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Animals

About ten days ago, while on my morning walk in the large expanse of scrub/parkland that borders my house, two puppies appeared out of nowhere and followed me home. As I write they are sitting on the porch outside. Having never had a dog before I have been blown away by the encounter with two little creatures that instinctively know how to fit into a human family. When they arrived I was just finishing publication of a Rounded Globe book on autism in the Stone Age, and I’m not sure if the book or the dogs have given me more insight into life in the paleolithic.

My new neighbour, who owns the house on the next street that is last in his road, has put up a small padock in which, on occasion, there is a horse. Newly aware of the whole world of dogs that I had previously been innocent of I sense that close encounters with a horse would take this kind of thing to a whole other level.

My wife has gone to Brussels for three days, leaving me with the three children. Before she left she ordered the shopping, which is delivered to our door. Within the shopping was a very large, whole, black fish, with dead eyes and a gaping mouth. I have no idea why it came and have never encountered the like before in our kitchen. It has now taken out a whole shelf in the freezer, sitting on top of lots of other frozen food access to which now lies through the great dead fish, which I am unwilling to lay hands on again.

Granchester_Meadows_bw

Under the mill? c. 1912

Your hands, my dear, adorable,
Your lips of tenderness
—Oh, I’ve loved you faithfully and well,
Three years, or a bit less.
It wasn’t a success.

Thank God, that’s done! and I’ll take the road,
Quit of my youth and you,
The Roman road to Wendover
By Tring and Lilley Hoo,
As a free man may do.

For youth goes over, the joys that fly,
The tears that follow fast;
And the dirtiest things we do must lie
Forgotten at the last;
Even Love goes past.

I shall desire and I shall find
The best of my desires;
The autumn road, the mellow wind
That soothes the darkening shires.
And laughter, and inn-fires.

White mist about the black hedgerows,
The slumbering Midland plain,
The silence where the clover grows,
And the dead leaves in the lane,
Certainly, these remain.

But the years, that take the best away,
Give something in the end;
And a better friend than love have they,
For none to mar or mend,
That have themselves to friend.

 

Rupert Brooke

Beatrice_Addressing_Dante_(by_William_Blake)

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.

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.

Picture_3_British_Barrows

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’.

the_watcher

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.