Scholarship as a Vocation

The modern university in 1917

The ‘modern university,’ as Keith Tribe has pointed out, arose by way of a misapprehension. In the 1870s and 1880s many American students attended university in Germany:

Returning graduate students brought back to the United States the ideal of the ‘modern research university’, an institution driven by academic research, its goals set by the senior professoriate, and combining the advancement of knowledge with its diffusion by teaching. Johns Hopkins was explicitly founded upon this model; Chicago later followed suit.

Many internationally recognized professors were employed in the nineteenth-century German universities. Nevertheless, these institutions were not prototypes of Johns Hopkins and Chicago, but state institutes essentially concerned with the vocational training of students. Max Weber in 1917, delivering the lecture now known as ‘Science as a Vocation,’ was clear that German universities needed to ‘develop in the direction of the American system.’

Weber’s 1917 talk has long been regarded as a classic statement of the nature of ‘intellectualization’ in the modern world. Intellectual production is equated by Weber with ‘science’ (Wissenschaft), by which he means all that we might separate into the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. Science, he insists, cannot reveal ultimate values, but it does dispel traditional faith in ‘mysterious incalculable forces,’ thereby disenchanting the world. Modern science, he argues, can only be carried out within the modern university.

Science today is a ‘vocation’ organized in special disciplines in the service of self-clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts… This, to be sure, is the inescapable condition of our historical situation.

Weber presents modern science as a form of industrial activity, characterized by the division of labour, massive capital investment, and managerial supervision. His fundamental claim is that scientific advance is premised upon specialization.

A really definitive and good accomplishment is today always a specialized accomplishment. And whoever lacks the capacity to put on blinders… may as well stay away from science.

As with all industrial activity, the logic of economic development dictates that specialized work is co-ordinated and supported within the framework of a larger organization. The modern university is a knowledge factory, established by state capital, owning the means of intellectual production, and hiring academic wage labourers who work under the supervision of departmental managers.

Weber acknowledges that career advancement becomes a primary concern within this system, which often rewards mediocrity over merit; but he holds the ‘predominance of mediocrity’ a cost worth paying for intellectual progress.

The postmodern university in 2016

A glance at the state of universities today, nearly a century after Weber’s talk, reveals some shortcomings in his analysis. Universities are beset by a chronic shortage of funds. Changing demographics and the expansion of higher education have accentuated the problem. But it was built into the very idea of an institution that combines teaching and research. Tribe points out:

The creation in the United States just over a century ago of the ‘modern university’ embodying the ideal of the teaching of students by specialized scholars was possible because of the massive fortunes made during the extraordinary period of economic expansion in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, coupled with a desire on the part of the newly rich – Johns Hopkins, Rockefeller, also Brown, Firestone and even Stetson among many others – to plough their wealth into educational foundations.

Such endowments were not available elsewhere, nor was this level of private donation sustainable within America. Consequently, the modern university has everywhere come to rely upon very large amounts of government funding; becoming in effect, as Weber called them in 1917, ‘state capitalist enterprises.’

In a nutshell, the problem faced by universities today is that taxpayers and politicians are not prepared to fund the extremely expensive ideal of education to which they pay lip service.

One major casualty of financial pressure is teaching, always regarded as a sort of secondary bonus component of the modern university. While more and more students have entered the universities, responsibility for teaching them is increasingly farmed out to graduates and adjuncts, leaving tenured faculty free to compete for research grants and prestigious positions. As Jillian Powers points out, 75% of university instruction in North American universities is now performed by contingent faculty.

Yet this freeing up of faculty time to concentrate on research, while generating an explosion of publications, has not fostered any obvious intellectual advance. The root problem here is that, if the modern university is a factory of scientific research, it is a factory that does not produce a marketable product. Political administrators, concerned with securing results for taxpayers’ money, therefore turn to artificial measures of performance that, at least to date, have been deeply corrosive to the culture of research.

Ranking of departments and journals, assessments of research impact, and the linking of career advancement with publication – what do these add up to beyond a recipe for a massive explosion of second-rate research? What is the real value of a hasty project, conceived with an eye on grant applications, and worked through only to the minimum level required for peer-review acceptance and consequent publication? Administrative regulation of the research factory has boosted quantity at the cost of quality.

The situation resulting from the combination of the downgrading of teaching and the administrative regulation of research is well captured by Tribe:

Today’s university teachers necessarily rely upon textbooks in their teaching rather than their own understanding of the discipline, while the formal retention of the ‘research’ culture in the mass university has massively increased the number of books and journals published.

In other words, university researchers are producing more and more publications that nobody reads because students are directed to textbooks while their peers are too busy writing grant applications and working on their next publication.

Artisan scholarship

Lack of marketable product is not the only problem with Weber’s economic vision of the modern university. One may also take serious issue with his conviction that specialization is the warp and woof of intellectual advance. Certainly there is a place for specialization. But, as Weber says, specialization requires blinders, and as I have suggested elsewhere, the disciplinary divisions of the modern university mean that these blinders are rarely if ever removed. And Weber’s idea of a disenchanted world is curiously un-self-reflexive, passing over the inherent mystery that is the self-conscious mind engaged in genuine scholarly inquiry. As Patrick Curry has cogently argued, the experience of enchantment is a characteristic of genuine learning; although the modern university has done wonders in banishing this experience from its lecture halls and examination rooms.

But I want here to single out another weak point in Weber’s vision of the modernization of research, namely his assumption that a single developmental trajectory applies across the board. That the natural sciences require substantial capital investment and consequent management of collectively worked resources seems obvious. But Weber also insists:

This development, I am convinced, will engulf those disciplines in which the craftsman personally owns the tools, essentially the library, as is still the case to a large extent in my own field. This development corresponds entirely to what happened to the artisan of the past and it is now fully under way.

Whether or not this made sense in 1917, it most certainly does not today. Resources such as the Internet Archive allow free access to just about all books and journals published before around 1905. In theory, online databases could supply open access to all later publications as well; that these libraries are closed off by paywalls is an artificial barrier to entry, providing the universities with a temporary and unjustifiable monopoly on research – temporary, because it is increasingly recognized that the move to open access is but a question of time.

The advent of the internet turns a significant portion of academic wage-labourers into potential artisans. And this undermines the basic rationale behind Weber’s conviction that ‘the inescapable condition of our historical situation’ is that intellectual production must be ‘organized in special disciplines’ within the modern university.


Those who are committed to life within the university may find in these reflections some clues for reform. And, clearly, fundamental reform is needed. But those called to the humanities and the social sciences, who understand their vocation in terms of scholarship as opposed to career advancement and status, might do well to consider whether they have any place in the universities at all.

Artisan scholarship requires a financial basis, and independent scholars need to find ways to support their studies. That this is possible has been demonstrated by a number of independent scholars, one of whom has provided the core research on which this post has drawn (Keith Tribe runs his own translation company). A loose organization of independent scholars could, in theory, secure patronage from private corporations, and even make a bid for state funding, as do other arts. But the most exciting way forward at this moment in time is surely to explore the possibilities opened up by crowd-funding initiatives. Such grass-roots support of scholarship would inevitably entail a welcome shift of audience, compelling scholars to address interested laypeople as opposed to a handful of fellow specialists. Those who regard scholarship as their vocation have been let down by the modern university but may find a solution online.


In addition to the sources linked within the text, this post has made ample use of Keith Tribe’s ‘Educational Economies’, published in Economy and Society, 2006, and available on Keith’s page, and Max Weber’s ‘Wissenschaft als Beruf’, for which I used the translation by H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, of which several versions can be found online.

Header image: Ekin Arabacioglu, ‘Cogs‘. Creative commons license.


Some reflections on the modern university

I’ve been studying English intellectual history for nearly three decades, focusing on the years between 1865 and 1925. At the beginning of this period intellectual life in England took place largely outside the universities; by the end of it the modern university had emerged, replete with its professional journals and division of faculties, and has claimed a monopoly over serious scholarship ever since.

And yet a decade ago I resolved to pursue my own research as an independent scholar, without any university affiliation. In this short essay I offer some reflections on how my work has shaped my attitude toward the modern university.

A child of Thatcher, my early research explored the origins of neoclassical economics. Specifically, I looked at the reformation of classical economics at the hands of Alfred Marshall, the founder of modern university economics. Marshall established economics as an independent discipline in Cambridge in 1903, but his intellectual innovations occurred in the early 1870s, when political economy formed part of the ‘moral sciences’ faculty and his university was in the midst of wholesale overhaul.

Oxford and Cambridge are medieval institutions, but the Elizabethan settlement had established them as bastions of the English Reformation. The first part of the nineteenth century saw sustained agitation from religious dissenters to end the Anglican monopoly and ‘nationalize’ the ancient universities. By the 1870s, an alliance of progressive Anglicans and secular reformers had gained a secure foothold within these institutions and non-Anglicans, and also for the first time women students, entered the colleges. At the same time, a number of liberal Oxbridge dons became the vanguard of the ‘extension movement’ that led to the establishment of new colleges and universities throughout the country. The extension movement was the liberal elite’s response to the 1867 franchise extension, in which anxiety about democracy fostered a resolve to educate citizens so they might cast their vote responsibly.

My core discovery was that the reform of Oxbridge and the establishment of new national institutions of higher education was the unstated premise upon which Marshall’s neoclassical economics was built. Classical economics envisages a homogenous labour force paid from past profits. The young Marshall broke the straitjacket of this model by reasoning that an injection of education changed all the relationships: the educated worker was more productive but demanded higher wages, but firms could borrow to cover their higher wage bill. Moving away from a single model, in which two classes of capitalists and workers contest division of a fixed fund, Marshall envisaged a multitude of labour markets in which wages correspond to productivity. Essentially, Marshall was saying that universal higher education would not only train citizens but also usher in a new kind of economy.

In England, then, neoclassical economics was born from the progressive liberal push that established many of our current institutions of higher education. But between Marshall’s 1873 dream of a competitive, classless society, and Tony Blair’s Marshallian election platform 124 years later, something untoward occurred.

In 1873 economics was one of several Cambridge moral sciences, of which philosophy was queen. Marshall subscribed to the Idealist conviction that the human personality is not mechanical and therefore accepted that education cannot be entirely reduced to system. Consequently, he envisaged the university, the foundation of the new economy, as standing in part outside it. But by 1903 Marshall had established economics as an independent discipline. Freed from humanistic constraints, a newly autonomous neoclassical discourse gradually extended itself into all spheres of public policy debate. Today, Frankenstein’s monster has consumed its parent and the result is called the neoliberal university.

Now, the obvious moral of this story is that we have lost today any sure framework of values that can hold the economizing mind at bay. Yet this loss seems built into the modernization of the English universities. Academic specialization is just Adam Smith’s principle of the division of labour applied to institutions of research. But such division is merely fragmentation unless some kind of co-ordination and overall supervision is in place. Hence, university government and administrators. Traditionally, the university has been an independent and self-governing institution, its decision-making body the university senate, composed of the professors of the various disciplines. But self-government requires some consensus on the mission and purpose of the institution as a whole, not simply its various faculties.

In early Victorian Cambridge, the governing supervision was clerical, and theology exercised an invisible yet omniscient check on all academic ventures. In the last decades of the nineteenth century some aspects of this central ideology were taken over by philosophy. But once the various faculties of the humanities and social sciences became autonomous the intellectual center was lost. Vague, undeveloped, and increasingly outdated notions of Max Weber’s vision of science as a vocation held things together for several decades. But when in the 1980s vice-chancellors who knew which way the political wind was blowing began to take control from the university senates, they met no effective internal resistance. Today university self-government has given way to rule by professional administrators, who enforce their own discipline of efficient resource allocation and quality control on a disgruntled academic workforce.

Yet those who today rail against the neoliberal university usually ignore, and perhaps fail to even see, a related yet more profound problem. For if disciplinary autonomy undermined the ideal of scholarship as a vocation, it has also undermined scholarship itself.

Whatever you might feel about neoclassical economics, I think there can be no doubt about Marshall’s intellectual creativity. And what is striking here is that his innovations were carried out in an environment in which political economy was not hermetically isolated from other disciplines. Indeed, my research revealed that his achievement rested upon substantial borrowings from philosophy, psychology, and contemporary historical scholarship. Contrast this ‘multi-disciplinary’ reformation of political economy in the face of a changing social reality with the revelation of imperial nakedness that marked the response of professional economists to the 2009 financial crisis. Since Marshall, neoclassical economics has been thoroughly mathematicised and an array of techniques have been added to the professional economist’s toolbox; but any progress in dealing with real world problems on any level beyond the ideological may be seriously doubted.

Subsequent research has reinforced my suspicions. Back in 2004 I discovered in the archive a long essay that the young Marshall had written on the history of the world. Historians of economics had ignored it because they assumed that an essay on history could have no connection to Marshall’s economic thought. The essay became a vital part of my reconstruction of Marshall’s early economic work; but I also became fascinated with the historical vision it embodied and have since dedicated several years to tracing its origins and subsequent fate.

This investigation has led to the unearthing of an entirely forgotten episode in early twentieth-century English intellectual history. Between around 1910 and 1924, a newly established faculty of Anthropology at Cambridge saw the coming together of field anthropologists (recently returned from the Torres Straits), experimental psychologists, Classical archaeologists and Anglo-Saxonists, who together began to develop a new social theory founded upon the idea that the contact of peoples had been (and remained) the key driving force of human history. This truly ‘inter-disciplinary’ research project floundered with the death in 1922 of one of its key figures, W.H.R. Rivers, and sank into the sand in the wake of Bronisław Malinowski’s success in establishing anthropology as an autonomous discipline.

Whether or not the theories of the Cambridge ‘anthropologists’ were correct is not the point here. What matters is that their passing marked the end of a remarkable period of university life, in which the foundations of the modern research institute were laid but academic specialization had not yet limited researchers to communicating with a handful of fellow-specialists and a captive-audience of students.

What I take from these two episodes of Cambridge history is that a university can be a site of astonishingly creative cross-disciplinary work, but that once disciplinary boundaries have ossified, it usually is not.

Let me jump from the early twentieth century to the present day. As an independent scholar I earn my living as a freelance academic editor. I have a busy period in the autumn when I receive floods of grant applications to edit. A good number of these propose ‘inter-disciplinary’ conferences and longer-term projects on various themes. They always explain how the proposed meeting of minds from different disciplines will enrich our understanding and generate new paradigms, and so on. Then, at other times of the year, I’m occasionally asked to edit a collected volume that has emerged from an earlier such project. And what I am invariably confronted with is a series of chapters by distinguished scholars, each writing from his or her own discipline, with no one essay having any relationship whatsoever with the other essays in the volume.

Within my own admittedly obscure field of intellectual history, disciplinary specialization does not simply stultify, it generates fundamentally flawed scholarship. Both my work on Marshall and my discovery of the ‘contact of peoples’ anthropologists break new ground. Nobody has noticed these things before. But this is less testimony to my research abilities than indictment of the disciplinary histories that inform conventional understandings of the intellectual past. A disciplinary history is the work of a practitioner of a discipline who projects that discipline back into history and so discovers a past populated by modern university professionals avant la lettre. The past might be a foreign country, but to the disciplinary historian in an age of globalization all countries look the same.

On becoming an independent scholar my research and writing improved substantially. After a while I realized that this was because I no longer had ready access to reams of secondary literature via JSTOR and the like and had to focus my attention pretty much exclusively on the primary literature (much of which I could access free through the wonderful Internet Archive. In my own field most of the secondary literature is tripe and reading it harmful to genuine illumination of the past.

I recognize that my research shines a light upon only a very limited world, and that my own experiences as an intellectual historian are narrow in relation to the wider world of research and learning. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to forget that the monopolization of scholarship by the universities is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most of the canonical authors – who were named as such in the early periods of disciplinary formation – worked outside established institutions. And while the likes of Coleridge and J.S. Mill laboured as ‘independent scholars’ avant la lettre, their Oxbridge contemporaries were charged with instilling correct Anglican doctrines in the ‘rising generation’. A good part of the knowledge produced and taught by today’s academics strikes me as no less safe, vapid, and moribund as that disseminated by their counterparts a century and a half ago.


Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before 

‘Under Which Lyre’, W.H. Auden. 1946.



You can read most of the research on which I draw on my page. The research on Marshall is set out in my 2009 book, but some of the relevant arguments are summarized in the second part of my essay on ‘Culture and Political Economy’. For a sustained polemic on modern disciplinary histories see my ‘The Tragedy of Cambridge Anthropology’.

For detailed accounts of the emergence of the neoliberal university in Britain from the 1980s on see Keith Tribe’s ‘Educational Economies’ (2006) and his working paper ‘The “Form” of “Reform”: The Postwar University in Britain, 1945-1992’, both available on Keith’s page.

These reflections as a whole were inspired by my reading of an early draft of Gregory C. G. Moore’s forthcoming Rounded Globe eBook, Leslie Stephen and the Clubbable Men of Radical London.


Simon J. Cook

CC BY-SA. 4.0 license: you are free to share and adapt this text for any purpose.


I’ve been doing this blog for a few years now, and use it mainly as a means of playing around with ideas as a preliminary stage of research. Beyond my ideas, I’m careful to avoid exposing much about myself. But the other day my cousin sent me some old family photos, and I felt a strange need to post this photograph below, which was taken on the day of my parents’ wedding. This is where I come from.



So who you see, from left to right, is my maternal grandfather, Jack Rosenberg, his wife Rene (Bubba, to me), my mother, my father, my paternal grandmother, Enid Cook (née Robertson), and her youngest son, another Cook.

To be honest, I’m not certain what year my parents got married, but based on the date of my own birthday and my mum’s hairstyle, I’d guess this is 1965 or 1966.

Socially, what you see here is the encounter of two widely different groups within the English society of that time. The Rosenbergs and the Gabels (the maiden name of my Bubba) were Jews whose parents had come over from the vicinity of Lodz in Poland around 1917. Growing up in the East End they had encountered Mosely’s blackshirts and (perhaps in part as a result) had become ardent communists. My grandfather was a baker, a Trade Unionist, and a (very) active member of the Communist Party.

On the right hand side of the photograph are the Cooks – upper-middle class academics, Cambridge educated and, a generation further back, members of the clergy – the Cook who was my grandfather’s father was a vicar in Lancashire in the 1910s and 1920s, while the Robertson who was my grandmother’s father was a minister in the Scottish Kirk.

And my parents? Well, obviously, they were both resolved on rebellion from their respective families and social classes.

After this one occasion, I doubt the wider families of Cooks and Rosenbergs ever met again (and where was my paternal grandfather? Did he not even attend the wedding?) The Rosenbergs harangued my mother, reportedly throwing her out of the house and accusing her of doing Hitler’s work for him. The Cooks looked down their noses at my mother, because she was working class, and also because she was a Jewess (I’d say the Cooks were not especially antisemitic for their class, but this is to weigh their prejudices in the scales of J.M. Keynes’ definition of an antisemite as ‘someone who dislikes Jews more than he ought’).

The sad thing is, after around five years or so of marriage both my parents seem to have come to the conclusion that their respective families had been correct. They went through an acrimonious divorce and the fruit of their bold social experiment, namely my brother and myself, were brought up by our mother.

Standing back from the social commentary, its salutary to look at this photo now and reflect that only two members of the group are alive today – my father and his brother. My grandfather and my mother both fell victim to Huntingdon’s Chorea, a hereditary degenerative disease, from which they both escaped by taking their own lives. My father’s mother died of cancer before my parents had divorced. And my mother’s mother died about a decade ago, for many years no longer speaking to most of the rest of her family, and I am ashamed to record that I do not know of what she died.



Rounded Globe

We now have a brand new website for Rounded Globe.

Have a look: feed your mind! All our ebooks can be read online, downloaded (Kindle, tablet) for free, and legally shared with others. And all our ebooks embody scholarly excellence.

The original site went up just over a year ago and for some months contained only two ebooks – my essay on Tolkien and Donald Winch’s Carlyle lectures on the history of political economy.  Over last summer we began to receive more essays and proposals. Today we have seven ebooks for (free) download and another seven forthcoming over the next few months. As the content of our library grew it became clear that we needed a better way of organizing and displaying its contents. I’m very pleased with the result, which embodies the aesthetic and design philosophy of my co-founder Andrew Holgate.

Over the last year I’ve occasionally asked myself why I’m putting so much time and effort into a venture that can make no money. Sometimes my answers are negative. For example, the intense irritation I feel every time a paywall prevents me from accessing some scholarly article I need for my own research.

Other answers are of a mixed nature. Five years of teaching at a university convinced me that such an environment is corrosive to learning and scholarship. A genuine thirst for knowledge is corrupted by obsession with grades (students) and publication numbers and career promotion (professors). My life today is an attempt to engage with what I love on my own terms, without the bullshit and without the egos. Rounded Globe arises naturally out of this choice.

And this, I have come to think, leads to the bottom line: Rounded Globe is worth doing because it is a good thing.

  • It is a good thing to make high quality scholarly essays accessible – filtering out all the jargon and overblown theoretical nonsense, and offering them online to anyone who wants to read them.

It is as simple as that. After a lot of previous turbulence my life has become relatively stable. I now have a permanent home and my editing work brings in sufficient income to pay the bills. So with the time that I have left to me I’d like to do some good things.


Faërie as Nature

We have got too hung up on the idea of Tolkien’s fantasy as an escape into a world of make believe. Tolkien believed that humans, as mortal souls, are part strangers here on earth. From this perspective Faërie, rather than some ‘other world’, is simply the natural world as experienced by those who truly belong to it.

We can begin to understand this thought by turning to the first adventure into which the hobbits fall in The Lord of the Rings.


‘Three is Company’

Leaving Bag End in Hobbiton, Frodo, Sam, and Pippin walk much of the night. Still in land that Sam knows well, they sleep curled up against the roots of a great fir tree. A fox, ‘passing through the wood on business of his own’, pauses in wonderment:

‘Hobbits!’ he thought. ‘Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer about this.’

The next night, following two near encounters with a black rider and having passed the limits of Sam’s geographical knowledge, the hobbits meet a company of Elves, who echo out loud the silent thoughts of the fox:

‘This is indeed wonderful!’ they said. ‘Three hobbits in a wood at night! We have not seen such a thing since Bilbo went away. What is the meaning of it?’

Our hobbits join the Elves, who walk without sound or footfall, following an almost unseen path through the trees. They come out upon a space of grass upon a hill, looking down over the village of Woodhall. At first the Elves sit and speak only softly. But when the twinkling lights from the village go out, and the stars come out above them, a fire springs up, a song bursts out, and the Elves declare it time for speech and merriment. His mind filled with light and Elvish voices, Pippin feels he is in a waking dream.



In this very first adventure Tolkien takes us into nature and shows us what may be happening in the woods just beyond our homes. Beginning in one village, Hobbiton, our travellers end with a view of another, the lights of which they see twinkling in the valley below. The hobbits of Woodhall are preparing for bed, and only when they extinguish their lights does the Elf fire blaze and the woodland merriment begin.

In this journey from hobbit hole to Faërie the thinking fox marks a transitional point. A natural creature, with business of his own, it is strange for us to read his thoughts. Yet from the perspective of the fox what is queer is that domestic creatures like us are asleep beneath the stars. When we encounter Elves, who give voice to the same thought, we know that the transition from snug home to sylvan magic is complete.

Mortal participation in such a woodland scene is a rare occurrence, as the words of one of the Elves to Frodo makes clear:

‘The Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creature upon earth. Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance or purpose.’

A statement that echoes Tolkien’s observation in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’:

Elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways. (OFS 32)

Yet such an encounter is no meeting with aliens. Like the fox of the previous night, the Elves met in the woods of the Shire are denizens of the natural world. In contrast to Man, Tolkien notes in ‘On Fairy Stories’, Elves “are natural, far more natural than he is” (OFS 28). Tolkien’s story is thus no exercise in science fiction, no account of an imaginary meeting with creatures from another planet. Rather, we are taken into the heart of the natural world that surrounds our scattered human settlements.

Of course, the Elves appear more magical than the fox, for they can not only talk but also enchant us. This is why nature, when fully entered into, is called Faërie. And nature, so conceived, is a perilous place. Black riders hunt in it (although they may ride up to our very doorstep), and beyond the Brandywine our hobbits will soon be caught by the song of Old Man Willow and fall under the evil spell of a wight who haunts a now desolate landscape. Pippin’s waking dream in the Shire will soon give way to waking nightmare in the less gentle countryside beyond it.

Faërie is perilous for humans. Yet the perils it contains arise, perhaps, because we do not fully belong in nature. Elves are more natural than humans because their souls, like their bodies, remain always within this world. Human bodies are part of this world, but our souls – at least for the Christian Tolkien – are not. Man is “but a guest here in Arda and not here at home” (Morgoth 317). Part strangers in this world, we can only imagine what it would be like to fully belong to nature. When we do so imagine we conjure up the creatures of Faërie. Such fully natural creatures cannot but appear strange to us, their enchantment perilous.

Cf. Hillman December 6, 2014.

References and credit

OFS: Tolkien On Fairy-stories, edited by Verlyn Flieger & Douglas Anderson, HarperCollins, 2008.

Morgoth: Morgoth’s Ring: The Later Silmarillion. Part One, edited by Christopher Tolkien, London: HarperCollins, 1993.

Image credit: ‘Deep in the Golden Forest’, Tommy Clark. Creative Commons license.


War of the Ghosts

The following post was written as a guest post for Tom Hillman’s blog, Alas, not me.

At the March 1920 meeting of the Folk-Lore Society, all three papers were delivered by Cambridge men. A.C. Haddon gave the presidential address, W.H.R. Rivers discussed the conception of ‘soul-substance’ in New Guinea and Melanesia, and F.C. Bartlett reported on ‘Some Experiments in the Reproduction of Folk-Stories’.

Does this have anything to do with Tolkien?

It depends how you look at things; which is really what I want to talk about in this post. Tolkien studies are full of ‘influences’ – as highlighted in the recent flurry of discussion over the state of Tolkien scholarship. Personally, I don’t get ‘influence’, a seemingly occultist notion of action at a distance. No doubt the confusion is subjective.

Another perspective draws upon notions like context and conversation. These are my preferred terms of art, reflecting my training as an intellectual historian. I’ll illustrate how they work by first discussing Bartlett and his 1920 paper, and then pointing to its possible significance for how we think about Tolkien.

Anthropology at Cambridge was established in the wake of a university expedition to Torres Straits in 1898. Returning from the expedition, Haddon and Rivers joined forces with more traditional scholars, notably the classical archaeologist William Ridgeway and the Anglo-Saxonist H.M. Chadwick, to establish a new faculty of anthropology. Ridgeway and Chadwick were working on a novel approach to early European history, which combined archaeology with the study of old literature, such as the Iliad and Beowulf. Haddon and Rivers introduced to this approach the folktales of contemporary ‘primitives’. Bartlett’s 1920 paper was a contribution to an emerging account of the relationship between story and society in history.

Bartlett was a psychologist. His paper on the reproduction of Folk Stories discussed an experiment in which members of his university read a Chinook folk tale, ‘The War of the Ghosts’, and, after varying intervals of time, reproduced it. Reproduction, Bartlett showed, was actually reconstruction: over successive retellings familiar elements were substituted for unfamiliar and the plot structure changed to remove (seemingly) inexplicable connections. As such, Bartlett’s paper contributed to the study of cultural diffusion by way of a psychological experiment on memory.

So what does this tell us? If we approach Bartlett’s paper in terms of influence, pretty much nothing. Tolkien may possibly have read the paper, but probably did not; and even if he did, any direct connection we might establish would probably sit all too easily between the trivial and the vacuous.

Approaching Bartlett’s paper in terms of context is another matter. To begin with, we see immediately that disciplinary divisions were not then what they are now. Under the broad umbrella of ‘anthropology’ we find a sustained interaction between students of Classical and Old English literature, archaeologists, experimental psychologists, and practitioners of a new participant-observer method of ethnological fieldwork. This was not an exercise in what today is called ‘inter-disciplinary studies’; rather, it reflects the fact that before the 1930s the borders between scholarly disciplines had not yet ossified.

Subsequent closing of the borders between academic disciplines has fostered a distorted image of the recent intellectual past. If you search for Bartlett’s ‘War of the Ghosts’ on the internet you will find many accounts by modern psychologists of a celebrated chapter in the history of their discipline. Unless you open up the original report of the experiment in Folk-Lore, however, you would never guess that this psychological experiment was designed to illuminate the processes of cultural diffusion.

Something similar has happened to Tolkien, whose intellectual context is very largely missing from modern Tolkien studies. Verlyn Flieger is better than most, and has correctly identified the discussions of the Folk-Lore Society as important background to Tolkien’s 1939 lecture on ‘Fairy Stories’. Yet even Flieger presents these discussions as focused simply on explaining the unpalatable elements of ancient stories. This is to project the concerns of a modern discipline (English) onto a past in which such narrow and restricted focus would have seemed an inexplicable voluntary myopia. The Folk-Lore Society brought to the table a wide range of interconnected contemporary debates, ranging over issues of comparative religion, racial ethnology, social history, and much else besides.

The context of intellectual debate was different back then. Disciplinary divisions counted for less, and the scholarly mind roamed over a much larger intellectual terrain. Scholars from a wide variety of specialized fields were engaged in the same or similar conversations.

Reading Bartlett can tell us something about the nature of these conversations, which form a vital (yet passed over) context of Tolkien’s thought. Of course, Tolkien was not part of this Cambridge project, nor were his methods, interests, or conclusions aligned with theirs. Yet his were responses to similar questions, and it is easy to locate ground shared by Cambridge psychologist and Oxford philologist.

Consider the ‘Origins’ section in ‘On Fairy Stories’, where Tolkien introduces his notion of individual sub-creation, alludes to the debate over diffusion, and then introduces his metaphor of the Cauldron of Story. The Cauldron presents an image of diffusion at work, with invented elements of fantasy blending with elements of stories significant parts of which have been forgotten. It is the fact that we forget elements of the old stories that allows invented elements of fantasy to be blended into them to make fairy stories.

Whether or not Tolkien was ‘influenced’ by Bartlett is largely irrelevant. The point is that the two men were both participants in a wide-ranging and ongoing conversation. Their work, or at least parts of it, emerged from a shared intellectual context. Bartlett was particularly arrested by the distortions introduced by memory, Tolkien was concerned especially with forgetting. But reading their texts together reveals a wider scholarly community grappling with the relationship of memory and story in history.

One could go further (much further), had we but world enough and time. Suffice it here to point out that while Bartlett’s most famous book was entitled Remembering (1932), Tolkien’s Elves, with their immortal memories and seemingly perfect recall, can be viewed (in addition to many other things) as an intensive and prolonged thought-experiment on what human memory might aspire to, yet palpably is not.

Again, I suggest no influence of Bartlett’s psychology of memory upon Tolkien’s Elves. What I do suggest is that reading Tolkien in context reveals much about the kind of questions that stand behind his writing, just as Tolkien’s highly idiosyncratic answers illuminate the intellectual and cultural concerns of the twentieth century far more than is usually suspected.

Whatever the present state of Tolkien studies might be, it leaves much to be desired from the point of view of the intellectual historian. I submit that, alongside established methods, the cultivation of a contextualist reading of the history of ideas has the potential to transform our understanding of what Tolkien was about.


Some bibliographical references

On the recent ‘state of Tolkien studies’ debates, my favourite contribution, which contains links to others, is ‘Tolkien Criticism Unbound’.

Bartlett’s 1920 paper (as also those of Haddon and Rivers) can be accessed here, via the (wonderful) (make sure to turn to the second half of the volume).

Flieger has written about the Folk-Lore Society in several places. See for example the first chapter of her Interrupted Music (Kent State University Press, 2005).

You can no doubt access Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories’ without need of biographical reference from me.

Those who wish to read more on Bartlett and Cambridge anthropology in the first decades of the twentieth century can soon turn to two papers available on my page : ‘The Tragedy of Cambridge Anthropology’, forthcoming in History of European Ideas, and (with Tiziana Foresti) ‘War of the Ghosts: Marshall, Veblen, and Bartlett’, forthcoming in History of Political Economy.

Photo credit: ‘Photomarathon 18: Memories’, Joyce Kaes. Creative commons license.


Tolkien’s magic

What is Tolkien’s magic?

We find magical items in Middle-earth, and also magical creatures, but at first sight magical spells appear rather scarce. Yet once we take Tolkien at his word we find magic interspersed throughout his stories, which themselves weave a spell of extraordinary potency.

A spell, Tolkien explained in his St Andrews lecture on fairy stories, “means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men” (OFS 47).

Here is a philologist talking. Yet the meaning of spell as story is not so arcane as you might think. Children still learn their letters, that is, are taught to spell. Spelling is associated with words as well as magic, or if you want, with word magic.

The older meaning of spell as story is preserved in our gospel, a word that is indirectly invoked in The Lord of the Rings when, in the hall of Théoden, Gríma Wormtongue names Gandalf Láthspell. Gospel is from the Old English good spell, or good story; Láthspell, its opposite, means evil story or ill news.

Tolkien does not state outright that the two meanings of spell are the same; he does not say that a story told is a formula of power. Yet I would argue that he plays on the difference while holding that at root the two may be the same.

Consider this description of the faithless Unfriend in ‘Sellic Spell’ – Tolkien’s telling of the fairy story he discerned within Beowulf:

He had a keen wit, and the King set great store by his counsels, though some said that he used secret spells, and that his counsels roused strife more often than they made peace. (Beowulf 365-6)

On the surface a distinction is clearly drawn here between the counsel Unfriend offers the king and his secret spells. Yet it is not the narrator who separates spells and counsel, but some others in the story. A suspicion hangs in the air that these are people who do not quite grasp the full potency of words in themselves.

Now, Gríma Wormtongue, the counsellor of King Théoden, was drawn by Tolkien out of the character Unfriend (Unferth in Beowulf). I want to compare the cinematic treatment of Gandalf’s encounter with Wormtongue with the scene as told in Tolkien’s own story because, I think, it will allow us to weigh better the significance of this suspicion.

In this scene from the movie a magical dual takes place between Gandalf and Saruman, who has possessed the mind and body of King Théoden. Wormtongue is early stomped upon by Gimli the Dwarf, and is incidental to the battle between the two wizards, which concludes with Saruman’s exorcism and the physical transformation of Théoden from decrepit wreck to comely if middle-aged king.

Turning to the book, I suggest that the real confrontation begins already when the travellers – Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas – arrive at the gates of the hill fort of Edoras and men in bright mail spring up to bar their way, crying in the tongue of the Riddermark:

Stay, strangers here unknown!

Gandalf replies in their language, but observes that it is a tongue that few strangers understand. If you wish to be answered, he asks the guards, why not speak in the Common Tongue? The guards reply that it is the will of Théoden that none enter who do not speak the language of Rohan. Yet a moment later it is suggested that Wormtongue – and this is the first time we hear his name – has been instrumental in establishing this gate policy:

It is but two nights ago that Wormtongue came to us and said that by the will of Théoden no stranger should pass these gates.

Here is no sorcery. Yet Wormtongue is implicated from the first in an attempt to use words to isolate the Rohirrim and their king. And Gandalf, the wizard, overcomes this obstacle by mastery of their language.

The travellers now enter Edoras and climb up to Meduseld, the golden hall of Théoden. At the far end of the hall sits the King on a great gilded chair, while at his feet upon the steps sits Gríma Wormtongue, “a wizened figure of a man, with a pale wise face and heavy-lidded eyes”.

There was a silence.

At length Gandalf speaks. Théoden replies briefly, and not with words of welcome. Then Gríma speaks, naming Gandalf Láthspell, ill-news. An exchange of words unfolds between Gandalf and Wormtongue, who accuses the wizard of being in league with the Lady Galadriel, “the Sorceress of the Golden Wood”, where “webs of deceit were ever woven”. Gandalf has had enough. He sings a song about Galadriel, commands Wormtongue to silence, and then raises his staff and performs the only bit of theatrical magic in the whole scene:

There was a roll of thunder. The sunlight was blotted out from the eastern windows; the whole hall became suddenly dark as night. The fire faded to sullen embers.

And still Wormtongue speaks: “Did I not counsel you, lord, to forbid his staff?”

There was a flash as if lightening had cloven the roof. Then all was silent.

Thunder and lightning, and a wizard’s staff. A moment of drama that achieves one end: the silencing of Wormtongue. And this is the real magic performed by Gandalf. Not the exorcism of Saruman, but the breaking of Gríma’s web of deceit by the silencing of his spells.

And the rest is easy.

‘Now Théoden son of Thengel, will you hearken to me?’ said Gandalf… ‘No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them?’

Gandalf leads Théoden out of his hall.

Quickly now Gandalf spoke. His voice was low and secret, and none save the king heard what he said. But ever as he spoke the light shone brighter in Théoden’s eye…

On the silver screen Peter Jackson treated us to a struggle between wizards. Tolkien, however, tells a story of a battle between two counsellors. Gandalf does not break the incantations of Saruman but silences the twisted words of Wormtongue. He does not lead Théoden back to the light by exorcising Saruman, but by talking to him, speaking to him words of good counsel.

None of this is meant especially as criticism of the movie scene. Peter Jackson correctly discerned that this is a scene of magic, in which spells are spoken and a part of Gandalf’s true nature is revealed. But the real magic in Tolkien’s story, the dramatic thunder and lightning notwithstanding, is word magic.

And this does perhaps point to an intrinsic limitation of the movie adaptations of Tolkien’s stories. For how can a visual drama capture and convey Tolkien’s foundational idea that words are the real magic, that stories sung or spoken aloud are the real spells?

Those who know Tolkien’s writings only through their cinematic adaptations are like those who held that Unfriend relied upon “secret spells” – ignorant of the power of Tolkien’s words they conflate the real magic of Middle-earth with computer aided special effects.

But again, neither Peter Jackson nor those who suspected Unfriend of using secret spells are altogether off the mark. Tolkien was not demystifying sorcery by collapsing magical spells into story and counsel. He was reminding us of the magic incarnate in cunningly crafted words. A battle between two counsellors is a struggle of opposing magical forces.

We can appreciate the real magic invoked by Tolkien in this part of his story by noting three key moments in the coming of the travellers to Rohan.

First, walking between the burial mounds of the kings of Rohan before their arrival at Edoras itself, Aragorn sings – first in the original tongue, then in the Common Speech – the song of “a forgotten poet long ago in Rohan”.

Second, outside the doors of Meduseld, Háma, the door warden, hearing of the lineage of Aragorn’s sword, declares:

It seems that you are come on the wings of song out of the forgotten days…

And third, recall how Gandalf’s ‘thunder and lightning’ moment of magic is directly preceded by his soft singing of a song of Lórien and Galadriel.

Here, in these two songs and the intimation of songs from a long forgotten past, is an indication of the profound magical power brought by these travellers to Rohan: a magic that can hardly fail to break the cunning webs of deceit woven by Gríma Wormtongue.


Tolkien’s magic II; or, what hobbits have that elves don’t

In my recent post on Tolkien’s Magic I argued that words constituted the real magic of Middle-earth, and illustrated this point by an exegesis of Gandalf’s confrontation with Gríma Wormtongue as a battle between two counsellors.

But in my closing words I identified the various songs that precede the silencing of Wormtongue as the ‘real magic’ behind this battle. This was a bit of a fudge.

Counsel and song – both are instances of word magic, but they are not the same. Throughout The Lord of the Rings we find allusions to councils of great power. Think, for example, of the White Council, which drives Sauron from Mirkwood. Or the Council of Elrond, of which it was said in the dreams of Faramir and Boromir:

There shall be counsels taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells

And we have also many a moment of enchantment when our hobbits fall under the spell of a story or song told by one or other inhabitant of Faërie. Think, for example, of the hobbits listening to the stories of Tom Bombadil:

The hobbits sat still before him, enchanted: and it seemed as if, under the spell of his words, the wind had gone, and the clouds had dried up, and the day had been withdrawn, and darkness had come from East and West, and all the sky was filled with the light of white stars.

Or Frodo listening to the elvish minstrels in the Hall of Fire at Rivendell:

… the melodies and of the interwoven words in elven-tongues … held him in a spell… Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him … Then the enchantment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him…

So there are two kinds of word magic in Middle-earth: counsel, on the one hand, and story and song on the other. But what is their relationship? An initial answer is easy, although it opens a door onto a profoundly tangled web.

Story and counsel can be distinguished in relation to their temporal orientation and (which is related) their end or aim.

In The Lord of the Rings stories and songs seem always to tell of the past. In the mouths of humans, these are instance of what today would be called oral history; when told or sung by the inhabitants of Faërie they are often recollections from personal memory. The Elves who the hobbits meet in the woods of the Shire “still remember” Elbereth Githoniel, of whom they sing. Bombadil in effect treats the hobbits to a lesson in local history, extending back to the days before days and drawn from his own memories.

Counsel also looks to the past, but does so in order to act in the present and so influence the future.

Tolkien’s insistence upon the relevance of the past to counsel is quite striking. By far the main part of the Council of Elrond is taken up with long and extensive histories, told first of all by Elrond, who draws on memories extending deep into past ages of Middle-earth, but including even Bilbo’s adventure, from which account not even a single riddle is omitted.

Note that there is no hint that any of these tales of the past enchant the members of the Council.

The key difference seems to be the aim of the words. Songs and stories are works of art, crafted with no other end than existing in their own right. Counsel draws on memory, but does so with a functional end in mind, namely, to guide present action in order to better shape the future.

We can enrich this analysis by turning to two notes by Tolkien published in Unfinished Tales (512-3). Both notes pertain to Gandalf’s High-elven name, Olórin, which Tolkien relates to the words olo-s and olor.

olo-s: vision, ‘phantasy’: Common Elvish name for ‘construction of the mind’ not actually (pre) existing in Eä apart from the construction, but by the Eldar capable of being by Art (Karme) made visible and sensible.

Olor is similar. It means “clear vision, in the mind, of things not physically present at the body’s situation”. The word is usually translated as ‘dream’, Tolkien tells us, referring not to mortal but to Elvish dreams, which are comprised of “the vivid contents of their memory, as of their imagination”.

Christopher Tolkien connects these notes to the passages in The Silmarillion (20-4) where it is said of Gandalf that , when he was Olórin and still dwelt in Valinor, that he was “counsellor of Irmo”, that he awakened among the elves thoughts “of fair things that had not yet been but might yet be made for the enrichment of Arda,” and that in later days all “who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.”

These notes accord with our idea that counsel, as opposed to (fairy) story, draws upon memory (history), but does so in order to picture that which has yet to come to pass. Elvish ‘imagination’ is clearly that which transforms historical reflection into a vision of what might come to be.

Yet the clarification contained in these notes also threatens to send us off into a spin. The reason for this is that the idea of counsel contained in them, and associated with the High-elven name for Gandalf, seems to accord with the definition of story, or at least fairy story, set out in Tolkien’s famous essay ‘On Fairy Stories’.

‘On Fairy Stories’ introduces the notion of fantasy, which is said to be a human art of story-telling that aspires to the elvish craft of enchantment. Fantasy begins when humans utilize the fantastic device of language to imagine worlds that are not. Such creation, however, draws in elements derived from history, which have been dropped into the ‘Cauldron of Story’, by which Tolkien means that they have become detached from their original historical context and attached to other elements. Out of the Cauldron are ladled fairy stories.

So we have a seeming mismatch of categories.

From a mortal perspective: imagination + history = (human) fantasy = fairy story.

For the elves: imagination + history = (elvish) fantasy = counsel.

And what is more, human fantasy (history + imagination) aspires to the elvish craft of enchantment (history only).

Behind this apparent mismatch stands, I think, two related differences between humans and elves, pertaining to the respective limitations of each.

Elves are immortal, humans are not. This has substantial implications for their respective memories of the past. Elves remember their history, and it seems their memories are reliable. Humans die, and the deeds of the dead are forgotten, or remembered differently in different traditions, or are embellished and transformed into myth (they go into the ‘Cauldron’).

What this means is that imagination is at work in the forming of collective human memory, which comes to include tales of many things that never actually came to pass (the border between human history and human fairy story is not always easy to discern). The confused morass of collective human memory stands in marked contrast to the elvish stories and songs in The Lord of the Rings, which simply tell of things as they once were, often by those who witnessed them. As Tolkien put it in a letter of 1956: “There is hardly any reference in The Lord of the Rings to things that do not actually exist” (letter 180).

A second difference, surely related, is that the imagination (and by extension also the dreams, and the products of fantasy) of the elves seems rather limited. Both humans and elves exercise their imagination in order to form visions of different possible futures (a substantial chapter in the modern science of economics is dedicated to formulating how humans do this). But human imagination extends also to the description of impossible states of the world.

It is just this ‘impossible’ imagination that Tolkien singles out as the vital beginning of human fairy stories:

The human mind… sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things… but sees that it is green as well as being grass… The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water.

Elves just do not seem to engage in this art of fantasy – they are, it could be said, rather literal minded.

I suspect that our two differences are but different faces of the same coin. Elves are immortal and their memories far-reaching and keen. Humans are mortal, and their memories fade and become lost or confused; but they make up for this in having a far more powerful imagination – which not only embellishes their memories of the past but actively constructs impossible ‘other worlds’.

We have opened a door onto a tangled web, and much more needs to be said before we arrive at anything like a clear view. In a future post I hope to discuss the moral dimension of Tolkien’s thinking, which I think explains why he places counsel above enchanted story, and also what it means that Saruman confuses the two (that is, enchants under the guise of offering counsel). It would also be interesting to consider the respective natures of Rivendell, which seems mainly associated with counsel, and Lothlórien, which embodies elvish enchantment.

But I conclude for now with a brief reflection on those moments of mortal enchantment mentioned above, when all or one of our hobbits fall under a spell in the house of Tom Bombadil or in the Hall of Fire at Rivendell, and are carried away into dream-like states of consciousness.

In ‘On Fairy Stories’ Tolkien analyses such experiences in terms of a mortal who attends a ‘Faërian Drama’:

If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it.

But Tolkien warns that knowledge of the “alarming fact” that you are under a spell may slip from your grasp:

You are deluded – whether that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question. They at any rate are not themselves deluded. This is for them a form of Art…

This puts all the emphasis upon the magical art of the elves and the perils of Faërie that await the unwary mortal traveller. But the same point could be made from another perspective.

For sure the Faërian drama boggles the imagination of the innocent human observer, who more than likely had never even conceived of what he now hears and sees. Yet he does now gain access to this other world, and does so through precisely that faculty of imagination that puts him at risk.

By the same token, the Faërian drama does not delude the elves because they are capable only of witnessing a ‘realist drama’ drawn from their own histories – their imaginations, to be blunt, are simply too limited to comprehend an imaginary world.

So our hobbits fall under the spell of Bombadil and the minstrels of Rivendell, not because their mental faculties are inferior to those denizens of Faërie who perform before them and weave a spell around them, but because, at least in certain respects, they are superior.

Image: William Blake, ‘Beatrice Addressing Dante’. Wiki Commons.