Sunday 30 October 2016

Tolkien on saving an England out-of-touch with myth

Our situation is that of Smith of Wooton Major; as explained by Tolkien in the essay which describes the back-story and is published in the extended edition by Verlyn Flieger (2005).

The basic situation is a 'vulgarized' Wooton Major, Oxford, England, Western Civilization - a society out-of-contact with Faery: in more general terms, a society out-of-contact with myth. Hence vulgar, coarsened, materialistic; without depth, meaning or purpose:

"The crafts of Wootton, on which their present prosperity was based, actually owed their fame and commercial success in the beginning to the special skill and 'artistic' quality which contact with Faery had given to them. "But the commercial success had for some time begun to have effect. The village had become comfortable and self-satisfied. The artistic quality of its products was declining, and to some extent also their traditional manual skill, though this had not yet affected their market.

"But the village was in a danger which it did not see: a dwindling of its prosperity, which would not be maintained for ever by 'good name' and established connexions with eastern customers, nor by mere industry and business acumen. If the thread between the villagers and Faery was broken it would go back to its squalid beginnings.

"The vulgarization of Wootton is indicated by Nokes. He is obviously a somewhat extreme case, but clearly represents an attitude fast spreading in the village and growing in weight.

 "The festivals are becoming, or have already become, mere occasions for eating and drinking. Songs, tales music dancing no longer play a part - at least they are not provided for (as is the cooking and catering) out of public funds, and if they take place at all it is in family parties, and especially in the entertainment of children. (...)

 "History and legend and above all any tales touching on 'faery', have become regarded as children's stuff, patronizingly tolerated for the amusement of the very young. "This situation is evidently one that has aroused the concern of Faery. Why? It is plainly shown that Faery is a vast world in its own right, that does not depend for its existence upon Men, and which is not primarily nor indeed principally concerned with Men.

"The relationship must therefore be one of love: the Elven Folk, the chief and ruling inhabitants of Faery, have an ultimate kinship with Men and have a permanent love for them in general. "Though they are not bound by any moral obligation to assist Men, and do not need their help (except in human affairs), they do from time to time try to assist them, avert evil from them and have relations with them, especially through certain men and women whom they find suitable.

"They, the Elvenfolk are thus 'beneficent' with regard to Men, and are not wholly alien, though many things and creatures in Faery itself are alien to Men and even actively hostile. Their good will is seen mainly in attempting to keep or restore relationships between the two worlds, since the Elves (and still some Men) realize that this love of Faery is essential to the full and proper human development.

"The love of Faery is the love of love: a relationship towards all things, animate and inanimate, which includes love and respect, and removes or modifies the spirit of possession and domination. Without it even plain 'Utility' will in fact become less useful; or will turn to ruthlessness and lead only to mere power, ultimately destructive.

"It is probable that the world of Faery could not exist without our world, and is affected by the events in it — the reverse being also true. The 'health' of both is affected by state of the other.

"Men have not the power to assist the Elvenfolk in the ordering and defence of their realm; but the Elves have the power (subject to finding co-operation from within) to assist in the protection of our world, especially in the attempt to re-direct Men when their development tends to the defacing or destruction of their world. "The Elves may thus have also an enlightened self-interest in human affairs."


The situation of Wooton Major and England is as Tolkien described; and it was his lifelong endeavor to cure it - by means of re-establishing contact and communication - and love - between the world of Men and the world of Faery. 


William Wildblood said...

It seems to me that we have a connection with Faery nowadays but it is totally corrupted. I refer to the comic book superheroes currently so popular in film. This is Faery robbed of any sense of the spiritual or true magic. It is Faery made materialistic and technological.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I'd missed the fact of the existence of this - thank you! I shall have to look the whole thing up... (This much gives lots to think about!)

William Wildblood,

A good observation! How to move out of that? (Only - or first and easiest - by (encouraging) the broadening of someone's reading? Or the imaginative, reflective supplying of context? E.g., imagining the Jedi as analogous to Stoics who really know something, but don't know the larger context of what they so incompletely know?)

I was also reminded of a response of Charles Williams to someone's quip that there seemed 'too much Hollywood in Dante', to the effect that maybe there was a touch of Dante in Hollywood.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Comic book superheroes are *mostly* devoid of magic, but not the Marvel hero Thor, which stories had a considerable influence on my childhood religiousness via its Tales of Asgard.

William Wildblood said...

That's funny. I was a big Marvel comic fan when a child and Thor was easily my favourite. I don't think the films capture much of the world of the comics though.

Anonymous said...

I never liked serial comics because I never felt sure of getting the next installment - I'm not sure I liked the idea or open-ended serials in itself, either: happily, ended up reading a lot of 'Classics Illustrated.

David Llewellyn Dodds

P.S.: I wonder what I would have been like in the 19th-/early-20th-c.: trying to keep up with Dickens, the Hound of the Baskervilles, E.Nesbit, or waiting for it to come out as a book? (Glad when I finally got to Tolkien the whole Hobbit-LotR was available to go right on reading; ditto, Narnia.)


Bruce Charlton said...

@David - The great, and greatest (IMO) recent serial - followed by countless milions - was of course Harry Potter.

I have started Brandon Sanderson's superb Stormlight series which consists of 1000 page novels - two done, another eight projected!

Don said...

I love the Golden Age of comics. They are colorful shadows of myth and faery but still just shadows. They might be a way back into myth and faery though. Do you see a way not just for England but also America?

What we have now is actually degrading to children, look at something like 'Steven Universe' for instance. It doesn't just bleed away our connections they fill our children's souls with trash.