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Knight of Christ and of the Old Good England: The Letters of John Tolkien

In the month of September this year one date “blinked”. Twenty-five years ago the famous English writer and scientist John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) sailed off to his Valinor. His place in the Ukrainian literature is determined not only by the good and old tradition of the translation of the literary works (“The Hobbit”, “The Lord of the Rings”, as well as “The Silmarillion” and “The Children of Húrin”, which have recently been translated), not only by the recent appearance of the screen version of the film epic, shot with a great talent by Peter Jackson, not only by the furious fame and attractiveness of the unique artistic universe of this author (the number of printed copies of certain works exceeds 100 million and yields only to the Bible), but by something else. That “something”, congenial to our inner world, seems to be conveyed by the accurate delineation of the notional concept of the life and creative work of the number of Ukrainian writers (T.Shevchenko, М.Bashkyrtseva, І.Franko, Lesya Ukrainka, the Visnyk pleiad of “the tragic optimists” etc.), which was formulated by Dmytro Dontsov as the heroism sorrow.

Let us have a look at some expressions of this sorrow in the light of one of the creative spheres of this highly gifted author – his letters, which were published in Great Britain in 1981, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien.

Long before the time when J.R.R.Tolkien became a famous writer, an outstanding philologist and medievalist, professor of the Oxford University, the Commander of the British Empire and a teacher, for example, of John Fowles, the unusual route of his creative mission had been delineated at least by two factors. Both of them may be considered as heroic. Firstly, because of the brave action of his distant relative - the Saxon knight George, who captured the sultan’s colour on his own initiative during the war with Turks, and was nicknamed “recklessly courageous” (Tollkühn). Secondly, because of the ancient tradition to survive in the Protestant country of the English Catholics, whose community was joined by Tolkien mother with her two sons in 1900, which caused her early death due to the obstruction of her relatives-Baptists. Courage and fidelity to the mother’s faith would always carve the writer’s character of existence. In 1953 he wrote: “… I have to be grateful to my fate for having been brought up (since I was eight) in Faith that has nourished me and taught me all the little things that I know; and that I owe to my mother, who clung to her conversion and died young”. Moreover, Tolkien himself played the crucial role in the conversion to the Catholicism of the Oxford professor, philosopher and writer, the author of the famous “The Chronicles of Narnia” Clive Staples Lewis.

The most significant aspect of the heroism sorrow can be noticed in the creative work of J.R.R.Tolkien, especially in his “legendarium” – the series of prose and verse works about Middle-earth (in fact, about Northwestern Europe immersed into the mythological and protohistoric tradition of the Nordic people), which firstly appeared, according to the critics, in “The Book of Lost Tales”, written during the war in 1917 when the author was undertaking the after-front treatments, but the writer indicated that the first text appeared between the years 1915 and 1918 in the military camps and hospitals (the letter of 1956). However, the central place in the series is taken by the “heroic novel” (or “the heroic legend”) “The Lord of the Rings” (1936-1948). It is interesting that in the editor’s letter of 1947 the writer points out not the heroism of elfs or people, but the heroism of the hobbits – the characters who embody an ordinary, simple Englishman: “… if there’s an impression that mere mundane hobbits could cope with such things, it means that I have failed. I think that there is no horror conceivable that such creatures cannot surmount, by grace (here appearing in mythological forms) combined with a refusal of their nature and reason at the last pinch to compromise or submit.”

On the whole, “The Lord of the Rings” possesses at least a double author sense, which is the most clearly articulated in the letter to Milton Waldman (1951). The first sense is connected with the symbolism of the Sauron’s Ring, which embodies “seeking to make itself objective by physical force and mechanism, and so also inevitably by lies”. The second writer’s sense is directly concerned to the heroic: “without the high and noble the simple and vulgar is utterly mean; and without the simple and ordinary the noble and heroic is meaningless”.

In the letters we find the explanation of the two main motives of the fairy and legendary world creation of the “noble north spirit”. On the one hand, any art must, according to Tolkien, “reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary 'real' world”. That’s why the main subjects of the work are Fall, Death, Mechanism (Magic) and Power and in the list to father Robert Murray (1953) “The Lord of the Rings” is characterized as a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work”, the end of which is the illustration of the last sentence of the Lord 's Prayer (1956). On the other hand, the most powerful impulse for the rise of the proper legendary world of Middle-earth was the patriotic desire “I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found … in legends of other lands. (…) … I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story; … which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country” (1951). The “Englishry” of the literary world is also of great importance. For example, The Shire “is based on rural England”, the writer indicates in his letter to Rayner Unwin (1956), and in his another letter he directly recommends the translators to preserve the national identity of the work: “… this is an English book and its Englishry should not be eradicated ” (1959).

Thus, even without the reading of “The Monsters and the Critics” or the essay “On Fairy-Stories” we can make a rather systematic idea about the Tolkien’s romantic aesthetics from his letters. The art does not exist for him as “the art for the art’s sake” (1947), but on the contrary, it is not only the pleasure from the “literary fiction” (1947), but first of all it’s “the secondary creative work” (the initial one belongs to God), limited only by the laws of discrepancy and directed by the Christian interpreted aspiration for the good, for example, “elucidation of truth, and the encouragement of good morals in this real world” (1954). Herewith the writers who abuse their right for the creative freedom, to his opinion, may take a sinful and egoistic way of Diabolus Morgoth: “if they 'fell'… and started making things 'for himself, to be their Lord'… they would be creatures begotten of Sin, and naturally bad” (1954). Tolkien finds numerous examples of such controversial creative art in the works of modern writers and remarks that the contemporary artistic manner looks like “a daub”, as “those who can draw try to conceal it” (1965) or when he underlines ironically that the modern “'poetry' must only reflect one's personal agonies of mind or soul, and exterior things are only valued by one's own 'reactions'” (1968).

From the abovementioned we may draw a conclusion that the Catholicism becomes the religious base of the inspiration for heroism, for the strengthening of the knightly ethics, as well as for the modeling of the romantic artistic reality in the works of J.R.R.Tolkien. That’s why his letters are full of considerations, which should be referred to the type of the deep Christian philosophical reflection: about the tutelary, about the sense “The Genesis”, about the heaven and hell, about God and Satan, about the modern representations of “the evil spirit” (“mechanism, 'scientific' materialism, Socialism”, etc. (1945)), about the Christianity, about the special significance and role of the Church in the men’s life, about “the revolt” of the Reformation and “the falseness” of the Protestantism, begot by it, etc. Answering the question of Camilla Unwin about the sense of existence, Tolkien sums up his detailed answer from the Christian point of view, expressing the creed of his own existence: “…it may be said that the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks” (1969). For such deeply Christian minded consciousness the symptoms and factors of the religion destruction and its institutions in the postwar world become simply unbearable. Among the epistolary works of the writer the greatest attention is likely to be paid to the critics of the crisis phenomena, concerning the neglecting of Christianity and the Catholic Church under the mask of reformation attempts. This is largely observed in the letters to his son Michael Tolkien, as for example in a letter of 1967: “1 know quite well that, to you as to me, the Church which once felt like a refuge, now often feels like a trap. There is nowhere else to go! (…) One is now often patted on the back, as a representative of a church that has seen the error of its ways, abandoned its arrogance and hauteur, and its separatism; but I have not yet met a 'protestant' who shows or expresses any realization of the reasons in this country for our attitude : ancient or modern… Has it ever been mentioned that Roman Catholics still suffer from disabilities not even applicable to Jews? As a man whose childhood was darkened by persecution, I find this hard. (…) There are dangers (of course), but a Church militant cannot afford to shut up all its soldiers in a fortress”.

But unlike the eloquent legion of the modern booklovers and Pharisees whose low to God is shown as merely transcendental but at the same time paradoxically turns them into the supertolerant apologists of the obviously sinful, anti-Christian and into the haters of everything existential and historical, especially of the heroic and national, John Tolkien profess another fundamentally-apostolic, intercultural Christianity. We are unlikely to a mistake if we remark that the distinctly nation-centric outlook of the writer naturally integrates the Christian and national ideas within the cultural nationalism which is so well defined in the modern humanitaristics. This is the English natiosophic tradition with a certain conservative trend, pertaining to E.Burke, Earl of Shaftesbury, B.Disraeli, T. Carlyle, G.K.Chesterton, T.S.Eliot and others.

Nationally accentuated judgments are permanent for the comprehensive considerations of the writer. For him it is important, for example, to articulate the love to the home town of his ancestors – the county Worcestershire: “it is in an indefinable way 'home' to me, as no other part of the world is” (1941), it would not be out of place to lay the stress that unlike “jingoism” (1956), “obedience and patriotism” are virtues (1941), that the national interest of the political freedom should be considered as well (1944), that “the destruction of Germany, be it 100 times merited, is one of the most appalling world-catastrophes” (1945), that he is not a “socialist” in any sense” (1956), etc. Tolkien, as well as Chesterton distinguishes England and the British empire: “I love England (not Great Britain and certainly not the British Commonwealth…)” (1943), in his letter to his son Christopher Tolkien he would assert with a wistful irony, proving his not an imperial and Britain patriotism but his English patriotism and nationalism: “you and I belong to the ever-defeated never altogether subdued side. I should have hated the Roman Empire in its day (as I do), and remained a patriotic Roman citizen, while preferring a free Gaul and seeing good in Carthaginians” (1944).

Critical consideration of the certain ideologies that were leading in the 20th century as well as the social phenomena and a range of the “civilized” means of existence certify the national and Christian position of the writer. During all his life Tolkien notices and exposes the nihilistic essence of the liberalism, and the communism (social democracy), as well as the national socialism (pseudo traditionalism). That’s why all his letters (especially to Christopher Tolkien, who fought as a member of the Royal Air Forces) are full of such considerations: “ If people were in the habit of referring to 'King George's council, Winston and his gang', it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theocracy” (1943); “…smiled… when I heard of that bloodthirsty old murderer Josef Stalin inviting all nations to join a happy family of folks devoted to the abolition of tyranny & intolerance! But I must also admit that in the photograph our little cherub W. S. C[hurchil]. Actually looked the biggest ruffian present. (…) It is getting to be all one blasted little provincial suburb. When they have introduced American sanitation, morale-pep, feminism and mass production throughout…, how happy we shall be! (…)But seriously: I do find this Americo-cosmopolitanism very terrifying.” (1943); “…And when it is all over, will ordinary people have any freedom left (or right) or will they have to fight for it, or will they be too tired to resist” (1944); “it is distressing to see the press grovelling in the gutter as low as Goebbels in his prime, shrieking that any German commander who holds out in a desperate situation … is a drunkard, and a besotted fanatic. (…)We knew Hitler was a vulgar and ignorant little cad, in addition to any other defects (or the source of them); but there seem to be many … cads who don't speak German, and who given the same chance would show most of the other Hitlerian characteristics.” (1944); “the calculated dehumanizing of Men by tyrants that goes on today” (1954); “ I am not a 'democrat' only because 'humility' and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Ore gets hold of a ring of power – and then we get and are getting slavery.” (1956); “… the spirit of wickedness in high places is now so powerful and so many-headed in its incarnations that there seems nothing more to do than personally to refuse to worship any of the hydras' heads …” (1969), etc.

In the modern technocratic times when people “worship the Morgot servants” (i.e. devil), when “Mordor is among us”, the writer courageously asks his addressees not to lose their hearts and at the same time seeks the answer on the question about the reasons of the rise of the postwar “dark epoch”, the epoch of the immorality and mischief. This epoch has become for him the result of the imperialism (as a “tyranny”) of the leading states, embodied in the symbol of “the Ring of power”. That’s why World War II – whenever ironically would sound this idea – is considered by Tolkien not as a struggle between the good and the evil but rather as a struggle between the different forms of the evil: “ … we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. (…) But the penalty is… to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs. … we started out with a great many Ores on our side…” (1944). After the surrender of Germany the attitude to the war, which was going on in the Far East, became more radical: “…as I know nothing about British or American imperialism in the Far East that does not fill me with regret and disgust, I am afraid I am not even supported by a glimmer of patriotism in this remaining war. (…)It can only benefit America or Russia…” (1945). After the atomic bombardments performed by the USA, John Tolkien is full of indignation because of those physics who gave “such explosives in men's hands, while their moral and intellectual status is declining”, and at the same time accurately characterises the post war world as a world of the modern Babel: “Well we're in God's hands. But He does not look kindly on Babel-builders!” (1945).

By the way, in many key moments of Tolkien’s epistolary (as well as artistic) ideas we may observe an interesting accordance with the thoughts of the outstanding Ukrainian writers and thinkers of the 20th century, as Ye.Malanyuk or L.Kostenko

However Tolkien’s romantic heroism, his noble character are distant from the dismal and gloom. The writer’s irony or sarcasm as well as intelligent English humour helped him to resist the dark forces “in poor times” (M. Heidegger). We can observe this fact in the answer to Eric Rogers, who addressed his letter to 'any Professor of English Language' and asking whether it is correct to say “A number of office walls has been damaged” or “have been damaged”: “Your letter has eventually reached me, though I am not 'any Professor of English Language', since I have now retired. The answer is that you can say what you like. Pedantry insists that since number is a singular noun, the verb should be singular, (has). Common sense feels that since the walls is plural, and are really concerned, the verb should be plural, (have). You may take your choice.” (1959).

Delineated features of the knight’s personnel of J.R.R.Tolkien are not likely to render all the diversity of his inner and outer world. However it wasn’t their aim to do it. Acquaintance with a profound creative person, the dialogue with his exceptional artistic universe is an everlasting and absorbing process. This is a personcreative way which can last endlessly. However if we are going to read others books written by Tolkien (“The History of Middle-earth” or “Tree and Leaf”), to watch their screen adaptations, to read his literary studies and publicistic reflections, etc, we should remember about the heroism sorrow as a significant aspect of his life and the life of his characters. In the modern globalized world, in which the slavery is hidden under the freedom, the tyranny of fecklessness and heartlessness – under the democracy, the want of justice of the weak – under the rights, the hypocrisy and Satanism – under the religious tolerance, political venality – under the intellectuality, the willfulness of the transnational moneybags and the imperial superpowers – under the development and prosperity, etc, this sorrow is pertaining to the real masters as the intermediaries between God and people will always awaken the traits that will help the people to withstand and to defeat the evil. In the time of a total anticultural nihilism, which has been lasting for several centuries, - building of a new Tower of Babel, - the works of Tolkien, as well as the works of the Ukrainian classics, help to accrue the existence, restoring the modus of nobility. Thus there is nothing awkward that in the empirical circumstances of the strong spiritual resistance, the notional accents shift from the representation of the world of peace (the world of hobbits) to the heroic world of struggle, the world of knights – the guardians of the peaceful world. Because, recalling a wise thought of D.Dontsov, isn’t it in these works that the ideal of happiness is opposed to the ideal of struggle, the relaxation of soul – to its stigmatizing, the class ideal (no matter whether the communistic “proletariat” or the liberal “bourgeoisie”) – to the ideal of the nation, the beautiful – to the majestic, the tender sentimentality – to the severity, the idyll – to the heroics, and, I would supplement, the aggressive disbelief or the dry hypocrisy is opposed to the inexhaustible source of the courageous Christianity?

Petro IVANYSHYN



(1883 – 1973)













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