J. R. R. Tolkien
I do not know how aware most folks are of what books shape their basic imaginations—the formation that to a large part determines what brings them delight, what strikes them as worth attention, what gives them a vocabulary for the world. For me, there are really two sources that give me that shape—the Bible and the fiction works of J. R. R. Tolkien. This post is about the latter.
Today would have been his 122nd birthday, so I’m thinking about him especially today. Now, I know that he has been so much talked about that I am sure I cannot say anything original about him, but I did want to mention how what he wrote has shaped me, at least in some points, and perhaps that might be of interest to a few readers.
It’s not so much that I see hobbits and dragons everywhere, mind you (though it is arguable whether there are still dragons about). I think most of what I’ve unconsciously absorbed from Tolkien is his use of language. I don’t use Commonwealth English spellings, to be sure, but I still have an inner feeling, for instance, that the plural of dwarf should be dwarves and not dwarfs (a usage that put Tolkien at odds with his contemporaries and countrymen). (He also insisted on elven over elfin.) And I will also admit to indulgence in archaisms, as well, not because I think they make the user sound smart or artful, but just because my inner sensibility is that this is just how language ought to sound at its best.
But there are other things, too. I recall when I was a teenager and then in my twenties, that a young lady who seemed most attractive to me was best described for me as an elven-maid. No doubt some of my belles didn’t quite get the level of compliment I was paying them, that I was comparing them to the race that was highest, most beautiful, most noble and immortal. Mind you, men have been calling women that kind of thing since at least Petrarch, but for me, there is something specifically elven about that business. And though my wife would probably find it silly, there is certainly something for me that is elvish about her, though there is also quite a lot that is hobbitish about her, too. She is a civilizing person in the sense peculiar to both those races.
I really don’t remember the first time I read The Hobbit, though I think I was quite young. My family owned a large illustrated edition put out at some point in the ’80s (long ago fallen to pieces), as I recall, using pictures from the Rankin-Bass cartoon that I still love. (To this day, when I read Tolkien’s Middle-earth books out loud, the voice I do for my kids for Gandalf is not Ian McKellan but rather John Huston.)
My dad had old paperback editions of The Hobbit and the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings from the ’60s that were yellowing and adorned with Tolkien’s own illustrations on the covers. I received them all at some point. They are too brittle to be read, but they still have a pride of place on my highest shelf, next to several “reading” copies of the same books, and a couple large “heirloom” copies in slip covers.
I don’t think I finally read The Lord of the Rings until I was in high school, and I’m not really sure why. Certainly The Hobbit had always delighted me. But perhaps my imagination was not quite ready for the degree of complexity that the latter book has in comparison with the former, shorter volume. In any event, I came away from my first readings of the three-volume book with a sense that Middle-earth was a place I very much wanted to go and even to live.
And what I received most from those books at that time was something that has long stayed with me—a sense of longing for what has been lost. Loss is a major theme especially in the larger story, and it’s touched on particularly by Aragorn and the Elves, who all remember much that has been lost and mourn it.
It may well be that this sense of desiring what is ancient and powerful had a strong influence on my first encounter with Orthodox Christianity in my early twenties. Here was contact with what was not only older than my world, but very much better. Yet unlike in Tolkien’s world, what has been lost for the Orthodox Christian can actually be recovered and restored, yet it can only be recovered to the degree that we internally realize we have lost it—not “Holy Russia” or “the glories of Byzantium,” but rather the loss of innocence and purity in the human soul. Some writers have called this aspect of Orthodox spirituality “nostalgia for Paradise.”
This thing more than any other from Tolkien is what shapes my imagination and informs much of my thinking and even feeling—a kind of melancholy of remembrance. But unlike Renaissance melancholy with its dark obsessions (which very much interested me in my undergraduate days), it is a remembrance that brings beauty into the present.
And for that, I will always be grateful. And I will also teach it to my children, mainly just by reading to them.
It’s a rare, if not exceptional, case. In an era where most people would sell their souls to be talked about, Christopher Tolkien has not expressed himself in the media for 40 years. No interviews, no announcements, no meetings — nothing.
It was a decision he made at the death of his father, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), British author of the hugely famous Lord of the Rings (three volumes published in 1954 and 1955), and one of the world’s most-read writers, with some 150 million books sold and translations into 60 languages.
Was this long-held public silence simply a whim? Certainly not. The 87-year-old son of the great J.R.R. Tolkien is the calmest man imaginable. A distinguished Englishman with quite an upper class accent, who settled in the south of France in 1975 with his wife Baillie and their two children. Has he kept mum because he does not care? Even less likely. During all these years of silence, his life has been one of incessant, driven, almost Herculean work on the unpublished part of his father’s oeuvre, of which he is the literary executor.
The “money quote” that’s been going around from this first interview ever by Christopher Tolkien, his father’s literary executor, is this one, which lends the article its title (“My Father’s “Eviscerated” Work – Son Of Hobbit Scribe J.R.R. Tolkien Finally Speaks Out”):
Invited to meet Peter Jackson, the Tolkien family preferred not to. Why? “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25,” Christopher says regretfully. “And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.”
This divorce has been systematically driven by the logic of Hollywood. “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time,” Christopher Tolkien observes sadly. “The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.”
The headline is somewhat misleading, since the bulk of the article is really just about the enormous place of Christopher Tolkien in his father’s legacy. That said, I can appreciate his family’s unhappiness with the popularization of that legacy in film, though my own sense of it is that it has served to introduce more folks to the “real” thing in the canonical Tolkien works. After all, there have been mondo-gigantic boosts to book sales following the release of the films. More people are reading Tolkien than ever. And that is an encouraging thought.
I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again. —Frodo Baggins
I happened upon this quotation again yesterday evening, while I was reading my daughter The Lord of the Rings. It seems a dauntingly long tome to read to a five-year-old, but of course we have years, if need be. She’s also already listened to the whole of The Hobbit and liked what she heard and wanted to hear more about hobbits. So of course I could not resist. Naturally she will not remember everything or understand all the details this time around, but that doesn’t particularly matter. So it goes with all of the good tales for any of us, including, I think, the Book itself.
As someone who is in some sense homeless (though not houseless), having lived now in twenty-two separate dwellings across fifteen towns, six states and one unincorporated territory, these words from Frodo in anticipation of his great Quest always make me a bit sad. Much of Tolkien’s work is about a sense of loss, of remembering things that never will return, and when Frodo speaks these words to Gandalf, he has no idea yet how much he will lose, that he will indeed lose the Shire for himself, even while he saves it for others.
The sadness that I feel is not quite Frodo’s sadness, though, because there is no geographic place that I have left behind and can return to or at least hope for while I am in my wanderings. And while I do intend to spend the rest of my days here in Emmaus, I think that it is too late for me to have a home. Though I am not old, I am too old for that. I’ve done it backwards from Frodo—I have tried to find a home after my wandering rather than embarked upon my wandering from a home already found and already loved.
My point here is not really about me, though. My life is what God has permitted it to be, even if I’ve muddled it up here and there, and I am grateful for what I have received. No, the point is about that “firm foothold” that Frodo mentions. For him, it is the Shire, and he carries memories of the Shire throughout the Quest to destroy evil. I do not have a Shire of my own, not in the sense that there is some specific place I can place my mind’s feet to gain that firm foothold.
But even though some of us are homeless in this life, I think that we nonetheless have the possibility for such a firm foothold, for a memory of beauty and homeliness (to use homely in its British sense, roughly homey in American English, though not so rustic). I hope I can say this without sounding like a romantic, but for me that firm foothold has become the worship of the Church, most especially in its Byzantine iteration, with which I was first imprinted in Orthodoxy. It is not quite the same as having a home in the earthier sense—a sense I encourage all to develop as best they can, even in such a homeless state as I find myself—but there is certainly a firm foothold to be had there, a power and glory and sense of belonging that can be carried along in any place of wandering, any struggle, any peril, as we pursue our own great Quest.
There are many instances throughout the history of the Church in which the saints, those people who were most infused with God’s presence here on earth, did something peculiar as they faced imprisonment, torture and even death—they sang hymns. I cannot help but think that their experiences in worshiping the one True God in His Body the Church became for them the firm foothold that made their wandering bearable. And when faced with the gravest of circumstances, they called to mind that power and energy, and they brought it forth again in an act of anamnesis (a term usually referred to the invocational memory that brings Christ’s passion and death into the here and now as the Eucharist). While Frodo could only engage in mneia (recall), we Christians have the possibility for anamnesis, bringing the Savior Whose salvation we remember into the very present by means of collective invocational memory.
As we do that, the orcs and Uruk-hai and evil wizards and the Ringwraiths and even the Enemy himself can be borne rightly, with patience and even with love and with joy. And in so doing, like Frodo, we can also destroy evil and loosen its hold on our hearts.
Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker. —J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”
There is a new post today on MyOCN‘s “Orthodox Writers, Readers, and Artists series,” whose title caught my eye: Is it Orthodox to Read and Write Allegory/Fantasy Children’s Books?
Friends and long-time readers will imagine that my hackles immediately went up when I read this. Of course, I’ve encountered the attitude in this piece before. I once spoke, for instance, with an Orthodox Christian who was putting together a homeschooling curriculum. He insisted that imaginative fiction of every kind was essentially sinful, that it was phantasia—a word used in monastic literature (and sometimes spelled phantasy or fantasy) to refer to sinful imaginations. This is essentially the same attitude that, when intensified, will condemn Tolkien and Lewis as pagan sympathizers (not to mention those bewitching Harry Potter novels!).
To be quite frank, I think this attitude is puritanical nonsense. I don’t blame those who hold it, though I do believe that they have mistaken the phantasia that the monastic fathers warned against for the fantasy that is imaginative fiction. (I will from here on use those two spellings to make that distinction.) That is, they have turned a specific piece of monastic technical language regarding meditative prayer into a general principle—a literary theory, even—to exclude something that those monastic writers weren’t remotely talking about.
Phantasia is a danger in ascetical writings not because it uses the imagination. Rather, it is a use of the imagination that fixates the heart on created things. More specifically, it is a fixation that is an obstacle to the pure prayer of the heart. In pursuing meditative prayer, the ascetic (who is not just the monastic, but all of us) is called upon not to try to imagine God, to picture Him, or to become obsessed with any created image in order to reach Him, because doing so is essentially idolatry. It is also simply prejudicial, just like relating to any human person by means of imagination rather than through encounter.
But fantasy (even the specific literary genre that goes by that name) isn’t about prejudicial obsessions with created things that block us off from God. If imagination qua imagination were only phantasia in the sense that the monastic fathers warn us of, then many of the great Fathers of the Church would be in rather deep trouble, for a good many of them had rather thorough educations in fiction—even in explicitly pagan literature. No less a luminary than St. Basil the Great admonished the young on how exactly they ought to make use of pagan literature! No puritan he, Basil taught his readers how to sift what they read, how to find the face of Christ even in works specifically designed to promote religion that the Church was in the process of conquering.
Now, the writer of the piece linked above does not quite seem to have it in for all fiction (being a writer of children’s books), but I am unclear on what basis the argument against fantasy is being made if it is not simply that it is to be identified with phantasia. After all, if the problem with fantasy is that it is “whatever the mind imagines end[ing] up on paper,” then that would apply to all fiction. (But what writer actually just writes “whatever” his mind imagines? Any writer worth his salt—or, you know, magic fairy dust—sifts, revises, etc.) But the exit from this charge for the writer seems to be through allegory, because allegory is the specific use of fictional imagery to attempt to teach something.
Because of this, the writer lets Tolkien and Lewis off, because they are supposedly allegorists and because they still lived in a time when “little ‘o’ orthodoxy was still pretty free from relativism, so what they are teaching is, at least for the most part, not contrary to Orthodoxy.” Aside from the fact that “little ‘o’ orthodoxy” by definition is free from relativism (no relativist would claim to be orthodox, even with the little “O”), this again misses the basic point.
But first, let us tackle the writer’s accusation against fantasy, that it is “a pure expression of the passions,” that it contains “werewolves and vampires and a celebration of evil,” that it consists of “a lustful voyeurism so that people constantly want more and more perverse and graphic fantasies.” Yes, one can certainly find such things out there, and I think I may know what the writer has in mind with the tip of the cards offered later: “modern fantasy generally has some sort of romantic involvement of the characters,” one that is properly “described as downright pornographic.”
No doubt it is Twilight (which happens to be written by a devout Mormon) and its ilk that is in mind here. But really, aren’t such things really just “romance” novels that have only the most superficial resemblance to the fantasy genre, which is populated with writers the likes of Tolkien, Lewis, Eddings, Brooks, Jordan, Salvatore, McCaffrey, Kurtz, etc.? I don’t know whether the writer has read much of the works of the big names in “modern fantasy,” but I’m really starting to suspect not. I think what the writer really doesn’t like is romance novels with werewolves and vampires. If that is really the case, why condemn a whole (barely related) genre?
But let us return to allegory.
It is true that Lewis was fairly self-consciously allegorical, but only with a certain minority of elements in his works. True allegory would have every rock, tree, beast and boy as a stand-in for some other person or lesson. Lewis doesn’t quite do that.
However, the far more masterful storyteller of the two, Tolkien, was vehemently explicit about his rejection of allegory, something made plain in his foreword to The Lord of the Rings:
I should like to say something here with reference to the many opinions or guesses that I have received or have read concerning the motives and meaning of the tale. The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them…. As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical…. I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
It seems to me that the columnist would indeed prefer the “purposed domination of the author,” that the only good fiction is allegorical fiction, but it had better be trying to teach some sort of Christian lesson, “trying to get a person who has been spiritually deadened by this world, and everything in it, to see clearly spiritual principles using imagery that is not familiar to the person,” to get them to see “new worlds with new creatures that have not been co-opted by evil.”
But I am not interested in reading a book where everyone is perfectly happy and good, not “co-opted by evil.” Why? Because such a book would not speak to the reality in which I actually find myself, in which nearly everything around me—including me!—has been co-opted by evil. (To be honest, though, since when have vampires and werewolves ever not been “co-opted by evil”? Twilight‘s mistake is probably that it is attempting to co-opt such evil images as good.) Even the Scriptures themselves are rife with people and things co-opted by evil. And their point is redemption, just as it also is with good writers of fiction, whether they are being explicitly allegorical or not.
This rejection of fantasy as phantasia (accompanied by all of phantasia‘s ills as apparently exemplified by the romance novels with blood and fur and such) is really a denial of the Orthodox anthropology of man as being made according to God’s image. He is our Creator, and as such, we may (to use Tolkien’s language) become sub-creators. We are not merely imitators or allegorists. Such a veiled didacticism will hardly reach anyone these days, anyway. The moment a reader suspects he is being taught a lesson, that the author is “trying to get a person who has been spiritually deadened by this world, and everything in it, to see clearly spiritual principles,” he will reject the story.
I think we can do no better than some of these meditations from Tolkien’s brilliant reflection on such things, On Fairy Stories:
When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.
An essential power of Faerie is thus the power of making immediately effective by the will the visions of “fantasy.” Not all are beautiful or even wholesome, not at any rate the fantasies of fallen Man. And he has stained the elves who have this power (in verity or fable) with his own stain. This aspect of “mythology” —sub-creation, rather than either representation or symbolic interpretation of the beauties and terrors of the world—is, I think, too little considered. Is that because it is seen rather in Faerie than upon Olympus? Because it is thought to belong to the “lower mythology” rather than to the “higher”?…
Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed….
But the error or malice, engendered by disquiet and consequent dislike, is not the only cause of this confusion. Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more sub-creative; but at any rate it is found in practice that “the inner consistency of reality” is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of “reality” with more “sober” material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely “fanciful.” Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough—though it may already be a more potent thing than many a “thumbnail sketch” or “transcript of life” that receives literary praise.
To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode….
Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.
For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.
Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.
In the end, I have to confess that what I think I read in the column linked above was really a distaste for romance novels in the guise of fantasy, with the objection framed in language from the Fathers that was never intended to refer simply to imaginative fiction, whether it happens to have werewolves or not. But the objections to such things were on all the wrong grounds. Those grounds were made to serve other arguments and contexts. The problem with the “fantasy” disliked by the writer is not that it is not Christian allegory, or simply that it is fantasy, but rather that it glorifies that which is base. True fantasy instead redeems that which is base and thereupon reveals its glory.
Addendum: Something that occurs to me to add here is that, unless a publication is explicitly about theology, Church history, saints’ lives, etc., I think it does something of a disservice to the work to put an “ORTHODOX™” label on it. The last thing we Orthodox need is to create our own brand. Orthodoxy is not a brand. It is the Body of Christ. There is no need for us to put out a line of ORTHODOX™-approved books, toys, clothing, etc. (And we’d look dumb doing it.)
The following is the introductory section of a talk I gave last week at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” There are six parts in all.
There is a mythical place where many of us, including myself, have often fantasized about moving to. In it, people live a mostly agrarian lifestyle. There is little government, and what there is consists mainly of the post office, an informal sort of border patrol, and a handful of policemen who are little more than a community watch. There is also a mayor, but his primary duties are to give toasts and to preside at parties and such. Most people live in the homes their parents lived in, and hardly anyone ever thinks about buying up property and renting it out. And certainly, no one there would ever kill anyone else, no matter how annoying they became.
Life there is dedicated to the good things and the slow things, to plants and livestock and good food. On birthdays, people give away presents rather than get them, which means that if you go to plenty of birthday parties, you will have a fairly steady stream of presents coming in. And anything you don’t happen to like can get re-gifted, and no one particularly cares.
I am of course describing the Shire, the fictional home of hobbits, invented by author and Oxford Anglo-Saxon professor J. R. R. Tolkien to be reminiscent of the rural England of his youth, before what in those days was called the Great War but what we now call World War I. The Great War radically changed the face of Europe and of the world in general, though not only in terms of geographic borders. In that conflict, for the first time, the world came together in a new way, not for cultural or religious reasons, but rather to make war. And that war was fought by tearing men from their homes, taking them on long, long journeys, and most especially by pitting them against one another by using machines.
Tanks were first used in that war, developed by the British mainly as a means of breaking up the deadlocks of trench warfare. Although they had been imagined and described in a 1903 short story by H. G. Wells called “The Land Ironclads,” the first working tanks were rolled out in September of 1916 at the Battle of the Somme in France. With the distances traveled by soldiers in that war, and with the ground they were able to acquire with the use of tanks, no longer were men defending their homes and families by camping out next to them and digging trenches. Instead, they were rolling out massive armored units, wielding these terrible weapons, fighting for something much more ephemeral than home and family. They were of course fighting to turn back invasions from the Germans and their allies, but the mechanized era of warfare that was inaugurated in 1916 became the beginning of a very new kind of culture, something never seen before in the history of mankind.
A maelstrom followed, upending all the old rules of commerce, communication and economy, fueled by something exciting and yet, in retrospect, culturally very dangerous. You see, with the industrialization of war also came the industrialization of life in general, particularly with the most pervasive of industrial products—transportation.
Transportation turned out to be a temptation we as a race simply could not resist. At first, ever easier access to transportation meant that frequent travel was no longer solely for the wealthy. Yet it came to be critical to commerce. And it has now come to define us as people. Whole cities and suburbs are built assuming that their residents own cars. Many modern suburbs so presume the use of the car that a walker would have to travel for miles and miles to find a place to buy food.
And this mobility not only connects our homes with numerous places once too far away to make frequent stops, but it has also has changed us into people who no longer really have homes. Since the 1940s, another decade of major industrial advance, in a given year, between one out of eight and one out of five Americans will move to another community. 42% of Americans have lived in more than one state, and nearly one out of seven has lived in at least four states.
People who move this often are not, as you may imagine, going to live like hobbits. Hobbits are largely self-governing, but a mobile populace requires much more detailed and precisely defined legalities. With a neighborhood where people don’t really know each other, since their houses are basically for parking their cars and for sleeping at night, a more externalized and impersonal polity must prevail. Likewise, for a people who are unlikely to have much sense of personal loyalty to the town they live in, not having grown up there, there will need to be lines of information and entertainment that transcend the mundane local life and turn the mind toward what is national and, indeed in more and more cases, international.
This brings us back, however, to the politics of hobbits. One might ask how hobbits, who really have little in the way of legal life or a ruling class, could have politics. After all, we think of politics these days in terms of the power-brokering of the mighty, those who now wield those great fleets not only of tanks but also of stealth bombers, nuclear missiles and aircraft carriers. But political life has not always been defined by the clashing of governments and policies. In former times, the term politics referred much more broadly to all public life.
With that understanding, hobbit politics have numerous qualities which we might admire, though I think most people nowadays would probably prefer the Shire mainly as a vacation destination, not as somewhere they would want to live. After all, there are no video games there, nor are there exotic restaurants or Internet access or any of the other kinds of entertainments and comforts made possible by quick and cheap transportation. But hobbit politics are defined most of all by their place. Even the hobbits in Tolkien’s books who leave the Shire are constantly talking about it and trying to get back. The Shire is a place that its people love, and even within the Shire’s four Farthings and its little internal towns, people rarely move. Thus, generations upon generations of hobbits may live in the same neighborhood, walking the same streets, living in the same homes, tending the same gardens for centuries. This dedication to the same place has a name for it—localism.
My reading of history is such that most people were basically localists until recent times, though there was no need for a name for it. There was no television or cheap oil or cheap broadband access to draw our attention everywhere but here. Necessity and economics required that we know our neighbors, if only so we could trade or buy our necessities, so that we could find husbands and wives for our children, so that we would not be left bereft of comfort and help when tragedy struck. But now, all those connections have been stripped away, and our collective alienation is so acute that we grope around politically to try to find national, systemic solutions to almost all our challenges. It really used to be that your local family doctor would probably treat you anyway when you couldn’t pay him, but once our government told him that we’d pay him so he wouldn’t have to be charitable any more, something precious was lost. But why should he care? He probably doesn’t even live in the same neighborhood as you, anyway.
…the spirit of wickedness in high places is now so powerful and many-headed in its incarnations that there seems nothing more to do than personally refuse to worship any of the hydras’ heads. – J. R. R. Tolkien, from a 1969 letter to Amy Ronald
The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and to save the world from suicide. – T.S. Eliot, “Thoughts After Lambeth”
The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. – C. S. Lewis, from his introduction to St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation
The comedy of man survives the tragedy of man. – G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, 1906
My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday. – GKC, Orthodoxy, 1908
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around. – ibid.
Men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back. – GKC, What’s Wrong With the World, 1910
Comforts that were rare among our forefathers are now multiplied in factories and handed out wholesale; and indeed, nobody nowadays, so long as he is content to go without air, space, quiet, decency and good manners, need be without anything whatever that he wants; or at least a reasonably cheap imitation of it. – GKC, Commonwealth, 1933
…In the brown bark
Of the trees I saw the many faces
Of life, forms hungry for birth,
Mouthing at me. I held my way
To the light, inspecting my shadow
Boldly; and in the late morning
You, rising towards me out of the depths
Of myself. I took your hand,
Remembering you, and together,
Confederates of the natural day,
We went forth to meet the Machine.
- R. S. Thomas, “Once”