Back to Essay series: Tolkien at Oxford
Chinks in the Wall
Painting by René Magritte
Image available copyright-free at pics.am.
I've also posted a larger version.
Main page background is made from my photo of the trim on a building next to the "really old tower" in Oxford.
Brick background and silver divider are from GRSites.com
Chinks in the Wall
This final essay in the series is about one theme that kept popping up during the last couple of days of the conference - without anyone planning it. One of those experiences where several people gave presentations that seemed to have unrelated approaches to Tolkien, but all ended up saying somewhat the same thing - in very different ways.
It's about getting glimpses of things that we couldn't bear to experience continually. This quote from Merry in "The Houses of Healing" is a wonderful example:
[Pippin said] '...Dear me! We Tooks and Brandybucks, we can't live long on the heights.'
'No,' said Merry. 'I can't. Not yet, at any rate. But at least, Pippin, we can now see them, and honour them. It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little. But I don't know why I am talking like this. Where is that leaf? And get my pipe out of my pack, if it isn't broken.
I have to thank the LotR quote game on the site forum for reminding me of that conversation. Since this is kind of an abstract topic, I was having a hard time figuring out how to approach it. But, as usual, Tolkien's fiction says it more clearly than a non-fictional explanation.
Clearer than words is the painting by René Magritte in the left border of this page. I used the same picture awhile back with my short notes on escape, but I think it fits even better here. In order to actually escape into the brighter world beyond the dove, you'd either have to be able to fly, or have the means to sail to the physical place where its tail touches the sea. As the observer, we seem to be standing on the shore - judging by the breaking waves at the bottom of the picture - so we don't have either option. Not at the moment, anyway. And when you're dealing with things like birds in flight, drifting clouds, and the ever-changing sea, the moment might be all there is.
Might be... but if it can happen once, perhaps it can happen again. And maybe I'll be on the sea then, and can sail through the break in the clouds into the light beyond. If I've been living in the clouded world I'm observing the painting from, the brightness might be too much for my eyes if I were completely and permanently surrounded by it - now. But if I begin to attune my eyes to it, by gazing at the opening the dove provides, perhaps when the time comes I'll be ready (Merry's 'Not yet, at any rate'). Until then, I have this brief vision of the light to tell me that there is a world beyond the one I'm standing in. After the clouds close, I'll go on my way. But I'll return to this spot on the beach often, just in case there's another chance to glimpse that world beyond - and, once in awhile, there is.
I'm tempted to stop there. But since this is supposed to be about different ways to approach that reality, I'll need to go further.
The first Inkling that comes to mind is actually C.S. Lewis, with his statement that we can know our human nature holds the possibility of a life beyond this one because we long for it. This fits very well with Magritte's painting. In order to look at the topic as it came up at the conference, though, we need to take our imaginations another step. The light we see isn't from a world beyond the one we're standing in. It's how the world around us actually is - all the time - but our eyes can only bear the brief glimpses we get when the dove takes flight.
It's easy to see why we humans so often think of that light as if it were of a reality beyond this one. Since it's not how we normally experience our world, it must be from somewhere else. Somewhere like Olympus. Or heaven. Or Faërie.
Patrick Curry's presentation was on "Enchantment" (which he'd just written a book about). He described glimpses of Faërie, or moments of enchantment, as chinks in the wall of our mundane world that allow us to experience briefly what, in fairy-stories, is constantly in existence parallel to it. Do fairy-stories or moments of enchantment show us that otherness as it truly exists? Most probably and usually not; it's filtered through our human intellect, language, and emotions. Even so, someone who comes into contact with it never forgets it, and the person is never quite the same afterward. Its effect is potent. This is, after all, the Perilous Realm. We mortals can only experience it briefly without being forever lost within it. I don't remember if Curry mentioned it or not, but a traditional element in fairy-stories is that a mortal may stay in Faërie for only a year and a day; lingering any longer will trap you there forever (not a bad trap to be caught in, some might say, but a trap is a trap).
In Tolkien's fiction, though, a sojourn in Faërie doesn't always end badly. It can be a wonderful gift, as in "Smith of Wootton Major," if the person is able to see it as such and surrender it when it's time to do so. As Sam says of Lothlórien, the peril of Faërie will depend largely on what one brings into it.
A couple of other talks that added bits to the whole were on the Green Man (one way humans have given form to experiencing the otherness of nature), and on the effect of Augustinian theology on Tolkien's writing (Augustine was one of the earliest Christian teachers to emphasize that we can catch glimpses of the One who is completely Other in the world around us - that we can come to know something of the Creator by looking at creation).
Bringing Augustine - and the Creator - into the conversation opens up an entirely new realm. In "On Fairy-stories," Tolkien says:
Supernatural is a dangerous and difficult word in any of its senses, looser or stricter. But to fairies it can hardly be applied, unless super is taken merely as a superlative prefix. For it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural (and often of diminutive stature); whereas they are natural, far more natural than he. Such is their doom.
The doom even of the Elves of Middle-earth, bound to the natural world, unlike Men who die and pass beyond it. It's Men, not Elves, who are supernatural, and who inhabit a reality far more strange and wonderful than the denizens of Faërie. And, perhaps, more perilous. When Frodo and Galadriel meet at her mirror, Frodo holds the upper hand not only because he bears the more powerful ring, but because as a mortal his freely made choices have the ability to affect the Song of creation; Elves are given the ability to freely choose how they respond to that Song, but not to alter the Song itself. (It would take someone with much more understanding than me to say how this works.) When Frodo asks Galadriel, 'And what do you wish?' he has the means to grant whatever her wish is, at least temporarily. He can give her the Ring, or continue on his Quest to destroy It, or prolong Galadriel's power by keeping It hidden in Lothlórien as long as that place can hold out against the Enemy. His question puts Galadriel in an extremely perilous position. Her 'That what should be shall be' is her response to that peril. (The one desire they would both wish to have fulfilled if they could choose it, is the one that's out of their reach: 'Yet I could wish, were it of any avail, that the One Ring had never been wrought, or had remained for ever lost.') As with mortals in Faërie, Galadriel's peril is determined by what she brings with her - pride or humility - into this realm that belongs to mortals.
As Gandalf explains to Gimli, something or someone being dangerous - or perilous - doesn't mean that it's necessarily evil. As perilous as Faërie is, it's also beautiful in many ways, and its manifestations in Rivendell and Lothlórien are peaceful and healing even to mortals. The realm that we mortals inhabit carries a beauty and a healing light that we can't bear to look at for long, but we are given glimpses of it even without resorting to Faërie or Elvish enchantment. Glimpses of its true beauty, which enchantment can only imitate. We were taken farther into that realm by Father William through his talk "The Healing Light of Holiness."
The theme of the entire conference was the sources of Tolkien's fiction, but not all presentations understood that in the same way - to our benefit. We learned about everything from his work at the Oxford Dictionary to similarities of thought between him and an Italian philosopher. In between were English folklore, traditions of Faërie, Augustinian theology, and the influence of friends. In the end, those were all outside influences. Except for the evening with Priscilla Tolkien, Robert Murray SJ, and Walter Hooper, I think Father William's talk was the only one that dealt with the effect on Tolkien's writing that came from who, inherently, J.R.R. Tolkien was. Following is a paragraph from Letter #328. I've used quotes from it many times, but don't think I've ever quoted the entire paragraph. If it's read in the context of glimpses of a light that's always there but we don't often see, and while thinking of how "Tolkien being Tolkien" made his writing what it was, it doesn't leave me much more to say:
You speak of 'a sanity and sanctity' in the L.R. 'which was a power in itself'. I was deeply moved. Nothing of the kind had been said to me before. But by a strange chance, just as I was beginning this letter, I had one from a man, who classified himself as 'an unbeliever, or at best a man of belatedly and dimly dawning religious feeling... but you', he said, 'create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp'. I can only answer: 'Of his own sanity no man can securely judge. If sanctity inhabits his work or as a pervading light illumines it then it does not come from him but through him. And neither of you would perceive it in these terms unless it was with you also. Otherwise you would see and feel nothing, or (if some other spirit was present) you would be filled with contempt, nausea, hatred. 'Leaves out of the elf-country, gah!' 'Lembas - dust and ashes, we don't eat that.'"
Much earlier in this essay, I put heaven in the same list as Olympus and Faërie as places we don't have to look to for glimpses of this "pervading light". That doesn't mean I'm putting it on the same level of reality as the other two; heaven is primary creation while the other two are secondary. But I think all too often people who look to heaven for their light miss it in the world around them. Tolkien's subcreation is one place where, occasionally, the dove takes flight and we catch a glimpse of the light that always surrounds us and holds us in existence. During the roundtable discussion on the last full day of the conference, when the common thread of all these talks was noticed, it was also given a label: sacramental. In its broader, lower-case definition, a sacrament is something that exists in itself (that is, it's not just a symbol of something else) but also points to a deeper reality. Tolkien's view of subcreation as something that flows from the primary creation is fundamentally sacramental.
Copyright 2008 by Trudy G. Shaw