At 03:31 PM 2/20/2004 -0500, Anne Prescott wrote:
>I think I'm about through with this thread, but one more thought: it was
>Lewis or perhaps Tolkien himself (I forget who exactly) who said that on
>occasion there are indeed books that at least for some of us seem to come
>out of some deep place in the imagination even if they are badly
>written--that the imaginative and verbal faculties are not always the
>same. I had my doubts when I read that at first, but I think Lewis (or
>whoever) had a point. Some scenes in George Macdonald, say, grab me and do
>not let go but the prose is worse than Tolkien's (and the fairies are just
>awful). For that matter, I've sometimes thought that what I deeply admire
>in *The Shepheardes Calender* (remember Spenser?) had as much to do with
>the basic conception of the text, which is wonderfully clever and
>resonant, than with the power of the verse itself.
No desire here to flog a dead a hobbit, and I really will stop writing
after this, BUT a couple of people have mentioned the Silmarillion, and I
think Anne is (as usual) right on target. In a short book called _An
Experiment in Criticism_, Lewis uses the word myth to describe "a
particular kind of story which has a value in itself--a value independent
of its embodiment in any literary work. [The story of Orpheus [for example]
strikes and strikes deep, of itself [even in a brief prose summary]; the
fact that Virgil and others have told it in good poetry is irrelevant. To
think about it and be moved by it is not necessarily to think about those
poets or to be moved by them. It is true that such a story can hardly reach
us except in words. But this is logically accidental. If some perfected art
of mime or silent film or serial picture could make it clear with no words
at all, it would still affect us in the same way" (p. 41).
The Silmarillion, unlike Lord of the Rings (and to a lesser extent, The
Hobbit) was not revised by the author for publication -- and Tolkien,
unlike Lewis, was a very meticulous reviser. It was assembled and edited
from miscellaneous materials in various states and from various periods by
Tolkien's son Christopher. The result is mixed: some of the tales are very
polished indeed; others are not polished at all; and perhaps there are even
some tales that are polished, but polished in an EARLY style (for some of
the tales go back all the way to the early teens of the last century). Bill
Oram has mentioned the tale of Beren and Luthien, and some of that is very
polished indeed. At least, there are parts of it that are good enough for
reading in the classroom.
When I think, though, about the Silmarillion, it is the stories that I
remember, not the language in which they are embodied. Part of this, I
think, is due to the fact that there are many of them and Tolkien never
lived to finish writing them out. But also he liked to write about events
at different scales, from different distances. Lord of the Rings is not a
novel, but we do learn something about the characters as characters. There
is very little of this in the Silmarillion, much of which reads like a
chronicle. The effect, for the most part I think, is intentional and
entirely to the good. The events described in that book take place over
thousands of years and do not turn on anything so idiosyncratic as
"character." To my mind, the effect of it is all very tonic and bracing.
There are striking deeds of love and boldness. There are grievous sins. No
attempt is made to psychologize the one or palliate the other.
I like that effect very much. (This is also, I think, why I like Graham
Greene and Flannery O'Connor.) Many people, though, are left cold by the
Silmarillion and I don't know that this is their fault. I suspect, though,
that "myths" (in the very broad sense that Lewis uses) are personal. For my
part, the _idea_ of a hidden city is enough to make me happy all morning. I
don't mean that I start to imagine a story _about_ a hidden city, I mean
that the _idea_ of a hidden city is, all by itself, enough to make my heart
leap up, like Wordsworth when he saw the rainbow. So when Tolkien tells a
story, in the Silmarillion, about the hidden city of Gondolin, I am very
happy indeed. The betrayal and discovery of the hidden city is just icing
on the cake. Tolkien's great myth (icon?) is probably the overwhelming wave
that Faramir dreams about and describes to Eowyn in the Houses of Healing.
It is a version of the Atlantis story -- not the hidden city, but the
drowned city. One can tell stories about the drowned city, but the _idea_
of the drowned city is wonderful all by itself. But not, I suspect, for
everyone. And why should it be? It sounds, after all, almost pathological.
My favorite quotation about Tolkien comes from A. S. Byatt, who says that
she likes to read Lord of the Rings when she isn't feeling well, because
she finds the absence of sexuality in that book "restful." Restful!
I won't pretend that this message has anything to do with Spenser, except
to decorate with little curlicues something that Anne Prescott has said.
There is a lot of bad -- or just slack -- writing in the FQ. I am thinking
about (because I was just rereading them) the middle cantos of book II.
There are interesting _things_ in there, and some good stanzas, but nothing
really sustained until you get to Mammon's Cave. I think I _understand_
some of the business about Pyrochles and Cymochles (all together now,
accents on the penult!), but I don't really like reading about them. Ditto
for Phaedon and his girlfriend. Maybe my ears perk up a little when
Cymochles goes to the Bower of Bliss, but that (I suspect) is just prurience.
I'm wondering, though, whether there are other parts of the Faerie Queen,
parts that we like to think about, to contemplate, but NOT TO READ. To put
it another way, are there things in the Faerie Queene which we admire --
which make us wonder -- in spite of the poetry?
David Wilson-Okamura http://virgil.org [log in to unmask]
East Carolina University Virgil reception, discussion, documents, &c