Today I started to read what is looking like the perfect historical novel. It is called Amgalant and you can download the first part for free on the website of its author, Bryn Hammond.
I read a lot of historical novels and most of them are more or less degrees of garbage. Some are very good. But Bryn Hammond is up there with Mary Renault, which is to say damn near perfect.
At some point I’ll either return to this post or start another one because I would like to try to explain what, in my opinion, makes the perfect historical novel. But right now I want to carry on reading Amgalant.
So let me urge you to check out Bryn Hammond’s books and leave you with some suitable music…
Reading John Gibbins’ latest post over at the Grote Club I was struck by how much we share in our approach to modern Cambridge intellectual history, but also how divergent are our perspectives.
What we agree on is the vital importance of the Rev. John Grote to this history. This is no small beer. John has dedicated much of his life to bringing Grote to a wider audience. In my own studies of Victorian Cambridge, Grote shone out like a beacon. But the fan club does not extend far beyond us two. The love affair of others with the likes of Henry Sidgewick, Wittgenstein, or John Maynard Keynes, continues unabated, and with such intensity that John Grote is hardly noticed by most commentators on ‘the Cambridge Mind’.
But from his post I take John to see Grote as playing a heroic role in the story of how Cambridge University became a site of intellectual excellence.
I think I can see where John is coming from; but this is not how I view Grote.
From my perspective, Grote is a semi-tragic figure, who initiated a grand research tradition that burned brightly for half a century, but ultimately ended in failure.
I don’t think these different perspectives arise out of some fundamental intellectual disagreement. I assume they reflect rather a divergence of wider values and commitments. Certainly, my own view of Cambridge today as mainly interesting as a museum is bound up in autobiographical accident.
In any case, John can speak for himself but, after reflecting on his post, it seemed to me of importance to step back for a moment and set down some of my own motivations for participating in the newly revived Grote Club.
For those interested in reading further I suggest starting with this trailer for the recent movie ‘Pride’ (2014):
The Miners Strike in Britain (1984-5) coincided with my arrival into ‘young adulthood’. It was a defining moment in terms of my politics and (young and fragile) sense of identity. The movie captures something at the core of those heady days. On the one hand, it shows how a genuine and deeply inspiring spirit of solidarity emerged from the year-long struggle of the miners, a progressive union, if you will, a ‘left opposition’ that came together out of traditional socialism and new age rainbow politics. On the other hand, the movie pinpoints the moment when socialism in Britain died and the politics of the left transformed into the alternative politics of today – from gay rights through environmentalism through (more ambiguously) national independence. The iconic union handshake of the movie is not, after all, a symbol of solidarity between miners and gay activists; it is a passing on of the torch.
But the real illusion of those days was not the sense of a coming together of the politics of socialism and identity politics; rather, it was the deep ambiguity within the politics of socialism, in which no clear line was ever established to place Marx and Communism, as it were, ‘beyond the pale’.
Back in the 1980s I joined the Labour Party, flirted with the Socialist Workers Party, and applied to Cambridge because it was the university of John Maynard Keynes, who, it was evident from my readings of the Adam Smith Society and Institute of Economic Affairs, was public enemy number 1 so far as Thatcher and her ideological henchmen were concerned.
How strange it is today to look back on a youthful self who failed to discern any real tension in hanging out with revolutionary Trotskyists while resolving to study the works of the great liberal J.M. Keynes!
It was on going up to Cambridge in 1988 that I began to understand how bad things really were. Before that date I certainly had a sense of losing battles: the miners, the print workers, the hippies beaten up at Stonehenge. But on entering Cambridge I discovered that the great intellectual opposition to Thatcherism, the grand tradition of Cambridge Keynesianism, consisted of a handful of defeated old men whose most animated moments came when they reminisced about the good old days. As a center of intellectual opposition to Thatcherism, Cambridge was bankrupt. What had appeared as political battles lost now looked like mopping-up operations.
Those were bad years for me. What had hitherto been a moderate pleasure in puffing the odd joint rapidly developed into a full-on drug habit. I spent the next ten years in a stoned haze. It was either that or join my fellow students and strive to become a Yuppie. I made the right decision.
I also resolved to work out where it had all gone wrong. When did Cambridge moral science give up the ghost? Twenty-five years later I’m still working on this. I’m not certain of the answer; but I am in a position to begin to outline some hypotheses. This, in a nutshell, is what I’m doing in the Grote Club.
Of course, I myself have changed a lot over those two and a half decades. At some point, now many years ago, I crossed a Rubicon when I came to a definitive conclusion that the writings of Marx were a dead-end. This was by then more an emotional than an intellectual resolution (my mother’s family had long identified as Jewish communists). But it was important because it allowed the throwing out of a lot of dead-weight baggage. It also confirmed my sense that the tradition of post-WWII Cambridge economics that tried to mix Keynes with the neo-Ricardianism of Sraffa (and, therefore, to return to the Classical economics of Marx) had headed off on a road to nowhere.
Other things happened in my life. A week after Tony Blair’s first election victory I left Britain. I was glad to see it through, but by then contemporary Britain had in some way become dead to me. I lived six years in America, and have now lived even more in Israel. I got married. Have children. I grew up. But while all this certainly shaped my perspectives and informed my thinking (for example, life in Israel has pushed me to think much harder than I might have done about the politics of identity), I’ve remained committed to my project of a slow, laborious digging up of the modern intellectual history of England.
For sure, over time the initial political motivation behind my research has faded into the background. The politics of the last days of the Cold War now look like ancient history in a brave new world of religious hatred and terrorism.
But what I have become ever more convinced of, as the years have passed, is the inability of the modern academy to truly illuminate the world we live in. This is not a despair with reason, symptomatic of some post-secular move to faith-based politics; far from it. Rather, I am convinced that the professionalization of the modern university and the specialization on which it has been built have been disastrous for our ability to really understand either ourselves or the world we are living in.
This is why I now look back to the days of John Grote and the ideal of a moral science that really did aspire to understand the moral world as a whole.
Still, I would not want these autobiographical ruminations read as a condemnation of all facets of contemporary Cambridge intellectual life. Back around 1990, when still an undergraduate, I gave up on Cambridge economics in disgust and started reading, instead, the History and Philosophy of Science. This was to stumble upon an oasis in a desert.
And of course there are many great individual minds to be encountered at Cambridge. But by and large those minds are astonishingly ignorant about the history of their own studies and, when they do engage in historical reflection, their glance is almost invariably either superficial or directed in the wrong direction.
For there is a strange amnesia among English intellectuals today. Priding themselves on their cosmopolitanism, they tend to seek their own disciplinary origins in the importation of various Continental theories, either the post-modernisms of the 1980s or the modernisms of Weber, Durkheim, and Marx in the 1930s. But my own conclusions to date, after twenty-five years of study, is that the 1930s is when it went visibly wrong; when Cambridge intellectuals suffered a collective loss of nerve and gave up on the great project of moral science initiated back in the 1860s by the Rev. John Grote.
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Late-Victorian histories of the English began in the woods of Schleswig, before the migration to the British Isles. But around 1900 historians decided that English history proper should begin with the foundation of the modern state in the fourteenth century. What came before was deemed not only barbarous but insufficiently documented. The story of ancient Britain, and of the peoples who settled it, was left to a motley crew of archaeologists, folklorists, philologists and, increasingly, writers of fiction.
Elsewhere I’ve investigated the early twentieth-century search for the ancient English; in this post I track the changing face of Britain’s natives. The picture above depicts a sort of ancient ‘close encounters’ moment: native Britons watch the arrival of the Roman fleet of Julius Caesar. This captures the conventional Victorian image of the Romans bringing civilization to a savage island.
Compare the primitive Britons above, barefoot and attired in rude animal skins, with the blond giants below. Although this second picture was published earlier, it embodies a newer historical thinking. These iron-age warriors are still Britons, but they are no longer natives.
For much of the nineteenth century it was assumed that Britain had been settled for only a few generations before the coming of the Romans. But this view became untenable after 1877 and the publication of Canon William Greenwell’s British Barrows. From his meticulous and extensive archaeological excavations, Greenwell drew the conclusion that prehistoric long barrows were not only older than round barrows, but had been built by a different people.
After Greenwell it was generally accepted that the Celtic-speaking Britons, the supposed makers of the round barrows, had intruded upon an earlier population. The result was the rehabilitation of the Britons: no longer the passive victims of history, conquered and pushed aside by more vigorous peoples, the Britons became invading immigrants in their own right – ancient barbarians, maybe, yet virtuous and worthy ancestors for the modern British. In the caption of the second picture above the leading Briton declares: ‘Tell Suetonius that we scorn his mercy and will die as we have lived, free men.’
Who, then, were the newly discovered natives? With precious little archaeological or philological evidence to work with, scholars turned to fairy tales.
In 1900 John Rhys, the first Oxford Professor of Celtic, delivered the presidential address to the Anthropology section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. His chosen theme was the value of folk tales for the study of the ancient past, and he argued that behind the ‘rabble of divinities and demons’ who disport themselves in Celtic folklore it is possible to discern the succession of peoples who have inhabited the British Isles. Welsh fairy stories, according to Rhys, contained dim memories of the native population encountered by the first Celtic-speaking intruders. The real ‘little people’, he inferred, had been ‘a small swarthy population of mound-dwellers, of an unwarlike disposition… and living underground’.
Rhys’ ideas seem to have sparked the imagination of a couple of young minds. John Buchan went up to Oxford in 1895. His short story ‘No-Man’s-Land’, which appeared in print seven years later, tells the dreadful story of an Oxford scholar of Northern Antiquities (like Rhys perhaps, or one of his students), who holidays in the remote Highlands of Scotland, where he encounters – and is taken captive by – ‘the Hidden People’:
‘Then suddenly in the hollow trough of mist before me… there appeared a figure. It was little and squat and dark; naked, apparently, but so rough with hair that it wore the appearance of a skin-covering… in its face and eyes there seemed to lurk an elder world of mystery and barbarism, a troll-like life which was too horrible for words.’
While captive in their ‘hill refuge’ the Oxford scholar hears harsh words directed at the British invader, bitter curses for the Saxon stranger; and he glimpses ‘a morbid hideous existence’ preserved for centuries by these relics of a nameless past.
Buchan’s natives are the complete antithesis of the modern British subject; a sort of primitive Hyde to the modern Dr. Jekyll. One can perhaps discern a post-WWII twist to this fable in The Inheritors, the 1955 novel by William Golding (who incidentally attended the same Oxford college as Buchan). In Golding’s story the original dwellers of the land have become Neanderthals – a separate species to modern humans. But in contrast to Buchan, Golding represents these natives as a peaceful if queer-thinking folk; it is the human intruders who are violent and frightening.
Buchan’s portrayal of Britain’s ancient folk as radically different to the modern population of the British Isles made for a good story; but it did not reflect an Edwardian scholarly consensus that all newcomers to Britain had interbred with those already settled on the land. Far from being a separate species, scholars believed that much native blood flows through the veins of the inhabitants of modern Britain (the same kind of idea is now put in terms of DNA). An Englishman, a Scotsman, or a Welshmen who meets one of the forgotten little people is quite possibly discovering but a smaller version of himself. And if such encounters have today become rather rare in the fields and hedgerows of Britain, this is a familiar enough experience to many readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic children’s story of 1937, The Hobbit.
Hobbits are a homely depiction of Britain’s natives. Tolkien tells us that they are a ‘little people’, who today ‘have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us’. But once upon a time, ‘long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green’, hobbits were ‘numerous and prosperous’.
Going up to Oxford in 1911, Tolkien as an undergraduate probably attended Rhys’ lectures; later, in a short essay of 1932, we find him engaging carefully with his scholarship. And it seems that Tolkien had read the Professor of Celtic’s 1900 presidential address. At one point in this lecture Rhys discusses certain ‘underground – or partially underground – habitations’ that, he believed, had been home to Britain’s natives. These abodes, he explains:
‘appear from the outside like hillocks covered with grass, so as presumably not to attract attention… But one of the most remarkable things about them is the fact that the cells or apartments into which they are divided are frequently so small that their inmates must have been of very short stature’.
But if Tolkien first stumbled upon a hobbit hole whilst reading Rhys’ lecture, it seems likely that his imagination drew also upon Buchan’s depiction of Britain’s natives as subhuman trolls. Certainly, John Buchan was one of Tolkien’s favourite authors. Of course, Bilbo’s hole under the hill is snug and comfortable; the encounter with a ‘hideous existence’ within a ‘hill refuge’ described by Buchan finds its counterpart, not at Bag End, but in that cave deep within the Misty Mountains into which had wormed his way, long ages ago, ‘a small slimy creature’ called Gollum.
In a recent post I explained Rivers’ ‘conversion’ from evolutionary to diffusionist models of social change. Before returning to psychology – and articulating a particular thesis about Cambridge moral science in my next post – I highlight some salient features of the two models by way of a concrete comparison.
In this post I compare the historical explanations of the hegemony of a non-industrial elite class in modern society provided by, respectively, Thorstein Veblen and W.J. Perry.
A few years back I stumbled upon a Hobbit hole. I chanced upon it in a lecture of 1900 by John Rhys, the first Oxford Professor of Celtic. Rhys was arguing that behind the divinities, demons, fairies and phantoms of Celtic folklore are dim memories of various peoples that once inhabited the British Isles. What especially drew my attention was his interpretation of Welsh fairy stories.
Welsh traditions of the ‘little people’, Rhys explained, have their origin in encounters between incoming Celtic tribesmen and pre-Celtic farmers, who the Celts drove into the hills. From the stories he inferred that these first settlers of Britain had been:
“a small swarthy population of mound-dwellers, of an unwarlike disposition… and living underground.”
Turning to archaeology, Rhys pointed to the remains of “certain underground – or partially underground – habitations.” He connected these dwellings with Britain’s native settlers, and observed that some of their homes:
“appear from the outside like hillocks covered with grass, so as presumably not to attract attention… But one of the most remarkable things about them is the fact that the cells or apartments into which they are divided are frequently so small that their inmates must have been of very short stature…”
Was this the origin of Tolkien’s Hobbits? If so, how did Bilbo Baggins emerge out of an apparently playful reading of Rhys’ account of Welsh fairy tales? I set out to answer these questions.
Initial results were encouraging. Rhys was still teaching when Tolkien went up to Oxford, and the undergraduate Tolkien probably attended his lectures on the Mabinogian. And serious scholarly engagement with Rhys is evident in Tolkien’s essay on ‘The Name “Nodens”’, a paper engaging with inscriptions unearthed at Lydney Park on the Welsh border and published in 1932 – the year that Tolkien first wrote down the story that would be published five years later as The Hobbit.
The picture became complicated, however, when I opened up Tolkien’s earliest tales. If anything, they suggest hostility to Rhys’ reading of Welsh fairy stories. For the young Tolkien not only belittles Celtic tradition but also identifies as the original settlers of the British Isles, not peaceful mound-dwellers, but Elves, who in his stories are quite warlike and live in cottages and towers and such like.
These early stories tell of the history of the Elves in “the days before the days, in the Northern regions of the Western World.” But they are also imagined as a lost tradition of English folklore. Tolkien describes a pre-migration Englishman, an Angle, who travels to an island in the west where Elves still dwell. This island is Britain. The Elves of Britain tell the traveler their stories and, because he passes these tales on to his sons, and they to theirs, so today the English “have the true traditions of the fairies, of whom the Íras and the Wéalas (the Irish and Welsh) tell garbled things.”
Behind his combative attitude towards Celtic folklore one can discern Tolkien’s unease with the idea that the English took their present lands from others. In these early writings he tells of how, in the face of successive invasions by different Celtic tribes and Roman legions, the Elves of England faded and diminished; but they are said to perk up again on the arrival of the English, with whom they recognize a special affinity. The suggestion – not entirely convincing – is that the Anglo-Saxons were not so much invading the lands of the ancient Britons as coming home to the original land of the fairies.
Tolkien was evidently unsatisfied with this early attempt to tie the English to England. His idea of England as the last refuge of the Elves was soon revised and, by the late 1920s pretty much abandoned.
What I think happened next – my ‘Hobbit hypothesis’, if you will – is that on reencountering Rhys’ scholarship in the early 1930s Tolkien came to see that it offered a new solution to an old problem. The result was the reconceptualization of ancient England as the green and pleasant Shire of the Hobbits.
The key to this new development was Tolkien’s dual theory of national identity. This is articulated in ‘English and Welsh’, a lecture delivered in 1955 (the day after publication of The Return of the King). According to Tolkien, we each receive two inheritances. From what he calls “our speech-ancestors” we receive our “cradle language”, and also the culture associated with it. From our biological ancestors we inherit our inner nature, which manifests itself in our individual dispositions and predilections. There is no necessary connection between our outer language and culture and our inner selves.
Tolkien’s vision of the history of the British Isles gives concrete form to this rather abstract theory. He agreed with Rhys that Britain had been settled before the arrival of Celtic-speakers. He also believed that neither Celts nor Anglo-Saxons had driven these first settlers from the land: the history of Britain is one of racial mixing not ethnic cleansing. So the succession of incursions has given rise to wholesale changes of language, but not of blood; and this entails that many today who speak English (or Welsh) are descendants of those pre-Celtic settlers that Rhys back in 1900 had discerned behind Welsh traditions of the ‘little people’.
If my hypothesis is correct we are now in a position to answer that most delicious of questions: what is a Hobbit?
Well, Hobbits are (a somewhat tongue-in-cheek) representation of the little people that back in 1900 Rhys had identified as Britain’s first farmers. But because this original population has never been driven from the land, Hobbits are at the same time a depiction of the inherited ‘inner selves’ of many who live in England today.
Hobbits are that part of the English people that is native to the land; they are Tolkien’s way of explaining why the modern English truly belong to the land now called England.
And The Hobbitis a story of how this native part of us comes to terms with its English cultural inheritance: the tale of a peaceful bachelor, with a penchant for bacon and eggs, who rediscovers himself by venturing out into the perilous world of ancient English tradition; there, and back again.
For the Tolkien quotes see The Shaping of Middle-earth: the Quenta, the Ambarkanta, and the Annals(1986) and The Book of Lost Tales, edited by Christopher Tolkien¸ Volume II (1984); ‘English and Welsh’, in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (1983). All three of these volumes are edited by Christopher Tolkien and published in the UK by Allen & Unwin. They are given here in the order in which the quotations appear in the essay.
For Rhys’ lecture see ‘Presidential Address to Section H. of the BAAS’, Report of the Seventieth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, London: John Murray, 1900, pp. 884-896, available at the Internet Archive.
For the scholarly context informing the work of both Rhys and Tolkien see my essay ‘The Making of the English: English history, British identity, Aryan villages, 1870-1914’, Journal of the History of Ideas, October 2014, available on my academia.edu page and my recent essay J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology, available in electronic format from Amazon.
W.H.R. Rivers was a key figure in the development of both psychology and anthropology in early twentieth-century Cambridge. Consequently, much of what is distinctive in the development of one discipline in this period relates directly to the other. Nevertheless, the pivotal event in Rivers’ anthropological career – his ‘conversion to diffusionism’ around 1911 – was not directly related to his psychological research.
Rivers announced his conversion in his 1911 Presidential Address to the Anthropology Section of the British Association. He explained that in writing up the results of his 1908 expedition to Melanesia he had come to see that “the change I had traced was not a spontaneous evolution, but one which had taken place under the influence of the blending of peoples”. Quite why Rivers came to see social change in this new way has mystified modern scholars.
In this post I explain Rivers’ 1911 ‘conversion’. The explanation is extrapolated from several published articles (details below) and constitutes a digression from my series of posts on Rivers and psychology. Taking this digression, however, will allow us in later posts to pinpoint more accurately the place of psychology in the Cambridge moral sciences. Continue reading →
The following is a guest post by Richard W. Rohlin:
I’ve been taking a close look at Tolkien’s ‘King Sheave’ poem (you can read the full text here). This poem has completely captivated my attention and I’ve come back to it several times over the course of the semester when I really should have been working on other things.
As I detail in my research paper ‘Men out of the Sea: Corn-kings and Culture Heroes in Tolkien’s Middle-earth,’ the ‘King Sheave’ poem is an effort on Tolkien’s part to connect the “corn-king” and Sceaf/Sheave legends of Northern Europe with the Númenorean cycle of his mythology. All right, so that’s a bit of an over-simplification, but the point is that it was part of an evolving effort to engage with the Sceaf legend. You can read all about this in The Lost Road, volume V of The History of MiddleEarth. What I’m more interested in for purposes of this post is the way that Tolkien engages with the mythical past of Northern Europe, not just through his subject matter, but through his diction. Continue reading →
Someone just said to me that “writing is hard”. This was an incorrect statement. Writing is easy; thinking is hard.
Thinking is hard but it is very easy to fool ourselves and think thinking easy. When we think about something we are alone in our heads, in a private world. Nobody is there to call us out when we miss a step, converge one line of thought into another that is actually distinct, or take more out of something than is actually in it. The act of thinking too easily slides into that of day-dreaming; we give ourselves a long hard look in a mirror with a face covered in cosmetics and the lighting turned down.
Putting our thoughts on paper is about rinsing our face in cold water and turning on the lights.
Writing is not hard. But our writing is often bad. This is because our thinking turns out to be not nearly so clear as we had wanted to believe. Picking out the flaws in our writing is an indirect but powerful way of correcting our thinking. That is why I say that editing is the ultimate Socratic art: an editor is the midwife of thought.
But this is not an art you are likely to learn at college. You may be taught about theories of history, or molecular physics, media communications or library management, physical anthropology or political science, but you are unlikely to be taught how to think.
And this is not so surprising. From around the 1880s and for about a century, rising social prosperity fueled a massive expansion in higher education. But all the self-illusions of liberal arts colleges notwithstanding, the kind of intensive personal engagement between master and student that one encounters in a Platonic dialogue is simply too costly to be a viable option even in elite universities.
But the end result is depressing for all that. For every year these educational institutes turn out thousands of graduates who can talk the talk, strike a posture, flood your head with jargon, but cannot think through a complicated idea and, consequently, are unlikely to give birth to any truly original thoughts.
Photo credit: ‘Seagull in deep thought’ by Lars Ploughman (cc license).