Chris’s response regarding Peter Wimsey

Re your recent post on Sayer’s Whose Body? suggesting that Peter
Wimsey’s was suffering from PTSD and that this was the reason for
Tolkien’s approval of the early novels.

By chance we had a copy of the 1930 novel Strong Poison and I read
through this to see if Peter Wimsey’s PTSD was still occurring.
Unfortunately I only found one oblique reference when Peter talks to the
father of the murder victim – “It often happens. In fact, it’s
continually happening. The post-war generation and so on. Lots of people
go off the rails a bit – no real harm in ’em at all. Just can’t see eye
to eye with older people. It generally wears off in time.”

What struck me most in this novel was the part played by women. All the
most daring investigations such as opening locked boxes without being
detected or travelling to remote parts of the country in order to get
access to a house to find a will are done by women. Indeed Peter Wimsey
set up a group of women, known as the cattery, to undertake this work.
Would this have appealed to Tolkien as he did create a number of brave
women in his stories.

What brought about Tolkien’s dislike of Peter Wimsey shown in letter No.
71 is not made clear nor his even deeper loathing of Peter’s Harriet. I
am assuming this Harriet is the woman he intends to marry at the end of
Strong Poison. One clue could be their lifestyle. In the story Harriet
is first seen in the dock accused of the murder of the person with whom
she had previously lived. She was a crime fiction writer, strongly
independent (was this modelled on the author?) and had lived with the
murder victim out of wedlock. It was when he suggested that they should
marry and admitted he had used their time together in order to confirm
her loyalty that she stormed out and left him. Perhaps Tolkien thought
this offended his religious principles although I have no idea what
happened after this novel which may have added further causes for his
loathing.

Oronzo-Cilli’s Tolkien’s Library does confirm he had a number of D.L.
Sayers’ books.

Lynn’s First in July

Tolkien and Peter Wimsey, at first glance

Another in our series of texts with a Tolkien connection, this one is rather more obscure than the previous ones, but I was following up his well-known dislike of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night and his comment that he didn’t dislike the earlier Peter Wimsey books. I mentioned to Carol that I was thinking of reading the offending novel and as an experienced and avid reader of crime fiction, her recommendation was to start with one of the earlier Wimsey novels – perhaps Whose Body. So I did, and discovered why this book at least may have interested Tolkien.

The story itself has no Tolkienian relevance. It is just a detective story as Wimsey the gifted amateur, his friend Inspector Parker, and Wimsey’s manservant Bunter unravel a murder. The echoes of the Bertie Wooster stories are obvious, and Wimsey’s general personal environment is far removed from the impoverished and disadvantaged circumstances of Tolkien own youth.

So far, this looks unpromising, but occasional references to Wimsey’s bibliographical interests would definitely have rung bells for Tolkien. Wimsey’s intention to buy a rare copy of Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1493 flirts with the truth (see below) and Tolkien would certainly have known the original Legenda Aurea as part of the essential background to medieval studies of all kinds. Wimsey’s ability to pay enormous amounts of money for similarly rare and wonderful early books, as the consequence of his affluent lifestyle, may have appealed to Tolkien at the level of vicarious wish-fulfilment! And Tolkien may even have known the same kinds of artificial but highly intelligent young men during his war service.

And so, Peter Wimsey reached the point where he put together all the elements of the case he was working on late one evening, and also reached a crisis point which Tolkien would have recognised with a shock. The intellectual effort the investigation had required tips Wimsey’s mental state. Overtaken by a vivid flashback, he wakes Bunter because he can hear tapping and thinks it is Germans undermining their trench, but the noise of the guns makes it difficult to hear. ‘Sergeant’ Bunter settles ‘Major’ Wimsey in bed after a ‘drop of bromide’ to calm him.

This short chapter gave me a shock because it totally changes the impression of the foppish Wimsey. He’s actually suffering badly from PTSD some years after his service in the trenches of WW1, and Tolkien must have known of other young officers who continued to suffer in the same way. Suddenly, the story takes on a different atmosphere. The investigation goes on, but its undercurrent of interest in psychology has a new relevance. The ‘gifted amateur’ is not just devoting his idle affluent life to helping out. It is rather the reverse, engaging in criminal investigation, so long as it’s not overdone, helps him to stay in everyday reality and defends him from the nightmare memories.

Basing any conclusions on just one book would be presumptuous, but Whose Body may begin to explain why Tolkien expressed approval for these early stories. This one at least offers recognition of what so many young men continued to suffer at a time when help for mental illness caused by combat was rudimentary, where it existed. More significantly, perhaps, the relationship between Bunter and Wimsey echoes in that between Frodo and Sam, not as the batman who cooks and remembers things, but as the person who understands where the nightmares come from.

On recent finds relating to Wynkyn de Worde’s The Golden Legend

https://www.new.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/4NCN10%20%282013%29%20Wynkyn%20de%20Worde%20discovery.pdf

Julie on a new Biography

Julie has just read the latest biography of Tolkien to be published, and has sent a short review and some comments.

Tolkien by Raymond Edwards

Raymond Edwards points out in his Tolkien biog that the perception of callousness of the British Army bigwigs towards the men is not entirely justified. The British Army did in fact, it seems, make big gains in the Battle of the Somme, but it took an awful lot of lives to do it. Still a bloody awful thing which shouldn’t have happened.
 I do wonder to what extent this experience affected Tolkien’s mental processes. He was so brilliant – he was the foremost philologist of his generation – but something prevented him from expressing it except in the form of fantasy fiction. His big book and memorial should have forwarded the academic study of the English language. Instead, we got “The Lord of the Rings” and the amorphous mass of papers which his devoted son Christopher eventually managed to publish as “The Silmarillion” and then “The History of Middle-earth”. His fans are eternally grateful but we can’t get away from the fact that Tolkien seriously short-changed his academic colleagues and by his neglectfulness actually hastened the demise of philology as the rigorous intellectual component of English courses in our universities.
Edwards articulated a misgiving which I felt when I signed up to do the OU MA Eng Lit course in 2012. They had ditched rigorous philological studies for the bullshit theory stuff which has infected English studies since the late 1970s. I knew I was right to dismiss the whole thing as bollocks.

Chris’s Summary, Last Meeting in June

Chris has responded to my posted comments on Tolkien and Fairies by sending a fascinating summary on the topic and its wider implications drawn from Verlyn Flieger’s book.

VERLYN FLIEGER

SPLINTERED LIGHT

LOGOS AND LANGUAGE IN TOLKIEN’S WORLD

 

Chapter 1  A Man of Antitheses

 

The first chapter concerns itself with the reasons why Tolkien is a man of antitheses as well as discussing his views on the significance of words.

 

Flieger claims that Tolkien’s works are built on contrasts – hope and despair, enlightenment and ignorance, light and dark. Humphrey Carpenter suggests that this can be traced back to Tolkien’s experiences in his early years. Firstly there was the separation from his father and then his death. Secondly and perhaps more significantly was the death of his mother when he was just twelve years old. It is suggested that Tolkien thought her death was caused by the stress his mother was under being estranged from her family in order to be a Catholic. Yet Tolkien’s Catholicism was linked to his mother but in his view it was her adherence to it that caused her death. This was seen to be the main reason for the pessimistic side of Tolkien’s character.

 

The author claims that a Christian acceptance of the Fall leads inevitably to the idea that imperfection is the state of things in the world and that human action cannot rise above that imperfection. Tolkien wrote that he did not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’. It is this idea that makes the alternation between light and dark the essence of Tolkien’s works. Flieger claims that light and dark are interdependent as light cannot be known without darkness, similarly hope needs the contrast of despair and freewill opposes, yet is defined, by the concept of fate.

 

The author then discusses Tolkien and the importance of words. She states that Tolkien had  the view that an author cannot be understood if the reader does not understand the meaning of the words as they were known at the time of writing. She describes Tolkien’s essay on Chaucer’s Reeves Tale to prove this point. In this essay Tolkien shows that it was not the case that many words were misspelt but that these words were dialect ones. With this knowledge Tolkien shows how they are used to add a satirical effect which changes the previous understanding of the tale, as now it shows how the country folk get their own back on the town folk. Verlyn Flieger then goes on to describe how Tolkien employs the use of dialect to equal effect in the Lord of the Rings with each group of people having their own style of speech.

 

Flieger then goes on to show how words were not simply a window on the past for Tolkien but the key to that lost relationship between humanity and God of which a sense of the Fall is the only memory. She quotes Tolkien’s letter 231 where he writes “I have long ceased to invent … I wait till I seem to know what really happened.” It is as though how the story unfolds is created by what the words suggest. Although not stated by the author, is this the case with the famous inspiration for the Hobbit when he wrote a few words on an examination paper?

 

Chapter 2 Dyscatastrophe

 

In this chapter Verlyn Flieger demonstrates how Tolkien’s use of light and dark can be seen in his critical essays but in a different mode, for his essays use these words to mediate and explain where his fiction embodies them and makes them real.

The chapter then analyses Tolkien’s two ground breaking essays The Monsters and the Critics and On fairy-stories.  These appear to be in contrast to each other as Beowulf ends in defeat (dark) whereas a fairy story has the joy of a happy ending (light). Yet the fairy story does not deny dyscatastrophe, (i.e. sorrow and failure) as the possibility of this is needed for the joy of deliverance. Flieger claims the difference between the two essays is that in The Monsters and the Critics dark outweighs light whereas in On Fairy-stories light is victorious over dark (sorrow).

 

Flieger then discusses the allegorical ending of Tolkien’s The Monsters and the Critics. Tolkien describes the scene of someone inheriting an accumulation of old stones which were part of an older hall. Some of these had been used in the building of a new house but the rest were left where they lay. The man then used these stones to build a tower. However other people thought this silly and could see no purpose in it so they pushed it over. Tolkien then adds But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea. Flieger compares this to Frodo’s dream experiences in Crickhollow in which he sees a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the sea. Flieger suggests for Tolkien this was a real attribute of the human psyche: the desire to seek something without knowing what it is. In regard to Beowulf people who want to push over the tower will be unable to see the structure and purpose of the poem and so have no opportunity to be carried beyond themselves.

 

Flieger then shows how this enables us to understand how Tolkien reads Beowulf as the view from the tower leads outwards not upwards so the illimitable vision carries no promise of hope or salvation. Tolkien’s view is that Beowulf’s final defeat is inevitable and that the poet has taken care that there is no suspense or uncertainty about the outcome. The fact that his opponents are monsters makes the poem more significant as no mere struggle with another man would carry this weight of meaning.

 

Yet Flieger says that Tolkien adds a further modern perspective as his reading of the monsters is psychological rather than allegorical. Grendel and the dragon are both monsters but not the same kind of monster. Grendel has a human shape and so Tolkien suggests that the monsters are within us as well as outside us. Beowulf is victorious over Grendel but the inner darkness is always there to be battled.

 

Flieger finishes by saying that the pull to darkness fits with Tolkien’s view of the Fall and its consequences and that no battle would ever be won.

 

Chapter 3 Eucatastrophe

 

In this chapter Flieger discusses Tolkien’s attraction to Beowulf and fairy stories. She shows how this attraction to two such opposing outlooks displays the tension in his own psychology.

 

Flieger states that it is through the “near-asides” in his On Fairy stories essay that it is possible to see windows into Tolkien’s own imaginative principles and affords a look at his creative process. Flieger says that Tolkien tried to answer three questions; What are fairy stories? What is their origin? What is the use of them?

 

Tolkien begins by correcting misapprehensions, mainly the main characteristics of fairies is not size but power of enchantment as people wander into the world of enchantment. By “Faërie” Tolkien means fay-er-ie the place of enchantment. To find the origin of fairy stories you need to ask what is the origin of language and of the mind.

 

Tolkien sees the question “What is the use of fairy stories?” as the most important and the answer is Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation. Flieger then discusses Coleridge’s theories on this subject and how Tolkien differed in his view of Fantasy. For Tolkien successful Fantasy is the conscious subcreation of a Secondary World by Man. The other three items – Recovery, Escape and Consolation – describe the effects of successful Fantasy.

 

Recovery is getting back to what was originally there. By experiencing the fantastic one can recover a fresh view of the Un-fantastic. It should enable us to regain, to recollect what what we have already known but have forgotten to see.

 

Escape and Consolation are interconnected, for through Escape we experience Consolation. Flieger claims that for Tolkien Escape is a longing for a simpler world and quotes the following from Tolkien’s essay: “On this desire, as ancient as the Fall, it largely founded the talking of beasts and creatures in fairy-tales and especially the magical understanding of their proper speech”. Flieger claims the mention of the Fall is key in this part of the discussion as Tolkien sees it as humankind’s longing for its own past, the childhood before the Fall. The magical speech of beasts in fairy-tales is evidence of our sense of separation and our longing for reunion but he also says “we have a sense that it was severance; a strange fate and a guilt lies on us.” Flieger says this statement is more theological than literary as it refers to original sin.

 

Consolation is when fairy stories provide the happy ending and for this Tolkien provides a new term eucatastrophe. This is made up of the Greek “Katastrophe” and “eu” which means well or good so the word now means “the good overturning”. However the joy of eucatastrophe is dependent on fear of the opposite, dyscatastrophe. Flieger says that Tolkien saw this last escape, such as the kiss which wakes the sleeping princess as “the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape, the Escape from Death”.

 

Tolkien says that The Lord of the Rings is “mainly concerned with Death and Immortality”. Elves have immortality which Tolkien sees as a bondage to the world without hope of renewal and eternal life which transcends death and leads to God. Flieger says  Tolkien sees that the escape from death is through death to eternal life. In this way she says that he connects the fairy story directly to the Gospels. The birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. For Tolkien the story of Christ is the greatest fairy story of them all because for him it is not fiction but fact. It bridges the gap between the Primary and Secondary Worlds.

 

Flieger says that Beowulf and the fairy story essays are the keys to Tolkien’s mythology as both contain the opposites – dark and light. Doubt is fundamental to both essays as, if Christ felt forsaken on the cross, doubt is therefore permissible. So Faith needs doubt as light needs dark.

Last ‘meeting’ in June

In an attempt to keep on track with Tolkien reading and the planned dates for our meetings, ready for the moment when we can get together again, I’m offering a short piece for comment and taking pot shots at! At some point Eileen will contribute more on The Man Who was Thursday, and I’m happy to post anything for our intellectual stimulation. In the meantime:

Tolkien: Away with the fairies

We agreed that in the time between finishing The Man Who was Thursday and the resumption of our meetings we could use the opportunity to post on things related to Tolkien that we would like to explore. At the risk of saying nothing, because this hasn’t been properly thought out and researched, I’d like to explore the following ideas and will welcome any comments.

The title of this piece refers to the way Tolkien shifts his vision of the ‘metaphysical’ race of beings in Middle-earth, doing away with the name ‘fairies’, and all that signifies. He tries out ‘Gnomes’ for one of the ‘tribes’ of the race, but this plays across two perceptions of Gnomes. From Tolkien’s point of view it signifies the wisdom that should characterise this group, and I confess that I haven’t explored this further, but none of the groups that become the Elves shows exemplary wisdom, I think. The problem with ‘gnomes’ is that wisdom is not the first thing that occurs to most people anyway, but I suspect that this was not Tolkien’s motivation for change. Again, I haven’t read enough on this to be sure.

The concept of fairies would have been acceptable to much of late Victorian and Edwardian society – Tolkien’s immediate wider cultural environment accepted them in various ways and had a love of fantasy built round the concept. We have considered the Cottingly fairy phenomenon and Conan Doyle’s involvement as indications of the social acceptability at least, and even the belief in this fantasy, but it does not seem to me that Tolkien goes this far, or in this direction, but like C.S. Lewis much later, he likes to hear ‘the horns of Elfland’ in his work. This elfland is not his at this point, prior to the development of the Simarillion material in its later forms, but refers, as CSL intends, to the undercurrent of ‘fairy fantasy’ which made Tennyson’s poem acceptable, because that’s where ‘the horns of Elfland’ quote comes from. It seems significant for Tolkien’s wider vision that those horns are ‘dying, dying.’ I expected to find Dimitra Fimi commenting on this, but she doesn’t seem to.

So Tolkien began work on his great myth in the context of social and cultural attitudes that make inclusion of references to ‘fairies’ acceptable. When he describes Lúthien as a fairy he also draws in medieval and early modern beliefs in another realm of metaphysical beings, although as a fay the description shades more towards the dangerous dimensions of Morgan le Fay and the Sidhe.

We have all remarked on the ‘fairy’-like Elves laughing at Bilbo from the trees in Rivendell in The Hobbit, and noted that the story was made for children. We rarely mention the creation of the household of The Cottage of Lost Play where there is a hint that the ‘Gnomes’ are very small, but this seems to mean innocent, and visitors have to achieve this ‘smallness’ to get in.

I find it a hard read, perhaps because it condenses so many matters that are more familiar in their Simarillion forms, but of interest here, among references to ‘the Path of Dreams’ (picked up later in The Notion Club Papers and Ramer’s dream journeys), and to Earendil, the storyteller speaks of a time ‘when the fairies left Kor’. Christopher T. dates this version 1916-17, but Kor derives from the Kortirion poem first written in 1915, and of course Kortirion was Warwick. Thus Tolkien echoes the concept of fairies in the familiar landscape, but giving it a special beauty and atmosphere.

It is worth noting that the pre-1937 version of the Kortirion poem mentions ‘fading fairies and most lonely elves’. Half a century later it is the Edain who built Kortirion and the ‘Immortal Elves’ who built Kortirion.

I would willingly agree that any writer will find their ideas maturing and changing as they mature, and this may account for the changes Tolkien makes to the naming and characterisation of his metaphysical folk. They remain an essential part of his concept of Middle-earth and its mythology. But, as I’m sure other people have already commented (and I know we have discussed The Lord of the Rings as Tolkien’s ‘war memoir’), it seems pertinent to consider to what extent the changes in naming and associated concepts reflect the changes in social attitudes that were taking place after WW1. When T.S. Eliot is wandering through the Waste Land, and D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf are demythicising social and personal relationships, Tolkien can apparently no longer sustain the older ‘fairy fantasy’. His vision shifts as the darker world of myth dominates, a process we can see imperfectly realised in the structure of The Hobbit. In comparison to his treatment of the environment of the ‘fairies’ of his first creations, the introduction of Elves perhaps acknowledges his own sense of ‘Lost Play’.

It feels as though there is a lot more to say about all this, but it also feels as though it’s time to invite comments on any aspect of this. It’s not intended for publication outside of our group because it would require a lot more research and I don’t have time for that yet. It’s also such an obvious topic that there must be masses of critical work already done, but it’s something I don’t think we have done as a topic, so I thought I would see where it went.

Eileen’s comments on Chesterton (part 1)

The Man Who Was Thursday

By the time we meet the character, Gabriel Syme, at Saffron Park, he has already been enrolled as a ‘new recruit’, in the police detective corps near Scotland  Yard. He is also a poet, and soon he will become a member of ‘the anarchists’, whose ultimate aim is to abolish god, and all he stands for. Lucien Gregory, the established poet, and an outspoken member of the group, is instrumental in Syme joining and seemingly becoming an anarchist too. Syme will also, of course, become a member of a deeply fanatical group called the ‘European dynamites’; a group set up in a private room in a restaurant in Leicester Square. So Syme is a poet, a policeman will become a member of two groups, one farcical, and one deadly serious, and he will also become a spy!
Gregory struck me as ineffectual, and holding on to ideas that can’t work.
Syme sees through his naievity, and develops a liking for him as a person. The description  by Chesterton is vivid and slightly mocking, i. e. ‘the young man with the long auburn hair…was not really a poet; but surely he was a poem’. This wit and gentle mockery is language that we can absorb, because it is meant kindly. There are other times when the language is ironic, satirical when the occasion arises. The author’s command of the English language is one of the novel’s qualities that make for enjoyable reading. Of course, there is also his gentle, telling sense of humour, that occurs when the situation is enhanced by it.
The description of others in the group is slightly surreal, and ironically ‘the old gentleman, with the wild white beard, and the wild white hat, the venerable humbug, was not really a philosopher,  but at least he was the cause of philosophy in others. The scientific gentleman with the bald egg-like head had no real right to the airs of science that he assumed. The reader here is sensitive to the whole set-up by now, as the author remarks, ‘a man who stepped into its social atmosphere, felt as if he had stepped into a written comedy’. Here, there are examples of the mastery of language that involves a sense of ridicule.
When Gregory goes off in a sulk over the subject of poetry, and the group is breaking up, Syme wanders off into the street, and there in the darkness encounters Gregory, who invites him to join ‘the anarchists’. To prove to Syme how serious he is about the agenda of his group Syme agrees, and off they go. A cab took them to a dingy pub, where a table at which he was sitting began to revolve, and both he and his companion shot up, as if through a factory chimney, and then down, landing with a bump at the bottom at a door. Down a narrow passage they came to a door, which Gregory struck five time. He gave the password, ‘joseph chamberlains’, and was admitted. Syme was aware of guns and revolvers hanging from the walls and in a steel chamber there were bombs on the walls. Gregoy then told him of the many disguises he wore to achieve his aim, a Bishop, a millionaire, and a humatarian! then tellingly tells Syme ‘I hope I have enough intellectual breadth, to understand the position of those, who like Nietzsche, admire violence.’
Syme was informed that the members were known by the days of the week, Sunday being the president. Gregory admitted he hoped to be elected as Thursday. We can imagine the bewilderment, and anger on Gregory’s face when Syme first objected to the election of Gregory as Thursday, (so saving him), but Syme himself was duly elected Thursday.
In the next episode we learn about the rather complicated man who became Thursday, how his rather fractured upbringing gave him a hatred of anarchy, and influenced his life to get rid of anarchy, wherever he was aware of it.
The novel is about good versus evil, and so has links with OSP and Tolkien. The imagery, the strand sunset, is reminiscent of OSP, as is the Lunar-like landscape. These have links with OSP. The unsettling moments of deja vous in Leicester Square reflect perhaps what many have experienced.

Lynn’s final comments on Chesterton

Final thoughts on The Man Who Was Thursday (with apologies for taking so long)

The prospect of finding links between Tolkien and this book by Chesterton seemed highly unlikely as I was reading and any three-way connection seemed vanishingly remote, but then it occurred to me that I was looking too closely. The first impression of Chesterton’s thesis in Thursday was simply that he posits anarchy as the effect of the German nihilism of which his devil is the epitome. But his response to nihilism – probably that of Schopenhauer, almost certainly that of Nietzsche – is reassertion of The Law as he as a Christian understands it, not just the microcosmic version, which becomes a metaphor for the greater Law, but the Patriarchy and the overpowering terror of Christian religion which gives the microcosmic law its legitimation. Hence all the fear linked to Sunday, who recruits all the policemen, whose identities are unstable until He shows a more benign aspect as resolves them.

In contrast to the ‘German pessimism’ that seems to preoccupy Chesterton and his characters, the reestablishment of The Law in the strange shape of Sunday and his transformed agents can be read as a triumphant eucatastrophe. No doubt this appealed to JRRT and CSL as men of their time. We know Tolkien’s feelings on eucatastrophe, and CSL is content to send Ransom off to the pub for a reassuring pint and reassertion of ‘normality’. Chesterton shows us the nihilism of anarchy giving way to a beautiful dawn and a girl picking lilacs as The Law has put all (male) identities beyond question through the comparative image of the girl as that which establishes ‘normality’ through domesticity in this world. It can be read differently, though. Until/unless we all learn to serve and accept The Law our identities are not secure but merely performances, always open to the threat of anarchy.

In all three writers, English settings offer the initial sense of familiarity, but this quickly breaks down in the face of disruptions which all carry the stamp of nihilistic impulses and interventions. Weston and Devine, Sauron and Saruman, and the mob on the French beach are all ready to kill those who symbolise the familiar. Finding the eucatastrophe they clearly desire leads each writer to construct it in accordance with his vision. Tolkien’s in The Lord of the Rings is epic, Lewis’s is homely, and Chesterton’s is Romantic, but each is in keeping with the times and the genre in which they write.

Chris’s comments on The Man Who Was Thursday

GK Chesterton

The Man who was Thursday

Before starting on an analysis of the novel I was curious to discover to what extent Tolkien had studied Chesterton’s works and what he possibly might have thought about them. Oronzo Cilli’s book Tolkien’s Library An Annotated Checklist confirms that Tolkien did indeed have a copy of this work as well as GK Chesterton’s poem The Ballard of the White Horse. However in a letter to Christopher Tolkien he expresses his disappointment with the poem saying The ending is absurd. The brilliant smash and glitter of the words and phrases (when they come off, and are not mere loud colours) cannot disguise the fact that GKC knew nothing whatever about the ‘North’ heathen or Christian. This does not suggest Tolkien was over impressed with Chesterton’s works. Nevertheless in Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-Stories he does reference Chesterton a number of times clearly indicating that he must have studied the works in reasonable detail. Perhaps one indication of Tolkien’s interest in The Man who was Thursday can be gleaned from Hammond and Scull’s Tolkien Companion and Guide. It’s stated that when Lewis, Warnie, Tolkien and Havard happened to meet on the 4th May 1953 and debated whether to listen to a broadcast of Chesterton’s novel they decided to enjoy two bottles of Burgundy instead. Strange as it might seem when Syme is taken to his room near the end of the novel by a butler he is offered a bottle of Burgundy and Syme replies “Burgundy is a spanking good thing.” Perhaps it was the remembrance of this fact that spurred them on to thinking about Burgundy and deciding that an evening drinking it was preferable to listening to the broadcast.

As with my thoughts on CS Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet I have tried to analyse the work in relation to Tolkien i.e. what would have appealed to him, what he would have disliked and if Chesterton’s work somehow influenced Tolkien’s own writings.

One similarity to both Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet and Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is the concept of leaving one environment and entering a different world. Ransom is drugged and taken to a different planet, Bilbo is suddenly moved from his quiet life into a world of new experiences as is the case with Frodo and Sam. In Chesterton’s novel when Syme is elected as Thursday and steps onto the tug to take him to meet Sunday “he had a singular sensation of stepping out into something entirely new; not merely into the landscape of a new land, but even into the landscape of a new planet.”  Syme, like Ransom and Bilbo, is entering a world where things are not as they seem and where a great deal of initiative and bravery are required in order to overcome the many obstacles put in his way.

As in Tolkien’s novels chance or prearranged destiny play a part. Syme’s meeting with the police officer when feeling depressed changes the course of his life as he is suddenly persuaded to become part of a secret police force tracking down anarchists. Such experiences are common to the other police recruited to this force. However did Sunday, the omnipotent being in this story, prearrange these meetings? Was it all predetermined to slot people into the correct roles to fit the Genesis story?

Language is another aspect of the work which may have appealed to Tolkien and I was particularly struck by lines which resemble Sam’s colloquial speech. When the Marquis is in a panic when the train approaches in France he shouts out You great fat, blasted, blear-eyed, blundering, thundering, brainless, God forsaken, doddering, damned fool …. You great silly, pink-faced, towheaded turnip … Going to Jericho to throw a Jabberwock.  I am sure Tolkien would have liked this.

Swearing of oaths plays another important part in Chesterton’s novel. Even though Gregory is meant to be an anarchist denying society and wanting to destroy everything, he still feels bound by the oath he gave to Syme. Thus Syme says Don’t you see we’ve checkmated each other? .. I can’t tell the police you are an anarchist. You can’t tell the anarchists I’m a policeman.  This oath swearing continues with other characters in the novel who keep to their word. This is opposite to the oath breakers in The Lord of the Rings although they do eventually fulfil their duty and obey Aragorn’s call to arms.

Another feature that would have appealed to Tolkien was the use of codes. As we know Tolkien was very keen on Runes and other coded clues on maps. In Chesterton’s novel a very clever coded language is devised using fingers. This allows a strange double conversation to take place one using their fingers between the interrogators and one using real speech with the interrogated.

However there are aspects of Chesterton’s novel which may not have appealed to Tolkien. One of them is the direct political statements which frequently appear. I am not saying Tolkien may not have agreed with them but it is the up-front nature of them which may have caused him a problem. Examples include The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn’t; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all. Aristocrats were always anarchists, as you can see from the barons’ wars.  Similarly Four out of five rich men in this town are common swindlers. I suppose the proportion is pretty equal all over the world. I think this shows a clear political statement shaming the rich and how they can easily get away with fraud. This, of course, has not changed and the rich continue to use tax avoidance and hide away overseas.

Another major feature of the novel which may have troubled Tolkien is the blatant religious nature of the work as this was not the case in The Lord of the Rings where religion is present but not overt. Indeed there is a need for a book like The Battle for Middle-earth by Fleming Rutledge to point out the underlying religious content in The Lord of the Rings because this is so hidden to the ordinary layman. However Tolkien does create a similar Genesis setting with Ilúvatar’s creation of the world in The Silmarillion although this is set in an imaginary world. In Chesterton’s  novel the group of so-called anarchists are named and finally dressed according to the role played by the day of the week they represented in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Sunday, who appoints these people, is the mysterious power behind the events in the novel. Significantly each of the anarchist group see him quite differently but as Syme says Each man of you finds Sunday quite different, yet each man of you find one thing to compare him to – the universe itself.

It is also interesting to note the role of Gregory’s sister Rosamond, the only identifiable woman in the novel. It is when Syme is with her that he enters his dream-like state: In the wild events which were to follow this girl had no part to play … And yet, in some indescribable way, she kept recurring like a motive in music through all his mad adventures afterwards, and the glory of her strange hair ran like a thread through those dark and ill-drawn tapestries of the night.  It would seem that Rosamond acts like Ilúvatar’s creative music, which defines the order of events, and is the real power in how things develop. As with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings women may appear only briefly but they also have power.

I am sure there is a lot more to say about this novel especially how it fits into the politics of the time. In some ways it reminds me of the film The Four Lions which concerns a group of British jihadists trying to blow things – a serious subject but played out as a black comedy. Chesterton’s novel also turns a serious issue, namely people wanting to set off bombs, into a comic fantasy. Such comedy rarely appears in Tolkien’s works. As an example in Chesterton’s novel he uses the chase sequences around London to add  humour. For instance when the zoo keeper says An elephant has gone mad and run away and Syme replies you may take my word for it that the elephant has not run away with him. He has run away with the elephant.

Overall it was an enjoyable read and I am sure Tolkien would have mainly enjoyed it.

Tim’s comments on OSP

Apologies for having interrupted the flow of OSP comments, but here now are Tim’s. All the others are accessible via the links on the left sidebar.

Tim wrote:

A Few Observations on C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet

Coming late to the party (fashionably late) due to having only limited access to the internet at present whilst locked down at my mum’s house, and with my copy of the book at home, I’ve now had the opportunity to re-read the book (thanks to my sister dropping it off) and to read through everyone’s comments on the blog (10,000 words, an essay’s worth!)
I found everyone’s thoughts on the book very interesting, and was heartened that some points tallied with my own observations, for example, some similarities with Tolkien’s legendarium.
As a result, there isn’t a great deal I can add to the discussion, but here goes.
My main impression of OSP was that it doesn’t really rate as science fiction (I think Laura has made that point). I’ve read a fair amount of sci-fi, and it is a very broad church: OSP falls into the category of space fantasy adventure/space opera – more akin to Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars tales than Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (which I’m a third of the way through and can highly recommend). I think I naturally defaulted to a space adventure mode when reading Lewis’ book.
On the back of that, I was struck by a similarity in tone between Lewis and the likes of H. Rider Haggard (who was, as we know, one of Tolkien’s influences): the great white hunter/ muscular Christian explorer-trader-conqueror on the Great British civilising mission in the dark continent (exploitation). In particular, when Weston (and to a lesser degree Devine) were talking with condescension to the native inhabitants of Malacandra on the presumption that less technology and industrialisation means less intelligent or civilised.
The book is very much of its time, published at a time when Europe was beset by populist forces in Germany, Italy and Spain, as well as in Britain, France and the Netherlands, and war was threatening. As Lewis appeared to be demonstrating, it is a fundamental characteristic of human nature, particularly of white Anglo-Saxon males, the drive to conquer, dominate and control other “lesser” beings.
As a story, the narrative begins and ends in a somewhat banal, innocuous fashion – such as concluding with Ransom walking into the first pub he comes to and ordering a pint of bitter – but the development of the story did consistently grip my attention, as much on the first read as on the second read.

Tim McCullen
22nd May 2020