J.R.R. Tolkien

C.S. Lewis And Lilith: What Does Blending Myths Do For You?


Last fall, I was reading The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe aloud to my wife. We reached the passage in chapter 8 when the beavers are explaining the nature of things in Narnia, when we hit a snag. I read this.

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“That’s what I don’t understand, Mr. Beaver,” said Peter. “I mean isn’t the Witch human?”

“She’d like us to believe it,” said Mr. Beaver, “and that’s how she is trying to call herself Queen. But she’s no Daughter of Eve. She comes from your father Adam’s first wife, Lilith. She was one of the Jinn. On the other side she comes from the giants. No, there isn’t a drop of real human blood in the Witch.”
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My wife stopped me. She was frustrated. She was confused. She couldn’t understand where this Lilith reference came from, and it annoyed her immensely.

Curious for details myself, I looked it up and found that Lilith was a type of female demon in Hebrew literature. “Lilit” was originally used to mean “night monster” or “screech owl.” In Isaiah the term is used in a listing of animals. Medieval Jewish mysticism popularized the idea that Adam had had a wife before Eve, who was created out of dust at the same time he was. She wouldn’t submit to Adam, left the Garden Of Eden, and started dating angels and what not. Lewis has her mating with a Jinn or genie.

Personally, I like these sorts of things. I love mythology mash-ups that create entirely new fantasy realms. My wife, on the other hand, was not satisfied by this information. She was more annoyed to hear this alternative version of the popular Biblical account. The idea of changing the foundation story and even adding new cast members was disruptive rather than inventive.

By all accounts, Tolkien felt the same way about his friend’s books. While they agreed more than most on many things, the flavors of the two men’s writings show clear distinctions in their personal tastes in how myths and fairie should be approached. Lewis was constantly getting creative energy from smashing together ideas from various sources for new sensations. The man was an omnivorous reader and you can see shadows of thousands of older ideas in his fiction works.

Tolkien also finds much inspiration for his work in the great pieces he cherishes. Gandalf is occasionally a mirror of the older, more obscure mythical creations Tolkien loved. The big difference is really the level of perceived coherency and the depth of pursuit. Tolkien, like many others, seems to find the willful suspension of disbelief in Lewis too great. He is equally enamored by magic and dragons and even silly children’s stories, but mixing characters from preexisting universes seems too much to be enjoyable for him. What is Father Christmas doing in Narnia? How did the descendant of Lilith, the original mother of our world, end up as the Queen of Charn?

I can understand these frustrations well. I find The Magician’s Nephew to be the most satisfying of the Narnian books in large part because it ties so many origin stories and loose ends together in such a neat fashion. Lewis writes like many authors, so that the stories can feel almost stunted at times in their openings and closes. Everyone is suddenly rushed into alternate realities at break neck speeds.

On the other hand, a large part of what makes Tolkien’s legendarium so fulfilling and believable is the expansive way in which so much untold backstory is expanding in every direction. Tolkien himself was constantly fleshing out his worlds throughout his lifetime. Perhaps he thought pulling so directly from previous material was too quick and cheap, unsatisfying to him as a creator and suspicious in others.

There is something enjoyable in both the whimsical adventure of being swept away by foreign magic and in the adventure of fulfilling a long forgotten destiny in a mythical world of unspeakable beauty and impending evils.

Which one thrills you more?

 

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Further Reading

 

C.S. Lewis’ Literary Essays

Dave Eggers On The Fear Of Publishing

Jules Feiffer Encouraged Us To Fail

Author Quotes: Guy Davenport On Tolkien’s Bluegrass Shire


“The closest I have ever gotten to the secret and inner Tolkien was in a casual conversation on a snowy day in Shelbyville, Kentucky. I forget how in the world we came to talk of Tolkien at all, but I began plying questions as soon as I knew that I was talking to a man who had been at Oxford as a classmate of Ronald Tolkien’s. He was a history teacher, Allen Barnett. He had never read The Hobbit or The Lord Of The Rings. Indeed, he was astonished and pleased to know that his friend of so many years ago had made a name for himself as a writer.

‘Imagine that! You know, he used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky. He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good names like that.’

And out of the window I could see tobacco barns. The charming anachronism of the hobbit’s pipes suddenly made sense in a new way. The Shire and its settled manners and shy hobbits have many antecedents in folklore and in reality. . .Kentucky, seems, contributed its share.”

– Guy Davenport, essay excerpt from The Geography Of The Imagination

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While enlightening, this revealing little excerpt may not be as interesting to non-Kentuckians. I am myself of Bluegrass stock and, having lived away for a few years now, I am continuing to see my appreciation of the simple green nooks of the Ohio River Valley snowball with every continuing season. This little tidbit makes me almost as excited about Kentucky as having Wendell Berry among our numbers.

It has been argued that Davenport stretches this Kentucky idea and perhaps Tolkien did not often reconsider his stories from Barnett in the writing of The Hobbit. It does seem unlikely that Barnett would know nothing of Tolkien’s success and yet trump up these recollections, so I would assume that either he knew more of Tolkien’s works than he let on or Davenport stretched the truth in his retelling their conversation. If neither of these is true, it does seem hard to see no connection whatsoever between Barnett’s recollections and Tolkien’s writing.

The truth of the matter is that I am a quarter Irish and a quarter I-Don’t-Know, both from Cincinnati, Ohio. The other half in me is Appalachian. With family names like Ball, Hensley, and Phillips; its safe to guess that most of those ancestors started out on rolling English hills before the uprooted to rolling Kentucky hills. The reason Tolkien would have been fascinated by Kentucky would be that it reminded him of the rural English countryside of his youth. It was the land rooted-ness, the folk-ishness underlying these similar peoples, that obviously and undeniably fascinated him.

The hill people with their limited outside knowledge and unique local customs were at the heart of Tolkien’s most popular myths. For years, he created a fantastic world of higher orders of beings warring for pure good and evil. Then, almost accidentally, he stuck in an entire race Hobbits; the Kentucky-rural, English bumpkins who didn’t know there were other lands with which to be concerned.

Realizing this, I can’t help but feel proud, then insulted, then honored. Proud to be associated with a culture that Tolkien found fascinating. Insulted to see how backwards and ignorant he (accurately?) paints such cultures. Ultimately, its an honor to realize that The Lord Of The Rings really points out that simple people can continually surprise you with their bravery and willingness to fight for good.

If you understand Tolkien, you begin to realize that he cherished the idea of localized, slow-growth cultures. He was fearful of the impending washout of all cultures to one, because he valued the traditions and heritage of all peoples, and the truth, beauty, and courage that can be built upon and passed down by every Father.

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I will leave you with this interesting bit from Davenport’s essay. He met Hugo Dyson, the loudest of the Inklings and class clown of the group who stuck his foot in his mouth with everyone he met. He would often refuse to participate in meetings if his dear friend Tolkien’s fantasy manuscripts were to be read aloud.

“‘Dear Ronald,’ Dyson said, ‘Writing all those silly books with three introductions and ten appendixes. His was not a true imagination, you know: He made it all up.’ I have tried for fifteen years to figure out what Dyson meant by that remark.”

Author Quotes: J.R.R. Tolkien On Creativity and Death


There are many obvious reasons to love J.R.R. Tolkien. As the years go on his son Christopher Tolkien, who is now quite an old man himself, continues to publish the nearly completed works to which his father was devoted. Just when we assume that everything great has been revealed, the author who has been dead for half a century is revealed to have written another riveting tale to add to his impressive cannon.

Aside from his fiction work, however, I am brought back time and again to the philosophical moorings upon which the author founded all of his creative thinking. His essay “On Fairy Stories” is, in my opinion, a breakthrough and little-rivaled treatment of the nature of inspiration and the mystical and supremely natural traits inherent in human creativity.

Apart from this (or perhaps as a part of this), there is one other area of thought that constantly brings me back to considering Tolkien’s creative works, thoughts on creativity, and thoughts on life in general. He was obsessed with everything being layered upon a recognition of death. Death surrounds us. Death defines our lives. Around 1951, Tolkien wrote a 10,000 letter to Milton Waldman of Collins Pub. in hopes of convincing them to include The Silmarillion in their decision to print The Lord Of The Rings. In the midst of explaining the value he sees in what really was his entire life’s work, he makes this clarifying statement

“In the cosmogony there is a fall: a fall of Angels we should say. Though quite different in form, of course, to that of Christian myth. These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear. There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall – all stories are ultimately about the fall – at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.”

Tolkien always returns to contemplate the extremes of falleness against sheer natural beauty, death against the irripressable joy of living. In Tolkien’s work many find that the escape of the good story actually leaves them ready to enjoy their own life more fully rather than longing for a different world. I think Tolkien’s tragic personal history and the closeness of death throughout his formative years built a resilience and awareness in him that ultimately directed his creations and provided that almost indescibable beauty and familiarity which captures his readers.

Tolkien does himself and his work justice when he summarizes his work with a Simone de Beauvoire quote on the mysteries of dying and living.

 

*Althought I find the writing and editing quite odd, I highly suggest watching the entire Tolkien episode of the BBC’s In Their Own Words, available here in part 1 and part 2.

“What is your favorite ‘classic’ literary period and why?”


Over at The Classic’s Club they like to publish a “Monthly Meme”, a monthly blogging prompt question for the member to participate in. This months question is

“What is your favorite ‘classic’ literary period and why?”

I’ll provide my answer and ask you guys to feel free to do the same!

If you’ve been reading this blog then you know that I like to play fast and loose with terms like “classic”. Maurice Sendak is classic, Orson Scott Card is classic, Neil Gaiman is classic. In the same way I’m gonna bend the rules in defining my idea of a “literary period” as well. I ask for immense grace on the part of the reader.

I’m not really a fan of any one particular genre or period in which great work has been done; my tastes span just about every style from every time period. However, if I had to choose one time period as being great for the arts, I would choose 1914 to 1945. That is to say, the time frame from the beginning of The Great War to the end of World War II.

It is a hard truth to swallow, but war encourages good art. War encouraged better politics, better philosophy, better religion, and better culture. Are these worth the price? They probably never could be, but for some reason we need war to sharpen our ideas into feasible, real-world scenarios. I use the word “need” here not as an absolute belief but based on cyclical, historic evidence.

War takes the extreme ideals of young men and forces upon them (and everyone else) the costs and consequences of those ideas. Throughout history cultures have come to radical political and philosophical conclusions and have seen them tested in action through various political upheavals. A world-wide war has the unique sobering effect of drastically changing and solidifying the most earnest opinions at the very heart of every man. The World Wars and the time between them were an era of intense and costly trial and error, a time when every man and women, whether identified now as aggressor, defender, or victim, was drastically solidified in a frame of mind that would haunt or direct the remainder of his or her earthly experience. Grandiose philosophical and political ideals would eventually be pulverized into crippling fear, stunning bravery, blinding hatred, and inspiring forgiveness and understanding. All of the destruction wreaked resulted very clearly in artistic revolutions of all kinds.

Concerning World War I, I think literarally of D.H. Lawrence, W. Somerset Maugham, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, and T.S. Eliot among dozens of others. These are not necessarily known for war literature, but war imposed itself upon and transformed all in their craft. I consider C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien, destined to be friends as both fought through some of the most bloody and unsurvivable experiences of The Great War. Both lost most of their dearest friends, and even their more whimsical works are depicted with the sobriety of a man who has wrestled with war first-hand.

I consider the upheaved, unsettled time between the wars and the seemingly unavoidable onset of the Second World War. Another generation of men and women are rocked to their very cores, including Lee, Capote, Salinger, Vonnegut, Wouk, Mailer, and Lois Lowry among an entire generation in transition. Most rebelled against society at large, unable to cope with the unforeseen impacts that continue to ripple through culture today.

I especially think of the story of Ernest Hemmingway, already a revered author and now a war correspondent, meeting for drinks with a then-undiscovered J.D. Salinger, in a little house near the frontline in the midst of WWII. Young Salinger had carried a rough draft of the first six chapters of what would become The Catcher In The Rye stuffed in his jacket since before he landed on the beaches on D-Day and he had somehow found time to write and submit short stories to magazines from on the frontline. He had already built up a bit of a reputation with Hemmingway, and they spent a hearty evening together, drinking wine through the cold winter night and discussing the quality of Salinger’s work and literature in general. Before dawn they separated once more, and from what we know had very little interaction thereafter. Eventually, the elder would turn into a severe alcoholic before committing suicide, while the younger would seek solace in mystic religion and half a century of extreme reclusion.

While it can feel trite to explore the literary implications of the most destructive periods in world history, our art has more to say than anything else when we look to see how the minds of men are molded by these terrors. The lives of these artists, perhaps more so than their art at times, display the coping of humanity with unspeakable confusion. Some we find doubly moored to the foundations they already claimed, other finding some source of respite in the aftermath. So many others we find spiraling without answer, creating in the constant wake of the thousand-yard stare.

The Classics Club


This morning I stumbled upon a wonderful blog called The Classics Club. Its exactly what I never knew I was searching for!

The premise of the club is a simple one. To join, one must simply submit a list of at least 50 titles that you personally consider classic in some way and commit to attempting to read and review all of them within a time frame of hire own choosing, up to five years. I eagerly spent some of my morning and afternoon building my own classics list.

A Few Notes Concerning My Selections

• I chose a very broad spectrum of titles because I am interested in a broad spectrum of fiction. I am aware that many, nay most, are probably not classics or only exist as classics in a certain subculture.

• They are in the order I came up with them, so I will not be reading them in this or any other particular order.

• I chose a number of children’s titles because I love children’s literature more now than when I was a kid.

• The spirit of the club is to read new titles, so I have only allowed myself step or three re-reads. I chose them mostly because they are lesser known titles and I was eager to re-read them to review them.

• Most of these are either titles I own and have not read or titles I started once and got side-tracked from finishing.  I thought this seemed like a great opportunity to officially pursue them more diligently.

• The list is mainly novels and chapter books, with a smattering of short story collections, picture books, essays, and curated diaries.

• I intend to use the maximum allotment of five years, finishing the list by 2/22/2019.

The List (55 titles)

– The Plague by Albert Camus

– The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

– Watership Downs by Richard Adams

– Letters To An American Lady by C.S. Lewis

– On Stories by C.S. Lewis

– The Worm of Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison

– The Giver by Lois Lowry

– Mr. Bliss by J.R.R. Tolkien

– Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

– The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

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– Odd And The Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

– Phantastes by George MacDonald

– The Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier

– The Silmarilion by J.R.R. Tolkien

– Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

– Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

– A Room With A View by E. M. Forster

– Redwall by Brian Jacques

– Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

– Poems of John Keats by John Keats

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– Brothers and Friends : The Diaries of Major Warren Lewis by Warren Lewis

– The Third Man by Graham Greene

– The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

– The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

– Peril At End House by Agatha Christie

– Bring It To The Table: On Farming And Food by Wendell Berry

– The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

– Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams

– War In Heaven by Charles Williams

– The Food Of The Gods And How It Came To Earth by H. G. Wells

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– Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang by Ian Fleming

– Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers

– The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

– At The Back Of The North Wing by George MacDonald

– Jeeves In The Offering by P. G. Wodehouse

– Heavy Weather by P. G. Wodehouse

– Middlemarch by George Eliot

– The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym Of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe

– Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

– The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

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– On Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

– A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

– An Arsene Lupin Omnibus by Maurice LeBlanc

– The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

– The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton

– King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

– The Sorrows Of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

– Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

– In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

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– Runaway by Alice Munro

– The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchanan

– I Sing The Body Electric by Ray Bradbury

– Walden by Henry David Thoreau

– My First Summer In The Sierras by John Muir

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As a somewhat saddening side-note, I realized while curating this list that I finished reading every Sherlock Holmes novel years ago. While there are only four novel-length Holmes stories, I was surprised to realize that I had finished all of them years ago. I’m certain that I haven’t read all the short stories yet, but it was a strange sensation to realize that I had long since finished these and even forgotten that I had completed every one of them.

Anyway, I am excited to get any feedback as I start! If you have any personal thoughts, experiences, or opinions on any or all of these titles, I would love to hear them. I need all the advice I can get!

C.S. Lewis And J.R.R. Tolkien: “The Strength Of The Hills Is Not Ours”


While permaculture is still a newish (30-40 years) subject of suddenly increased interest (myself falling in among the band-waggon stagers), I’m learning not to be surprised when I stumble upon a highly relevant, pre-dating thought from someone who would not be considered a natural farming resource. In a letter to his life-long pen pal Arthur Greeves dated the 22nd of June, 1930, C.S. Lewis mentions Tolkien’s thoughts on the spiritual and generational effects of living directly off of the physically surrounding country.

“Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when the family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood – they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air & later corn, and later still bread, really was in them. We of course who live on a standardised international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, & Australian wine to day) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.”

People like Fukuoka, Lewis, Berry and Tolkien seem to have this in common: they interest was not in resonse to a couple of generations of problems and discontent, or because of some impending global disaster. They began by asking themselves much larger questions about what it means to be human and, when alighting upon confident conclusions, the implications of what they understood led them to value the concepts that permaculture and natural farming ideals now come to out of desparation or fear. They were asking these questions in the 1920’s, 30’s, and 50’s. When everyone else was head over heels in love with new technologies, they were wondering at what had been lost. I am in no way implying that those who desire to live naturally do not see the immense beauty before them, I only mean to point out the difference between coming from a concept to its implication versus finding that the natural is the necessary solution to so much unnatural action. I think I’ll go medetate on these philosophies a bit more before heading back into the practical how-to’s.