The Pattern in the Web

The best book yet done on Charles Williams's poetry. Dr. King treats Williams’s poetry as poetry and Williams as a poet. Too often CW's poetry has been seen as theology or evidence for his love life, or pretty good retellings of medieval romance, or who knows what else. But now Dr. King shows it as poetry and reveals that it is indeed very good poetry as poetry… Who has written better than Roma King on what poetry really is? And the sections on Williams's Arthurian poetry surpass anything I have read on this modern lyric cycle.

Joe McCatchey (Wheaton College) review of ‘The Pattern in the Web’ The Mythical Poetry of Charles Williams, by Roma A. King, Jr.

from "The Geste of Beren and Lúthien"

There Fëanor mourned his jewels divine,
the Silmarils he made. Like wine
his wild and potent words them fill;
a great host harkens deathly still.
but all he said both wild and wise,
half truth and half the fruit of lies
that Morgoth sowed in Valinor,
in other songs and other lore
recorded is. He bade them flee
from lands divine, to cross the sea,
the pathless plains, the perilous shores
where ice-infested water roars;
to follow Morgoth to the unlit earth
leaving their dwellings and olden mirth;
to go back to the Outer Lands
to wars and weeping. There their hands
they joined in vows, those kinsmen seven,
swearing beneath the stars of Heaven,
by Varda the Holy that them wrought
and bore them each with radiance fraught
and set them in the deeps to flame.
Timbrenting's holy height they name,
whereon are built the timeless halls
of Manwë Lord of Gods. Who calls
these names in witness may not break
his oath, though earth and heaven shake.

J.R.R. Tolkien
(Lines 1,602 to 1,627)

from "The Geste of Beren and Lúthien"

(Fëanor - Source: ar-feiniel)

Book VI.
When Morgoth in that day of doom
had slain the Trees and filled with gloom
the shining land of Valinor,
there Fëanor and his sons then swore
the mighty oath upon the hill
of tower-crownéd Tûn, that still
wrought wars and sorrow in the world.
From darkling seas the fogs unfurled*
their blinding shadows grey and cold
where Glingal once had bloomed with gold
And Bethil bore its silver flowers.
The mists were mantled round th towers
of the Elves' white city by the sea.
There countless torches fitfully
did start and twinkle, as the Gnomes
were gathered to their fading homes,
and thronged the long and winding stair
that led to the wide echoing square.

J.R.R. Tolkien
(lines 1,584 to 1,601)
More next time...

The Approach to English

We were soon acquainted, for we were in the same situation; each was in the position of having no more than a year in which to read the English School, for had we taken two we would have been overstanding for Honours. I had read the History School before, and he Honour Classical Mods and Greats. Apart from this similarity of situation, we shared the good fortune of having F. P. Wilson for our tutor in English literature, arid all that year we lived at the rate of eight or ten working hours a day pressing forward under his unerring guidance, over the terra incognita (as it virtually was for us) of English poetry and prose. It was a continuous intoxication of discovery: to almost every week came its amazement. I remember particularly our excitement on first reading the poems of John Donne, who was just beginning, in those early years, to be known again after two centuries of contemptuous neglect. We were uninhibitedly happy in our work and felt supported by an endless energy.

There was no reason why we should not have been happy; we had both just emerged safely from a war which (we then believed) had ended war for ever. We had survived the trenches, the nightmare was over, we were at Oxford, we were in our early twenties. The old order seemed not only restored but renewed; life and art lay before us for exploration and the interchange of ideas, and we seemed to be experiencing what happened to Odin and his fellow-gods when they returned after their long twilight; finding their golden chessmen where they had left them in the grass, they sat down and went on with the game.

We saw clearly what lay before us, a life of reading and teaching, perhaps of writing — for, as we confessed to each other very soon, we both hoped to be poets, or at least writers. It was not until six or seven years later that Lewis said sadly to me, 'When I at last realized that I was not, after all, going to be a great man...' I think he meant 'a great poet'. In those early days however nothing seemed impossible as we fed our imaginations on all the best that had been written in our language; for it wonderfully illuminated, for both of us, the other subjects we had been studying up till then. In my case, all the history I had so painfully and uncomprehendingly imbibed for three years and more in the History School became suddenly intelligible to me in terms of its poetry. I had, for instance, taken the reign of Richard II as my special subject; but none of my history tutors had thought of suggesting anything so obvious as that I should read some Chaucer or Langland. I presume they took it for granted that I knew them already; so they were never mentioned, and I, in my ignorance, was virtually unaware of them. But now, while all that the chronicles and other sources had told me of the reign of Richard was still fresh in my head, the poetry of The Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman suddenly added a new dimension to history for me: and these poems, of course, were no less vivified in their turn by what I knew of the fourteenth century.

Nevill Coghill
“Light on C.S. Lewis” (1965)

"I am affable, but unsociable"

[On 5 June 1955 in the New York Times Book Review, the columnist Harvey Breit devoted part of his weekly article 'In and Out of Books' to an account of Tolkien and his writings.  It included this passage: 'What, we asked Dr [sic] Tolkien, makes you tick?  Dr T., who teaches at Oxford when he isn't writing novels, has this brisk reply:

"I don't tick.  I am not a machine.  (If I did tick, I should have no views on it, and you had better ask the winder.)  My work did not 'evolve' into a serious work.  It started like that.  The so-called 'children's story' [The Hobbit] was a fragment, torn out of an already existing mythology.  In so far as it was dressed up as 'for children', in style or manner, I regret it.  So do the children.  I am a philologist, and all my work is philological.  I avoid hobbies because I am a very serious person and cannot distinguish between private amusement and duty.  I am affable, but unsociable.  I only work for private amusement, since I find my duties privately amusing." '

These remarks were apparently taken from a letter written by Tolkien in answer to enquiries by a representative of the New York Times.  On 30 June 1955, Tolkien wrote to the Houghton Mifflin Co., his American publishers: 'Please do not blame me for what Breit made of my letter!....  The original made sense: not a quality, however, of which Harvey B.  seems perceptive.  I was asked a series of questions, with a request to answer briefly, brightly, and quotably.  ....  Out of sheer pity [for another enquirer wanting information] ....  I do enclose a few notes on points other than mere facts of my "curriculum vitae" (which can be got from reference books).' What follows is these 'few notes'.  The text is taken from a typescript apparently made by the Houghton Mifflin Co. from Tolkien's original; this typescript was sent to a number of enquirers at different times, some of whom quoted from it in articles about Tolkien.  Tolkien himself was given a copy of the typescript, and he made a number of annotations and corrections to it, which are incorporated into the text which is here printed.]

My name is TOLKIEN (not -kein).  It is a German name (from Saxony), an anglicization of Tollkiehn, i.e. tollkühn.  But, except as a guide to spelling, this fact is as fallacious as all facts in the raw.  For I am neither 'foolhardy' nor German, whatever some remote ancestors may have been.  They migrated to England more than 200 years ago, and became quickly intensely English (not British), though remaining musical – a talent that unfortunately did not descend to me.

I am in fact far more of a Suffield (a family deriving from Evesham in Worcestershire), and it is to my mother who taught me (until I obtained a scholarship at the ancient Grammar School in Birmingham) that I owe my tastes for philology, especially of Germanic languages, and for romance.  I am indeed in English terms a West-midiander at home only in the counties upon the Welsh Marches; and it is, I believe, as much due to descent as to opportunity that Anglo-Saxon and Western Middle English and alliterative verse have been both a childhood attraction and my main professional sphere.  (I also find the Welsh language specially attractive.  I write alliterative verse with pleasure, though I have published little beyond the fragments in The Lord of the Rings, except 'The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth' (in Essays and Studies of the English Association, 1953, London, John Murray) recently twice broadcast by the BBC: a dramatic dialogue on the nature of the 'heroic' and the 'chivalrous'.  I still hope to finish a long poem on The Fall of Arthur in the same measure.

All the same, I was born in Bloemfontein, Orange River Free State – another fallacious fact (though my earliest memories are of a hot country) since I was shipped home in 1895, and have spent most of 60 years since in Birmingham and Oxford, except for 5 or 6 years in Leeds: my first post after the 1914-18 War was in the university there.  I am very untravelled, though I know Wales, and have often been in Scotland (never north of the Tay), and know something of FranceBelgium, and Ireland.  I have spent a good deal of time in Ireland, and am since last July actually a D. Litt. of University College Dublin; but be it noted I first set foot in 'Eire' in 1949 after The Lord of the Rings was finished, and find both Gaelic and the air of Ireland wholly alien – though the latter (not the language) is attractive.

I might add that in October I received a degree (Doct. en Lettres et Phil.) at Liège (Belgium) – if only to record the fact that it astonished me to be welcomed in French as 'le createur de M. Bilbo Baggins' and still more to be told in explanation of applause that I was a 'set book' ??????  Alas!

If I might elucidate what H. Breit has left of my letter: the remark about 'philology' was intended to allude to what is I think a primary 'fact' about my work, that it is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration.  The authorities of the university might well consider it an aberration of an elderly professor of philology to write and publish fairy stories and romances, and call it a 'hobby', pardonable because it has been (surprisingly to me as much as to anyone) successful.  But it is not a 'hobby', in the sense of something quite different from one's work, taken up as a relief-outlet.  The invention of languages is the foundation.  The 'stones' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.  To me a name comes first and the story follows.  I should have preferred to write in 'Elvish'.  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 readers.  (I now find that many would have liked more.) But there is a great deal of linguistic matter (other than actually 'elvish' names and words) included or mythologically expressed in the book.  It is to me, anyway, largely an essay in 'linguistic aesthetic', as I sometimes say to people who ask me 'what is it all about?'

It is not 'about' anything but itself.  Certainly it has no allegorical intentions, general, particular, or topical, moral, religious, or political.  The only criticism that annoyed me was one that it 'contained no religion' (and 'no Women', but that does not matter, and is not true anyway).  It is a monotheistic world of 'natural theology'.  The odd fact that there are no churches, temples, or religious rites and ceremonies, is simply part of the historical climate depicted.  It will be sufficiently explained, if (as now seems likely) the Silmarillion and other legends of the First and Second Ages are published.  I am in any case myself a Christian; but the 'Third Age' was not a Christian world.

'Middle-earth', by the way, is not a name of a never-never land without relation to the world we live in (like the Mercury of Eddison).  It is just a use of Middle English middel-erde (or erthe), altered from Old English Middangeard: the name for the inhabited lands of Men 'between the seas'.  And though I have not attempted to relate the shape of the mountains and land-masses to what geologists may say or surmise about the nearer past, imaginatively this 'history' is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet.

There are of course certain things and themes that move me specially.  The inter-relations between the 'noble' and the 'simple' (or common, vulgar) for instance.  The ennoblement of the ignoble I find specially moving.  I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.

I think the so-called 'fairy story' one of the highest forms of literature, and quite erroneously associated with children (as such).  But my views on that I set out in a lecture delivered at St Andrew's (on the Andrew Lang foundation, eventually published in Essays Presented to Charles Williams by Oxford University Press, as 'On Fairy Stories').  I think it is quite an important work, at least for anyone who thinks me worth considering at all; but the O.U.P.  have infuriatingly let it go out of print, though it is now in demand – and my only copy has been stolen.  Still it might be found in a library, or I might get hold of a copy.

If all this is obscure, wordy, and self-regarding and neither 'bright, brief, nor quotable' forgive me.  Is there anything else you would like me to say?

Yours sincerely,
J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) Tolkien.

P.S.  The book is not of course a 'trilogy'.  That and the titles of the volumes was a fudge thought necessary for publication, owing to length and cost.  There is no real division into 3, nor is any one pan intelligible alone.  The story was conceived and written as a whole and the only natural divisions are the 'books' I-VI (which originally had titles).

Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
#165 to the Houghton Mifflin Co

from "The Ephiphany"

The Child upon Our Lady's lap
The kings bowed down before :
To see this wonder, by good hap,
The slaves thronged at the door.

The first king fell upon his face :
' O Child, a sign behold ;
The princes of the Gentile race
Offer a gift of gold.'
Our Lady shuddered in her place,
For riches men are sold.

' I wot that when thou goest up
Unto thy throne of might,
'Tis I shall bear the golden cup,
And come into thy sight.'

Humbly the second king kneeled down.
' O Child, thy dignity
Behold, in frankincense foreshown,
Take thou this gift from me.'
Our Lady covered with her gown
Her eyes from perjury.

I wot that when with offering
Thou seest thy Father's face,
'Tis I that shall the censer swing
In that most holy place.'

The third stood forth and bowed his head.
' I bring a gift of myrrh.'
Our Lady crossed herself for dread
When he looked down on her.
' I bring a gift, O Child,' he said,
' Meet for thy sepulchre.

' I wot that when thy lips are dumb
And men defile thy head,
'Tis I shall wait thee till thou come
To be among the dead.

' When thou art neither king nor priest,
Thou shalt be friend to me,
When thou of all slain men art least,
' Tis I shall neighbour thee.

Charles Williams
Poems of Conformity

Democratic Education...

There is something about this endless examining, quite apart from the labour, which bothers me.  It sets me wondering about the whole system under which you, as well as we, now live.  Behind all these closely written sheets which I have to read every year, even behind the worst of them, lie hours of hard, long work.  Even the bad candidates are doing their best and have been trained up to this ever since they went to school.  And naturally enough: for in the Democracies now, as formerly in China under the mandarin system, success in competitive examinations is the only moyen de parvenir*, the road from elementary school to the better schools, and thence to college, and thence to the professions. (You still have a flourishing alternative route to desirable jobs through business which is largely disappearing with us: but it is at least equally competitive).

This of course is what Democratic education means - give them all an equal start and let the winners show their form.  Hence Equality of Opportunity in practice means ruthless competition during those very years which, I can't help feeling, nature meant to be free and frolicsome.  Can it be good, from the age of 10 to the age of 23, to be always preparing for an exam, and always knowing that your whole worldly future depends on it: and not only knowing it, but perpetually reminded of it by your parents and masters?  Is this the way to breed a nation of people in psychological, moral, and spiritual health?  (N.B. boys are now taught to regard Ambition as a virtue.  I think we shall find that up to the XVIIIth Century, and back into Pagan times, all moralists regarded it as a vice and dealt with it accordingly).

*way to arrive

C.S. Lewis
Letter to Warfield M. Firor Dec 3 1950
The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Volume III (2007)

Jack, by Tollers

[A comment on an article about C. S. Lewis by one of his former pupils, George Bailey, in The Reporter, 23 April 1964.]

30 August 1964

C.S.L. of course had some oddities and could sometimes be irritating. He was after all and remained an Irishman of Ulster. But he did nothing for effect; he was not a professional clown, but a natural one, when a clown at all. He was generous-minded, on guard against all prejudices, though a few were too deep-rooted in his native background to be observed by him. That his literary opinions were ever dictated by envy (as in the case of T. S. Eliot) is a grotesque calumny. After all it is possible to dislike Eliot with some intensity even if one has no aspirations to poetic laurels oneself.

Well of course I could say more, but I must draw the line. Still I wish it could be forbidden that after a great man is dead, little men should scribble over him, who have not and must know they have not sufficient knowledge of his life and character to give them any key to the truth. Lewis was not 'cut to the quick' by his defeat in the election to the professorship of poetry: he knew quite well the cause. I remember that we had assembled soon after in our accustomed tavern and found C.S.L. sitting there, looking (and since he was no actor at all probably feeling) much at ease. 'Fill up!' he said, 'and stop looking so glum. The only distressing thing about this affair is that my friends seem to be upset.' And he did not 'readily accept' the chair in Cambridge. It was advertised, and he did not apply. Cambridge of course wanted him, but it took a lot of diplomacy before they got him. His friends thought it would be good for him: he was mortally tired, after nearly 30 years, of the Baileys of this world and even of the Duttons. It proved a good move, and until his health began too soon to fail it gave him a great deal of happiness.

Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
#261 From a letter to Anne Barrett, Houghton Mifflin Co.