Fantasy Incarnate

The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval.

J.R.R Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’, lecture delivered in 1939


On the surface, the meaning of the above quotation appears straightforward: humans have always used language to tell stories to one another. But why, in the expression of this idea, do we find the noun ‘mind’ modified by the unexpected adjective ‘incarnate’? My attempt to answer this question generated the following reflections on the foundations of Middle-earth.

First, the adjective itself. The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions of incarnate: (1) a god or a spirit in human form, and (2) a quality in physical form. The OED also provides general and particular definitions of the corresponding noun: the lower case incarnation: the living embodiment of a god, spirit, or quality; and the upper case Incarnation: the Christian belief that God the Son was embodied in human flesh as Jesus.

As a devout Catholic, the Incarnation (upper case) was for Tolkien an article of faith, a profound historical fact of the primary world. This provides an initial answer: Tolkien’s reference to the human mind as ‘incarnate’ invokes the idea that humans, as embodied souls, are made in the image of the Incarnate Divinity. As such, Tolkien can be seen pointing to the bold conclusion arrived at by the end of the passage in which our quotation appears, namely, that in making-up fairy stories humans imitate the creative activity of God:

But how powerful… was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent… When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power… in such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

Such imitation, it is important to note, occurs in means as well as ends: language is the instrument of both (divine) creation and (human) sub-creation.

And God said: ‘Let there be light’. And there was light… And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. (Genesis 3, 5).

Yet the role of language in sub-creation as explained by Tolkien does not exactly mirror the linguistic dimension of God’s creative work as described in Genesis. In creating first light and then time, God employs no adjectives. In emphasizing the adjective as the key to sub-creation, Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories’ reveals what we might call an ‘incarnationalist theory of language’.

The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalisation and abstraction, 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.

For sure, abstracting and remixing adjectival qualities is not an exercise in incarnation. The projecting of a novel quality (say, blue) onto a noun (say, the moon) to form an image (of a blue moon) occurs on a purely mental and linguistic level – a “new form is made”, as Tolkien puts it, not a new thing, let alone the embodiment of spirit in living flesh.

Nevertheless, the making of imaginary form is structurally similar to the Divine act of incarnation. This is because the objects given to us by language possess the same dual nature as the incarnate spirit: a concrete object (noun) possesses abstract qualities (adjectives). The speakers of human language engage in fantasy by putting novel qualities into different linguistic objects. Put another way, the ‘incarnate mind’ is an actual instance in the world of the same dual form – the fusion of concrete and abstract – that is given to us generally in language. Indeed, it is tempting to see the incarnate mind as the anchor in reality of our linguistic practice.

We can now answer our original question. Invoking the ‘incarnate mind’ at the start of his explanation of fantasy, Tolkien points not only to the maker but also the very nature of fantasy: a linguistic process whereby an embodied soul creates a secondary world by embodying unexpected qualities in imaginary objects.

* * *

A careful reading of the quotations from this single passage in ‘On Fairy Stories’ suggests a further, complementary train of reflection. Our initial sentence identified stories and language as coeval. But Tolkien goes on to speak of the invention of the adjective, suggesting that such modifiers were a later discovery of the human mind. Could it be that this invention was of more than linguistic significance? Did the discovery of the dual nature of linguistic objects also provide illumination into the mysterious nature of reality?

In his famous letter to Milton Waldman (circa 1951), Tolkien wrote:

I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear (Letters, letter 131).

The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation has no place in Arda. Nevertheless, the general idea of the embodiment of spiritual power in material objects is a recurring theme in Tolkien’s mythology.

In the very first pages of The Silmarillion we are told how the world was first made by music, then appeared as a vision, and then came into being with the speaking of a word. Yet this created world only “came alive” when some of the Ainur descend into it: “so that they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World”.

This ‘incarnation’ of the Valar in the world is not some incidental detail of Tolkien’s creation story. It is the reason why Arda – in contrast to the mechanistic world envisaged by Newtonian science – is alive, enchanting, and purposeful.

Incidentally, I suspect that we here discern the reason why Saruman’s ambitions are bound to fail. Of this treacherous wizard, Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin:

He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels…

In our modern world, machines are purely physical means of generating and utilizing power. But a true Power in Middle-earth draws on a spiritual force that Saruman loses even as he builds in Isengard the superficial appearance of industrial and military power.

Further acts of incarnation – or, at least, the embodiment of the spiritual within a material object – provide the defining moments of Tolkien’s mythology. Fëanor embodies the spiritual light of the Valar in physical form – the Silmarils. And long ages later, Galadriel places the light from one of these Silmarils in a phial that she gives to Frodo, who, together with Sam, carries it all the way to Mordor.

Again, Sauron puts much of his own power into the Ring – a seemingly inanimate object with a will of its own. Here is a useful reminder that not all incarnations in Arda are good. Morgoth was one of the Valar incarnated in the world, which is why more than one power strives to shape the fate of Middle-earth.

There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master… I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker…

* * *

Our reflections upon Tolkien’s reference to the ‘incarnate mind’ in his 1939 lecture on ‘Fairy Stories’ have led us to the following tentative conclusions concerning the foundations of Middle-earth.

The central fact of Tolkien’s worldview was, undoubtedly, the Incarnation: the Christian doctrine that the Word was made flesh. This fact has no direct bearing on either the form or the content of Tolkien’s mythology, which concerns a world that has not received the Gospels.

Indirectly, however, it is of cardinal importance.

Arda is a mythological world that does not know the Incarnation, but which is largely made of the discovered ‘truth’ of incarnation.

* * *

‘Fantasy Incarnate’ is a footnote in a broader collaborative project on the magic of Middle-earth. I am grateful to my co-authors – Jeremiah Burns, Tom Hillman, Richard Rohlin, and Oliver Stegen – for permission to publish this note here.

Image: ‘Hagia Sophia ceiling’, (c) Timothy Neesam (creative commons license).

Levitation Machine


The big local news here in Luzit concerns the new levitation technology that we have just purchased and installed in the garden.

The purchase was made possible by a generous donation from the grandparents to the BDY FUND, a small private charity that specializes in providing relief to overtired parents who live in our house.

We made the purchase yesterday and I spent most of the afternoon grappling with the operating instructions and setting up the new machinery. The technology consists of a black circular lift-off pad, upon which an over-bouncy child is placed.


Here is Albert (an overly bouncy child if ever there was one) preparing for take off.



As is so often the case the instructions were not easy to make sense of. But it seems that to achieve lift-off it is necessary for the child to run around in circles energetically flapping the arms as if they were wings, as in the picture.




And bingo!  Albert begins to levitate. (Note his mother on the left, wistfully wondering whether and when he will return to earth).





Actually, the technology contains a magnetic-gravitational device that electronically flips on when the child levitates above a certain maximum recommended height (I think about a meter) and pulls the child back down toward the earth.





I am working on removing it…



Ing - or Sheave - or Scyld? (Artist: Emil Doepler)

Richard Rohlin on ‘King Sheave’

  • 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 Middle Earth. 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


Awesome Amgalant

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…


Night in the Museum

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.

Rounded Globe

Ye Machine publishing‘ has now established Rounded Globe, a non-profit organization dedicated to the production and dissemination of first rate high quality scholarship.

Here is the ‘About’ blurb:

Scholarly writing has become inaccessible. Highly specialized, narrowly focused, filled with jargon, bloated with theory; the massively overpriced articles and monographs that embody current work in the humanities are affordable only by a handful of university libraries.

Rounded Globe books are free from jargon, written for the intelligent layperson, and released under a legal license that allows them to be freely shared with others.

Our distribution model is based upon trust. Scholars publish with us because they want to introduce their work to a wider public. We are highly selective in what we choose to publish. Our readers trust our authors with their time and mental effort. Our authors trust our readers to give something back in return for a gift of time, expertise, and scholarly craft.

Rounded Globe’s production work includes copy-editing, coding, and cover design, and is funded entirely by donations.

Check out the site, download existing titles, consider contributing yourself!


Changing faces of Britain’s natives

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.

Our Island Story

From: Our Island Story. A History of England for Boys and Girls, by H.E. Marshall, illustration by A.S. Forrester (London, 1905).

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.

later Celts

From: Beric the Briton. A Story of the Roman Invasion, by G.A. Henty, illustrator unknown (London, 1893).

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.


From: British Barrows. A record of the examination of the sepulchral mounds in various parts of England, by W. Greenwell (Oxford, 1877).

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’.


From: John Buchan’s The Watcher by the Threshold (London, 1902).

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’.

Bag End entrance

‘Bag End entrance’. Photo: Sebastian Stöcker.

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.

Originally published as a guest post on the English Historical Fiction Authors website. My thanks to the broad minded authors of fiction for inviting a post by a writer of non-fiction prose.

Australian gunners

Peace & War: theories of the warrior class

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.

Continue reading