Of Bloemfontein and Sarehole

Tolkien wasn't a hearty child. At the age of 3 he was brought home from Bloemfontein, South Africa, his birthplace, and brought up at Sarehole, near Birmingham. Until he won a scholarship to grammar school his mother taught him. He is particularly attached to the powder horn; it reminds him of being "borrowed" by an African named Isaac, who wanted to show a white baby off in his kraal. "It was typical native psychology but it upset everyone very much, of course. I know he called his son Isaac after himself, Mister Tolkien after my father and Victor -- ha! ha! -- after Queen Victoria.

"I was nearly bitten by a snake and I was stung by a tarantula, I believe. In my garden. All I can remember is a very hot day, long, dead grass and running. I don't even remember screaming. I remember being rather horrified at seeing the Archdeacon eat mealies [Indian corn] in the proper fashion." ...Tolkien stuck his fingers in his mouth.

"Quite by accident, I have a very vivid child's view, which was the result of being taken away from one country and put in another hemisphere-the place where I belonged but which was totally novel and strange. After the barren, arid heat a Christmas tree. But no, it was not an unhappy childhood. It was full of tragedies but it didn't tot up to an unhappy childhood."

Sarehole has long since been eaten by buildings, but it was rather beautiful then. Tolkien was a shy little boy but friendly with the village children and he knew an old lady without teeth, who ran a candy stall. He modelled his hobbits on the Sarehole people, which means they must have been gentle amblers, not really fond of adventures but very fond of their food. Tolkien himself likes plain meals and beer; "none of that cuisine mystique." Beer, cheese, butter and pastry; the occasional glass of Burgundy.
Interview with J.R.R. Tolkien by Philip Norman
January 15, 1967

Two Vignettes

[View of the ‘dreaming spires’ in February 2007 from South Park]

Mary Rogers gives two vignettes of Lewis in Headington in her article "C.S. Lewis — God’s Fool" in Oxford (the Journal of the Oxford Society) for November 1998:

"Jack never minded looking a fool in a good cause. My sister-in-law tells me that he used to attend an annual party in Headington where guests were expected to arrive, not exactly in fancy dress, but to suggest some topic the hostess had decided upon. After Jack’s marriage to Joy, he brought her along, obviously much to her disgust. She had chosen not to represent some character in Poetry or Opera.... Lewis (of course) represented Wotan, wearing a black eye-shade over one eye — without embarrassment.

"Another Lewis-the-fool story involved an elderly dog. Both brothers were animal lovers, and cared for each dog lovingly to his last breath. One, in its extreme old age (probably Baron or Mr Papworth, also known as "Tykes") became very difficult, as we all do, in time. It was one of the rare sights of Headington to see Jack feeding an animal who was sensitive about being seen eating, and would not eat on home territory. So Jack would walk in front holding the dog dish in one hand, and a spoon in the other, ladling the food backwards over his shoulder to the following shambling dog, the leader being quite unmindful of the passersby and their reactions, as long as the dog got fed."

A Long-Expected Party

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.

‘It will have to be paid for,’ they said. ‘It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’

Chapter 1
‘The Fellowship of the Ring’
J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hero is a Hobbit

New York Times Book Review
October 31, 1954

Seventeen years ago there appeared, without any fanfare, a book called "The Hobbit" which, in my opinion, is one of the best children's stories of this century. In "The Fellowship of the Ring," which is the first volume of a trilogy, J. R. R. Tolkien continues the imaginative history of the imaginary world to which he introduced us in his earlier book but in a manner suited to adults, to those, that is, between the ages of 12 and 70. For anyone who likes the genre to which it belongs, the Heroic Quest, I cannot imagine a more wonderful Christmas present. All Quests are concerned with some numinous Object, the Waters of Life, the Grail, buried treasure etc.; normally this is a good Object which it is the Hero's task to find or to rescue from the Enemy, but the Ring of Mr. Tolkien's story was made by the Enemy and is so dangerous that even the good cannot use it without being corrupted.

The Enemy believed that it had been lost forever, but he has just discovered that it has come providentially into the hands of the Hero and is devoting all his demonic powers to its recovery, which would give him the lordship of the world. The only way to make sure of his defeat is to destroy the Ring, but this can only be done in one way and in one place which lies in the heart of the country; the task of the Hero, therefore, is to get the Ring to the place of its unmaking without getting caught.

The hero, Frodo Baggins, belongs to a race of beings called hobbits, who may be only three feet high; have hairy feet and prefer to live in underground houses, but in their thinking and sensibility resemble very closely those arcadian rustics who inhabit so many British detective stories. I think some readers may find the opening chapter a little shy-making, but they must not let themselves be put off, for, once the story gets moving, this initial archness disappears.

For over a thousand years the hobbits have been living a peaceful existence in a fertile district called the Shire, incurious about the world outside. Actually, the latter is rather sinister; towns have fallen to ruins, roads into disrepair, fertile fields have returned to wilderness, wild beasts and evil beings on the prowl, and travel is difficult and dangerous. In addition to the Hobbits, there are Elves who are wise and good, Dwarves who are skilful and good on the whole, and Men, some warriors, some wizards, who are good or bad. The present incarnation of the Enemy is Sauron, Lord of Barad-Dur, the Dark Tower in the Land of Mordor. Assisting him are the Orcs, wolves and other horrid creatures and, of course, such men as his power attracts or overawes. Landscape, climate and atmosphere are northern, reminiscent of the Icelandic sagas.

The first thing that one asks is that the adventure should be various and exciting; in this respect Mr. Tolkien's invention is unflagging... especially on the primitive level of wanting to know what happens next. Of any imaginary world the reader demands that it seem real, and the standard of realism demanded today is much stricter than in the time, say, of Malory. Mr. Tolkien is fortunate in possessing an amazing gift for naming and a wonderfully exact eye for description; by the time one has finished his book one knows the histories of Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves and the landscape they inhabit as well as one knows one's own childhood.

Lastly, if one is to take a tale of this kind seriously, one must feel that, however superficially unlike the world we live in its characters and events may be, it nevertheless holds up the mirror to the only nature we know, our own; in this, too, Mr. Tolkien has succeeded superbly, and what happened in the year of the Shire 1418 in the Third Age of Middle Earth is not only fascinating in A.D. 1954 but also a warning and an inspiration. No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than "The Fellowship of the Ring."

W. H. Auden

Imagined? or Real.

Remember what Puddleglum the Marshwiggle says to the Witch in The Silver Chair when she tries to enchant them into believing there is no land of Narnia above?

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if their isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

The world to come, thought Lewis, would be like this world, only somehow more real. "Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself" (The Great Divorce, page 68), and everything else in existence is only an imitation of Heaven.

Good... not safe.

Susan asks about Aslan:

“Is he quite safe? I shall feel quite nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will deary, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then, he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“He’s not safe, but he’s good.”

CS Lewis – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Lonely... I'm Mr. Lonely

Half jokingly (no, more than half) I've uttered the phrase "You're going to hell," to which a friend has responded "Well, I'll be among friends."

The difference between eternity in heaven and eternity in hell is drastically different depending on who you ask. Some see heaven as a bunch of people floating around on clouds, reuniting with other godly people, playing harps, wearing white robes and glowing in the heaven light. In contrast to this, hell is a dark party where people indulge their sinful desires, smoking, drinking and partaking of sexual pleasure by flaming red light. Though the flaws in both perceptions are numerous, I think the greatest fault in this perspective is the similar community that heaven and hell share.

Williams and Lewis, I believe, would argue that hell is by no means a place where one is "among friends." Rather it is a place we choose for ourselves that we might be by ourselves, and only on realizing this desire do we discover how much we detest it. Consider Lawrence Wentworth, a man whose desire to possess and be loved by Adela drives him deeper and deeper into self-deception. He pities himself and begins to loathe the woman he loved. His descent into hell is essentially a descent into himself, a withdrawing from society and reality that he might be with and love himself in his own mind and imagination. Yet even this is not love. "A man cannot love himself; he can only idolize it, and over the idol delightfully tyrannize--without purpose."

Wentworth denies all chances of coming back into community with others. He is driven by a desire to avoid others, to withdraw, to attempt to find pleasure in his imagined beloved. In the end even this vision leaves him. When the reader leaves Wentworth he is in the depths of hell, by himself without rope or moon to save him.

Is this not a more accurate depiction of the kind of hell we fear most? One in which we are cut off from community, separated from the love of God (even if we have only experienced it in the imperfect human version)? I would argue that anyone who really chooses hell is unaware of all they are losing. Hell is the utter absence of God. If we experience pain, loneliness and despair on this earth where God is present, how much more would we suffer in a hell where he is not? Perhaps threatening unbelievers with the flames of a hell filled with the sinful and unclean is not only ineffective, but dreadfully inaccurate.

Amanda Kuehn - Narnia Business Blog:
In Charles Williams's novel Descent into Hell, Hell turns out to be nothing other than a refusal to see things as they really are. Arguably his finest novel, the "descent" in the title happens to an ordinary (if extraordinarily selfish) historian named Wentworth, whose daily choices to cheat on the truth slowly but surely lead him into a terrifying state of isolation and egotism. Heaven, by contrast, is increasingly inhabited by the novel's heroine, Pauline Anstruther, who as the book proceeds learns to face her fears (and her ancestors!) and to love the truth exactly as it is. The plot turns around the latest production of fictional playwright Peter Stanhope, but for Williams Pauline's realization of the divine glory incarnate in all of life is the deeper truth that sustains this and every other drama.
Doug Thorpe -- Amazon.com review
The key to William's mystically oriented theological thought, Descent into Hell (arguably William's greatest novel) is a multidimensional story about human beings who shut themselves up in their own narcissicstic projections, so that they are no longer able to love, to "co-inhere". The result is a veritable hell.