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Authors: Colin Wilson

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Tree by Tolkien

BOOK: Tree by Tolkien
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Tree by Tolkien
Colin Wilson

YES! CAPRA CHAPBOOK SERIES

  1. Henry Miller. ON TURNING EIGHTY.
  2. James D. Houston. AN OCCURRENCE AT NORMAN'S BURGER CASTLE.
  3. Anais Nin. PARIS REVISITED.
  4. Faye Kicknosway. O. YOU CAN WALK ON THE SKY? GOOD.
  5. Lawrence Durrell. THE PLANT-MAGIC MAN.
  6. Richard de Mille. TWO QUALMS & A QUIRK.
  7. Carlos Reyes. THE PRISONER.
  8. Andrei Codrescu. A SERIOUS MORNING.
  9. Diane di Prima. LOBA: Part 1.
  10. Ross Macdonald. ON CRIME WRITING.
  11. Barry Gifford. KEROUAC'S TOWN.
  12. Ray Bradbury. ZEN & THE ART OF WRITING.
  13. Lynn Sukenick. HOUDINI.
  14. Jack Hirschman. CANTILLATIONS.
  15. William Richardson. THE WOUND.
  16. Peter Beagle. LILA THE WEREWOLF.
  17. Victor Perera. THE LOCH NESS MONSTER WATCHERS.
  18. Clayton Barbeau. DANTE AND GENTUCCA.
  19. Colin Wilson. TREE BY TOLKIEN

TREE BY TOLKIEN

BY

COLIN WILSON

1974

CAPRA PRESS

SANTA BARBARA

Copyright © 1973, 1974

by Colin Wilson

Second Printing

Drawings by Caitlin Mackintosh.

ISBN 0-912264-96-9 (pa.)

ISBN 0-912264-97-7 (cl.)

Capra Press, 631 State Street

Santa Barbara, California 93101

A few years ago, I went to have lunch with W.H. Auden in his New York apartment. It was the first time I'd met him, and Norman Mailer had warned me that I might find him difficult to get along with. 'Very reserved, very English—but more so than most Englishmen'; I found this true on the whole—he seems to be very formal, perhaps basically shy. But after we had been eating for ten minutes, he asked me suddenly: 'Do you like
The Lord of the Rings?
' I said I thought it was a masterpiece. Auden smiled, 'I somehow thought you would.' The manner softened noticeably, and the lunch proceeded in a more relaxed atmosphere. It is true, as Peter S. Beagle remarked in his introduction to
The Tolkien Reader
, that Tolkien admirers form a sort of club. Donald Swann is another member—but that is understandable, for his temperament is romantic and imaginative. It is harder to understand why someone as 'intellectual' as Auden should love Tolkien, while other highly intelligent people find him somehow revolting. (When I mentioned to a widely read friend—who is also an excellent critic—that I intended to write an essay on Tolkien, he said: 'Good, it's time somebody really exploded that bubble', taking it completely for granted that it would be an attack.) Angus Wilson told me in 1956 that he thought
The Lord of the Rings
was 'don's whimsy' (although he may have changed his mind since then).

I first tried to read the book in about 1954, when only two volumes were out. I already knew a number of people who raved about Tolkien, but who seemed unable to explain precisely why they thought him so significant. I tried the first twenty pages of Volume One, decided this was too much like Enid Blyton, and gave it up for another ten years. In the early sixties, I started to work on a book about imaginative literature, triggered by the discovery of H. P. Lovecraft; John Comley, a psychologist friend (who had himself published a couple of good novels) asked me if I didn't intend to include Tolkien in the book. I said: 'I thought he was pretty dreadful?' 'He's
very
good.' So I bought the three volume edition of
Lord of the Rings
, and started to read it in bed one morning. The absurd result was that I stayed in bed for three days, and read straight through it. What so impressed me on that first reading was the self-containedness of Tolkien's world. I suppose there
are
a few novelists who have created worlds that are uniquely their own—Faulkner, for example, or Dickens. But since their world is fairly close to the actual world, it cannot really be called a unique
creation.
The only parallel that occurs to me is the Wagner Ring cycle, that one can only enter as if taking a holiday on a strange planet.

I have read the book through a couple of times since—once aloud to my children. On re-reading, one notices the sentimentality. I could really do with less of Tom Bombadil, and Gimli's endless talk about the Lady of Lothlorien; but it hardly detracts from the total achievement. But on the second reading, I also noticed how Tolkien achieves the basic effect of the book—by slipping in, rather quietly, passages of 'fine writing'. Not really 'purple passages' in the manner of some of the Victorians (the 'Penny Whistle' chapter of Meredith's
Richard Feverel
is the obvious example). They are too unobtrusive for that. 'Almost at once the sun seemed to sink into the trees behind them. They thought of the slanting light of evening glittering on the Brandywine River, and the windows of Bucklebury beginning to gleam with hundreds of lights. Great shadows fell across them; trunks and branches of trees hung dark and threatening over the path. White mists began to rise and curl on the surface of the river and stray about the roots of the trees upon its borders. Out of the very ground at their feet a shadowy steam arose and mingled with the swiftly falling dusk.'

This is from 'The Old Forest' chapter, and in a sense it is functional. There is nothing here as embarrassing as in the 'Piper at the Gates of Dawn' chapter of
The Wind in the Willows.
I suppose what comes over most clearly from all this is that Tolkien is
enjoying
creating the scene, revelling in it; it has an air of play, like baby seals chasing one another in a stream of bubbles. This is certainly the basic strength and charm of the book. And it may—this is only a guess—explain why Tolkien is taking so long to produce the huge epic on the dwarves that he promised ten years ago; this kind of spontaneity seldom comes twice.

I find it interesting to recall those comments on Tolkien, made by friends in the early fifties—precisely because they
couldn't
explain why they thought him 'important'. They certainly
felt
him important, something more than a writer of fantasy or fairy tales. It is also significant that there has been so little written about him, in spite of his appeal to 'intellectuals'; I known only the essay by Beagle (already mentioned) and Edmund Wilson's attack in
The Bit Between My Teeth.
This makes it an interesting challenge—to define the exact nature and extent of Tolkien's importance.

One might begin by considering that Wilson essay, for Wilson is a good critic, who leans over backwards to try to understand why anyone should admire
The Lord of the Rings.
What Wilson says, basically, is that the book is 'essentially a children's book—a children's book which has somehow got out of hand, since, instead of directing it at the juvenile market, the author has indulged himself in developing fantasy for its own sake'.

He ends by accounting for the popularity of the book by remarking that many people, especially in Britain, have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash.

Fortunately, Tolkien's output has not been immense—fortunately for the critic, I mean. So it is not quite as difficult as it might be to trace the development of his characteristic ideas.

Tolkien was born in 1892—an interesting fact in itself. It means that by the time he was ten years old—the age at which children begin to find their own way in literature—he was living in the middle of a literary era of great vitality and complexity. The best-sellers of the day were Kipling, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, Maurice Hewlett and Anthony Hope—all romantics, all influenced by Stevenson. But new figures were emerging, equally romantic, but also intellectuals—Wells, Shaw, Chesterton and Belloc. We now tend to be dismissive about this era, thinking of it as a kind of inferior Victorian twilight, bearing the same relation to the real thing that Richard Strauss's music bears to Wagner. This is unfair and inaccurate. We are now living in an age of literary exhaustion; we get used to the bleak landscape. Cyril Connolly said that the writer's business is to produce masterpieces; but what masterpieces have been produced in the past fifty years?
Ulysses, The Waste Land
, Musil's
Man Without Qualities
; a few people would include Kafka, perhaps E. M. Forster, Hermann Broch's
Sleepwalkers
, Mann's
Magic Mountain.
And what more recently? We have to look back over several decades to find writers of this level of 'significance'. As to contemporaries: Amis, Osborne, Gunter Grass, Philip Roth, Robbe-Grillet ... no one among these shows any sign of developing the stature of a Shaw or Joyce. We simply take it for granted that nothing much has happened for decades. In 1902, things
had
been happening for decades, and they showed no sign of slackening; the age of Dickens and Carlyle gave way to the age of Stevenson, Hardy, Meredith, Kipling. The English were discovering Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Strindberg, Ibsen, Zola, Nietzsche, Maeterlinck. Things seemed to be happening everywhere; it was a great melting pot, shooting off sparks of literary talent. It was still a romantic era, as lively as the
Sturm und drang
period of a hundred years earlier—except that the romanticism now had a distinctly optimistic flavour. By the time this era came to an end—in 1914—Tolkien was twenty-two, and his formative period was over.

I strongly suspect that Chesterton was the major influence during this period. The clues are scattered throughout the essay
On Fairy-Stories
(delivered at St. Andrews in 1938.) Speaking, for example, about suspension of disbelief, the 'enchanted state' which some people can achieve when watching a cricket match, he says: 'I can achieve (more or less) willing suspension of disbelief, when I am held there and supported by some other motive that will keep away boredom: for instance, a wild, heraldic preference for dark blue rather than light'—a sentence that could easily have been written by Chesterton. He speaks about one of the important functions of the fairy story, to produce a state of 'recovery', 'regaining of a clear view'. 'We need ... to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.' He then goes on to speak of '
Mooreeffoc
' or Chestertonian fantasy. '
Mooreeffoc
is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.'

Readers of early Chesterton books—
Napoleon of Notting Hill
,
The Man Who Was Thursday
, the early Father Brown stories—will recollect that Disneyland atmosphere. 'It was one of those journeys on which a man perpetually feels that now at last he must have come to the end of the universe, and then finds he has only come to the beginning of Tufnell Park, London died away in draggled taverns and dreary scrubs, and then was unaccountably born again in blazing high streets and blatant hotels ...'
What
Chesterton is describing here (in
The Blue Cross
) might have come out of a novel by Graham Greene; but the way in which he describes it makes it somehow mysterious and exhilarating. 'Abruptly one bulging and gas-lit window broke the blue twilight like a bull's eye lantern; and Valentin stopped an instant before a little garish sweetstuff shop.' Dickens occasionally commanded that magic; for example, in
Pickwick Papers
and
A Christmas Carol
; and J.B. Priestley catches it in a few of his novels. Tolkien set out to take it out of 'this world', to create it in isolation, or rather, in its own setting, in 'fairy land'.

This immediately suggests another name—W. B. Yeats. Not only because Yeats wrote about fairies, but because he attached a particular symbolic meaning to them. There is a sharp dichotomy in Yeats between 'this world' and a world of deeper
meaning
that poets glimpse in moments of intensity. There is no space here to discuss this point at length; besides, I have done so elsewhere.
1
But I would suggest that the dichotomy between 'this world' and that more meaningful reality is a false one; what is at issue is an
attitude
, like the difference between Greene and Chesterton. Tolkien grasps this when he says, echoing Blake: 'We need ... to clean our windows.' In certain exhilarated moods, the poet sees the world as endlessly exciting and interesting; in such states of insight, it seems clear to him that all one needs is intelligence and imagination, and the vision can be renewed every day. The really baffling thing is why this vision is so difficult to sustain. The straightforward view is that most human beings are tied down to dreary everyday affairs, like Dickens in his blacking factory or Wells in his drapery emporium, and that all the embryonic Dickenses and Wellses need is freedom. We soon discover that the problem is more complicated than that; even intelligent and imaginative men are often bored. For some reason, this sense of the world as an endlessly meaningful place slips away from us when we need it most. Boredom is one of the great mysteries of psychology. It seems to be a matter of
focussing
, like focussing a very powerful microscope or telescope; and we are just not very good at focussing. 'Focussing' occurs in moods of serenity or of creative excitement. Its greatest enemy is the ordinary, noisy distractions of everyday reality. So in his early poetry, Yeats continually attacks this reality—'The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be told' (echoing the forger Wainewright, who murdered his sister-in-law because he said he couldn't stand her thick ankles)—and creates a world of misty trees and autumn leaves and men who wander off into the land of the Faery. And seventy or so years after Yeats wrote 'The Song of Wandering Aengus', Tolkien produced
Smith of Wootton Major
, a fable that might have been published in the Yellow Book with Aubrey Beardsley drawings. Wootton Major is one of those rustic villages in an unnamed country that might be next door to Hobbit-land, and the Great Cook of the village produces a magnificent cake every twenty-four years. But when the story opens, the present cook has been wandering off for mysterious absences (from which he returns merrier than usual), and he finally goes away permanently, leaving behind a strange apprentice whom he has brought back from his wanderings. Next time the Great Cake is baked, the apprentice slips into it a silver star—a fairy gift—and one of the children swallows it. This child—the [black]smith of the title—grows up to become a wanderer between the village and the land of Faery. Various adventures are described—with a brevity and arbitrariness uncharacteristic of Tolkien—and at the end of the story, the smith hands back the star, his passport to Faery land, and it is passed on to another child through the Great Cake. The apprentice turns out to be the King of the Faery in disguise. All this is fairly clear. The Cooks who make the Great Cake are somehow the intermediaries between the Faery and 'the world' (it is Tolkien who makes the distinction); perhaps they are story tellers. The children who swallow the star are the poets—like Yeats or Tolkien—who become wanderers between two worlds. Apart from an earlier fable,
Leaf by Niggle
, this is the most 'symbolic' of Tolkien's stories, scarcely a children's story at all. The content is hardly profound; in some ways, it could be called naive; it might have been a story by Walter de la Mare, with its simple message of turning away from the everyday world. In fact, only one step away from
Peter Pan.
Yet naive or not, the problem Tolkien is writing about is fundamental, and its importance and relevance have not diminished since the time of Yeats and Barrie. This is a point that Edmund Wilson completely failed to grasp in his essay.

BOOK: Tree by Tolkien
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