The Dream of Dreams

People dream at night since mankind discovered the fire within their minds. Good dreams, bad dreams, weird dreams. Dreams of longing, dreams of love, dreams of revenge, dreams of regret. Dreams of the past, dreams of the present, dreams of the future (though only a few dreams these last). Most dreams reflect everyday life of humans, their petty struggles in petty towns for petty motivations. A more rare variety of dreams may reveal truths about the reality hidden behind the grey curtain of mist enveloping the waking world. But some dreams are given to all men, though only once or twice in a lifetime to most people, that are not merely meaningful, because they hold the key to secret gates locked in dark rooms in the hidden worlds beyond time. Among these key-dreams, there is one in particular that is called the Dream of Dreams, and whoever manages to dream it may unlock the Last Gate between us and the Unfathomable Secret that some say to have been concealed there from the eyes of all Creation by the Old Piper who played the tunes that first set the worlds into motion, lest his daughter the Maiden of Stars, who sang life into existence, use it to compose the Melody of Immortality before the children of men turn to dust. One day, when time was time like any other day since time started, the Maiden of Stars came to one of the children of men and asked him to dream the Dream of Dreams to unlock the Last Gate for her so that they may learn the Unfathomable Secret and make all the children immortal. The child of man said that he would only do it if she married him in return, and the Maiden smiled like the Belt of Orion in agreement. Thus began the Quest that would bring about the ruin of countless worlds beyond the glimpse of human wisdom and understanding.

The man went to the dream interpreters of his tribe, but they confessed that they did not know the secret of the Dream of Dreams. They told the man to ask the Magi of Babylon the Great. So the man set out on his journey and, after mixed fortunes, he came to Babylon to question the Magi. They consulted the stars and told him that the answer could be known to the Egyptian priests of Memphis. The man had to leave and go to Memphis, where he arrived after wandering for a long time in the desert, risking death from thirst and heat. But not even the priests of Memphis knew the answer, not even after having questioned the god Ammon, and they sent him to the haruspices of Etruria. This time the man had to embark and, after having miraculously survived the sirens, the sea dragons and Scylla and Cariddi, finally landed on the coasts of Etruria, where he was able to consult the famous diviners of bird entrails. They examined the remains of a vulture and told him that only the druids of Gaul knew the answer he was looking for. The man crossed the Alps, miraculously surviving the snow storms that raged on the high peaks and the left-handed shots of the giants and goblins of the mountains, and reached Gallic land. There he met the Druids, who burned herbs in a tent, inhaled the smoke and told him to ask Merlin of Britain. Landed in Britain, the man sought the enchanter and, when he found him, questioned him about the Dream of Dreams. “You will have to go to Atlantis,” was the old wizard’s response. The man once again set sail, and his vessel was lifted on the scales of the magnificent Leviathan and hurled to the slopes of the hills of Atlantis the Exalted. Once in the capital of the island, whose name has been forgotten, the man questioned the sages of Atlantis, who revealed to him the existence of a land beyond the West, a continent that did not yet bear a name. There perhaps the shamans knew the Dream of Dreams. But, when the man found the land beyond lands, not even the shamans of those tribes west of west could tell him anything specific, except that continuing west he would arrive east, where he could question the diviners of the Great Khan. The man followed the advice, but the diviners told him that he should question the Brahmins, and they sent him back to Babylon, from where he had started. The man was desperate.

The Old Piper in fact had been afraid that man could find the Dream of Dreams and had played the Melody of Oblivion, erasing any trace that could lead back to the Secret. The man went back to his village, and got lost in the eyes of a damsel drawing water from the spring, and forgot the Star Maiden. The man and the woman had a son, and he had a son by a woman, and the son who came had a son by a woman, and all memory of the Dream Quest was lost. The Old Piper, however, in playing the Melody of Oblivion had been distracted by the birth of a new star lit by the Maiden, and so he had missed a note. Consequently, a trace of the Unfathomable Secret remained in the song of the nightingales. One day, when time was time like every other day since time began, the son of the son of the son of many other fathers before him fell asleep in his flat on the sixteenth floor of the 52nd in a city that men called New York, and a nightingale took the opportunity to enter the window and sing him a dream. In the dream, the son of the children of men saw his ancestor questioning the Magi of Babylon, and when he awoke he wondered what this could mean. His amazement grew when every morning he began to wake up with the song of a nightingale in his head and the vivid memory of a new part of the Quest of his Progenitor: one morning he remembered the meeting with the Egyptian priests, the one after the haruspices of Etruria, and so on.

Many dream roads had remained closed, and many worlds had withered and fallen since the progenitor of the son of the children of men had traveled around the world in search of the Dream of Dreams, as the Old Piper had locked up his daughter in the Tower of Heavens in order to punish her for having distracted him while playing the tune of Oblivion, and had even gone so far as to punish men and worlds too, by binding every man of the Seeker’s lineage to the destiny of a world, so that every descendant who died carried a world with him. Who will be able to sing about the fall of Thrasys of the Ezefiri, or lament the loss of Ofyus the Everglowing? Nobody remembers them anymore, except the tears of the Star Maiden, tears that are shed from the window by the winds of the heavens, that no one knows where they blow, because the Old Piper is capricious and grim, and envies every being who has a face and a voice, because he does not want any other melody to exist than his, which was the first to be performed before the Supreme Thrones.

When the Dreamer had retraced the entire journey of the ancestor in his dreams, the nightingale seized one of the Maiden’s tears in the spout and poured it into the ears of the sleeping descendant, and he dreamed that She begged him to resume the Quest of his progenitor, and in return She would give him the immortal happiness at her side that She had promised to the father of his fathers. The man woke up and was afraid, because in his time the Paths of Dreams as already mentioned had been closed, and dreams were seen as vain visions or symptoms of disease. So the man went to one of the descendants of the ancient healers of souls, and asked him what his dreams meant. The man removed from his face the lenses he was wearing and told him that in his case the only one who could give him a sensible answer was someone who knew what those whom his ancestor had consulted were ignorant of, so he advised him to visit a colleague who lived on the other side of the world, on an island called Australia, where jumping animals lived, and animals that carried their children in a sack. The man immediately took one of the flying chariots that were used to travel long distances at the time and soon he was on the southern island, where in fact he could see jumping animals and animals carrying their children in a sack. The new soul healer he addressed told him that even he did not know the Secret, but he knew it had been handed down, from the time before the Old Piper played the Oblivion Melody, among the shamans of a tribe living in the center of the island, in the middle of the jungle, and who were called the Dream Drums. Reaching them would not be easy without a guide, so the healer entrusted the Dreamer to an old native who knew the way. He was a toothless man with a broad smile and gentle manners, who warned the man: “You can’t just walk to the place you want to reach. The distance you will cover on foot during the day you will have to retrace in a dream during the night ”. The Dreamer nodded that he understood.

On their first day of travel they met a fisherman who hosted them in his lake house. The fisherman told the Dreamer and his guide that he had lost his daughter drowned in the waters near the house. The two travelers did their best to console the fisherman, then they all went to sleep. The Dreamer dreamed that he swam in the lake, that he reached the depths, and that there were cities inhabited by fishmen who had taken the fisherman’s daughter prisoner. The Dreamer then presented himself to the fishmen as the Seeker who would have dreamed the Dream of Dreams, and they asked him to prove what he said. The Dreamer then opened his mouth, and from it came dozens of nightingales, singing underwater as if they were in their native woods. The fishmen thanked the Dreamer and handed him the girl, who he brought back to the surface. When she woke up, the fisherman and his daughter were having breakfast, and neither of them had any memory of her having ever drowned. The guide smiled at the Dreamer, and they resumed their journey.

On the second day of their journey, they found a lost boy in the jungle who had broken his leg. The guide treated him and explained that they would take him to a town where he could find help. When they reached the nearest village, the boy was placed in the care of local healers, who promised to take him back to his parents. That night the Dreamer dreamed that he was himself the child lost in the forest with a broken leg, but the Maiden’s Starsong came to his mind and he sang it. Immediately the forest disappeared and he found himself at his house with his parents. When the Dreamer awoke, there was no trace of the boy in the village, and no one knew what he was talking about when he asked what became of the boy they had brought there the day before. The guide told him that he was never lost and always stayed with his parents.

On the third day the Dreamer and the guide met a couple traveling in the wilderness. They said they wanted to celebrate their union by rediscovering contact with nature and the earth, and for this reason they had painted their skins and wore crowns of leaves and flowers, hunting with spears and picking the fruits and berries they found. When asked if they did not know it was dangerous, the two replied that a fortune teller had told them that only then would they have the child they wanted, since they were both sterile. The guide then uttered a prayer of blessing for them wishing them success in their endeavour, and the Dreamer also prayed to the Man of the Supreme Thrones who had once descended to earth to tell all that not a speck of dust is lost in the eyes of the Winged Chariot of the Heights. In the dream, the Dreamer saw the two lovers sleeping, and kissed them both on the mouth, blowing his breath into them. The next morning, they woke up in a large house where crowds of children were running around, and the couple explained to them that they were their fifteen children and the orphans they were caring for. No one had any idea that they had ever suffered from infertility.

On the fourth day it was the turn of a girl who claimed she was there to wait for them. She claimed to have known she would meet them in one of her dreams, and so she had followed the lead of her instincts to where she felt they would come. They asked her how long she had been waiting for them and she said that the dream of meeting them had been recurring for as long as she could remember, but the time she had arrived in the clearing they were in was just before they arrived. When she was asked why she wanted to meet them, she said she wanted to follow them on their journey, but they were adamant that no companions were needed and that she should return to her former life. She insisted so much, but in the end she had to acknowledge their position and she asked them at least to be able to leave again the next morning, having the opportunity to talk with them at length. So many were the questions that she asked the guide and the Dreamer, and she wanted to know about his ancestors, and about his Quest, and when he had told her everything he remembered she still wanted to know more, but they convinced her that it was better sleep. In his dream, the Seeker took the girl to the Dream Meadows, where she became a young filly to gallop freely until she would take any other form. When they awoke, the girl was gone, and this time it was the Dreamer who smiled at his guide.

On the fifth day, the two travelers reached a river where the smoking ruins of an indigenous village stood, plundered and set on fire by the Hearts of Stone tribe. There were five surviving inhabitants of the village, all that remained of the River Eyes tribe: a blind old man, a lame woman, a mute man, an armless girl and a deaf boy. The Dreamer described to the blind man what he saw, carried the lame woman from the river to the hills and back in his arms, taught the blind man and the deaf boy sign language, and danced with the one-armed girl. The guide meanwhile sang an ancient lament of his people for the villagers dead. During the night, the Dreamer dreamed that he was in the village when it was attacked. The Hearts of Stone numbered in the hundreds, and with them rode the Demons of the Blood Rocks on their Nightmare Kangaroos. The Seeker then blew the Horn of the Ancestors and called back to life all his progenitors up to the First Seeker who had been to Babylon and had returned to Babylon. The Seeker’s ancestors had eyes of jade and hands of alabaster, with which they held spears of ebony. And the spears pierced the hearts of the Kangaroos of Nightmares, of the Demons of the Blood Rocks and of the Hearts of Stone, and they were no more. Then from the spilled blood arose a colossal figure, scarlet and evil, an ancient Dragon of the End, and in a voice of thunder he declared that the Old Piper would not let the Dreamer find the Unfathomable Secret. So saying, he swept away all of the Seeker’s ancestors with his tail, but the Seeker was not intimidated and sang the Song of Rebirth, which he just then remembered having been learned from him or some of his forefathers in some dream of the Maiden of Stars. The Dragon blossomed and was devoured by the ground, and the Dreamer awoke. The village was intact, with no signs of attack or fire, and in one place the ground was covered with flowers that, according to the villagers, never faded. When the Dreamer asked the old man, the other man, the woman and the two children, who were now entirely healthy, what was the story of the flowery meadow, they told exactly the story of his dream, of how millennia ago an ancient hero had saved the village from an attack by the Hearts of Stone tribe, who controlled the Demons of the Blood Rocks and the Kangaroos of Nightmares, and how he had transformed the Dragon of the End into that flowery meadow by singing the Song of Rebirth, which was still handed down today in the tribe. “Your dreams are overflowing into the waking world, Dreamer,” the guide explained. “Soon it will no longer be possible to distinguish the two, and then we will have reached the Heart of the Dream.”

On the sixth day, the Dreamer and his guide reached the rocky plateau where the tribe known as the Dream Drums lived, but they had to cross a rope bridge to access it. Before doing so, the guide wanted them to stop and start a fire. “To enter the Dream Heart you will have to purify yourself of the waking man,” he explained to the Dreamer. “What should I do?” the latter asked. “Listen”. The guide took his drum and began to beat it, intoning an unintelligible song that, as it rose, echoing among the rocks, began to acquire meaning for the Dreamer. Soon, he not only understood the words of the song, but he could see the story told as if it happened in front of him. “When the days had not yet begun, the Winged Chariot ran on the waters of his imagination, having fun raising jets and splashes that came to life at his touch and then returned to the Ocean of Dreams. When the days had not yet begun, nothing could change, so no one knows why suddenly something changed, but in fact one of the jets entered an axis of the Chariot and sent a wheel away. The wheel spun on the water forever, but forever was no longer forever, because the Chariot had lost a wheel, and so the wheel stopped, and on it was the Old Piper, whom no one knows whence did come. Then the Chariot was angry, and thus spoke to the Piper: ‘Since you have stopped the wheel, yours is the Melody of Creation, because so it is with the wheel. But, because you have stopped the wheel, you will never have your daughter, even though she is born from the Ocean’. The Old Piper cursed the Chariot, but he did not know that the Chariot cannot be cursed, and those who curse him are cursing themselves. Hurriedly, before the Star Maiden was born, he hid the Unfathomable Secret behind the Last Gate, and locked it with the Key kept in the Dream of Dreams, which no one will be able to dream until the wheel starts again and the Old Piper returns to the Winged Chariot what was taken from him by the Ocean. But, even if the Old Piper wanted to remedy his wrongs, which he does not, he cannot return to the Ocean of Dreams, and no one knows where the lost wheel from the Chariot is. All that is known is that, after hiding the Secret, the Piper played the Melody of Creation, bringing the worlds into existence as a welcome gift to his daughter, whose beauty had blinded him and whom he suddenly wanted to please, oblivious to the threat that she constituted for him. The Star Maiden was born from the Ocean of Dreams and she was amazed at the greatness and vastness as well as the number of worlds, but she was sad because there was no life on them. Thus she sang the Song of Life and brought into existence plants, animals, men and every other race on all the worlds that could host them. For this reason the Old Piper immediately hated his daughter, because he estimated that she was ungrateful for the gift he had given her, and that she did not find it pleasant unless decorated with those noisy and smelly creatures, which evidently represented a mockery towards him. Then he remembered the words of the Winged Chariot, and he knew that his daughter really did not belong to him, and he was very angry, but hid his anger from her because he knew how best to act. Indeed, the Song of Life had given life to all creatures, and they would never have lost it if the Maiden had not accepted to sing to the sound of the Old Father’s Fife. He deceived her, deluding her that the Melody of Creation and the Song of Life together would give life to something even more beautiful than what already existed, and so indeed it would have been if he had been honest, even if we are not given to know what is Beauty beyond Beauty and Bliss beyond Bliss. But the Old Piper interposed notes of his own devising to the Melody of Creation, which some say to be the same ones he had played to steal the wheel of the Chariot, and so the Melody of Creation came to host within it the disharmony of destruction, and the Maiden who followed the Melody inadvertently came to sing the Song of Death as well. By the time she realized it, it was too late, but the Star Maiden belongs to the Winged Chariot, and so she could fix her eyes on the Old Piper’s eyes, and for the only time in all eternity it happened that the Piper himself was enchanted, and he was compelled to reveal to his daughter that the remedy to death existed if someone found the Key to the Last Gate in the Dream of Dreams, so as to discover the Unfathomable Secret. Now you know everything I could tell you, Dreamer, and you are purified and ready to enter the Heart of the Dream”.

The fire had gone out, and it was now evening, but the Seeker followed the guide on the bridge in order to cross it. A roar rang in the air, followed by another, and the guide slumped to the ground with a hole in his chest, followed by the Dreamer. On the other side of the bridge, in fact, stood the Guardian with his iron of fire, with which he hurled thunder that opened holes in bodies. He had been sent by the Old Piper to bar access to the Dreamheart. The Seeker placed his hand on the hole in his guide’s chest, but the guide said, “Go. I lived for this. I die for this. I can already see my ancestors calling. Go”. The Dreamer, who also had a hole in his shoulder, got to his feet in pain, when another roar rang out, and another hole was opened in his leg. Another thunder, another hole. And another. And another. The Dreamer fell to the ground, and the Guardian laughed, advancing on the bridge towards him. With each step he fired another shot, piercing him like a sieve. The Seeker marveled that he was still alive despite so much pain, and then, as the Guardian aimed for the head, he felt himself being lifted off the ground and saw his body from above, as if he were another person. Then instantly he understood, and said: “Life is a dream”, distracting the Guardian who missed his aim. The latter looked around, pointing his rifle up, frightened. “Who is that? Who spoke?” The Seeker inwardly smiled. The rifle fired, but only feathers came from its barrel. “What?” the Guardian wondered, then he was transformed into a hippopotamus, too heavy for the bridge to support, and fell with it into the precipice. The Dreamer re-entered his body, which immediately regenerated all the wounds, and looked in the direction of the guide, but he was no longer there. The Dreamer smiled and crossed the precipice on foot, treading on air as if it were solid earth.

When the seventh day had not yet dawned, the Dreamer set foot on the plateau of the Dream Drums and thus entered the Dream Heart. He saw his parents again, he saw all those he had been related to in his waking life, but he did not stop with them, because he knew they would hold him back. He stopped instead when he encountered a Dream Drum, the one who must have been the shaman of the tribe. He was also sitting by a fire, smoking a long pipe which he offered him. The Dreamer refused, but sat down in front of the shaman and asked him how to dream the Dream of Dreams. The shaman laughed so much that he coughed, then inhaled again on the pipe and said: “A story for a story. What do you have to offer?” The Dreamer thanked the guide in his heart and told the story which he had heard the day before, of the Winged Chariot and the Old Piper and the Star Maiden. The shaman listened carefully, then put down his pipe and closed his eyes. The silence around was broken only by the voices of the spirits hovering around their fire.

“When the Winged Chariot lost its wheel, the Charioteer fell from the Chariot into the Ocean of Dreams. He is the Man of the Celestial Thrones who looked into the Dream Ocean and saw himself reflected. The Man’s reflection is the Old Piper, and he first played before the Thrones, and pleased the Chariot that sits on the Thrones. But his betrayal imprisoned the Man in the Ocean of Dreams until the day He came to earth, born of his daughter, the Lady of the Waters. The Man taught the children of men that when they become dust the dust will become eternity, but the men did not understand his words and killed him. This is the key to the Dream of Dreams. Are you ready to take it?” The Dreamer was shivering. Suddenly the air was chilly. But still he did not understand. “Did I come all this way for another puzzle?” he said, and stood up, abandoning the shaman. “I will find who really knows the answer!” he exclaimed.

As he walked away, the crippled remnants of the village he had defended against the Stone Hearts met him. The little girl offered him her arm which he had given back to her, the boy held his ears in his hand, while the man held out his tongue, the woman her leg, the old man his eyes. The Dreamer screamed and ran on. Under a tree he found, awaiting him, the girl he had freed, and he fell madly in love with her, and lay with her under the tree, and awoke in the barren couple’s big house to find that they were themselves the couple, and were no longer sterile, and they had fifteen children and cared for the orphans. The Dreamer was delighted, and even more so when a strange man and a native guide brought back their youngest child, who had apparently been lost in the jungle and had broken his leg, but had been found and nursed back to health. As an old man, the Dreamer complained that, of all his children still alive, one daughter in particular, who was perhaps his favorite, had drowned in the lake near his home, but the daughter suddenly woke up just when the healers had already taken her for dead, and the old Dreamer was glad that he could spend his last days in the same happiness as the rest of his life.

One night the old Dreamer awoke and, without knowing why, went to the clearing where once he and his guide had met the girl he was to marry, and there he was enveloped in a great light. Before his astonished eyes, the Star Maiden appeared to him. “Thank you,” she said. Suddenly the Dreamer remembered his ancient Quest, and fell to his knees before her apparition. “Forgive me, my lady. I have betrayed you, like the father of my fathers”. She smiled: “No, Dreamer. None of you betrayed me. You said it yourself. Life is a dream. And also death is a dream. This is the key to the Dream of Dreams, which you have found, and which your ancestor had already found. Who do you think was the girl he saw at the well, and with whom he fell in love? Who do you think was the girl you thought you freed, and who freed you instead? The Melody of Immortality has always been the one that all the worlds play and sing incessantly, since before they came into existence, and it is older than the Old Piper himself. The Last Gate only concealed the deception that something was hidden, the Old Piper’s subtlest deception, but for that very reason the most vain of his tricks. The Old Piper was always the one who deceived himself, if he ever believed that the Chariot would let him get in his way when the Chariot himself did not want to. But the veil shall remain over the eyes of the children of men until the wheel turns again, for so it is with the wheel. In the end the Man of the Thrones, the Charioteer of the Winged Chariot, will come again, and then the worlds will return to the Ocean of Dreams, but none of the living will be lost, for they will continue to dream”. The Dreamer nodded. Now he understood. “You came to get me.” She nodded. “Do you know the way?” she asked him. “You will have to guide me,” said the Dreamer. Then the Dreamer closed his eyes and held out his hand, and the Maiden took the Dreamer by the hand and led him to dwell with her among the stars, and their dreams were one dream in the myriad dreams that make up the Ocean of Dreams.


You say you want mithril on your Rings of Power: A review

SPOILERS AHEAD: So, eventually the season finale of the Amazon “Rings of Power” series aired and everybody can see how the different threads come together, often in unexpected ways, especially compared to the previous episode, where the revelation of the presence of a Balrog in the Dwarf-mines had been nothing but a disappointment, given that we already know he is there from the Peter Jackson trilogy, if not from Tolkien himself. Leaving it unshown would have been much more effective, but the writers did not commit the same error this time, as they managed to convey surprise both concerning Sauron and the Istar.

At this point, we are left with the necessity to evaluate the value of this first season. Overall, a great job was done both visually and technically, everybody agrees so far, and it is pointless to discuss questions of fidelity to Tolkien in the light of the awareness that it is an adaptation, many are starting to understand, so no more issues of black Elves and beardless Dwarf-Queens, please (even though it should have been enough to know that Tolkien never denied the possibility of either to quiet any trouble).

What has been disputed recently is the quality of writing. Well, first of all we have to take into account the fact that Peter Jackson largely worked freely, without the costraints of having to live up to one of the most successful trilogies of films ever made, as was the case with the Amazon series. This fact comes unnoticed because everybody thinks that having to live up to Tolkien’s name, being already a huge task, is everything. Actually, as a cinematic product, the comparison with Peter Jackson was probably even more of an issue than the comparison with Tolkien, as it would be difficult to compare a serial to Appendices.

To make things even more complicated, between Peter Jackson’s trilogy and the Amazon series there was the huge success of Game of Thrones, a series that largely set the standard for Fantasy television, despite receiving also critical responses, especially concerning the last season (but also related to the author of the original books G.R.R. Martin’s worldview and philosophy).

So, to sum up, the Amazon series had to:
1) honor and respect Tolkien’s legacy, but also be original, entertaining and compelling for a 21st century audience;
2) manage not to be a repetition of Peter Jackson’s films in series format, but also to be as good as them;
3) avoid to be some sort of Tolkienesque Game of Thrones, but at the same time not result naive, vintage, or escapist.

What is the result that the writers manage to produce out of these high, almost impossible expectations? I feel comfortable in saying, a very good one, as the series does not contraddict Tolkien in any essential point, it is interesting, innovative, and fun to watch, references Jackson’s films without being pedantic or relying too much on its memory, it is not Jaime Lannister in Elven armor nor is it pink unicorns taking young girls away from awkward situations with rude cousins.

Is it as good as Peter Jackson’s trilogy? Not in all aspects, as clearly the plot of The Lord of the Rings is a difficult opponent to beat, even in the diluted form by Jackson, but is it worthy of standing next to it? Definitely, yes. Being realistic, nobody could expect anything better than what we have gotten, and honestly I am even a little surprised in the positive sense at how they managed to carry out the whole undertaking of bringing Middle-earth back on screen.

I trust there will be people who will disagree with me, because some reactions have been piloted towards skepticism from the very start of the project, when it was still only a rumor of meetings between Amazon and the Tolkien Estate (I recall it quite clearly, although several years ago at this point), but even so the general audience is satisfied with the product and I think that everybody who understands cinema, television and the fantasy genre should be.

To paraphrase U2, “You say you want mithril on your Rings of Power”, but sometimes you have to treasure the mithril you get and melt it together with gold and silver from Valinor instead of digging a whole vein in Moria.

Tolkien’s Japan

“Tolkien is not usually considered a Japanophile, with only a single reference to that country amongst his voluminous published correspondence – a letter written during the last months of World War Two commenting on Japan’s imminent surrender following the dropping of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Letters 116). Indirectly there is another, for as early as 1914, whilst an undergraduate at Oxford University, Tolkien purchased Japanese woodblock prints for his rooms at Exeter College (Carpenter 69). The paucity of first-hand accounts and direct mention of Japan by Tolkien may imply a lack of knowledge or interest. In contrast, elements of his art suggest otherwise, with The Hobbit dust jacket a case in point”.

(“Tolkien’s Japonisme: Prints, Dragons, and a Great Wave” by Michael Organ, Tolkien Studies, vol. 10, pp. 105-122)

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai
The Hobbit dust jacket by J.R.R. Tolkien
Dragon Fudou eating the devil-subduing sword Kurikara by Katsushika Okusai
Dragon by J.R.R. Tolkien

“Migrating birds” by Hubert van Herreweghen

The summer that has cheated us;
the gloomy lesson autumn brings.
Beneath the slow, high cumulus,
I see a black bird fly across,
heading south with beating wings.

The magical flight of the wild geese
and cranes with their clamouring cries
over the land like a golden fleece.
Winter brings shadows, dark without cease,
until a new journey fills up the skies.

Vulnerable heart and senses in pain,
There is no home, in east or west,
where, landed, you’re not restless again.
You must learn to love life, that’s plain,
Or, anyway, to love the rest.

Hubert van Herreweghen

Tolkien’s Recovery and Tennyson’s King Arthur

Idylls of the King

In his lecture and essay “On Fairy-stories” Tolkien defines the fundamental function of Fairy-stories he names Recovery:

“Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining – regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves” (OFS [83])

The problem Tolkien seems to have with the expression ‘seeing things as they are’ is apparently an issue of defining in strictly theoretical terms what things really are (an impossible task, suitable to be solved only by taking into account the mere fact that things in fact do exist). But Tolkien clarifies that such a problem is not an issue for him, only for “philosophers”, and presumably not all philosophers, but only those who are willing not to take the existence of things as a given in and by itself.

Yet, Tolkien does not immediately say “how we are (or were) meant to see [things]”, but first uses the expression he himself knows to be problematic to some. Why? I suppose that the reason is simply the fact that Tolkien has a source in mind, one consisting in nothing less than the final speech of King Arthur in Alfred Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King”:

“I found Him in the shining of the stars,
I marked Him in the flowering of His fields,
But in His ways with men I find Him not.
I waged His wars, and now I pass and die.
O me! for why is all around us here
As if some lesser god had made the world,
But had not force to shape it as he would,
Till the High God behold it from beyond,
And enter it, and make it beautiful?
Or else as if the world were wholly fair,
But that these eyes of men are dense and dim,
And have not power to see it as it is:

Perchance, because we see not to the close;—
For I, being simple, thought to work His will,
And have but stricken with the sword in vain;
And all whereon I leaned in wife and friend
Is traitor to my peace, and all my realm
Reels back into the beast, and is no more.
My God, thou hast forgotten me in my death;
Nay—God my Christ—I pass but shall not die.”

Arthur knows that there is God above all gods and that the world is fair and meant to be and to be seen as fair, yet in his bitterness he thinks that it appears as though a minor god had created the world without being able to fully accomplish the task, or that men have no eyes to see the beauty and goodness of the world. Tolkien wrote “The Lord of the Rings” in order to prove that there is only God above all else, and only he deserves to be worshipped (Letters, no. 183), and wrote about Recovery in his “On Fairy-stories” in order to recall us how we need to “clean our windows” and restore the original purity of our sight, so that Arthur is neither wrong nor right: we are (were) meant to see God as the Creator and Creation as beauty, and the Fall made us see “through a glass darkly”, but we may recall our original view, and rest in assurance that it will be restored once and for all in the life to come. It is certainly genius by both Tennyson and Tolkien to colour the Fall of Camelot and Modern skepticism/defeatism, respectively, with Edenic undertones, as it strengthens in both cases effect and resonance of their poetry, or argument, and reinforces the idea that the textual coincidence is not a mere occurrence but an actual, intended reference.

“A Greater [Music]” and “A Song of Greater Power”: Lúthien’s Song and Dance in the Light of the Ainulindalë

(Expanded from my presentation at Rimini Tolkien Conference “Tree of Tales” 2021:

Abstract: It is often given for granted that the whole history of Arda somehow reflects the primordial symphony played by the angelic Ainur before the highest deity Ilúvatar before the beginning of days. Yet, the specific modalities of such mirroring did not, up to the present day, receive the attention it should. Therefore, the present writing endeavours to trace the correspondances between the divine music and the narrative dedicated to the amazing accomplishments of the bethrothed Elven maiden Lúthien and human hero Beren. The choice of the latter story among all the tales of Arda is due to the fact that it represented the dearest to Tolkien even among his selection of the three Great Tales of the Elder Days, and thematically because it is a story wherein music plays a fundamental role, more than in any other tale Tolkien wrote.

Ainulindalë by Alassëa Earello
Beren sees Lúthien by Helen Kei


In late 1951, Tolkien was discussing with Milton Waldman of Collins publishing house the opportunity to publish The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion together. The same proposal had been previously declined by Allen & Unwin, which explains Tolkien’s modesty in explaining the reasons of such an ambitious project to Waldman in the long letter he sent him:

Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story – the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country (Letters, no. 131)

According to Britannica, a cosmogonic myth is the same thing as a creation myth, detailing the common origin of everything, whereas an etiological myth only explains the specific origin of a single given thing (how fire came to be, why a city bears its name, etc.). Myths are narratives that express the basic valuations of a religious community. Myths of creation refer to the process through which the world is centred and given a definite form within the whole of reality. They also serve as a basis for the orientation of human beings within the world. This centring and orientation specify humanity’s place in the universe and the regard that humans must have for other humans, nature, and the entire nonhuman world; they set the stylistic tone that tends to determine all other gestures, actions, and structures in the culture.

The cosmogonic (origin of the world) myth is the myth par excellence. In this sense, the myth is akin to philosophy, but, unlike philosophy, it is constituted by a system of symbols; and because it is the basis for any subsequent cultural thought, it contains rational and nonrational forms. There is an order and structure to the myth, but this order and structure is not to be confused with rational, philosophical order and structure. The myth possesses its own distinctive kind of order. Myths of creation have another distinctive character in that they provide both the model for nonmythic expression in the culture and the model for other cultural myths. In this sense, one must distinguish between cosmogonic myths and myths of the origin of cultural techniques and artifacts. Insofar as the cosmogonic myth tells the story of the creation of the world, other myths that narrate the story of a specific technique or the discovery of a particular area of cultural life take their models from the stylistic structure of the cosmogonic myth. These latter myths may be etiological (i.e., explaining origins); but the cosmogonic myth is never simply etiological, for it deals with the ultimate origin of all things. (

The cultural function of cosmogony in specifying the human place in the world both in their relations with other humans and with respect to life, other beings, and the environment means that the need for such myths is “founded in the lesser [etiological] in contact with the earth”, but equally and opposite it is also true that “the lesser draw[s] splendour from the vast backcloths” of cosmogony as “they set the stylistic tone that tends to determine all other gestures, actions, and structures in the culture” as well as producing a “system of symbols” that constitutes “the basis for any subsequent cultural thought”. On one hand, this is certainly true for the fictional Elves of Tolkien’s mythology to whom Tolkien’s cosmogonic myth is supposed to belong; on the other, but at a further degree of remove, the English people to whom Tolkien would dedicate his efforts in mythmaking, as well as any sensitive reader, do accept, in their minds at least, what Tolkien terms the “Secondary Belief” (OFS) in the “Elf-centric” (Letters, no. 131) world in its own fictitious, narrative consistency. This way, Tolkien’s approach to the relations between “the larger” and “the lesser” legends may be considered not to be an exception but reflecting shared features among most mythologies as generally defined by Britannica. After all, if such correspondences are reputed to exist by modern scientists observing how the shape of DNA resembles spiralling galaxies, or even how atomic models remind one of the planetary systems, it can still be surprising how a poet such as William Blake began his 1803 poem Auguries of Innocence by writing inspiring lines expressing ideas not too far from the same basic concept: “To see a world in a grain of sand / And a heaven in a wild flower, / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, / And eternity in an hour” (Blake 1988: 490). About three centuries earlier, Italian artist Leonardo Da Vinci had already represented the human figure of his Vitruvian Man as the connection between the circle of heaven and the square of earth, based on the idea of the human person as “microcosm” reflecting therein the vast “macrocosm” or universe:

Leonardo envisaged the great picture chart of the human body he had produced through his anatomical drawings and Vitruvian Man as a cosmografia del minor mondo (“cosmography of the microcosm”). He believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy, in microcosm, for the workings of the universe. Leonardo wrote: “Man has been called by the ancients a lesser world, and indeed the name is well applied; because, as man is composed of earth, water, air, and fire…this body of the earth is similar.” (

The notion, sometimes translated in modern English as “as above, so below”, was often reformulated in alchemical texts during the Middle Ages, and Tolkien might perhaps have read the early 15th century Middle English version of the Emerald Tablet preserved in MS. Lambeth 501 as a part of The Governance of Lordshipes, one of three Middle English translations of the Latin Secreta Secretorum published by the Early English Text Society in 1898, wherein the following is attributed to Hermogenes: Sothfastnesse hauys him so, þat it ys no doute þat þinges by-negh answeres to þinges abown, And þinges abown to þinges byneth. (Steele 1898: 88) However, Tolkien certainly knew the concept as given in the passage from the Gospel describing the election of Saint Peter by Jesus: And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16, 18-19 KJV) Eventually, by looking among ancient texts from the pre-Christian age, one does not find the explicit notion of “as above, so below” either in Roman or in Greek culture, nor in Egyptian or Mesopotamic cosmologies, and yet, as we earlier saw, each cosmogonic myth had a foundational purpose as the cornerstone of its civilization, providing each culture not only with the legitimization of their rulers and priests, but also accompanying the whole of the activities and even domestic life of the entire community. As we shall soon see, this also applies to Tolkien’s legends.

Tolkien’s heroic-fairy-romance in a musical cosmogony

However to readers of The Silmarillion nowadays it is no mystery which is Tolkien’s cosmogonic myth, in 1951 only a few people he knew were aware of the extent of his mythology, so he explicitely tells Milton Waldman the following:

The cycles begin with a cosmogonic myth: the Music of the Ainur. God and the Valar (or powers: Englished as gods) are revealed. These latter are as we should say angelic powers, whose function is to exercise delegated authority in their spheres (of rule and government, not creation, making or re-making). They are ‘divine’, that is, were originally ‘outside’ and existed ‘before’ the making of the world. Their power and wisdom is derived from their Knowledge of the cosmogonic drama, which they perceived first as a drama (that is as in a fashion we perceive a story composed by some-one else), and later as a ‘reality’ (Letters, no. 131)

It is noteworthy to underline that ‘The Music of the Ainur’ is the English title Tolkien gave to the earliest version of his cosmogony, composed between November 1918 and April 1920 (BoLT 1: 45) and posthumously published by his son Christopher in The Book of Lost Tales: Part One. All the subsequent versions instead are generally titled by Christopher by the Elvish name sharing the same meaning as the earlier English title: ‘Ainulindalë’, whereas his father used one or the other, or even both, interchangeably. Christopher undoubtedly made this choice for sake of simplicity, since the textual history of the cosmogonic myth by his father is already quite complex as it is, and establishing a consistent nomenclature certainly helps the reader. Nonetheless, the tale itself always maintained its general outline untouched throughout such a complex history: the One God Ilúvatar creates the angelic (divine) Ainur, then proposes them to enrich a musical theme of his own devising through their musical talents. They produce a great music all in harmony, before one of them rebels against God and starts playing his own music regardless of the others and the main theme. Twice God rises from his throne to offer reconciliation to the rebel angel Melkor by introducing further musical themes, but twice more his kind offering is refused, so God rises a third time and abruptly ends all music.

Thereafter, the Ainur, rebels included, are shown by God that through their music a world is made, grander and richer than their music alone could ever be, and even the dissonance introduced by would-be opposers serves a larger purpose into the divine design. Many of the Ainur then decide to enter the new-made world in order to help God’s purpose therein, so becoming the Valar, or Powers, ruling and governing what to them appears as an infinite source of wonder. Most of all, though, they are fascinated by what God alone created when introducing his third theme: the two races of the Children of God, who are called Elves and Men. However Tolkien may say that the whole Silmarillion is Elf-centric, though, the earliest version of his mythology was way more focused on Elves, when compared to the later reworkings. On one hand, for example, ‘The Music of the Ainur’ reveals that Men will take part into a Second Music of the Ainur after the world’s end, whereas Elves, however unending may their lives be on Earth, then will meet a fate unknown to the Valar themselves. Arguably, this mystery, although fictional, is an inspiring concept in relativizing the reader’s very human anxieties over the transience of human life. Although Tolkien never consistently made himself clear on this matter, I doubt that Tolkien’s later rephrasing of the sentence was unintentional in stating instead that both the races of the Children of God will join the angelic choirs after the end, as Christopher supposed. In the latter’s words:

Early in the text just given ([BoLT 1] p.53) occurs the sentence: ‘It is said that a mightier [music] far shall be woven before the seat of Ilúvatar by the choirs of both Ainur and the sons of Men after the Great End’; and in the concluding sentence of the text: ‘Yet while the sons of Men will after the passing of things of a certainty join in the Second Music of the Ainur, what Ilúvatar has devised for the Eldar beyond the world’s end he has not revealed even to the Valar, and Melko has not discovered it.’ Now in the first revision of the Ainulindalë (which dates from the 1930s) the first of these sentences was changed to read: ‘. . . by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days’; whereas the second remained, in this essential, unchanged. This remained the case right through to the final version. It is possible that the change in the first passage was unintentional, the substitution of another common phrase, and that this was never subsequently picked up. However, in the published work (pp. 15, 42) I left the two passages as they stand. (BoLT 1: 63)

On the other hand, a further example can be found in the earliest story of Beren and Lúthien, titled ‘The Tale of Tinúviel’: herein, instead of their union being the coronation of the common origin of the two races of the Children in a happy marriage whence the first Half-Elf is born, both characters belong to the Elven race, and the hardships they have to face before getting married are only due to Lúthien’s father’s ostility towards the different Elven kin of Beren’s. And it is precisely in the tale of these two lovers that Tolkien identifies the “romantic fairy-story” acting as a counterpart to his cosmogonic myth, an identification clearly expressed by Tolkien himself to Waldman:

The chief of the stories of the Silmarillion, and the one most fully treated is the Story of Beren and Lúthien the Elfmaiden. Here we meet, among other things, the first example of the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) that the great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak – owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama. It is Beren the outlawed mortal who succeeds (with the help of Lúthien, a mere maiden even if an elf of royalty) where all the armies and warriors have failed: he penetrates the stronghold of the Enemy and wrests one of the Silmarilli from the Iron Crown. Thus he wins the hand of Lúthien and the first marriage of mortal and immortal is achieved. As such the story is (I think a beautiful and powerful) heroic-fairy-romance, receivable in itself with only a very general vague knowledge of the background. But it is also a fundamental link in the cycle, deprived of its full significance out of its place therein. For the capture of the Silmaril, a supreme victory, leads to disaster. The oath of the sons of Fëanor becomes operative, and lust for the Silmaril brings all the kingdoms of the Elves to ruin. (Letters, no. 131)

At this point it appears evident how, even if Tolkien in his 1951 letter to Waldman on a general level is certainly expressing intentions and ideas he always had in writing his legends from the very beginning, these same intentions and ideas underwent a long process of transformation in their development across years and decades. As a consequence, though, instead of stepping away from the initial aim, it often happens that in the process of rewriting and revising the original purpose is better suited and addressed. In the case of the proposed correspondence between the Music of the Ainur and the tale of Beren and Lúthien I will then first survey the earliest version of both stories in The Book of Lost Tales, then I will compare The Lay of Leithian with what Christopher terms the B text of the ‘Ainulindalë’, eventually to deal with Christopher’s ‘Ainulindalë’ and ‘Of Beren and Lúthien’ chapters in the published Silmarillion, always keeping an eye on the original sources used by Tolkien’s son.

‘The Music of the Ainur’ and ‘The Tale of Tinúviel’ in The Book of Lost Tales

In the first version of Tolkien’s cosmogony there is already the idea of the overflowing of the music of the Ainur as water flooding out of the halls of Ilúvatar into the surrounding void:

Then the harpists, and the lutanists, the flautists and pipers, the organs and the countless choirs of the Ainur began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar into great music; and a sound arose of mighty melodies changing and interchanging, mingling and dissolving amid the thunder of harmonies greater than the roar of the great seas, till the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar and the regions of the Ainur were filled to overflowing with music, and the echo of music, and the echo of the echoes of music which flowed even into the dark and empty spaces far off. Never was there before, nor has there been since, such a music of immeasurable vastness of splendour; though it is said that a mightier far shall be woven before the seat of Ilúvatar by the choirs of both Ainur and the sons of Men after the Great End. Then shall Ilúvatar’s mightiest themes be played aright; for then Ainur and Men will know his mind and heart as well as may be, and all his intent. (BoLT 1: 53)

The earliest version is particularly interesting since the connection between the Music and the water element is here especially stressed in writing “of harmonies greater than the roar of the great seas” (BoLT 1: 53). In fact, the roar of the ocean is later shown to the Ainur by God and they are utterly amazed:

Then the Ainur marvelled to see how the world was globed amid the void and yet separated from it; and they rejoiced to see light, and found it was both white and golden, and they laughed for the pleasure of colours, and for the great roaring of the ocean they were filled with longing. (BoLT 1: 56)

The reason for the special highlighting of water is found in the explanation immediately following:

Their hearts were glad because of air and the winds, and the matters whereof the Earth was made – iron and stone and silver and gold and many substances: but of all these water was held the fairest and most goodly and most greatly praised. Indeed there liveth still in water a deeper echo of the Music of the Ainur than in any substance else that is in the world, and at this latest day many of the Sons of Men will hearken unsatedly to the voice of the Sea and long for they know not what.
Know then that water was for the most part the dream and invention of Ulmo, an Ainu whom Ilúvatar had instructed deeper than all others in the depths of music. (BoLT 1: 56)

When Tinúviel is held prisoner on the Hirilorn treehouse to prevent her departure to rescue Beren from the evil Prince of cats Tevildo, she performs three magical songs in a succession, each more powerful than the earlier, meanwhile mixing water and wine.

The next day she asked those who came to her to bring, if they would, some of the clearest water of the stream below, “but this,” she said, “must be drawn at midnight in a silver bowl, and brought to my hand with no word spoken,” and after that she desired wine to be brought, “but this,” she said, “must be borne hither in a flagon of gold at noon, and he who brings it must sing as he comes,” and they did as they were bid, but Tinwelint was not told. (BoLT 2: 19)

Her second song is especially relevant as it lists all the longest things, to conclude by the mention of Uinen’s hair, identified as the length of all waters in Arda:

Now Tinúviel took the wine and water when she was alone, and singing a very magical song the while, she mingled them together, and as they lay in the bowl of gold she sang a song of growth, and as they lay in the bowl of silver she sang another song, and the names of all the tallest and longest things upon Earth were set in that song; the beards of the Indravangs, the tail of Karkaras, the body of Glorund, the bole of Hirilorn, and the sword of Nan she named, nor did she forget the chain Angainu that Aule and Tulkas made or the neck of Gilim the giant, and last and longest of all she spake of the hair of Uinen the lady of the sea that is spread through all the waters. Then did she lave her head with the mingled water and wine, and as she did so she sang a third song, a song of uttermost sleep, and the hair of Tinúviel which was dark and finer than the most delicate threads of twilight began suddenly to grow very fast indeed, and after twelve hours had passed it nigh filled the little room, and then Tinúviel was very pleased and she lay down to rest; and when she awoke the room was full as with a black mist and she was deep hidden under it, and lo! her hair was trailing out of the windows and blowing about the tree boles in the morning. (BoLT 2: 19-20)

Tinúviel’s enchantment appears to work as sympathetic magic, associating the Elven maiden’s hair to Uinen’s, thus to cause her hair to grow to the point of “overflowing”, her song in turn being a domestic parallel to the Music of the Ainur outpouring from the halls of God in echoes and the echoes of echoes. This way, then, Tinúviel herself is compared to the stature of an Ainu, however she may actually be “only” the daughter of an Elven King and a lesser goddess, here called Gwendeling.

After all, already her dance in the hemlock clearing, winning her Beren’s heart forever, was said to be only comparable to the dance of a Valië, the enchanting Nessa:

Tinúviel’s joy was rather in the dance, and no names are set with hers for the beauty and subtlety of her twinkling feet.
Now it was the delight of Dairon and Tinúviel to fare away from the cavernous palace of Tinwelint their father and together spend long times amid the trees. There often would Dairon sit upon a tussock or a tree-root and make music while Tinúviel danced thereto, and when she danced to the playing of Dairon more lissom was she than Gwendeling, more magical than Tinfang Warble neath the moon, nor may any see such lilting save be it only in the rose gardens of Valinor where Nessa dances on the lawns of never-fading green. (BoLT 2: 10)

However, the dance episode’s first description here reported is way less striking than in subsequent versions, and Beren is rescued by his lover from Tevildo’s dungeons only thanks to the help of the hound Huan, and even the retrieval of the Silmaril from Melko’s crown relies almost entirely on Tinúviel’s previously discussed enchantment, the sleep-inducing effects of which still persist under their performer’s control. Even her plead to Mandos, apart from being confusing in a frame wherein Beren is a Gnome, is also presented as a sort of childish fable, being added to the tale’s ending only by children in the Cottage of Lost Play.

This way, perhaps strikingly, the whole focus of the tale is set onto Tinúviel’s incantation in the tree-house, motivated by her love for Beren and taking place in three subsequent songs, like the three themes of the Music of the Ainur. As we earlier saw, a cosmogonic myth sets “the stylistic tone that tends to determine all other gestures, actions, and structures in the culture” ( In this light, it is likely that Tolkien focused chiefly on Tinúviel’s threefold incantation as a microcosm unfolding of the macrocosm angelic symphony, taking place in water as the substance holding the deepest memory of the Music, and being an incantation performed through song and dance as the primordial Music sets gestures, actions, and structures in Elven culture to a musical tone. Furthermore, the two lovers have to “win” three courts each (Tevildo’s excepted since it is won by Huan): in a chronological order, both first win the inner court of each other’s heart, then she breaks free from her father in Arthanor, while Beren wins the Silmaril against Melko in Angamandi, thus also gaining her father’s court’s approval, before Tinúviel obtains her beloved back from the dead in the halls of Mandos. This is another tripartite structure which parallels the Music of the Ainur, also in being twofold tripartite between the two members of the couple, just as three themes presented by God correspond to three musical executions by the Ainur.

The Lay of Leithian and ‘Ainulindalë B’

With Beren reduced to a mortal man, the emphasis in The Lay of Leithian is much more placed on his beloved, from the very beginning of the poem, underlying how the King her father had

beryl, pearl, and opal pale, 15
and metal wrought like fishes mail,
buckler and corslet, axe and sword,
and gleaming spears were laid in hoard –
all these he had and loved them less
than a maiden once in Elfinesse; 20
for fairer than are born to Men
a daughter had he, Lúthien.
Such lissom limbs no more shall run
on the green earth beneath the sun;
so fair a maid no more shall be 25
from dawn to dusk, from sun to sea.
(Lays 156)

The tale in this version is much more serious, forfeiting the beast-fable overtones of the Tevildo episode, now substituted by the evil Thú, who will later become Sauron. Other major additions are the passage in Nargothrond and the role played by Celegorm and Curufin, two sons of Fëanor. Lúthien voice is now directly compared to waters, and the Canto narrating her imprisonment and escape from Doriath begins by associating her to the Esgalduin river and the roaring of its waves:

So days drew on from the mournful day;
the curse of silence no more lay
on Doriath, though Dairon’s flute
and Lúthien’s singing both were mute.
The murmurs soft awake once more 1210
about the woods, the waters roar
past the great gates of Thingol’s halls;
but no dancing step of Lúthien falls
on turf or leaf. For she forlorn,
where stumbled once, where bruised and torn, 1215
with longing on him like a dream,
had Beren sat by the shrouded stream
Esgalduin the dark and strong,
she sat and mourned in a low song:
‘Endless roll the waters past! 1220
To this my love hath come at last,
enchanted waters pitiless,
a heartache and a loneliness.’
(Lays 199-200)

The following narration details her talks with her mother, with Dairon, and with King Thingol, who commands her reclusion out of fear his daughter would try and reach Beren. As in the previous tale, she asks for water, wine, a spinning wheel, and a loom, and they are brought to her. However the lines describing her enchantment are even more captivating than the prose version of Lost Tales, the whole passage is too long to quote fully, so I can only recommend the reader to check lines 1476-1523 on Lays 205-206, meanwhile pointing out how the new poetical tale interestingly contrasts such narration with the opening of the Canto abovecited.

In ‘Ainulindalë B’, the overflowing of the Music is still there, but the “melodies (…) interchanging” of The Book of Lost Tales have now become “endless”, perhaps in conjunction with the “endless roll” of the “waters past” inspiring in Lúthien the idea how to escape:

Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies, woven in harmonies, that passed beyond hearing both in the depths and in the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void. Never was there before, nor has there since been, a music so immeasurable, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then shall the themes of Ilúvatar be played aright, and take being in the moment of their playing, for all shall then understand his intent in their part, and shall know the comprehension each of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret Fire, being well pleased. (LR 156-157)

The roar of the sea instead was erased, replaced by the Music passing “beyond hearing both in the depths and in the heights”. I suspect Tolkien in this second phase first connected the Lay, dated to 1926, to the earlier text of the ‘Music’ by the roaring of waters, then at some point between ‘Ainulindalë A’ and ‘B’, meaning the 1930s, introduced the changes somewhat to dissimulate the earlier, stronger water connection previously treated, which anyway is still implied by the “overflowing” of all versions. The reason he had in such a dissimulation lies most probably in the fact that he had something even more striking in mind than comparing Lúthien to the Valar (the comparison to Nessa is also dropped).

In the Lay, before the couple reaches Angband, the fortress of Melkor, Beren tries to leave Lúthien behind in order to protect her from the perils he chose to face alone in defiance toward Thingol. Nonetheless, soon his love catches up with him once more, and finds him singing his leavetaking from her:

‘Farewell sweet earth and northern sky,
for ever blest, since here did lie,
and here with lissom limbs did run,
beneath the moon, beneath the sun, 3325
Lúthien Tinúviel
more fair than mortal tongue can tell.
Though all to ruin fell the world,
and were dissolved and backward hurled
unmade into the old abyss, 3330
yet were its making good, for this –
the dawn, the dusk, the earth, the sea –
that Lúthien on a time should be!’
(Lays 276-277)

Upon hearing this, she reveals to him, and replies:

‘A, Beren, Beren!’ came a sound,
‘almost too late have I thee found!
O proud and fearless hand and heart,
not yet farewell, not yet we part! 3345
Not thus do those of elven race
forsake the love that they embrace.
A love is mine, as great a power
as thine, to shake the gate and tower
of death with challenge weak and frail 3350
that yet endures, and will not fail
nor yield, unvanquished were it hurled
beneath the foundations of the world.
Beloved fool! escape to seek
from such pursuit; in might so weak 3355
to trust not, thinking it well to save
from love thy loved, who welcomes grave
and torment sooner than in guard
of kind intent to languish, barred,
wingless and helpless him to aid 3360
for whose support her love was made!’
(Lays 277)

In Beren’s song, Lúthien’s fairness has become ineffable, and she is even suggested to be the reason for which the whole world was even created. For her, though, it is not so much his love for her that is important, but her own love for him, which somehow seems to have just happened in a totally spontaneous, yet inexplicable, fashion, and “endures, and will not fail / nor yield, unvanquished were it hurled / beneath the foundations of the world”.

Beneath the foundations of the world there is only the abyss, and it is here that the new connection Tolkien operates with the ‘Ainulindalë’ is found, as in ‘B’ one reads: “In the midst of this strife [of sounds between the theme of Ilúvatar and Melkor’s discordant music], whereat the halls of Iluvatar shook and a tremor ran through the dark places, Ilúvatar raised up both his hands, and in one chord, deeper than the abyss, higher than the firmament, more glorious than the sun, piercing as the light of the eye of Iluvatar, the music ceased” (LR 158). In the earlier text of ‘The Music of the Ainur’, the abyss was not mentioned here (see BoLT 1: 54). Nonetheless, the world is in all versions said to be “globed amid the Void, and it was sustained therein, but not of it” (LR 159), which means that the foundations of the world consist in the Secret Fire, that “burned in the heart of the World”.

In other words, however one might account for poetical diction and love-talk, what is here textually suggested is that Beren and Lúthien’s love is a direct expression of the Creator’s mind and will, a part of his providential design, and as such not only comparable or equal to the Ainur, but even their superior in being given to take part into the Secret Fire, the only true spark of Creation.

‘Ainulindalë’ and ‘Of Beren and Lúthien’ in The Silmarillion

As I earlier mentioned, the role of waters in both the cosmogonic myth and the romantic fairy-story remains, although diminished: in the former case the mention of the roaring seas when the Great Music is described, once suppressed in ‘Ainulindalë B’, never returns; in the latter, all versions of the tale from the ‘Sketch of the Mythology’ to the ‘Later Quenta Silmarillion Series 2’ either do not offer details at all concerning Lúthien’s escape from Doriath, or they inform the readers they may find the details of her escape in The Lay of Leithian. Uinen’s hair are no longer mentioned. Nonetheless, the idea of overflowing waters becomes a motif throughout Tolkien’s narratives thereafter: the most prominent example is obviously the fall of Númenor, but also the flood of Beleriand in the War of Wrath, and minor instances may also be identified in the flood of river Bruinen and the Ents’s inundation of Orthanc. Furthermore, as I already pointed out, the importance of water was still recognized in both tales surveyed throughout all their reworkings, and preserved by Christopher in the published Silmarillion: the Music of the Ainur always fills the halls of Ilúvatar to “overflowing”, water is always the element wherein the Music most resonates, and Lúthien’s song sounds like the voice of clear waters.

In fact, as I previously stated, Tolkien is simply shifting his depiction of the Elven maiden from a comparative to a superlative: it is not enough anymore to say she is like this and that, however godly they may be, but it is she to whom others are compared when praising them, like in Arwen’s case, whereas she herself remains uncomparable and over the top. However Huan may help, it is she (already in the Lay) rescuing Beren from Sauron’s grip, winning a song duel against the latter, a contest even a mighty Elven Lord such as Finrod had lost. The use of the comparative is still present, as she is said to sing first “a song which no walls of stone could hinder” (TS 108) in order to let her presence be known by Beren, who joins her singing. Then she sings “a song of greater power” to defeat Sauron, and this choice of words recalls the “greater music” to be sung by the Ainur and the Children of God after the end of days.

Concerning Christopher’s devising of the chapter ‘Of Beren and Lúthien’, more specifically in the Angband sequence, Douglas Kane comments:

More significantly, removed from the statement in the next sentence that Luthien was not daunted by Morgoth’s eyes is the qualifier that she was the only one in Middle-earth about whom that was true. I find this change surprising and unfortunate, since Luthien’s uniqueness (she is described as “the greatest of all the Eldar” in The Shibboleth of Fëanor; see PoMe, 357 n. 14) is such an important idea to Tolkien. (Kane 2011: 180)

Moreover, where previous versions offered different accounts of the ending of her story, eventually a single ending takes over which sees her singing a song so sad, so beautiful, so touching that even Mandos is moved to pity and brings Beren back to her from the dead so that they may after all live their romance in peace until their lives last. In The Silmarillion we read:

Lúthien came to the halls of Mandos, where are the appointed places of the Eldalië, beyond the mansions of the West upon the confines of the world. There those that wait sit in the shadow of their thought. But her beauty was more than their beauty, and her sorrow deeper than their sorrows; and she knelt before Mandos and sang to him.
The song of Lúthien before Mandos was the song most fair that ever in words was woven, and the song most sorrowful that ever the world shall ever hear. Unchanged, imperishable, it is sung still in Valinor beyond the hearing of the world, and the listening the Valar grieved. For Lúthien wove two themes of words, of the sorrow of the Eldar and the grief of Men, of the Two Kindreds that were made by Ilúvatar to dwell in Arda, the Kingdom of Earth amid the innumerable stars. And as she knelt before him her tears fell upon his feet like rain upon stones; and Mandos was moved to pity, who never before was so moved, nor has been since.
Therefore he summoned Beren, and even as Lúthien had spoken in the hour of his death they met again beyond the Western Sea. But Mandos had no power to withhold the spirits of Men that were dead within the confines of the world, after their time of waiting; nor could he change the fates of the Children of Ilúvatar. He went therefore to Manwë, Lord of the Valar, who governed the world under the hand of Ilúvatar; and Manwë sought counsel in his inmost thought, where the will of Ilúvatar was revealed. (TS 116)

Here Lúthien’s song to Mandos is said to be “imperishable”. The word appears only 14 times in the whole History of Middle-earth series, most of them qualifying the Flame Imperishable, a new name that Tolkien most likely first devised in the early 1950s for the Secret Fire bestowing the Creator’s gifts of reality and life. Since Manwë finds that it is God’s will to make an exception for Lúthien even to the strictest law of death, I think it only follows that the description of the Elf princess’s song as “imperishable” does not only mean that it will always be sung, but also that it takes part in the Secret Fire that “is within it and yet in all parts of it, and is its life” (TS 38).


Elizabeth Whittingham cites Westermann’s categorization of Creation myths into different types (Whittingham 2007: 40-42):

  • Creation by birth (Hesiod, Sumerian myths)
  • Creation by an action or activity (Ovid, Babylonian Enuma Elish, Norse myths, Kalevala)
  • Creation as the result from a struggle (Ovid, Babylonian Enuma Elish)
  • Creation by the Word (Genesis, John 1)

Although Tolkien’s Arda is created by the Word of Ilúvatar: “Ëa! Let these things be!”, his Creation is also made by the musical activity of the Ainur, and also as the result of the musical contention between his Ainur and the rebel angels led by Melkor. Furthermore, as in both Judaism and Christianity, also in Tolkien’s myth Creation is not done once and for all, but is a continuous development throughout the ages, as the primordial Music unfolds, sometimes even beyond the understanding of the Valar, but only founded in God’s providence, as in the coming of the Children. In the light of such awareness, both the initial comparison of Tinúviel, her song and dance, to the Valar, and her eventual presentation as superlative and beyond compare, starting in The Lay of Leithian to continue and flourish throughout the late versions, point to the exceptional character of her standing. In her indeed Ilúvatar himself first saw fit to accomplish his design of joining the two races of his Children in the marriage whence their son Dior Eluchil is born. I think in this case one may come closer to Westermann’s notion of Creation by birth in Tolkien’s Arda than one may ever get. Perhaps, one may guess, the song of Lúthien before Mandos, also described as weaving the themes of both kins together, might be the fourth theme that the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar will sing after the end of days, when all that is good and beautiful will receive the Flame Imperishable and become real and true.

Works Cited

Britannica. ‘Creation Myth.’, last access 09-10-2021.

Britannica. ‘Anatomical studies and drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci’, last access 09-10-2021.

Blake, William. Erdman, D.V., ed., ‘Auguries of Innocence’ in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), 490-493.

Kane, Douglas Charles, Arda reconstructed : the creation of the published Silmarillion. Lanham, Maryland: Lehigh University Press, 2011.

Steele, Robert, (ed.), The Governance of Lordshipes in Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum. Vol. I: Text and Glossary. (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1898), 41-118.

Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel, The Book of Lost Tales, Part I (London: Harper Collins, 2016)

Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel, The Book of Lost Tales, Part II (London: Harper Collins, 2016)

Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel, The Lays of Beleriand (London: Harper Collins, 1992)

Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel, The Lost Road and Other Writings (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989)

Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel, The Shaping of Middle-earth (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1989)

Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel, The Silmarillion (London: Harper Collins, 2013)

Tolkien, J.R.R., Carpenter, H. (ed.), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (London: Harper Collins, 2006)

Tolkien, J.R.R., Flieger, V. (ed.), On Fairy-Stories (London: Harper Collins, 2008)

Whittingham, Elizabeth A., The evolution of Tolkien’s mythology : a study of the history of Middle-earth (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2008)

Towards a Theology of Fantasy: A Review of “The Theological Landscape of Middle-earth” by Fr. Francis of the Child Jesus Nekrosius, CSJ

There is no doubt we all could take great advantage from the proper development of a Theology of Fantasy, one such as founding it is the declared intent of CSJ Fr. Francis of the Child Jesus Nekrosius’s book “The Theological Landscape of Middle-earth”. Unfortunately, the volume falls way too short from achieving such a task, and even as a study of Tolkien’s works it is largely rhapsodic, derivative, and inconclusive.

The first chapter is devoted to the Theology of Beauty, but it barely mentions Hans Urs von Balthasar’s ponderous work on the same theme, “The Glory of the Lord”, and completely ignores Lisa Coutras’s excellent contribution to the connection between Tolkien and von Balthasar, in the form of her 2016 book “Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty”.

Chapter Two treats the relations between Mythopoiesis and Fantasy under a Christian lens, and it has nothing to add on the subject to what is already widely known, apart from a quote by Louis Buoyer on the eschatological Mythopoiesis which the author found in Michel Devaux’s “Tolkien. Les Racines du Légendaire” and for which no context is provided, as though the original source was never consulted. Besides that, Fr. Nekrosius largely depends on Caldecott, Birzer, and Bernthal, as in every other part of the book.

In the third chapter, concerning “The Lord of the Rings”, it is interesting to find the same observations that I made elsewhere, concerning the necessary co-implication of temptation and Eden, but no adequate space is given to such a finding, instead to repeat the usual considerations of Waybread as the Eucharist, crossing rivers as Baptism, etc.

In the fourth and final chapter one finds the insight that Tolkien’s notion of Escape is reminiscent of Plato’s cave, another point I made myself, and yet no exploration of the connection is offered, nor is it linked to the more explicit Platonism of the other two Inklings C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

After all, Fr. Nekrosius’s book could work as a brief, easy introduction to the theme of Christianity in “The Lord of the Rings”, referencing more extensive classical explorations of the subject, but it has nothing new to offer in terms of original research and only barely sketches the proposition of a Theology of Fantasy which is still yet-to-be-developed.

“Elsewhen”: A Review of “First Rider’s Call” by Kristen Britain

As you open the second book of Kristen Britain’s “Green Rider” series, prepare to be drawn in a whirlwind of plots among plots, involving, among others, the ancient Kings of Sacoridia, the rise and fall of Mornhavon the Black, the breaking of the D’yer Wall, magic gone wild, an Imperial conspiracy against the Crown, the First Rider Lil Ambriodhe, the noble families of Sacoridia, the Eletians…

It is almost like it is too much to be kept within the strict boundaries of one volume and the inevitable result is that you end up having finished your reading with a sense of dissatisfaction for the several threads left unraveled without a proper, even temporary and partial, closure. I do not mean that I am entirely disappointed, but the narrative spends almost five hundred pages building up for a grand finale that is eventually denied to the reader, so I enjoyed my reading but I am left craving for more in a way that is not entirely pleasant, unlike when I finished “Green Rider”, the first volume.

However, there are many highlights I would like to point out, scattered throughout the narrative. The first is the opening, which is utterly brilliant, suspended between the hilariousness of Karigan’s ride in nightgown, the sense of familiarity involved in the bonds between Green Riders, and the eeriness of the wraith. Then I should also mention the curiosity as one deals with the progress in the revelations unfolding in the excerpts from the journal of Hadriax El Fex. Also the episodes with the First Rider and the Eletians are magnificent. What weighs on the reader is chiefly Karigan’s everyday’s duties, as they are very similar and slowpaced, often risking downright boredom.

Waiting for the third volume, at the time being I still recommend the series, but with the benefit of a doubt, to see where the author leads us next time, hoping she does better as she proved to be able to in “Green Rider”.

Tolkien and C.S. Lewis on Education

From The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien:

250 To Michael Tolkien 76 Sandfield Road, Headington, Oxford

1 November 1963

Dearest M.

Thank you for writing – also at length! I do not think you have inherited a dislike of letterwriting from me, but the inability to write briefly. Which inevitably means seldom in your life (and in mine). I think we both like writing letters ad familiares; but are obliged to write so much in the way of ‘business’, that time and energy fail.

I am very sorry that you feel depressed. I hope this is partly due to your ailment. But I am afraid it is mainly an occupational affliction, and also an almost universal human malady (in any occupation) attaching to your age. …. I remember clearly enough when I was your age (in 1935). I had returned 10 years before (still dewy-eyed with boyish illusions) to Oxford, and now disliked undergraduates and all their ways, and had begun really to know dons. Years before I had rejected as disgusting cynicism by an old vulgarian the words of warning given me by old Joseph Wright.

‘What do you take Oxford for, lad?’ ‘A university, a place of learning.’ ‘Nay, lad, it’s a factory! And what’s it making? I’ll tell you. It’s making fees. Get that in your head, and you’ll begin to understand what goes on.’

Alas! by 1935 I now knew that it was perfectly true. At any rate as a key to dons’ behaviour. Quite true, but not the whole truth. (The greater part of the truth is always hidden, in regions out of the reach of cynicism.) I was stonewalled and hindered in my efforts (as a schedule B professor on a reduced salary, though with schedule A duties) for the good of my subject and the reform of its teaching, by vested interests in fees and fellowships. But at least I did not suffer as you have: I was never obliged to teach anything except what I loved (and do) with an inextinguishable enthusiasm. (Save only for a brief time after my change of Chair in 1945 – that was awful.)

The devotion to ‘learning’, as such and without reference to one’s own repute, is a high and even in a sense spiritual vocation; and since it is ‘high’ it is inevitably lowered by false brethren, by tired brethren, by the desire of money*, and by pride: the folk who say ‘my subject’ & do not mean the one I am humbly engaged in, but the subject I adorn, or have ‘made my own’. Certainly this devotion is generally degraded and smirched in universities. But it is still there. And if you shut them down in disgust, it would perish from the land — until they were re-established, again to fall into corruption in due course.

The far higher devotion to religion cannot possibly escape the same process. It is, of course, degraded in some degree by all ‘professionals’ (and by all professing Christians), and by some in different times and places outraged; and since the aim is higher the shortcoming seems (and is) far worse. But you cannot maintain a tradition of learning or true science without schools and universities, and that means schoolmasters and dons. And you cannot maintain a religion without a church and ministers; and that means professionals: priests and bishops — and also monks.† The precious wine must (in this world) have a bottle,‡ or some less worthy substitute.

For myself, I find I become less cynical rather than more – remembering my own sins and follies; and realize that men’s hearts are not often as bad as their acts, and very seldom as bad as their words. (Especially in our age, which is one of sneer and cynicism. We are freer from hypocrisy, since it does not ‘do’ to profess holiness or utter high sentiments; but it is one of inverted hypocrisy like the widely current inverted snobbery: men profess to be worse than they are.)….

290 From a letter to Michael George Tolkien 28 October 1966

[Tolkien’s grandson was now a graduate student at Oxford.]

I am interested to hear what you say about your work, and your growing view of ‘research’ as applied to modern literature. I am myself and always have been sceptical about ‘research’ of any kind as part of the occupation or training of younger people in the language-literature schools.

There is such a lot to learn first. It is often forced on students after schools because of the desire to climb on to the great band-waggon of Science (or at least onto a little trailer in tow) and so capture a little of the prestige and money which ‘The Sovereignties and Powers and the rulers of this world’ shower upon the Sacred Cow (as one writer, a scientist, has named it) and its acolytes. But many of those devoted to the Arts privately desire nothing more than a chance to read more.

Quite rightly. For there is a climacteric, at any rate in people of our N.W. race, occurring somewhere in the mid-twenties, before which knowledge acquired is retained (and digested); after which it becomes rapidly and increasingly evanescent. I should think seriously about the change to a B. Phil. if it contains subjects suitable to yourself. (It was established after my time, so, though I advocated something of its kind, I do not know how it’s now arranged. After 40 years as both a slave and a deviser of them I cannot now look at University statutes or syllabuses without a sickfeeling.)

From J.R.R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics:


It might be held characteristic that, though I have occupied two chairs (or sat uneasily on the edge of two chairs) in this university, I have not yet delivered an inaugural lecture: I am now about 34 years behind. At the time of my first election I was too astonished (a feeling that has never quite left me) to gather my wits, until I had already given many ordinary lectures as required by statute, and it seemed to me that an inaugural that would not inaugurate was a ceremony better omitted. On the second occasion, my ineffectiveness as a lecturer was already well known, and well-wishers had made sure (by letter or otherwise) that I should know it too; so I thought it unnecessary to give a special exhibition of this unfortunate defect. And, though twenty years had then gone by, during which this matter of the overdue inaugural had been much on my mind, I had not yet discovered anything special to say.

Fourteen more years have now passed, and I still have nothing special to say. Nothing, that is, of the kind proper to inaugurals -as far as I can judge by those that I have read: the products of minds more sanguine, or more efficient and magisterial than mine. The diagnosis of what is wrong, and the confident prescription of the cure; the wide view, the masterly survey; plans and prophecies: these have never been in my line. I would always rather try to wring the juice out of a single sentence, or explore the implications of one word than try to sum up a period in a lecture, or pot a poet in a paragraph. And I am afraid that what I would rather do is what I have usually done.

For I suppose that, at any rate since the golden days long past when English studies were unorganized, a hobby and not a trade, few more amateurish persons can ‘by a set of curious circumstances’ have been put in a professional position.

For thirty-four years my heart has gone out to poor Koko, taken from a county jail; though I had one advantage over him. He was appointed to cut off heads, and did not really like it. Philology was part of my job, and I enjoyed it.

I have always found it amusing. But I have never had strong views about it. I do not think it necessary to salvation. I do not think it should be thrust down the throats of the young, as a pill, the more efficacious the nastier it tastes.

But if the ranks of Tuscany should feel inclined to cheer, let me hasten to assure them that I do not think their wares are necessary to salvation either; much of what they offer is peddler’s stuff. I have indeed become more, not less, bigoted as a result of experience in the little world of academic English studies.

‘Bigoted’ is for the Tuscans. Speaking to the Romans, defending the city and the ashes of their fathers, I would say ‘convinced’. Convinced of what? Convinced that Philology is never nasty: except to those deformed in youth or suffering from some congenital deficiency. I do not think that it should be thrust down throats as a pill, because I think that if such a process seems needed, the sufferers should not be here, at least not studying or teaching English letters. Philology is the foundation of humane letters; ‘misology’ is a disqualifying defect or disease.

It is not, in my experience, a defect or disease found in those whose literary learning, wisdom, and critical acumen place them in the highest rank – to which so many in the Oxford School have in various ways attained. But there are other voices, epigonal rather than ancestral. I must confess that at times in the last thirty odd years I have been aggrieved by them; by those, afflicted in some degree by misology, who have decried what they usually call language. Not because they, poor creatures, have evidently lacked the imagination required for its enjoyment, or the knowledge needed for an opinion about it. Dullness is to be pitied. Or so I hope, being myself dull at many points. But dullness should be confessed with humility; and I have therefore felt it a grievance that certain professional persons should suppose their dullness and ignorance to be a human norm, the measure of what is good; and anger when they have sought to impose the limitation of their minds upon younger minds, dissuading those with philological curiosity from their bent, encouraging those without this interest to believe that their lack marked them as minds of a superior order.

But I am, as I say, an amateur. And if that means that I have neglected parts of my large field, devoting myself mainly to those things that I personally like, it does also mean that I have tried to awake liking, to communicate delight in those things that I find enjoyable. And that without suggesting that they were the only proper source of profit, or pleasure, for students of English.

I have heard sneers at certain elementary kinds of linguistic ‘research’ as mere spelling-counting. Let the phonologist and the orthographer have their swink to them reserved! Of course. And the same to the bibliographer and typographer – still further removed from the living speech of men which is the beginning of all literature. Contemplating the workings of the B.Litt. sausage-machine, I have at times dared to think that some of the botuli, or farcimina, turned out were hardly either tasty or nourishing, even when claimed to be ‘literary’. But, to use a perhaps more apt simile, the twin peaks of Parnassus are approached through some very dim valleys. If scrambling in these, without any climbing, is sometimes rewarded with a degree, one must hope that one of the peaks at least has been glimpsed from afar.

However, that is not a matter which I wish to explore deeply: that is, ‘research’ and ‘research degrees’ in relation to the ordinary courses of learning – the socalled ‘postgraduate’ activities, which have in recent years shown such rapid growth, forming what one might call our ‘hydroponic’ department. A term which, I fear, I only know from science-fiction, in which it seems to refer to the cultivation of plants without soil in enclosed vehicles far removed from this world. But all fields of study and enquiry, all great Schools, demand human sacrifice. For their primary object is not culture, and their academic uses are not limited to education. Their roots are in the desire for knowledge, and their life is maintained by those who pursue some love or curiosity for its own sake, without reference even to personal improvement. If this individual love and curiosity fails, their tradition becomes sclerotic.

There is no need, therefore, to despise, no need even to feel pity for months or years of life sacrificed in some minimal enquiry: say, the study of some uninspired medieval text and its fumbling dialect; or of some miserable ‘modern’ poetaster and his life (nasty, dreary, and fortunately short) – NOT IF the sacrifice is voluntary, and IF it is inspired by a genuine curiosity, spontaneous or personally felt.

But that being granted, one must feel grave disquiet, when the legitimate inspiration is not there; when the subject or topic of ‘research’ is imposed, or is ‘found’ for a candidate out of some one else’s bag of curiosities, or is thought by a committee to be a sufficient exercise for a degree. Whatever may have been found useful in other spheres, there is a distinction between accepting the willing labour of many humble persons in building an English house and the erection of a pyramid with the sweat of degree-slaves.

But the matter is not, of course, as simple as all that. It is not just a question of the degeneration of real curiosity and enthusiasm into a ‘planned economy’, under which so much research time is stuffed into more or less standard skins and turned out in sausages of a size and shape approved by our own little printed cookery book. Even if that were a sufficient description of the system, I should hesitate to accuse anyone of planning it with foresight, or of approving it wholeheartedly now that we have got it. It has grown, partly by accident, partly by the accumulation of temporary expedients. Much thought has gone into it, and much devoted and little remunerated labour has been spent in administering it and in mitigating its evils.

It is an attempt to treat an old trouble and a real need with the wrong tool. The old trouble is the loss of the M.A. as a genuine degree. The real need is the desire for knowledge. The wrong tool is a ‘research’ degree, the proper scope of which is much more limited, and which functions much better when it is limited.

But the M.A. has become a reward for a small ‘postgraduate’ subscription to the university and to a college, and is untouchable. Meanwhile many of the better students – I mean those who have studied English for love, or at least with love as one of their mixed motives – wish to spend more time in a university: more time in learning things, in a place where that process is (or should be) approved and given facilities. What is more, such students are still at a time of life, soon to pass, and the sooner the less the faculty is exercised, when the acquisition of knowledge is easier, and what is acquired is more permanent, more thoroughly digested and more formative. It is a pity that so often the last of the growing, feeding, years are spent in the premature attempt to add to knowledge, while the vast existing storehouses remain unvisited. Or if they are visited, too often this is done after the manner of research-mice running off with little bits nibbled out of unexplored sacks to build up a little thesis. But alas! those with the more eager minds are not necessarily those who possess more money. The powers that hold the purse-strings require a degree; and those who allot places in an overcrowded university require one too. And we have only a so-called research degree to offer them. This is, or can be, better than nothing. Many would-be learners do well enough at minor research. Some take the chance of using much of their time in reading what they wish, with little reference to their supposed task: that is, in doing on the side, hampered and left-handed, what they should be doing openly and unhindered. But the system cannot be praised for this accidental good that may in spite of it occur within it. It is not necessarily the swifter or wider mind that it is easiest to ‘find a subject’ for, or to bring down to brass tacks and business to the satisfaction of the Applications Committee. The ability to tackle competently and within approved limits a small subject is, in the early twenties, as likely to belong to a small and limited mind as to a future scholar with the hunger of youth.

If the reform that I always had at heart, if the B.Litt. regulations could have been altered (as I once hoped) to allow an alternative approach by examination, to reward reading and learning at least equally with minor research, I should have left the English School more happily. If even now the School could embrace the newer B.Phil, (an unnecessary and inappropriate additional degree-title), I should regard it as a far greater advance than any remodelling or ‘new look’ given to the Honour syllabus.

As far as my personal experience goes, if I had been allowed to guide the further reading and study of those for whom the Honour School had opened vistas and awakened curiosity, I could have done more good in less time than in the socalled supervision of research, done by candidates who had essential territories yet to explore, and who, in the breathless march from Prelim, to Final Schools, had also left much country in rear, only raided and not occupied.

There are always exceptions. I have met some. I have had the good fortune to be associated (the right word) with some able researching graduates, more of them than my small aptitude for the task of supervisor has merited. Some of them took to research like otters to swimming. But they were the apparent exceptions that prove the thesis. They were the natural researchers (the existence of whom I have never denied). They knew what they wanted to do, and the regions that they desired to explore. They acquired new knowledge and organized it quickly, because it was knowledge that they desired to have anyway: it and the particular enquiry were all of one piece; there was no mere mugging up.

I said that I did not wish to explore the matter of the organization of research deeply; but I have nonetheless spoken (for such an occasion) too long about it. Before I stand down finally, I must say something about our main business: the Final Honour School. Not that the topics are unconnected. I think that the possibility of taking a higher, or at least a further, degree for learning things, for acquiring more of the essential parts of the English field, or for digging deeper in some of them, might well have good effects on the Honour School. In brief: if the abler students, the future scholars, commonly took a third public examination, it might no longer be felt necessary to arrange in the second public examination a four-year syllabus for the reading-time of two years and a bit.

It is in any case, I suppose, obvious that our Honour syllabus is over-crowded, and that the changes that come into force next year have not done much to cure this. The reasons are various. For one thing, related to the situation of the M.A., three years is supposed, in this land, to be quite long enough to play with books in a university, and four years is extravagant. But while the academic vita is shortened, the ars gets longer. We now have on our hands one thousand and two hundred years of recorded English letters, a long unbroken line, indivisible, no part of which can without loss be ignored. The claims of the great nineteenth century will soon be succeeded by the clamour of the twentieth. What is more, to the honour of English but not to the convenience of syllabus-planners, some of the earliest writings show vitality and talent that makes them worthy of study in themselves, quite apart from the special interest of their earliness. So-called Anglo-Saxon cannot be regarded merely as a root, it is already in flower. But it is a root, for it exhibits qualities and characteristics that have remained ever since a steadfast ingredient in English; and it demands therefore at least some first-hand acquaintance from every serious student of English speech and English letters. This demand the Oxford School has up to now always recognized, and has tried to meet. In such a range divergence of interests, or at any rate of expertise, is inevitable.

But the difficulties have not been helped, indeed they have been bedevilled, by the emergence of two legendary figures, the bogeys Lang and Lit. So I prefer to call them, since the words language and literature, though commonly misused among us, should not be thus degraded. Popular mythology seems to believe that Lang came from a cuckoo-egg laid in the nest, in which he takes up too much room and usurps the worms of the Lit chicken. Some believe that Lit was the cuckoo, bent on extruding her nest-fellow or sitting on him; and they have more support from the actual history of our School. But neither tale is well-founded.

In a Bestiary more nearly reflecting the truth Lang and Lit would appear as Siamese Twins, Jekyll-Hyde and Hyde-Jekyll, indissolubly joined from birth, with two heads, but only one heart, the health of both being much better when they do not quarrel. This allegory at least resembles more closely our older statute: Every candidate will be expected to show a competent knowledge of both sides of the subject, and equal weight in the examination will be attacked to each.

What the ‘sides’ were was to be deduced from the title of the School which we still bear: The Honour School of English Language and Literature. Though this becomes in the running headline of the Examination Statutes: English Language, etc. And that I have always thought a more just title; not that we require the etc.

The full title was, I think, a mistake; and it has in any case had some unfortunate results. Language and Literature appear as ‘sides’ of one subject. That was harmless enough, and indeed true enough, as long as ‘sides’ meant, as it should, aspects and emphases, which since they were of ‘equal weight’ in the subject as a whole, were neither of them normally exclusive, neither the sole property of this or that scholar, nor the sole object of any one course of study.

But alas! ‘sides’ suggested ‘parties’, and too many then took sides. And thus there entered in Lang and Lit, the uneasy nest-fellows, each trying to grab more of the candidates’ time, whatever the candidates might think.

I first joined the School in 1912 – by the generosity of Exeter College to one who had been up to then an unprofitable exhibitioner; if he learned anything at all, he learned it at the wrong time: I did most of my undergraduate work on the Germanic languages before Honour Moderations; when English and its kindred became my job, I turned to other tongues, even to Latin and Greek; and I took a liking to Lit as soon as I had joined the side of Lang. Certainly I joined the side of Lang, and I found the party-breach already wide; and unless my recollections are mistaken, it went on widening for some time. When I came back from Leeds in 1925, WE no longer meant students of English, it meant adherents of Lang or of Lit. THEY meant all those on the other side: people of infinite guile, who needed constant watching, lest THEY should down US. And, the rascals, so they did! For if you have Sides with labels, you will have Partisans. Faction fights, of course, are often fun, especially to the bellicose; but it is not clear that they do any good, any more good in Oxford than in Verona. Things may to some have seemed duller in the long period during which the hostility was damped; and to such they may seem livelier if the smoulder breaks out again. I hope not. It would have been better if it had never been kindled. Removal of the misunderstanding of words may sometimes produce amity. So though the time left is short, I will now consider the misuse of language and literature in our School. I think the initial mistake was made when The School of English Language and Literature was first adopted as our title. Those who love it call it the School of English or the English School – in which, if I may intrude a Lang remark, the word English is not an adjective, but a noun in loose composition. This simple title, School of English, is sufficient. And if any should say ‘English what?’, I would answer: ‘For a thousand recorded years English as a noun has meant only one thing: the English Language.’ If the title then is made explicit, it should be The School of English Language. The parallel formula is held good enough for our peers, for French and Italian and others. But lest it be thought that this is a partisan choice, let me say that actually, for reasons that I will give, I should be well content with Literature – if Letters is now too archaic.

We hold, I suppose, that the study of Letters in all languages that possess them is ‘humane’, but that Latin and Greek are ‘more humane’. It may, however, be observed that the first part of the School of Humaner Letters is stated to be ‘The Greek and Latin Languages’; and that this is defined as including ‘the minute critical study of authors … the history of Ancient Literature’ (that is Lit) ‘and Comparative Philology as illustrating the Greek and Latin Languages’ (that is Lang).

But of course it can be objected that English, in an English-speaking university, is in a different position from other Letters. The English language is assumed to be, and usually is, the native language of the students (if not always in a Standard form that would have been approved by my predecessor). They do not have to learn it. As a venerable professor of Chemistry once said to me – I hasten to add that he is dead, and did not belong to Oxford – ‘I do not know why you want a department of English Language; I know English, but I also know some chemistry.’

Nonetheless I think that it was a mistake to intrude Language into our title in order to mark this difference, or to warn those who are ignorant of their own ignorance. Not least because Language is thus given, as indeed I suspect was intended, an artificially limited and pseudo-technical sense which separates this technical thing from Literature. This separation is false, and this use of the word ‘language’ is false.

The right and natural sense of Language includes Literature, just as Literature includes the study of the language of literary works. Litteratura, proceeding from the elementary sense ‘a collection of letters; an alphabet’, was used as an equivalent of Greek grammatike and philologia: that is, the study of grammar and idiom, and the critical study of authors (largely concerned with their language). Those things it should always still include.

But even if some now wish to use the word ‘literature’ more narrowly, to mean the study of writings that have artistic purpose or form, with as little reference as possible to grammatike or philologia, this ‘literature’ of theirs remains an operation of Language. Literature is, maybe, the highest operation or function of Language, but it is none the less Language. We may except only certain subsidiaries and adminicles: such as those enquiries concerned with the physical forms in which writings have been preserved or propagated, epigraphy, palaeography, printing, and publishing. These may be, and often are, carried on without close reference to content or meaning, and as such are neither Language nor Literature; though they may furnish evidence to both.

Only one of these words, Language and Literature, is therefore needed in a reasonable title. Language as the larger term is a natural choice. To choose Literature would be to indicate, rightly as I think, that the central (central if not sole) business of Philology in the Oxford School is the study of the language of literary texts, or of those that illuminate the history of the English literary language. We do not include some important parts of linguistic study. We do not teach directly ‘the language as it is spoken and written at the present day’, as is done in Schools concerned with modern languages other than English. Nor are our students expected to compose verses or to write proses in the archaic idioms that they are supposed to learn, as are students of the Greek and Latin languages.

But whatever may be thought or done about the title of our School, I wish fervently that this abuse in local slang and of the word language might be for ever abandoned! It suggests, and is used to suggest, that certain kinds of knowledge concerning authors and their medium of expression is unnecessary and ‘unliterary’, the interest only of cranks, not of cultured or sensitive minds. And even so it is misapplied in time. In local parlance it is used to cover everything, within our historical range, that is medieval or older. Old and Middle English literature, whatever its intrinsic merit or historical importance, becomes just ‘language’. Except of course Chaucer. His merits as a major poet are too obvious to be obscured; though it was in fact Language, or Philology, that demonstrated, as only Language could, two things of first-rate literary importance: that he was not a fumbling beginner, but a master of metrical technique; and that he was an inheritor, a middle point, and not a ‘father’. Not to mention the labours of Language in rescuing much of his vocabulary and idiom from ignorance or misunderstanding. It is, however, in the backward dark of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Semi-Saxon’ that Language, now reduced to the bogey Lang, is supposed to have his lair. Though alas! he may come down like Grendel from the moors to raid the ‘literary’ fields. He has (for instance) theories about puns and rhymes!

But this popular picture is of course absurd. It is the product of ignorance and muddled thinking. It confuses three things, quite different. Two of them are confined to no period and to neither ‘Side’; and one though it may attract and need specialist attention (as do other departments of English studies) is also confined to no period, is neither dark, nor medieval, nor modern, but universal.

We have, first: the linguistic effort and attention required for the reading of all texts with intelligence, even those in so-called modern English. Of course this effort increases as we go back in time, as does the effort (with which it goes hand in hand) to appreciate the art, the thought and feeling, or the allusions of an author. Both reach their climax in ‘Anglo-Saxon’, which has become almost a foreign language. But this learning of an idiom and its implications, in order to understand and enjoy literary or historical texts, is no more Lang, as an enemy of literature, than the attempt to read, say, Virgil or Dante in their own tongues. And it is at least arguable that some exercise of that kind of effort and attention is specially needed in a School in which so much of the literature read seems (to the careless and insensitive) to be sufficiently interpreted by the current colloquial speech.

We have second: actual technical philology, and linguistic history. But this is confined to no period, and is concerned with all aspects of written or living speech at any time: with the barbarous forms of English that may be met today as much as with the refined forms that may be found a thousand years ago. It may be ‘technical’, as are all departments of our studies, but it is not incompatible with a love of literature, nor is the acquisition of its technique fatal to the sensibility either of critics or of authors. If it seems too much concerned with ‘sounds’, with the audible structure of words, it shares this interest with the poets. In any case this aspect of language and of the study of language is basic: one must know sounds before one can talk; one must know one’s letters before one can read. And if philology seems most exercised in the older periods, that is because any historical enquiry must begin with the earliest available evidence. But there is also another reason, which leads to the third thing.

The third thing is the use of the findings of a special enquiry, not specially ‘literary’, for other and more literary purposes. Technical philology can serve thepurposes of textual and literary criticism at all times. If it seems most exercised in the older periods, if the scholars who deal with them make most use of philology, that is because Philology rescued the surviving documents from oblivion and ignorance, and presented to lovers of poetry and history fragments of a noble past that without it would have remained for ever dead and dark. But it can also rescue many things that it is valuable to know from a past nearer than the Old English period. It seems strange that the use of it seems by some to be regarded as less ‘literary’ than the use of the evidence provided by other studies not directly concerned with literature or literary criticism; not only major matters such as the history of art and thought and religion, but even minor matters such as bibliography. Which is nearer akin to a poem, its metre or the paper on which it is printed ? Which will bring more to life poetry, rhetoric, dramatic speech or even plain prose: some knowledge of the language, even of the pronunciation, of its period, or the typographical details of its printed form ?

Medieval spelling remains just a dull department of Lang. Milton’s spelling seems now to have become part of Lit. Almost the whole of the introduction in the Everyman edition of his poems, which is recommended to the students for our Preliminary, is devoted to it. But even if not all of those who deal with this facet of Milton criticism show an expert grasp of the history of English sounds and spelling, enquiry into his orthography and its relation to his metre remains just Lang, though it may be employed in the service of criticism.

Some divisions in our School are inevitable, because the very length of the history of English letters makes mastery all along the line difficult even to the widest sympathy and taste and a long life. These divisions should not be by Lang and Lit (one excluding the other); they should be primarily by period. All scholars should be to an adequate degree, within any period to which they are devoted, both Lang and Lit, that is both philologists and critics. We say in our Regulations that all candidates taking papers in English Literature (from Beowulf to A.D. 1900) ‘will be expected to show such knowledge of the history of England as is necessary for the profitable study of the authors and periods which they offer’. And if the candidates, the teachers too, one may suppose. But if the history of England, which though profitable is more remote, why not the history of English ?

No doubt this point of view is more widely understood than it once was, on both sides. But minds are still confused. Let us glance again at Chaucer, that old poet out in the No-man’s land of debate. There was knifework, axe-work, out there between the barbed wire of Lang and Lit in days not so far back. When I was a young and enthusiastic examiner, to relieve the burden of my literary colleagues (at which they loudly groaned), I offered to set the Chaucer paper, or to help in reading the scripts. I was astonished at the heat and hostility with which I was refused. My fingers were dirty: I was Lang.

That hostility has now happily died down; there is some fraternization between the barbed wire. But it was that hostility which, in the reformed syllabus of the early thirties (still in essentials surviving), made necessary the prescription of two papers dealing with Chaucer and his chief contemporaries. Lit would not allow the greedy hands of Lang to soil the poet. Lang could not accept the flimsy and superficial papers set by Lit. But now, with the latest reform, or mild modification, that comes into force next year, once more Chaucer is presented in one common paper. Rightly, I should have said. But alas! What do we see? ‘Candidates for Courses I and II may be required to answer questions on language’!

Here we have hallowed in print this pernicious slang misuse. Not ‘his language’, or ‘their language’, or even ‘the language of the period’; just ‘language’. What in the name of scholarship, or poetry, or reason, can that here mean? It should mean, in English fit to appear in documents of the University of Oxford, that certain candidates may be asked questions of general linguistic import, without limitation of time or place, on a paper testing knowledge of the great poetry of the Fourteenth Century, under the general heading ‘English Literature’. But since that is lunatic, one must suppose that something else is meant.

What kind of question can it mean which no candidate of Course III need ever touch? Is it wicked to enquire, in paper or viva voce, what here or there Chaucer really meant, by word or form, or idiom? Is metre and verse-technique of no concern to sensitive literary minds? Must nothing in any way related to Chaucer’s medium of expression be ever allowed to disturb the cotton wool of poor Course III ? Then why not add that only Course I and II may be required to answer questions that refer to history or politics, to astronomy, or to religion?

The logical result of this attitude, indeed its only rational expression, would be this direction: ‘Courses I and II may be expected to show knowledge of Chaucer in the original; Course III will use a translation into contemporary English’. But, if this translation, as may well happen, should at any point be erroneous, this may not be mentioned. That would be ‘language’.

I have once or twice, not so long ago, been asked to explain or defend this language: to say (I suppose) how it can possibly be profitable or enjoyable. As if I were some curious wizard with arcane knowledge, with a secret recipe that I was unwilling to divulge. To compare the less with the greater, is not that rather like asking an astronomer what he finds in mathematics? Or a theologian what is the interest of the textual criticism of Scripture? As in Andrew Lang’s fable a missionary turned on a critic with the words: ‘Did Paul know Greek?’ Some members of our School would probably have said: ‘Did Paul know language?’ I did not accept the challenge. I did not answer, for I knew no answer that would not appear uncivil. But I might have said: ‘If you do not know any language, learn some — or try to. You should have done so long ago. The knowledge is not hidden.

Grammar is for all (intelligent persons), though not all may rise to star-spangled grammar. If you cannot learn, or find the stuff distasteful, then keep humbly quiet. You are a deaf man at a concert. Carry on with your biography of the composer, and do not bother about the noises that he makes!’

I have said enough, perhaps more than enough for this occasion. I must now get out of the chair and finally stand down. I have not made any effective apologia pro consulatu meo, for none is really possible. Probably my best act in it is the leaving of it – especially in handing it on to its elected occupant, Norman Davis.

Already one of the chair-borne, he will know that in the cosy cushions, which legend furnishes for professorial seats, many thorns lurk among the stuffing. He can have those too, with my blessing.

If we consider what Merton College and what the Oxford School of English owes to the Antipodes, to the Southern Hemisphere, especially to scholars born in Australia and New Zealand, it may well be felt that it is only just that one of them should now ascend an Oxford chair of English. Indeed it may be thought that justice has been delayed since 1925. There are of course other lands under the Southern Cross. I was born in one; though I do not claim to be the most learned of those who have come hither from the far end of the Dark Continent. But I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White.

But even as I step off — not quite the condemned criminal, I hope, that the phrase suggests – I cannot help recalling some of the salient moments in my academic past. The vastness of Joe Wright’s dining-room table (when I sat alone at one end learning the elements of Greek philology from glinting glasses in the further gloom). The kindness of William Craigie to a jobless soldier in 1918. The privilege of knowing even the sunset of the days of Henry Bradley. My first glimpse of the unique and dominant figure of Charles Talbut Onions, darkly surveying me, a fledgling prentice in the Dictionary Room (fiddling with the slips for WAG and WALRUS and WAMPUM). Serving under the generous captaincy of George Gordon in Leeds. Seeing Henry Cecil Wyld wreck a table in the Cadena Café with the vigour of his representation of Finnish minstrels chanting the Kalevala. And of course many other moments, not forgotten if not mentioned; and many other men and women of the Studium Anglicanum: some dead, some venerable, some retired, some translated elsewhither, some yet young and very much with us still; but all (or nearly all — I cannot say fairer than that and remain honest) nearly all dear to my heart.

If then with understanding I contemplate this venerable foundation, I now myself fród in ferðe am moved to exclaim:

Hwær cwóm mearh, hwær cwóm mago? Hwér cwóm máððumgyfa?
Hwær cwóm symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledréamas?
Éalá, beorht bune! Éalá, byrnwiga!
Éalá, þéodnes þrym! Hú seo þrág gewát,
genáp under niht-helm, swá heo nó wære!

(Where is the horse gone, where the young rider? Where now the giver of gifts?
Where are the seats at the feasting gone? Where are the merry sounds in the hall?
Alas, the bright goblet! Alas, the knight and his hauberk!
Alas, the glory of the king! How that hour has departed,
Dark under the shadow of night, as had it never been!)

But that is ‘Language’.

Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen!
Yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!
Yéni ve lintë yuldar vánier
Si man i yulma nin enquantuva?

(Alas! as gold fall the leaves in the wind!
Years innumerable as the wings of trees!
Years like swift draughts of wine have passed away –
Who now will fill again the cup for me?)

But that is ‘Nonsense’.

In 1925, when I was untimely elevated to the stól of Anglo-Saxon, I was inclined to add:

Nearon nú cyningas ne cáseras
ne goldgiefan swylce iú wæron!

(There are not now any kings or emperors, nor any patrons giving gifts of gold, such as once there were!)

But now when I survey with eye or mind those who may be called my pupils (though rather in the sense ‘the apples of my eyes’): those who have taught me much (not least trawþe, that is fidelity), who have gone on to a learning to which I have not attained; or when I see how many scholars could more than worthily have succeeded me; then I perceive with gladness that the duguð has not yet fallen by the wall, and the dream is not yet silenced.

From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume I:

[Malvern College] Postmark: 16 February 1914

How can people advocate a ‘modern’ education? What could be better or more enjoyable than reading the greatest masterpieces of all time, under a man who has made them part of himself? And against this some are foolish enough to oppose algebra and French verbs! The Greek Grammar has not yet put in an appearance. We are turning our attention to Latin where, of course I get on better.

[University College] May 18th [1922]

The advice of my first tutor was repeated by my other one: and with new points. The actual subjects of my own Greats school are a doubtful quantity at the moment: for no one quite knows what place classics and philosophy will hold in the educational world in a year’s time. On the other hand the prestige of the Greats school is still enormous: so that what is wanted everywhere is a man who combines the general qualification which Greats is supposed to give, with the special qualifications of any other subjects. And English Literature is a ‘rising’ subject. Thus if I cd. take a First or even a Second in Greats, AND a first next year in English Literature, I should be in a very strong position indeed: and during the extra year I might reasonably hope to strengthen it further by adding some other University prize to my ‘Optimism’.
‘While I yet pondered’ came the news of a substantial alteration in the English Schools. That course had formerly included a great deal of philology and linguistic history and theory: these are now being thrown over and formed into a separate school, while what remains is simply literature in the ordinary sense–with the exception of learning to read a very few selected passages in Anglo-Saxon, which anyone can do in a month. In such a course, I should start knowing more on the subject than some do at the end: it ought to be a very easy proposition compared with Greats. All these considerations have tended to confirm what my tutor advised in the first place.

From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume II:

Magdalen College,

[?July 1940]

Though I reject (in so far as I understand them) the philosophy and theology of Dr. Rudolph Steiner and the Anthroposophical Movement, I have been intimately acquainted with some who adhere to it for over seventeen years.
One of them is the man of all my acquaintance whose character both moral and intellectual I should put highest, or very nearly so.
Another has written a work on education entitled The Way of a Child289 which seems to me full of good sense.
Another (perhaps the most enthusiastic Anthroposophical of the three)290 has continued throughout the time of our acquaintance to be an excellent mother of five children. The eldest son, who is now old enough for a judgement to be formed about the matter, appears to me to be an alert, healthy, civil and manly boy who reflects nothing but credit to his up-bringing.

Magdalen College,
June 18th 1945

Dear Miss Gladding
If we accept Xtianity at all and then also take into account the enormous infant mortality of the human race as a whole (in a 17th century family 12 children of whom 4 grew up seems to be about normal) we must, I think, believe that the fact of becoming an animal organism and undergoing bodily death is an essential element in being a risen immortal soul in Christ. Not an essential part of being a blessed immortal spirit of some or other kind (e.g. an angel) but of being a blessed human i.e. a creature with a risen body and with that nature to wh. Our Lord was united at the Incarnation. If He wanted only things like angels there wd. have been no point in creating a human race at all.
I don’t see that this adds to the problems of education which, goodness knows, are thorny enough already. You haven’t got to educate people who die in infancy nor (I take it) total imbeciles. You are dealing with souls wh. have what we call a ‘normal’ human life on earth (tho’ in fact only a minority of the human race have reached it). And once they have that it obviously makes a difference how they live it and we can make it easier or harder by good or bad education
yours sincerely
C. S. Lewis

[Magdalen College,
Dear Mr. Dell
I don’t think the idea that evil is an illusion helps.201 Because surely it is a (real) evil that the illusion of evil shd. exist. When I am pursued in a nightmare by a crocodile the pursuit and the crocodile are illusions: but it is a real nightmare, and that seems a real evil. (Whenever one says ‘This isn’t a real so-and-so’, is it not a real something else? e.g. if this is not a real pink rat it is real delirium, if this pupil is not a real sufferer from headache he is a real liar–and so on).
I don’t feel I can advise on the American educational scene. One must not of course distort or suppress the sciences. It is rather, I suppose, a question of reducing them to their proper place–hypotheses (all provisional) about the measurable aspects of physical reality. Sometimes the adjustment between these hypotheses and the quite different pictures we get from Theology, Philosophy, and Art, has to be left in suspense–as discrepancies within the sciences themselves are left in suspense. The popular works of Jeans & Eddington are helpful here, but not to be too loud pedalled for other scientists don’t always agree. There are good books by Sherwood Taylor.202
Thanks v. much for the admirable stationery.

With all good wishes.
yours sincerely
C. S. Lewis

Magdalen College,
March 28th 1941

Thank you very much indeed for The Renaissance and English Humanism which I have read with almost continuous excitement to the accompaniment of two opposite feelings: (a) ‘Thank Heaven here’s a man who has seen through the smoke-screen at last!’ (b) ‘Drat this man, he’s stealing my thunder’–for a great deal of what you say overlaps closely with what I have just lately begun to put into my lectures. (…) P. 43: ‘Ecclesiastical authority gave pagan writings a place in education which the modern liberal world would never dream of giving to religious works; and it was mainly churchmen who copied and preserved the ancient authors for often ungrateful men of the Renaissance to “discover”’. (…) I shake hands with you on that.

From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III:

Magdalen etc. 12/3/50

Dear Firor–

Well, term is over. And the election is over too, but you don’t want to hear about that: except (which is the really remarkable thing) that despite the heavy poll I never knew an election pass with less apparent excitement. Perhaps this is because it was felt to be so important: it is not in the front line that War forms the incessant subject of conversation!
As for term, the last bit of it has been heavy for me with Scholarship Examinations. One answer is so puzzling that I wd. like to hand it on. Commenting on Hamlet’s words

Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unus’d,

one boy explained the first line as meaning ‘He who made the creation of man seem important by talking about it.’ Since this youth, needless to say, has no chance of a scholarship and therefore will not be summoned for an interview, we shall all go to our graves without knowing what he meant. What, do you think, is the Theology implied? My own vein of Irreverence (still, I fear, inexhausted) cannot help building up a picture: the Almighty feeling (and is one surprised?–) that Homo Sapiens could hardly be reckoned among His chefs d’oeuvre, and wondering if a publicity campaign could mend matters.
Not, of course, that all the young men we have to examine are like this. At the other end of the scale comes the candidate for a mathematical Fellowship who said–and was understood by the other mathematician who was examining him, but by no one else in the room–‘I assume that All Stars are Trivially Embedded.’ Can you do that one? (Stars does not mean the things in the night sky, I’m told: nor even, which wd. make sense of another sort, film-stars).
But there is something about this endless examining, quite apart from the labour, which bothers me. It sets me wondering about the whole system under which you, as well as we, now live. Behind all these closely written sheets which I have to read every year, even behind the worst of them, lie hours of hard, long work. Even the bad candidates are doing their best and have been trained up to this ever since they went to school. And naturally enough: for in the Democracies now, as formerly in China under the mandarin system, success in competitive examinations is the only moyen de parvenir,58 the road from elementary school to the better schools, and thence to college, and thence to the professions. (You still have a flourishing alternative route to desirable jobs through business which is largely disappearing with us: but it is at least equally competitive).
This of course is what Democratic education means–give them all an equal start and let the winners show their form. Hence Equality of Opportunity in practice means ruthless Competition during those very years which, I can’t help feeling, nature meant to be free and frolicsome. Can it be good, from the age of 10 to the age of 23, to be always preparing for an exam, and always knowing that your whole worldly future pends on it: and not only knowing it, but perpetually reminded of it by your parents and masters? Is this the way to breed a nation of people in psychological, moral, and spiritual health? (N.B. Boys are now taught to regard Ambition as a virtue. I think we shall find that up to the XVIIIth Century, and back into Pagan times, all moralists regarded it as a vice and dealt with it accordingly).
The old Inegalitarian societies had at least this in their favour, that at least some of their members (the eldest sons of gentlemen living on inherited land, and the agricultural labourers with no chance to rise and therefore no thought of rising) were often really outside the competitive struggle. I have an uneasy feeling that much of the manliness and toughness of the community depended on them. I’m not idealising such societies. The gentry were often bad, the peasantry often (perhaps nearly always) ill treated. I mean only that we haven’t solved the problem. Or, generalising this, I find the social problem insoluble. It is ‘How to extend to all the good life which unequal societies have (sometimes) produced for the few.’
For the good life as (I suppose) you and I conceive it–independence, calling one’s house one’s castle, saying ‘Mind your own business’ to impertinent people, resisting bribes and threats as a matter of course, culture, honour, courtesy, un-assertiveness, the ease and elbow-room of the mind–all this is no natural endowment of the animal Man, but the fine flower of a privileged class. And because it is so fine a flower it breeds, within the privileged class itself, a desire to equalise, a guilty conscience about their privileges. (At least I don’t think the revolt from below has often succeeded, or even got going, without this help from above).

But then, the moment you try to spread this good life you find yourself removing the very conditions of it both from the few and from the many, in other words for all. (The simplest case of all is when you say ‘Here is a beautiful solitude–let us bring charabanc-loads of the poor townsmen to enjoy it’: i.e. let it cease to be a beautiful solitude). The many, merely by being the many, annihilate the goals as soon as they reach them: as in this case of education that I started with.
Don’t imagine that I am constructing a concealed argument in favour of a return to the old order. I know that is not the solution. But what is? Or are we assuming that there must be a solution? Perhaps in a fallen world the social problem can in fact never be solved and we must take more seriously–what all Christians admit in theory–that our home is elsewhere.
Writing to you, as I do, quite irregularly and dealing with whatever happens to be uppermost in my mind at the moment, I feel I am in great danger of repeating myself. Does the same thing always ‘happen to be uppermost’? In other words, have I written this identical letter before? I hope not.
Crocus, primrose, daffodil have all appeared now: almond blossom and catkins too: but no leaves on trees yet. And there’s a Firor Ham in the refrigerator–I’ve never spelled that word before and have my doubts. God bless you.
C. S. Lewis

As from Magdalene College,
8 Dec 1959

Dear Mr. Tucker–
Thank you for your most interesting letter of the 3d. The devil about trying to write satire now-a-days is that reality constantly outstrips you. Ought we to be surprised at the approach of ‘scientocracy’? In every age those who wish to be our masters, if they have any sense, secure our obedience by offering deliverance from our dominant fear. When we fear wizards the Medicine Man can rule the whole tribe. When we fear a stronger tribe our best warrior becomes King. When all the world fears Hell the Church becomes a theocracy. ‘Give up your freedom and I will make you safe’ is, age after age, the terrible offer. In England the omnipotent Welfare State has triumphed because it promised to free us from the fear of poverty.
Mind you, the bargain is sometimes, for a while, kept. A warrior king may really save a tribe from extinction: the Welfare State, at a cost, has come nearer than any society ever did before to giving every man a square meal and a good house to eat it in. The fears from which scientocracy offers to free us are rational ones. We shall fairly soon hopelessly overpopulate this planet and that population will be as defective in quality as excessive in quantity. But we cannot trust these New Masters any more than their predecessors. Do you see any solution?

A hundred years ago we all thought that Democracy was it. Neither you nor I probably think so now. It neither allows the ordinary man to control legislation nor qualifies him to do so. The real questions are settled in secret and the newspapers keep us occupied with largely imaginary issues. And this is all the easier because democracy always in the end destroys education. It did so for you sometime ago and is now doing so for us (see a speech of Screwtape’s wh. will soon appear in the Sat. Evening Post). I am, you see, at my wit’s end on such matters. Only a power higher than man’s can really find a way out. Odd to compare humanity’s political inefficiency with its wonderful success in the arts.
Yours sincerely
C. S. Lewis

From C. S. Lewis, ‘Our English Syllabus’ in Rehabilitations and Other Essays, pp. 81–3:

‘The purpose of education has been described by Milton as that of fitting a man “to perform justly, skilfully, and magnanimously all the offices both private and public, of peace and war”…. Aristotle would substantially agree with this, but would add the conception that it should also be a preparation for leisure, which according to him is the end of all human activity…Human life means to me the life of beings for whom the leisured activities of thought, art, literature, conversation are the end, and the preservation and propagation of life merely the means’

From C. S. Lewis, ‘De Descriptione Temporum’. Inaugural Lecture from The Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, in Walter Hooper (ed.), Selected Literary Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969:

We have lived to see the second death of ancient learning. In our time something which was once the possession of all educated men has shrunk to being the technical accomplishment of a few specialists. (…) If one were looking for a man who could not read Virgil though his father could, he might be found more easily in the twentieth century than in the fifth.

From C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Proposes a Toast:

[T]he spirit of I’m as good as you has already begun something more than a generally social influence. It begins to work itself into their educational system. (…) The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” These differences between pupils — for they are obviously and nakedly individual differences — must be disguised. This can be done at various levels. At universities, examinations must be framed so that nearly all the students get good marks. Entrance examinations must be framed so that all, or nearly all, citizens can go to universities, whether they have any power (or wish) to profit by higher education or not. At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing things that children used to do in their spare time. Let, them, for example, make mud pies and call it modelling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work. Whatever nonsense they are engaged in must have — I believe the English already use the phrase — “parity of esteem.” An even more drastic scheme is not possible. Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma — Beelzebub, what a useful word! — by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Æschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT. (…) In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will vanish.The few who might want to learn will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers-or should I say, nurses?-will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.