The Grand Miracle

I am not referring simply to the first few hours, or the first few weeks of the Resurrection. I am talking of this whole huge pattern of descent, down, down, and then up again. What we ordinarily call the Resurrection being just, so to speak, the point at which it turns. Think what that descent is. The coming down, not only into humanity, but into those nine months which precede human birth, in which they tell us we all recapitulate strange pre-human, sub-human forms of life, and going lower still into being a corpse, a thing which, if this ascending movement had not begun, would presently have passed out of the organic altogether, and have gone back into the inorganic, as all corpses do.

One has a picture of someone going right down and dredging the sea bottom. One has a picture of a strong man trying to lift a very big, complicated burden. He stoops down and gets himself right under it so that he himself disappears; and then he straightens his back and moves off with the whole thing swaying on his shoulders. Or else one has the picture of a diver, stripping off garment after garment, making himself naked, then flashing for a moment in the air, and then down through the green, and warm, and sunlit water into the pitch black, cold, freezing water, down into the mud and slime, then up again, his lungs almost bursting, back again to the green and warm and sunlit water, and then at last out into the sunshine, holding in his hand the dripping thing he went down to get. This thing is human nature; but, associated with it, all nature, the new universe.

C.S. Lewis, "The Grand Miracle", God in the Dock (1st preached by Lewis in St. Jude on the Hill Church, London, and afterwards published in The Guardian on April 27, 1945)

How did 'The Children of Húrin' come about?

The Children of Húrin, begun in 1918, was one of three ‘Great Tales’ J.R.R. Tolkien worked on throughout his life, though he never realised his ambition to see it published in his lifetime. Some of the text will be familiar to fans from extracts and references within other Tolkien books but this is the first time the entire story has been presented in its complete form.

As Adam Tolkien elaborated in a recent interview: ‘This is a more difficult question than it seems: As you know, versions and pieces of the story of Húrin and his descendants have been published in various works (The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The Book of Lost Tales, The Lays of Beleriand, etc). The text of The Children of Húrin is in part compiled from these extant texts, and particularly that which appears in Unfinished Tales.

‘But it is a new reworking of the complete story. Many parts of the text will be – if not identical – recognizable to the knowledgeable reader, but there are also pieces that have never appeared before. Also the format of the text, as a standalone and complete text with no editorial commentary to interrupt the tale, should in itself and in my opinion considerably transform the reading experience.

‘The text as a whole can be said to be “new” as it is a recomposition of published texts and other “pieces” that weren’t published previously. The completed puzzle, in a sense.’

Christopher Tolkien has painstakingly edited together the complete work from his father’s many drafts, and this book is the culmination of a tireless thirty-year endeavour by him to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s vast body of unpublished work to a wide audience.

Christopher Tolkien says: “It has seemed to me for a long time that there was a good case for presenting my father’s long version of the legend of The Children of Húrin as an independent work, between its own covers, with a minimum of editorial presence, and above all in continuous narrative without gaps or interruptions, if this could be done without distortion or invention, despite the unfinished state in which he left some parts of it.”

Having drawn the distinctive maps for The Lord of the Rings more than 50 years ago, Christopher has also created a detailed new map for this book.

Adam continues: ‘The text of The Children of Húrin is entirely in the author’s (so J.R.R. Tolkien’s) words – apart from very minor reworkings of a grammatical and stylistic nature. Christopher’s work has been to produce a text that is a faithful rendition of his father’s writings – using many sources spaced out over decades.’

From a review of ‘Hurin’ on

Another review:
This is a tale of unrelenting tragedy. Drawn from the history of the First Age of Middle-earth, it tells of how Morgoth, the original Dark Lord to whom Sauron was but a lieutenant, wreaked appalling vengeance upon the family of the man Hurin, chiefly for his refusal to betray a great hidden city of the elves who were his allies. Readers acquainted with the story from a more summary version published three decades earlier in THE SILMARILLION will have some idea what to expect. They will also understand the part these events ultimately did play in the fall of virtually every elven kingdom in the vast land of Beleriand before it sank beneath the sea, still millennia prior to the events recounted in THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

From a review on Amazon by Edward Waters.

Tolkien and Alliterative Poetry (II)

Tolkien was never to complete the "Lay of the Children of Hurin." According to Christopher Tolkien, “… the poem was composed while my father held appointments at the University of Leeds (1920-5); he abandoned it for the Lay of Leithian at the end of that time, and never turned to it again". Were he to have completed it, the "Lay of the Children of Hurin" could well have been one of his most important works. Certainly it would have taken, and for that matter in its unfinished state does take, the study of Tolkien's work to a different (and less populous?) plane.

That being a possibility, Professor Tolkien did use his alliterative poetry skills in “The Lord of the Rings”. Here we find a beautiful example, taken from the end of "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields":

We heard of the horns in the hills ringing,
the swords shining in the South-kingdom.
Steeds went striding to the Stoningland
as wind in the morning. War was kindled.
There Theoden fell, Thengling the mighty,
to his golden halls and green pastures
in the Northern fields never returning,
high lord of the host. Harding and Guthlaf,
Dunhere and Deorwine, doughty Grimbold,
Herefara and Herubrand, Horn and Fastred,
fought and fell there in a far country:
in the Mounds of Mundburg under mould they lie
with their league-fellows, lords of Gondor.
Neither Hirluin the Fair to the hills by the sea,
nor Forlong the old to the flowering vales
ever, to Arnach, to his own country
returned in triumph; nor the tall bowmen,
Derufin and Duilin, to their dark waters,
meres of Morthlond under mountain-shadows.
Death in the morning and at day's ending
lords took and lowly. Long now they sleep
under grass in Gondor by the Great River.
Grey now as tears, gleaming silver,
red then it rolled, roaring water:
foam dyed with blood flamed at sunset;
as beacons mountains burned at evening;
red fell the dew in Rammas Echor.

From LOTR “Return of the King”

Tolkien and Alliterative Poetry (I)

The "Lay of the Children of Hurin" was among Tolkien's earlier creative works, begun while he was at the University of Leeds. One may speculate that in addition to its status as an early form of the tales that would later form The Silmarillion, the "Children of Hurin" was an attempt to capture the mood and atmosphere of Anglo-Saxon poetry in the Modern English language while being freed from the constraints of remaining faithful to the works of the Anglo-Saxon canon.

Here is a short extract from “The Lay of the Children of Hurin":

Like a throbbing thunder in the threatening deeps
of cavernous clouds, o'ercast with gloom
now swelled on a sudden a song most dire,
and their hellward hymn their home greeted;
flung from the foremost of the fierce spearmen,
who viewed mid vapours vast and sable
the threefold peaks of Thangorodrim,
it rolled rearward, rumbling darkly,
like drums in distant dungeons empty.

"Lay of the Children of Hurin" (lines 994-1002)

Alliterative Poetry and Jack

C.S. Lewis … took a special interest in alliterative poetry. He wrote an essay on alliterative meter, which makes interesting reading. ("The Alliterative Metre", in C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper.) In this essay he takes the position - shared perhaps by Auden and few other modern poets - that alliterative verse is worth taking seriously as an option for English verse. But he does not mean rough approximations; he means the real thing: the alliterative meter of Old English, the rhythms of Beowulf. The essay carefully outlines what you have to do to compose Old English alliterative verse in modern English.
C.S. Lewis' poetry is not widely known, but he published a variety of poems in his lifetime (which can be found in his Collected Poems), and wrote four narrative poems, Dymer, Launcelot, The Nameless Isle, and The Queen of Drum, which appear in a posthumous collection, C.S. Lewis: Narrative Poems ed. by Walter Hooper. The Nameless Isle is Lewis' proof that you really can compose modern English verse in Anglo-Saxon meter. It is one of his best poems, and contains some of the most beautiful lines of alliterative verse written in the 20th century.
When we start to read this poem, we instantly drop from time and space, and enter that world beloved of the Romantics, halfway between allegory and dream. A mariner is shipwrecked on a nameless island. He meets a woman in the wood: a figure of magic, who nourishes the beasts of the field with her own milk, and rules this wild wood as queen. But she complains of a sorceror who has stolen half the island from her sway, who offers a drink that turns all living things to stone. She urges a sword on him, asking him to go kill the wizard and rescue her daughter - daughter to her and to the wizard - before she too becomes no more than a marble statue. He accepts, and proceeds across the island. Events move with a strange unpredictability, involving a dwarf, a flute, and several metamorphoses.
The following excerpt illustrates the rhythmic beauty that Lewis can achieve. Here we have the closing lines of the poem:

... ahead, far on
Like floor unflawed, the flood, moon-bright
Stretched forth the twinkling streets of ocean
To the rim of the world. No ripple at all
Nor foam was found, save the furrow we made,
The stir at our stern, and the strong cleaving
Of the throbbing prow. We thrust so swift,
Moved with magic, that a mighty curve
Upward arching from either bow
Rose, all rainbowed; as a rampart stood
Bright about us. As the book tells us,
Walls of water, and a way between
Were reared and rose at the Red Sea ford,
On either hand, when Israel came
Out of Egypt to their own country.
The strength and rhythmic beauty of its lines is also the poem's chief weakness: the density of language can make the story line hard to follow, so that it is best read slowly, and savored, rather than read straight through like a novel.

Even so, it is well worth the effort: the rich prosody, powerful diction, and the story line dense with symbolism, will reward the reader who pays it close attention.

Paul Deane
Do I detect something of "The voyage of the Dawn Treader" in these lines -- yet written by Jack in the late 1920s! (RR)

The Nameless Isle

Some twenty years before Lewis wrote the scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where Aslan breathes life into the stone statues bewitched by the White Witch, he wrote a comparable scene into the alliterative poem "The Nameless Isle". In this story, a throng of statues is brought back to life by an elf who plays a magic flute, and at the last frees a beautiful maiden from her prison of stone:

Noble creatures were coming near, and more
Stirring, as I saw them, out of stone bondage,
Stirring and descending from their still places,
And every image shook, as an egg trembles
Over the breaking beak. Through the broad garden
--The dew drenched it--drawn, ev'n as moths,
To that elf's glimmering, his old shipmates
Moved to meet him. There, among, was tears,
Clipping and kissing. King they hailed him,
Men, once marble, that were his mates of old,
Fair in feature and of form godlike,
For the stamp of the stone was still on them
Carved by the wizard. They kept, and lived,
The marble mien. They were men weeping,
Round the dwarf dancing to his deft fingers.
Then was the grey garden as if the gods of heaven
On the carol dancing had come and chos'n
The flowers folded, for their floor to dance.
Close beside me, as when a cloud brightens
When, mid thin vapours, through comes the sun,
The marble maid, under mask of stone,
Shook and shuddered. As a shadow streams
Over the wheat waving, over the woman's face
Life came lingering. Nor was it long after
Down its blue pathways, blood returning
Moved, and mounted to her maiden cheek.
Breathing broadened her breast. Then light
from her eyes' opening all that beauty
Worked into woman. So the wonder was complete,
Set, precipitate, and the seal taken,
Clear and crystal the alchemic change,
Bright and breathing.

C.S. Lewis, The Nameless Isle, Lines 542 - 573 (1930)

(With thanks to Arevanye)

Of Elvish and Mordor

If it had been left to him, he would have written all his books in Elvish. "The invention of language is the foundation," he says. "The stories were made rather to provide a world for the language rather than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows. But, of course, such a work as 'The Lord of the Rings' has been edited and only as much language has been left in as I thought would be stomached by the readers. I now find that many would have liked much more." In America, especially, Tolkien words are creeping into everyday usage; for example, mathom, meaning an article one saves but doesn't use. A senior girl at the Bronx High School of Science says: "I wrote my notes in Elvish. Even now, I doodle in Elvish. It's my means of expression."

What does Tolkien think of that? Does he like Americans? "I don't like anyone very much in that sense. I'm against generalisations." One persists. Does he like Americans? " Art moves them and they don't know what they've been moved by and they get quite drunk on it," Tolkien says. "Many young Americans are involved in the stories in a way that I am not.

"But they do use this sometimes as a means against some abomination. There was one campus, I forget which, where the council of the university pulled down a very pleasant little grove of trees to make way for what they called a 'Culture Center' out of some sort of concrete blocks. The students were outraged. They wrote ‘Mordor Lives' on it."
Interview with J.R.R. Tolkien by Philip Norman
January 15, 1967
(final excerpt)

Of Corruption and Allegory

Tolkien says his mother gave him his love of philology and romance; and his first stories were gathering in his mind when he was an undergraduate at Exeter College, Oxford. When war came, however, he didn't write in the trenches as some chroniclers insist. "That's all spoof. You might scribble something on the back of an envelope and shove it in your back pocket, but that's all. You couldn't write. This [his study] would be an enormous dugout. You'd be crouching down among the flies and filth."

His close friend, the late C. S. Lewis ("a very busy official and teacher" to whom Tolkien test-read a great deal), wrote once that the darker side of "The Lord of the Rings" was very much like the First World War. He gave examples: the sinister quiet of a battlefront when everything is prepared; the quick and vivid friendships of the hobbit journeys and the unexpected delight when they find a cache of tobacco. No, Tolkien says; there is no parallel between the hundreds of thousands of goblins in their beaked helmets and the gray masses of Germans in their spiked ones. Goblins die in their thousands. This, he agrees, makes them seem like an enemy in a war of trenches. "But as I say somewhere, even the goblins weren't evil to begin with. They were corrupted. I've never had those sort of feelings about the Germans. I'm very anti that kind of thing."

Students produce lots of allegories. They suggest that the Dark Lord's ring represents the Bomb, and the goblins, the Russians. Or, more cheekily, that Treebeard, the tall treelike being, "his eyes filled with age and long, slow, steady thinking," is Tolkien himself. In a rather portly note to his publishers, he replied: "It is not about anything but itself. (Certainly it has no allegorical intentions, general, particular or topical, moral, religious or political.") But he will agree that the Shire, the agreeable hobbit country, is like the West Midlands he remembers: "It provides a fairly good living with moderately good husbandry and is tucked away from all the centres of disturbance; it comes to be regarded as divinely protected, though people there didn't realize it at the time. That's rather how England used to be, isn't it?

Interview with J.R.R. Tolkien by Philip Norman
January 15, 1967

Of Hobbits and Children

"The Hobbit" wasn't written for children, and it certainly wasn't done just for the amusement of Tolkien's three sons and one daughter, as is generally reported. "That's all sob stuff. No, of course, I didn't. If you're a youngish man and you don't want to be made fun of, you say you're writing for children. At any rate, children are your immediate audience and you write or tell them stories, for which they are mildly grateful: long rambling stories at bedtime.

“ 'The Hobbit' was written in what I should now regard as bad style, as if one were talking to children. There's nothing my children loathed more. They taught me a lesson. Anything that in any way marked out 'The Hobbit' as for children instead of just for people, they disliked-instinctively. I did too, now that I think about it. All this 'I won't tell you any more, you think about it' stuff. Oh no, they loathe it; it's awful.”

"Children aren't a class. They are merely human beings at different stages of maturity. All of them have a human intelligence which even at its lowest is a pretty wonderful thing, and the entire world in front of them. It remains to be seen if they rise above that." Tolkien has a grandson who is becoming a demon chess-player. The sound of children skylarking in the road doesn't disturb him, but he dislikes it when they fight or hurt themselves.

Interview with J.R.R. Tolkien by Philip Norman
January 15, 1967