Unwin of 21 July 1946, after setting aside the NCPs, he wrote that the NCPs (not named) had involved 'taking up in an entirely different frame and setting what little had any value in the inchoate Lost Road (which I once had the impudence to show you..."

It therefore seeks likely, indeed probable, that the Notion Club's response to Ramer's story contains echoes of the Inklings's response to The Lost Road - which is (in the fragment) set primarily in Numenor, set within a modern 'frame'.

My assumption is that - before embarking upon the major re-write that constitutes the NCPs; Tolkien will have read-out his c eight-year-old Lost Road story to The Inklings to gather feedback and critical comment. If so, it is plausible that the Inklings found the Numenor sections of Lost Road to be very convincing, as real as if Tolkien had 'actually' been there; but found the introductory modern chapters comparatively rather dull and a contrived method of getting-to Numenor and back again.

However, in The Lost Road the link between the frame and the main story - which involves a transition of both time and space from modern England to Numenor (located, like Atlantis, somewhere in what is now the mid-Atlantic) and deep into the past. However, a difference is that this transition is described in terms of a dream, and not by the use of any kind of technological apparatus such as a time-and-space-ship; which we gather is how Ramer described his transition.

Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to imagine that when Tolkien read the first draft of the beginning of Notion Club Papers to the Inklings (which we know he did, from an entry in Warnie Lewis's diary); he was probably getting chuckles of recognition as Inklings recalled their mixed response to hearing The Lost Road.   

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Is Howard Shore's music the very best thing about the Lord of the Rings Movies (which are, themselves, among the very best movies ever)

Just asking.

Because I can hardly listen to the soundtrack without tearing-up, again and again. No other film score has ever affected me this way.

Now, of course, the impact of the music is aided by my memories of Tolkien's original book (my favourite of all books); and by the marvellous scenes that the movie has in its best moments (which are many); but a very large proportion of what is best about the movies is indeed in the soundtrack.

Shore's is the only music I have ever found which, at times, really captures the spirit of Lord of the Rings; and I have been looking for such music more than forty years...