Falling off a table at the Prancing Pony

On the odd occasion I leave the comforts of The Green Dragon to poke my head in the door of The Prancing Pony, I usually enjoy myself. But when last I tried to visit I found myself knee deep in that midge-plagued marsh on which a phantom tower of Tolkien studies has been raised.

The podcast deals with Tolkien’s 1936 Beowulf lecture. Listen to a little, from around 29 minutes in. We are told that Tolkien’s essential point was that criticism has suffered at the hands of research; scholars who dig and quarry Beowulf fail to see that they have before them a work of art; the tower is to be enjoyed as a tower.

What on earth can it mean (34.15) that we should appreciate the tower as a tower? Tolkien makes a metaphor by naming Beowulf a tower and tells a story that reveals that the tower gives a view on the sea. The poem has value, not for its own sake, but because it allows keener sight of something worth seeing. (The same is true of the lecture.)

I contend that Tolkien is not saying that the scholars, by doing scholarship, are missing the point and the poem is getting lost in the research (as Shawn Marchese or Alan Sisto says in the podcast). Tolkien is saying that the scholars have failed to get their scholarly perspectives right and so have failed to see the poem. Between these two interpretations is a discipline of history, the heart of Tolkien’s art yet avoided like an infectious disease by both Tolkien fandom and the massed students of modern literature.

Tolkien’s first point is that unless you get the history right you cannot see the poet and so cannot hope to understand what his poem is. His second is that the poet was engaged in an historical act (reading ancient stories the meanings of which had already faded in his day). His third is that the poet was writing ‘historical fiction’ – setting his story around the lands in which his people had lived prior to their migration to the British Isles. His fourth… well, its historical all the way down to the very center (one of two points in the lecture in which we reach the limit of history and glimpse the nature of the myth ‘on the other side’).

First and foremost, Tolkien invites us to imagine the moment in the distant past when the Anglo-Saxon poet came to the idea of what making his poem meant. Such historical imagination Tolkien takes as a necessary prelude to any critical engagement with the poem. Unless you – the reader of the essay that was once a lecture – take this imaginative journey into the past yourself, to the minimal degree that you fashion a picture in your mind’s eye of a man at work with pen and parchment more than a thousand years ago, you are simply not reading the lecture.

What Tolkien is telling the foolish scholars to see is the man who made the poem. He is absent in their scholarship (be it of a historical or a literary bent) – just as he is missing in this podcast.

Given that Tolkien delighted in the curious passage of time that hides as well as preserves meanings, I take it he would smile to see how the development of English studies since his day has ensured that his own meaning in his lecture has become utterly invisible to those who nowadays comment on it. Be that as it may, those who have lost their vision may begin to restore it by reading the opening paragraph of C.S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost (OUP 1942):

The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used…. The first thing is to understand the object before you: as long as you think the corkscrew was meant for opening tins or the cathedral for entertaining tourists you can say nothing to the purpose about them. The first thing the reader needs to know about Paradise Lost is what Milton meant it to be.

Many years ago, in England, lived a man. He was learned, and had some native art. He studied the old stories of the ancient homeland, trying to get a view of them all; he was well versed, too, in the new stories read aloud from a Book in Latin. In his day, his native artistic tradition was already fading. But before it became quite invisible he used some of the old and ancient stories to remake tradition with a story of his own, in which he intended to show the truth in the old stories as it touched the truth of the new.

Once we see what the poet was trying to do we are in a position to reflect upon the meaning of such an enterprise, and the success the poet achieved given his own intentions. But this is all just to set the scene. Now we observe Tolkien teasing out the content and the meaning of the ancient mythology as he infers it was known and understood by a man who lived on our side of English history, to be sure, yet close enough to the great divide that he could still see that ancient learning that history was about to utterly forget – save a few fragments of later confused memories and, a perhaps more likely road, what could be seen by deep literary reflection on the mind of the Anglo-Saxon poet. And so the lecture advances…

The enchanted stream that ends in the marsh on which Tolkien is now studied has its source in the advance of literary criticism since the days of Lewis and Tolkien. Whatever criticism means today (and I find the usages I hear hard to figure out) one thing the professors of literature are quite clear on is that it is a fallacy to judge a work by way of the intentions of its author.  Whatever the validity of this revision, the result is that the very idea of criticism has for modern readers a different meaning than it did for Tolkien.

Criticism as I find it in Tolkien studies, and in this podcast, seems to involve a stab at saying how the numinous elements of Tolkien’s stories ‘speak to us.’ (I’d be happy to be corrected, no doubt this formulation could be better, and certainly I am missing something; but whatever exactly the modern notion of criticism,) when projected on to  Tolkien in this lecture (as also OFS) we invariably end up with this misreading: our ability to discern the art in a work of art is crowded out by the babel of scholarly voices; we need to tune in and turn on to the art and drop out of scholarship. This creed is all very well if this is your thing, but it is diametrically opposed to anything that Tolkien intends.

Reading Tolkien’s talk of criticism through a modern lens calls up a quite extraordinary enchantment that propels readers straight back into the destructive orgy that the allegory of the tower is supposed to help them escape! The builder who put the words together (poem or lecture) is no longer seen as the subject of inquiry; with the builder’s design rendered invisible the words (of poem or lecture) are all that is seen, the tower made by the builder is knocked over as critics eagerly seize individual stones that glitter in their hands, and a string of quotations that do not quite fit together leads us on a will-o’-the-wisp path to a creed of ‘art for art’s sake’ that has banished the ghost of the dead poet who gave meaning to Tolkien’s lecture. The best one can say about this conventional reading is that it reveals magic at work before our eyes: shapes woven in the mist by those acting under a spell that has rendered an author invisible to them.

For Lewis and Tolkien, the need to uncover authorial intention prompts a journey into history. To  give but one example: to call Beowulf an ‘epic’ is to be unhistorical – it is to fail to appreciate that an Anglo-Saxon poet was not trying to ape Classical literature but to give voice to his own native tradition. His intentions are bound up with this tradition, and Tolkien is bound to reconstruct both. Only by way of historical insight into the relationship between the poet’s choices and the lost tradition of northern art can genuine criticism of the poem be attempted.

Far from being a rejection of history, Tolkien’s lecture opens up the historical dimension of Beowulf. His underlying question, throughout his lecture, is essentially: what was the tradition of northern art performed by those long dead poets whose words were carried over the sea by my more recent ancestors? Specifically, he asks: what did the Anglo-Saxon poet make of his already fading native tradition that prompted him, a Christian, to hallow the words of the old poets by continuing their tradition?

And (a cardinal point) Tolkien’s answer begins from the observation that the art of the North looks death in the face. The art of the North is a historical art – because to study history is to look death in the face (the man you pictured making the poem when you began reading this lecture, is dead). If you begin with the idea that history is antithetical to understanding the poem you will walk through the whole lecture with your eyes tight shut and, what is more, mistake Tolkien’s idea of myth for an exercise in “pure fantasy.”

From where I stand, this Prancing Pony podcast echoes contemporary Tolkien criticism by following a quotation from the lecture just to the point where it ends, and no further. Blindness to Tolkien’s intentions precludes perception of how one quotation complements and reinforces another, and the essay appears as a maze.

Once you understand that Tolkien’s very idea of criticism is historical then, with patient reading of the lecture, its connections emerge into view and the essay opens up a path that leads directly into the very center of Middle-earth. And once you understand that Tolkien’s historical criticism constitutes an attempt to learn from – and thereby in some strange way communicate with – the dead, you understand that you are holding in your hand instructions for use of the Seeing Stones that were long ago returned back into the West.

Tolkien’s lecture may seem designed to confuse if you do not grasp the historical attempt to see another person at the heart of it. Yet much of what at first confuses proves to be carefully crafted help. The primary aid the author provides is the short story by which he introduces his main arguments. Tolkien tells of a man who found some old stone and built a tower that looks on the sea…

Apprenticeship, my ebook, reads only the allegory of the tower that introduces the lecture. But the root cause of misreading lecture and allegory are the same – otherwise, one would surely have corrected the other.