Myth and Magic: Art according to the Inklings

Myth and Magic: Art according to the Inklings. Eduardo Segura and Thomas Honegger, eds. Cormarë Series, No. 14. Zollikofen: Walking Tree Publishers, 2007. ISBN 978-3905703085. Softcover. 352pp. $21.25.

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Reviewed by Jason Fisher

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 27.3/4 (#105/106) (2009): 175–81.]

With Myth and Magic: Art according to the Inklings, Walking Tree continues its proliferous ascendancy in the world of Tolkien studies. Myth and Magic, the fourteenth publication in their Cormarë Series, collects fourteen essays on “[m]yth, magic, art and literary creativity [as] central topics of discussion among the Inklings” (back cover) by an international cast of Tolkien scholars. I have no significant reservations in recommending the collection, but symptomatic of that disease all reviewers share (we call it cacoethes carpendi), I do have some smaller ones, if you will indulge me.

From the collection’s title, it would appear that the editors regard myth and magic as two components in a generalized theory of literary art. One would expect to turn to the Preface for an elucidation on the editors’ rationale in selecting these; unfortunately, Segura and Honegger’s Preface is more vague than most in disclosing the mission of the book. It refers first to “the Inklings’ notions of Art, Literature, and Language” (i); then, to the desire for “a profounder understanding of what the Inklings considered the key [note the singular] of literary creation, and of Art” (ii); then, without transition, to “Myth, Art, Magic” (iii); and finally, to “Myth and Language” (iii). The editors never examine the relationship between any of these. Myth, magic, and art appear to be more or less arbitrarily chosen.

Contributing to the feeling of aimlessness are the facts that “[t]he chapters have been distributed in no special order” (iii), and most deal with only one or two of the three titular elements and only one or two of the Inklings. It is difficult to justify the volume’s subtitle when ten out of fourteen essays focus on Tolkien, only five of fourteen focus on Lewis, and none at all take as their primary focus any other Inkling. To be fair, four essays (Simonson, Shippey, Duriez, Segura) do touch on lesser Inklings, in lesser degrees, but at least one essay devoted to Williams or Barfield (better, one each) should have been included for this collection to deserve its subtitle. Unknown to the editors, their desideratum of “[a]n in-depth study of Charles Williams’ works [...] a volume on the allegorical novels of this almost unknown Inkling” (iii) was already being undertaken by Gavin Ashenden, whose Charles Williams: Alchemy and Integration appeared about two weeks before Myth and Magic. At least two of Ashenden’s chapters, “The Encounter between Poet and Magus” and “The Goetic, Theurgic, and Wisdom Traditions,” may be profitably read alongside the present volume. But lest I become bogged down in the front matter, let me move on to consider the essays individually.

Martin Simonson’s “Recovering the ‘Utterly Alien Land’: Tolkien and Transcendentalism” is a strong start. The substance of the essay is a comparison of Tolkien to the American transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and especially Henry David Thoreau. Among several striking similarities are their respective “attempts at finding a mythic language of the wild to express a modern perception of the eternal and to recover a fresh perception of the world, seeing words as the ultimate tools that man must use to bridge the two realities and make the other world visible” (9). The only weak spot I find is that Simonson does nothing (probably can do nothing) to establish a direct chain of influence from the American transcendentalists to Tolkien. The piece would be stronger if he could; yet the correspondence between them, if not causal, nevertheless makes for absorbing reading.

From art and myth, we come next to art and magic in Tom Shippey’s “New Learning and New Ignorance: Magia, Goeteia, and the Inklings.” Shippey uses Lewis’s mammoth English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, as a jumping-off point for a discussion of the Inklings’ thoughts on magic. The “new learning” and “new ignorance” in question come from Lewis’s substantial and abstruse Introduction, itself a 66-page essay! And by the way, as if this weren’t enough, Lewis adds an Epilogue, “New Tendencies.” As with most essays by Shippey, one has the feeling of being privileged to listen in on the musings of a much better educated scholar than oneself. Shippey ranges widely among the works of the major Inklings — e.g., Lewis’s Space Trilogy and Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and “On Fairy-Stores”, and Williams’s series of “occult thrillers” (38) — as well as among the works of other writers, both familiar and arcane — e.g., Chaucer, Shakespeare, Frazer, Paracelsus, Agrippa, Ficino, et alii. But however widely he ranges, Shippey keeps the major landmarks in sight, and the result is compelling argument.

Less successful is the chapter which follows, “Words for Magic: goetia, gûl and lúth,” by Dieter Bachmann. Subtracting the common elements one has just read in Shippey’s essay, immediately preceding, what remains is a brief, narrow, entirely linguistic study of a random handful of words (both real and invented) that Tolkien associated with magic. Despite some shaky arguments, a point I especially appreciated was his caveat that “[a]nyone wishing to cite letter number 155 [an unsent draft] in support of an argument [...] would do well to keep in mind that it does not contain an opinion voiced by Tolkien, but one he decided not to voice” (51). In this, Bachmann joins Michael Drout in cautioning scholars against the abuses of epistolary evidence (see Drout 19-20, 21). Elsewhere, the author could stand to take a closer look at the etymologies of some of the words he explicates. Though unavailable to him at the time, Tolkien’s “Words, Phrases, and Passages” has much to say on the words Bachmann studies, including a completely different and non-magical interpretation of Lúthien as “daughter of flowers” (15).

We come next to Verlyn Flieger’s “When is a Fairy Story a Faërie Story? Smith of Wootton Major,” which treats magic and its reflection through art. The essay was probably conceived — and serves very well — as a bridge between Flieger’s expanded edition of Smith of Wootton Major (2005) and her and Douglas Anderson’s expanded edition of Tolkien On Fairy-Stories (2008). It is a systematic examination of how Smith stands as one practical application of the principles Tolkien set out in his 1939 “On Fairy-Stories.” I say one, because Flieger and Anderson described The Lord of the Rings in just the same way — “the practical application and demonstration of [its] principles” — in Tolkien On Fairy-Stories (15). One quibble in this otherwise exemplary essay: Flieger writes that “[o]f all Tolkien’s works large and small, Smith of Wootton Major has perhaps received the least critical attention from both scholars and the public at large” (57-8). Really? Less attention than Farmer Giles of Ham, Roverandom, or Mr. Bliss? Then, later, Flieger observes that “[m]uch critical speculation has been expended on the possible autobiographical elements” (67) in Smith. The reader is left unsure just how much attention — little or much — the story has been paid.

I found the next essay a bit more of a slog; the title of Colin Duriez’s chapter, “Myth, Fact and Incarnation,” is the only succinct thing about it. It is an ambitious ramble among “notoriously elusive” (78) concepts such as knowledge, meaning, and imagination, backstopped by myth. Duriez is hobbled to some extent by treating a topic of such considerable vagueness. It can be difficult at times to keep the many threads, let alone the larger tapestry, in sight, but with perseverance (and a second reading, in my case), it turns out to be pretty thought-provoking. Duriez contextualizes his argument with the other Inklings, Tolkien and Barfield, as well as with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and George MacDonald, making his one of the more broadly applicable essays in the collection (along with Shippey’s; and Segura’s, which I’ll come to later). One specific objection: if the author was hobbled by his choice of subject, his crutch is an over-dependence on lengthy block quotation. Duriez gives us nearly 2,000 words just in the block quotes alone! Adding to that the quotations within the text, the number is substantially greater. Duriez should have been more selective, pruned those quotations he felt were necessary, and written the rest in his own voice.

Patrick Curry’s “Iron Crown, Iron Cage: Tolkien and Weber on Modernity and Enchantment” left little impression on me. According to his abstract, Curry wishes to liken Tolkien to the German sociologist, Max Weber, yet he opens the essay with the admission, “Tolkien [...] almost certainly never read the social philosopher Max Weber” (99) — not a promising basis for any valuable comparison. Beyond noting the fact of certain similarities, what else can Curry conclude? The answer, perhaps, is the environmentalist agenda slipped in at the end. But the essay does not prepare the reader for the appearance of this agenda in what is really a rather weak conclusion. In any case, the author makes no substantive attempt to explain how the understanding of Tolkien may be advanced through Weber. Worse, how can Curry discuss Tolkien’s and Weber’s metaphors of the iron crown and iron cage, respectively, without mentioning Éowyn’s greatest fear: “A cage, [...] behind bars” (Tolkien LotR V.2.767)?

Returning to myth, co-editor Thomas Honegger assembles a substantial and readable treatment of Tolkien’s putative aim to (re)construct a lost English mythology in “A Mythology for England? Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth.” The (mis)quote, a “mythology for England,” has become such a commonplace (see Fisher) that the idea is seldom now explored, au fond. This essay is also something of a counterpoint to Tom Shippey’s “Tolkien and Iceland: The Philology of Envy”; both authors explain which mythologies Tolkien felt were and were not suitable raw material for his purposes, but from different angles (112-4; Shippey 192-3). Honegger’s conclusion is his coup de grâce — that Tolkien eventually solved the problem of making his mythology English, without a foundational English mythology, by presenting it through the eyes of those “epitome[s] of (modern) Englishness” (126), the hobbits. One slip: Honegger seems sure that the first edition of The Lord of the Rings was published without its appendices (125), but only the promised index was omitted.

Devin Brown’s essay, “Lewis’s View of Myth as a Conveyer of Deepest Truth,” is something of a companion to the chapter by Duriez (as Bachmann’s is to Shippey’s). Unfortunately, it’s the weaker of the two, and too short to make its point convincingly. Despite his own brevity, Brown joins Duriez in excessive block-quotation — all the more conspicuous in such a short essay. Brown wishes to show that Lewis “often found a creative format to be more powerful than an expository one” (131, italics original). But this is a difficult point to make under the best conditions. Here, Brown leaves too many questions unanswered. If true, why did Lewis write so much expository nonfiction (much more than Tolkien)? And Brown seems to assume that Lewis’s fiction and non-fiction have the same goals. Do they?

What follows, in Miryam Librán-Moreno’s “‘A Kind of Orpheus-Legend in Reverse’: Two Classical Myths in the Story of Beren and Lúthien,” is a tour de force analysis of the probable influence of two Classical antecedents on Tolkien: primarily the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, with the tale of Protesilaus and Laodameia adduced to help explain certain “aberrant and isolated detail[s]” (169). Librán-Moreno makes a very sophisticated point (159) of explaining why Tolkien must have drawn on the Classical source for the Orpheus legend, rather than on medieval retellings such as Sir Orfeo, as would normally be assumed. She meanders confidently among Tolkien’s many recensions, as well as in and among a dizzying array of Classical sources, both Greek and Latin (quoting passages in the original languages, with accompanying translation). The essay may be almost too scholarly for some readers. Classical authors and works are abbreviated without the sort of key a lay-reader might require; and the physical organization of the piece resembles a dissertation in miniature. It’s a small complaint, but the essay might have been written with an audience of less specialized erudition in mind, perhaps zeroing in solely on the Orpheus / Eurydice legend and leaving Protesilaus and Laodameia for another day.

If the foregoing essay is long and complex, readers may blanch at Eugenio M. Olivares-Merino’s “A Monster that Matters: Tolkien’s Grendel Revisited.” This is an enormously long essay on the subject of Tolkien’s personal views on the monster. At 54 pages, it’s the longest chapter in the book — six times longer than the book’s shortest. In fact, it’s longer than the essay it makes its subject, Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics!” Longer, but not much broader. Olivares-Merino combines excessive quotation from Tolkien and his contemporaries with little more than systematic restatement of Tolkien’s thesis (with Drout’s analysis of earlier versions of the essay). I applaud his use of the raw material Drout has provided; however, there is too little in the way of application or new research in this essay. When the author does take off on his own, I find some of his readings of Beowulf are questionable. This is probably the essay least germane to the book’s mission — to assess the Inklings’ attitudes to myth, magic, and art, about which the author, in all his many pages, says virtually nothing. Most disappointing is his admission, sub finem, “I am not a devoted reader of Tolkien’s fiction, though I assume that much could be said about the relevance of Grendel behind some of the creatures in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings” (237). But that’s the essay I would have preferred to read!

Margarita Carretero-González’s “A Tale as Old as Time, Freshly Told Anew: Love and Sacrifice in Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling” also struggles for relevance. The author begins by asking whether Rowling is somewhat of an Inkling herself. No, she decides — so why then are we reading about Rowling? And regrettably, this essay was written before the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; luckily, the author’s guesses about the final Harry Potter book were prescient (258-9). The “responses to commands of love” (254) she puts forward as examples are the most obvious ones: Lily Potter’s and Albus Dumbledore’s sacrifices to protect Harry (Rowling); Aslan’s sacrifice for Edmund on the Stone Table (Lewis); Gandalf’s sacrifice in Moria, and Frodo and Sam’s sacrificial interrelationship (Tolkien) — all contextualized in the rubric of Lewis’s Four Loves. One quibble: I think Carretero-González misreads when she says that Aragorn called Sam’s “the darkest road” (262). Surely Aragorn means Sam and Frodo’s road; “yours” here is plural, not singular. Who would say that Sam’s road was darker than Frodo’s? Finally, the author concludes an already footling essay with a weak cliché: “after all, it is love that truly makes the world go round” (263).

Continuing to drift from the central point of the collection, we come to Fernando Soto and Marta García de la Puerta’s “The Hidden Meanings of the Name ‘Ransom’: Strange Philology and ‘Contradiction’ in C.S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy.” Strange philology indeed! I find much to disagree with in the authors’ study of the name Ransom. They suggest that Ransom is meant to be “ram’s son” = the lamb (i.e., Lamb of God, hence Christ), and they construct an unnecessarily complex argument to demonstrate it. But while interesting, it rests on a conditional (270): if Lewis had done so-and-so … But the fact is, he did not. How strong can such an argument be? There is some good thinking here, but mixed up with one too many indefensible leaps. The authors ultimately fail to resolve the “gross literary inconsistency” (282) between Perelandra and Out of the Silent Planet.

John Garth’s “‘As Under a Green Sea’: Visions of War in the Dead Marshes” is a thoughtful and thorough study of an important chapter in The Lord of the Rings. Garth’s emphasis, as in his previous work, is historical. The essay reveals Tolkien’s creative sublimation of the nostalgia and horror of his personal war experience into aspects of Middle-earth: “the window looks not only into the remote past of Middle-earth but also into Tolkien’s own memory” (296). But despite the essay’s quality, one may again question its relevance. Garth briefly touches on the artistic/aesthetic aspect of Tolkien’s work (298-9), but he says almost nothing about myth or magic, and little enough about art when you come down to it.

The final essay of the volume, “Leaf by Niggle and the Aesthetics of Gift: Towards a Definition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Notion of Art,” serves as editor Eduardo Segura’s closing statement. This piece helps to bring the collection to a relevant finish and even to define its larger purpose(s) in ways his Preface did not. At the heart of the essay is Segura’s quite defensible argument that “Tolkien developed a true theology of art, a notion of artistic work as a means of redemption, of recovery of initial grace — the grace before the Fall” (320). Segura goes on to highlight points of contact with Lewis and Barfield, demonstrating a broader Inklings focus than most of the other essays (barring Shippey and Duriez). Somewhat odd is the fact that Segura invokes G.K. Chesterton in the abstract for the essay, but never in the essay itself. Well, I suppose we can’t have everything.

Works Consulted

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