19 March 2017

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied

Ophelia, by James Waterhouse, 1889

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

Edna St. Vincent Millay 

18 March 2017

Review: The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-Earth

The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-Earth The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-Earth by Ralph C. Wood
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

No one could seriously deny that Tolkien’s Middle-earth resonates with the message and values of Christianity. Not only was Tolkien himself a devout Roman Catholic, but he was steeped in Old and Middle English literature, one of the oldest works of which, Crist, contains the lines that became the first inspiration for the world he, to use his own term, sub-created:
éala Éarendel, engla beorhtast,
ofer middangeard monnum sended

Hail Earendel, brightest of angels,
Sent over middle-earth to men.
These words embedded within a poem about Christ were, for Tolkien, a powerful evocation of an earlier pagan story, now lost, ‘something very remote and strange and beautiful…if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English’ (Carpenter, Tolkien, 64). Far more than the legendary ‘In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit’, with which so many are familiar, the words ‘éala Éarendel’ sparked the invention of a vast body of tales that have become in a very real sense a mythology many would wish to call their own, a mythology in which pagan and Christian resonate with each other. (Perhaps there’s a larger lesson to be learned there.) For, as Tolkien saw it and wrote it, all myths contain truth because they echo the Evangelium, the myth that was true.
The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.’ (On Fairy-stories, ¶ 103)
On this showing we should expect to find that the ‘pagan’ or ‘non-Christian’ world of Middle-earth exists in harmonious counterpoint with the world of Christianity, with its perspectives and its values. This is especially so since Middle-earth is our world. The events of the legendarium took place in a ‘historical period [that] is imaginary’ (Letters, no. 183), a time so long ago that only snatches of the memory of those days, like the Éarendel of Crist, remain.

Professor Wood does a good job of detailing for us the ways in which we may find those perspectives and values woven into fabric of Tolkien’s tales. His is a worthy endeavor that provides the reader with much to think on, and it is important to bear in mind that he has ‘undertake[n] not a scholarly study so much as a theological meditation on The Lord of the Rings.’ For there are moments where Professor Wood seems to push the limits of applicability much too far, as when he says that in describing the relationship of Saruman and Wormtongue Tolkien is stating ‘one of the deepest of Christian truths: all love that is not ordered to the love of God turns to hatred.’ Now their relationship certainly ended in hatred, but I see no evidence that love of any kind ever existed between the two. Wood also at times mars the credibility of his own arguments by getting his facts wrong. He claims, for example, that Frodo sees ‘Sauron himself’ when he sees the Eye in Galadriel’s mirror. Not so, except perhaps in a metaphysical sense. The giant flaming eyeballs of filmdom aside, ‘Sauron himself’ has a physical form. Gollum says he has only ‘four fingers on the Black Hand, but they are enough’, and Pippin’s description of what he saw in the palantír points towards a human appearance. Wood also confuses the Witch-king with the Mouth of Sauron, and gets the ages of the four hobbits wrong while making a point precisely about their ages.

Where Professor Wood’s understanding of the facts of Middle-earth most fails the needs of his meditation is in his mistaken belief that Middle-earth and our world are not the same. In his final chapter he discusses The Athrabeth Finrod a Andreth, or, The Debate of Finrod and Andreth, which, among other things, raises the possibility that one day Ilúvatar himself will become incarnate within Arda in order to heal the harm that evil has done. Because of his misunderstanding, Wood does not see that Tolkien is talking about The Incarnation, not just an incarnation. But Middle-earth is not a parallel world like Narnia, with a unique incarnation of its own. The incarnation Finrod and Andreth anticipate is the evangelium itself.

11 March 2017

Did Boromir fall? (RK 5.iv.813)

'Comfort yourself!' said Gandalf. 'In no case would Boromir have brought it to you. He is dead, and died well; may he sleep in peace! Yet you deceive yourself. He would have stretched out his hand to this thing, and taking it he would have fallen. He would have kept it for his own, and when he returned you would not have known your son.' 
(RK 5.iv.813)
To judge by Gandalf's contrary to fact conditional statements, about what would have happened (but did not) if Boromir had taken the Ring (which he did not), Gandalf does not believe that Boromir fell by attempting to seize the Ring, but was redeemed by his immediate recovery and self-sacrifice. However close he may have come to a fall, taking the Ring is clearly the critical step in that descent.

This is consistent with Gandalf's statement that 'Galadriel told me that [Boromir] was in peril. But he escaped in the end' (TT 4.v.496), as well as the refusal of Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel to take the Ring (FR 1.ii.61; 2.ii.267, vii.x365-66).  We may also point to Aragorn's response to Boromir's dying declaration that he has failed: 'No! .... You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory' (TT 3.i.414).

None of which is to claim that it wasn't all a very near run thing for poor Boromir.



Salvador Dalí and Walt Disney

There's really not much to say here except: watch this.

09 March 2017

"And you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking" -- A Case in Point

The Angelus -- Jean-Francois Millet

Tolkien was appalled by our modern obsession with speedy locomotion. It annihilates space, he said, blinding us to the glories that we are traversing. As with much of modern technology, he feared that jet travel is yet another instance of what Thoreau called "improved means to unimproved ends." We take off from New York or Atlanta and land in Cairo or Delhi a few hours later, as if these vastly different cities in vastly different countries were abstract and featureless places, mere dots on a map. No wonder that Tolkien penned a tart note to one year's income tax payment, refusing his support of supersonic jet travel: "Not a penny for Concorde." 
Ralph C. Wood. The Gospel According to Tolkien

And as if in answer there came from not too far away another note. For at the bottom of this page on my screen is the following message:

"7 hrs 35 mins left in book"


There has to be a place and a time where all this haste stops, just stops, just stops.  And that place and that time must be home, where we may be enchanted out of the world where we lay waste our powers, and recover our selves from the hasty, locomotive days outside our door. Or, as Pink Floyd tell us:

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.
Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today,
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.
And you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way, but you're older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.
Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time,
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines.
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I'd something more to say .
Home, home again,
I like to be here when I can.
When I come home cold and tired
It's good to warm my bones beside the fire.
Far away, across the field
The tolling of the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spell.
Time, David Gilmour and Richard Wright.