Last in November

25.11.17

This blog report is rather different because it is the record of proceedings at our combined Wessexmoot/Yulemoot. Sadly, Eileen and Julie could not stay for our post-meeting conviviality, which was both very stimulating and great fun, but they were with us for the meeting itself. However, Julie was one of the contributors to the presentation that made up the main part of our meeting. She and Laura had attended a day course Doing Theology in Middle Earth (sic), held in Salisbury on the previous Saturday. Laura’s notes on this course make up the main part of this blog. They prompted ideas and discussions which I have added (in brief) into the notes in square brackets.

Introducing their presentation, Laura observed that the course treated the problem of good and evil in much the same terms as we have always dealt with it in our years of discussing Tolkien’s works.

DOING THEOLOGY IN MIDDLE EARTH

18 November 2017

Sarum College, Salisbury

Dr Stephen Tucker

Notes taken by Laura, with contributions by Julie.

Dr Tucker was taught Anglo-Saxon by Christopher Tolkien!

Christianity is not explicit in Tolkien’s work.

Query over the slaughter of orcs and their treatment as ‘cannon fodder’.

Rhythm of the prose – compared to Anglo-Saxon poetry. Dr Tucker read from ‘Theoden rides out’.

Session 1

Biography: Tolkien’s life – Dr Tucker went through his birth, time at Sarehole, his own declaration that he was a West Midlander. His love for language came from his mother, he always wanted dragons (Fafnir, the great green dragon). Relationship with Francis Morgan. And with Edith.

October 1958 – letter from JRRT regarding his love of trees, good plain food etc – that is what he was like.

JRRT was not originally good at the classics; he preferred Gothic and Finnish. How he came across the poem that inspired Earendel.

The Somme. Creation of the elvish languages. Trench fever. He was writing the earliest version of the Silmarillion. He described to Christopher the setting in which he wrote during the war.

Leeds. Oxford – the Coalbiters – men’s groups. The Inklings. [Tolkien constantly seems to deal with masculine groupings. Ed.].

1930 – the famous blank sheet and The Hobbit!

Tolkien’s work criticised as escapism, but he argued that there must be fear so that it is realistic not just escapism on one level. The work is imbued with “grace”.

The Silmarillion rejected – no hobbits!

1937 – Tolkien started The Lord of the Rings. He typed the work himself! Saw LOTR as a bitter and terrifying romance.

Gave lecture on Fairy Stories at St Andrews University.

Leaf by Niggle – representing his inability to work in an ordered way.

Epic vs “snappy bits” – criticism by JRRT of CSL.

Tolkien also worked on the Jonah chapter of the Jerusalem bible. [This was advertised by the Tolkien Library as: The Book of Jonah, trans. J.R.R. Tolkien (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2009). ISBN-10: 0232527679; ISBN-13: 978-0232527674. Ed.]

Christopher drew the maps for LOTR.

1973 – JRRT left his credit card at the Red Lion in Salisbury. [It was noted that this was the year of his death, and it was conjectured that the stress of this loss may have contributed to it. Ed.]

Luthien and Beren grave in Oxford.

2 Language and Myth

Words can be beautiful if their own right. JRRT invented a language NEVBOSH – “a secret vice”. “Great green dragon” – to do with the rhythm of language. Language comes before the stories. JRRT had a passion for north-west languages and their sound; they seem to reflect hidden things. He regretted no mythology for England.

In the mid 60s, the RC Church was no longer a secure place: liturgy, birth control. The Mass – representing a sacrificial act inspired by love. Sam’s part in the Quest were compared to this.

In 1969, Camilla Unwin (granddaughter of the publisher) wrote to JRRT for help with her essay “What is the purpose of life?” and he responded.

The prayer of praise. God is praised. The speaker compared the ringbearers when they are praised.

He played a recording of Christopher speaking the extract about Beren and Luthien in Doriath. Characters in the Silmarillion are more mystical.

Session 2

  1. Beowulf

Dr T. told the Beowulf story (although he missed out Grendel’s Mother!). Tolkien’s Tower image – Christian or Pagan? The hostile world – man’s inevitable overthrow. The monsters always win but men do not give up.

The battle of Maldon – undefeated in the long defeat – the Christian faith. The worth of defeated valour.

2. Fairy Stories

JRRT gave a lecture in honour of Andrew Lang. Not about fairies but Faerie. The story must be true not a dream etc. You must believe in the sub-creation. Comparison with Science Fiction such as that of Ursula Le Guin whose stories have humans and other creatures. The key is the language coming first in comparison to e.g. Klingon grammar books which came after the drama.

Man is made in God’s image so we want to make our own creation. [Within the group God’s image was thought to be the foundation of the desire to create/sub-create. Tolkien’s depiction of the sub-creation process involving Morgoth and Aule was mentioned. Ed.]

The romance mirrors our own world/reflects on what is happening, such as Satan in Paradise Lost; The Last Battle C.S. Lewis; The Silver Chair C.S. Lewis (in which those living underground see their lives as the only true life).

The eucatastrophe.

C.S. Lewis’s conversion during the walk with JRRT and Hugo Dyson. He was moved by northern myths so why not by Jesus’ death? [The group considered the sacrificial act of Odin/Wotan, and Julie compared the death by treachery of Baldur. Ed.]

Mythopoeia – poem by JRRT (1931) in which he defended mythology.

Humans have a sense of loss – exile from Eden? [The group considered this to be a narrow explanation and it was proposed that in place of the very general ‘humans’, the term ‘Christians’ would be more fitting and accord with the speaker’s focus. Ed.]

  1. Allegories

Are there echoes of Christianity in JRRT’s work? Are there allegories? For JRRT, allegories are too much like pleading [the group was not sure what this meant. Maybe ‘special pleading’? Ed.] LOTR is its own story. Felt that CSL was pleading in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn meet Gandalf in Fangorn. Was this comparable to the resurrection. Seen by His disciples?

Lembas is the eucharist? Galadriel is Mary? 25th March – the Annunication; date of crucifixion in Anglo Saxon times.

Letter to Christopher about there being orcs on our side.

Christianity in LOTR? The beginning of The Silmarillion raises the nature of evil. What is the influence of the Creator? He works through Grace. There are no religious practices (some exceptions – Sauron’s temple; prayers to the Elves) [the group mentioned other examples, such as the grace before meat, and Damrod’s invocation. Ed.] Compare the Book of Job when the sons of God are singing.

Evil is not the equal of good but is a perversion of good. Mention of the views of St. Paul, and of Aquinas.

Why was Shelob described as evil when spiders are good for nature? But she came from Ungoliant who was evil. [I thought Ungoliant personified the process of perversion. Ed.]

Evil: independent: separate or part of?  The speaker described this as ‘The Big Difficulty’.

Free will – independent to do good or to do evil? Humans must have freedom. Humans are a mixture – orcs on our side. Gollum – good and evil. [Eileen proposed that baptism creates the choice. Ed.]

Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm published around the same time as LOTR! [we compared the treatment of power and cruelty in them with The Lord of the Rings and questioned whether it fitted the pessimism of northern mythology. Ed.]

Gandalf’s ring brings light out of darkness.

Session 3

1 The books.

Dr T. read from the Sammath Naur episode when Frodo keeps the ring.

Failure by Frodo.

Gandalf’s restraint.

Gandalf has a veiled power. Why is the book called after Sauron? Is it? [the group considered whether the title refers rather to Iluvatar. Ed.]

The black speech is based on an extinct Turkish language – Hurrian, located in Northern Mesopotamia. The speaker quoted the Ring verse in the Black Speech.

Edwin Muir [poet and critic] criticised LOTR because there’s no room for a tragic Satan. [I thought that this fitted with the difference between Muir’s interests reflected in his poetry, which relates symbolism and some myth to real life, while Tolkien’s work presents total immersion in his secondary world. Ed.]

Slaughter of the orcs – good people doing evil. The Battle of the Five Armies – not clear who is “good” [we considered the theory that it is impossible to have bad without good. Chris reversed this. Ed.]

1944 letter from Christopher. Orcs. No-one is irredeemable. There is a difference between Gorbag and Shagrat [it was proposed that this was a difference in their ‘morals’, or alternatively in their intelligence. Ed.]. Evil only creates counterfeits; it is a parasite.

The Ring represents the power to dominate.

There are three Elvish purposes – to preserve, to keep and invent beauty. Perhaps Sauron attempts to control this – involvement with Celebrimbor and craft creation until seen through.

Hobbits have an unusual resistance. Frodo took on the Quest voluntarily and willingly. He was meant to have it – grace or providence?

Dr T. referred to the Lord’s Prayer regarding trespasses/temptation. The characters cannot save themselves.

Pity is taken on Gollum so the Quest is achieved. Pity could be seen as foolish in the short term but God pities. Frodo is saved from the Ring by Gollum. It is sad that Sam stands in the way of Gollum’s redemption. Sam fails to exercise pity [we qualified this as ‘at all times. He does so occasionally.’ The Quest is a group effort. Ed.]

The wizards are sent to support and advise and encourage rather than intervene directly. Gandalf hands over to the Valar.

Is the book in tune with the pessimistic northern mythology? Or, with reference to 1944 a consideration of power and evil and the weak failure to do anything good.

The long defeat – decision making at Minas Tirith – attack Mordor or the long defeat. A choice of evils.

The long defeat? But the eucatastrophe is achieved. Evil destroys itself [it has no presence of own]. The presence of Sam – he carries Frodo. Compare the act of carrying the cross for Jesus.

  1. The films

How does the film deal with Frodo’s failure? There is a need to be explicit. New dialogue. “I have to believe he can come back.” Frodo says this of Gollum because he is thinking of himself.

(George MacDonald – Lilith – fantasy on punishment and salvation.)

“I have to destroy it for both our sakes.” Not in the book but spelt out for the audience.

Conclusion

LOTR – the Christian questions. Death and transience, e..g. humans and elves? The downside is nostalgia. Elves fight the long defeat.

The final battle has been won through the Cross and what is left is mopping up until the end of the world.

Max Weber – Tolkien was working against the disenchantment of western secular society.

The book represents a Christian truth.

END

As a result of Laura and Julie’s report, and our awareness of the speaker’s discussion of good and evil, I tentatively proposed that if we were ever to break out of the constant recapitulation of the same attitudes to good and evil, we might consider looking at theories of good and evil other than those of Augustine, Aquinas, and Boethius. I proposed looking at something on Zoroastrianism, and venturing into Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This suggestion was received with more enthusiasm than I had expected. I will report further developments in this direction in future blogs.

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One thought on “Last in November

  1. Carol responded that she found the blog discussion interesting and felt there were things that needed to be said.

    DOING THEOLOGY IN MIDDLE EARTH
    18 November 2017
    Sarum College, Salisbury
    Dr Stephen Tucker

    • Dr Tucker was taught Anglo-Saxon by Christopher Tolkien!
    • Christianity is not explicit in Tolkien’s work. Carol commented that Tolkien says The Lord of the Rings is a Christian book.
    • Query over the slaughter of orcs and their treatment as ‘cannon fodder’.
    • Rhythm of the prose – compared to Anglo-Saxon poetry. Dr Tucker read from ‘Theoden rides out’.

    Session 1
    Biography: Tolkien’s life – Dr Tucker went through his birth, time at Sarehole, his own declaration that he was a West Midlander. His love for language came from his mother, he always wanted dragons (Fafnir, the great green dragon). Relationship with Francis Morgan. And with Edith.
    October 1958 – letter from JRRT regarding his love of trees, good plain food etc – that is what he was like.
    JRRT was not originally good at the classics; he preferred Gothic and Finnish. How he came across the poem that inspired Earendel.
    The Somme. Creation of the elvish languages. Trench fever. He was writing the earliest version of the Silmarillion. He described to Christopher the setting in which he wrote during the war.
    Leeds. Oxford – the Coalbiters – men’s groups. The Inklings. [Tolkien constantly seems to deal with masculine groupings, ed.].
    1930 – the famous blank sheet and The Hobbit!
    Tolkien’s work criticised as escapism, but he argued that there must be fear so that it is realistic not just escapism on one level. The work is imbued with “grace”. Carol commented on JRRT and escapism – that there is a difference between the escape of a coward and escape from horrible circumstances. If The Lord of the Rings is escapism, it’s harsh. As regards ‘grace’ Carol commented ‘those small helps that come unexpectedly which make the difference between success and failure; e.g. coming up Anduin to the Pelennor Fields on the Wind from the West.’
    The Silmarillion rejected – no hobbits!
    1937 – Tolkien started The Lord of the Rings. He typed the work himself! Saw LOTR as a bitter and terrifying romance. Carol agreed with this statement and added ‘I find it the saddest story I’ve ever read because it matters.’
    Gave lecture on Fairy Stories at St Andrews University.
    Leaf by Niggle – representing his inability to work in an ordered way.
    Epic vs “snappy bits” – criticism by JRRT of CSL.
    Tolkien also worked on the Jonah chapter of the Jerusalem bible. [This was advertised by the Tolkien Library as: The Book of Jonah, trans. J.R.R. Tolkien (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2009). ISBN-10: 0232527679; ISBN-13: 978-0232527674. Ed.]
    Christopher drew the maps for LOTR.
    1973 – JRRT left his credit card at the Red Lion in Salisbury. [It was noted that this was the year of his death, and it was conjectured that the stress of this loss may have contributed to it. Ed.] Carol commented ‘he was also missing Edith.’
    Luthien and Beren grave in Oxford.

    2 Language and Myth
    Words can be beautiful if their own right. JRRT invented a language NEVBOSH – “a secret vice”. “Great green dragon” – to do with the rhythm of language. Language comes before the stories. JRRT had a passion for north-west languages and their sound; they seem to reflect hidden things. He regretted no mythology for England. Carol wondered why Mabel Tolkien told a young Ronald that the syntax of the ‘green great dragon’ was the wrong way round?
    In the mid 60s, the RC Church was no longer a secure place: liturgy, birth control. The Mass – representing a sacrificial act inspired by love. Sam’s part in the Quest were compared to this. Carol noted that she has written a poem in which she calls Sam ‘Master Samwise of Cyrene, after Simon who carried the Cross.
    In 1969, Camilla Unwin (granddaughter of the publisher) wrote to JRRT for help with her essay “What is the purpose of life?” and he responded.
    The prayer of praise. God is praised. The speaker compared the ringbearers when they are praised.
    He played a recording of Christopher speaking the extract about Beren and Luthien in Doriath. Characters in the Silmarillion are more mystical.

    Session 2
    1. Beowulf
    Dr T. told the Beowulf story (although he missed out Grendel’s Mother!). Tolkien’s Tower image – Christian or Pagan? The hostile world – man’s inevitable overthrow. The monsters always win but men do not give up.
    The battle of Maldon – undefeated in the long defeat – the Christian faith. The worth of defeated valour.
    2 Fairy Stories
    JRRT gave a lecture in honour of Andrew Lang. Not about fairies but Faerie. The story must be true not a dream etc. You must believe in the sub-creation. Comparison with Science Fiction such as that of Ursula Le Guin whose stories have humans and other creatures. The key is the language coming first in comparison to e.g. Klingon grammar books which came after the drama.
    Man is made in God’s image so we want to make our own creation. [Within the group God’s image was thought to be the foundation of the desire to create/sub-create. Tolkien’s depiction of the sub-creation process involving Morgoth and Aule was mentioned. Ed.]
    The romance mirrors our own world/reflects on what is happening, such as Satan in Paradise Lost; The Last Battle C.S. Lewis; The Silver Chair C.S. Lewis (in which those living underground see their lives as the only true life).
    The eucatastrophe.
    C.S. Lewis’s conversion during the walk with JRRT and Hugo Dyson. He was moved by northern myths so why not by Jesus’ death? [The group considered the sacrificial act of Odin/Wotan, and Julie compared the death by treachery of Baldur. Ed.]
    Mythopoeia – poem by JRRT (1931) in which he defended mythology.
    Humans have a sense of loss – exile from Eden? [The group considered this to be a narrow explanation and it was proposed that in place of the very general ‘humans’, the term ‘Christians’ would be more fitting and accord with the speaker’s focus. Ed.]

    3. Allegories
    Are there echoes of Christianity in JRRT’s work? Are there allegories? For JRRT, allegories are too much like pleading [the group was not sure what this meant. Maybe ‘special pleading’? Ed.] LOTR is its own story. Felt that CSL was pleading in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
    Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn meet Gandalf in Fangorn. Was this comparable to the resurrection. Seen by His disciples? Carol disagreed with this.
    Lembas is the eucharist? Galadriel is Mary? 25th March – the Annunication; date of crucifixion in Anglo Saxon times. Carol disagreed with both queries and commented that Tolkien changed the Marian connection in revision backwards. It was not his original intention.
    Letter to Christopher about there being orcs on our side.
    Christianity in LOTR? The beginning of The Silmarillion raises the nature of evil. What is the influence of the Creator? He works through Grace. There are no religious practices (some exceptions – Sauron’s temple; prayers to the Elves) [the group mentioned other examples, such as the grace before meat, and Damrod’s invocation. Ed.] Compare the Book of Job when the sons of God are singing. Carol commented on the absence of religious practices ‘this is one of the things I like about The Lord of the Rings. The main characters behave as they do because its the right thing to do. Not because of threats like Hell’.
    Evil is not the equal of good but is a perversion of good. Mention of the views of St. Paul, and of Aquinas. Carol commented ‘these are theologies and not the original message of the Gospels.’
    Why was Shelob described as evil when spiders are good for nature? But she came from Ungoliant who was evil. [I thought Ungoliant personified the process of perversion. Ed.] Carol commented ‘Tolkien described Shelob as an evil spirit in spider form, not as a spider.’
    Evil: independent: separate or part of? The speaker described this as ‘The Big Difficulty’.
    Free will – independent to do good or to do evil? Humans must have freedom. Humans are a mixture – orcs on our side. Gollum – good and evil. [Eileen proposed that baptism creates the choice. Ed.]
    Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm published around the same time as LOTR! [we compared the treatment of power and cruelty in them with The Lord of the Rings and questioned whether it fitted the pessimism of northern mythology. Ed.]
    Gandalf’s ring brings light out of darkness.

    Session 3
    1 The books.
    Dr T. read from the Sammath Naur episode when Frodo keeps the ring.
    Failure by Frodo. Carol commented that she has heard it called Frodo’s ‘moral’ failure, but she disagrees. ‘Frodo wasn’t himself at that point, worn down by the Ring, bite, sting, hunger, thirst. I defy anyone to go through this and retain any sense.
    Gandalf’s restraint.
    Gandalf has a veiled power. Why is the book called after Sauron? Is it? [the group considered whether the title refers rather to Iluvatar. Ed.]
    The black speech is based on an extinct Turkish language – Hurrian, located in Northern Mesopotamia. The speaker quoted the Ring verse in the Black Speech.
    Edwin Muir [poet and critic] criticised LOTR because there’s no room for a tragic Satan. [I thought that this fitted with the difference between Muir’s interests reflected in his poetry, which relates symbolism and some myth to real life, while Tolkien’s work presents total immersion in his secondary world. Ed.]
    Slaughter of the orcs – good people doing evil. The Battle of the Five Armies – not clear who is “good” [we considered the theory that it is impossible to have bad without good. Chris reversed this. Ed.]
    1944 letter from Christopher. Orcs. No-one is irredeemable. There is a difference between Gorbag and Shagrat [it was proposed that this was a difference in their ‘morals’, or alternatively in their intelligence. Ed.]. Evil only creates counterfeits; it is a parasite.
    The Ring represents the power to dominate.
    There are three Elvish purposes – to preserve, to keep and invent beauty. Perhaps Sauron attempts to control this – involvement with Celebrimbor and craft creation until seen through.
    Hobbits have an unusual resistance. Frodo took on the Quest voluntarily and willingly. He was meant to have it – grace or providence?
    Dr T. referred to the Lord’s Prayer regarding trespasses/temptation. The characters cannot save themselves.
    Pity is taken on Gollum so the Quest is achieved. Pity could be seen as foolish in the short term but God pities. Frodo is saved from the Ring by Gollum. It is sad that Sam stands in the way of Gollum’s redemption. Sam fails to exercise pity [we qualified this as ‘at all times. He does so occasionally.’ The Quest is a group effort. Ed.] Carol commented ‘Pity is never foolish even if the pity-giver is taken advantage of. When Bilbo had pity on Gollum in TH he saved Middle-earth. Sam has been the only one to witness the Gollum/Smeagol debate earlier, which makes him ultra cautious outside Shelob’s lair, thus he’s blameless.’
    The wizards are sent to support and advise and encourage rather than intervene directly. Gandalf hands over to the Valar.
    Is the book in tune with the pessimistic northern mythology? Or, with reference to 1944 a consideration of power and evil and the weak failure to do anything good. Carol thought it was all these.
    The long defeat – decision making at Minas Tirith – attack Mordor or the long defeat. A choice of evils.
    The long defeat? But the eucatastrophe is achieved. Evil destroys itself [it has no presence of own]. The presence of Sam – he carries Frodo. Compare the act of carrying the cross for Jesus. Carol referred back to her comment on Simon of Cyrene.

    2. The films
    How does the film deal with Frodo’s failure? There is a need to be explicit. New dialogue. “I have to believe he can come back.” Frodo says this of Gollum because he is thinking of himself.
    (George MacDonald – Lilith – fantasy on punishment and salvation.)
    “I have to destroy it for both our sakes.” Not in the book but spelt out for the audience.

    Conclusion
    LOTR – the Christian questions. Death and transience, e..g. humans and elves? The downside is nostalgia. Elves fight the long defeat.
    The final battle has been won through the Cross and what is left is mopping up until the end of the world.
    Max Weber – Tolkien was working against the disenchantment of western secular society.
    The book represents a Christian truth.

    In response to my remarks on good and evil at the end of the original report Carol commented: ‘ Buddhism doesn’t have good and evil but skilled and unskilled action. In some pagan religions what we call evil isn’t separated from good or necessarily condemned but is part and parcel of the same existence.

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