The Loss and the Silence: Aspects of Modernism in the Works of C.S. Lewis, J.RR. Tolkien, and Charles Williams.

The Loss and the Silence: Aspects of Modernism in the Works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Margaret Hiley. Jena: Walking Tree, 2011. 276 pp. $24.30. ISBN: 9783905703191.

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Reviewed by Holly Ordway

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 31.1/2 (#119/120) (2012): 188–191.]

As writers of fantasy literature, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams have too often been seen as reactionary or isolated from their times. However, these three writers do engage with the culture of the day in ways that can now be rightly called prophetic.[1] Recognizing their place within the modern world should allow for new connections and new insights. Margaret Hiley’s The Loss and the Silence: Aspects of Modernism in the Works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams takes up the intriguing pairing of modernism and fantasy. Hiley states that her study has “attempted [...] to locate aspects of modernism in the works of Lewis, Tolkien and Williams. But it has in almost equal measure attempted to locate aspects of the fantastic in the works of Jones, Yeats and Joyce” (Hiley 221). Hiley is much more successful in the latter half of the thesis than in the former; as a critical study of the Inklings, the book is seriously flawed, but it does provide worthwhile material on the modernists and succeeds in opening up some good questions for further work.

After an initial chapter on the modernist movement and the Inklings’ shared context with modernism, Hiley structures her project around three themes, each focusing on one Inkling and one modernist: Charles Williams and David Jones, on war; J.R.R. Tolkien and W.B. Yeats, on history; and C.S. Lewis and James Joyce, on language. The study then concludes with a chapter on “Modernist Fantasy, Fantastic Modernism.”

The opening chapter discusses influences between the modernists and the Inklings; Hiley does a good job of showing that there are more connections and influence than many readers may expect. However, this is a brief section; readers should not expect to find an in-depth account of what the Inklings read or how they responded to modernist literature.

Hiley’s discussion of Charles Williams’s and David Jones’s Arthurian poetry in the chapter “War” is the strongest in the book. The discussion here is thoughtful and draws out valuable insights into both poets, and is likely to make The Loss and the Silence worth reading for specialists in Williams’s poetry. Hiley’s discussion of Lewis in the chapter on “Language” is also notable in that she takes serious account of Lewis’s Irishness, especially in the section “Language, Identity and Exile.”

Throughout the book, Hiley demonstrates a clear grasp of modernism in both literature and philosophy, and provides effective and convincing close readings of Jones, Yeats, and Joyce. Unfortunately, her readings of Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams are flawed in serious ways that undermine her analysis as a whole.

The first problem with her approach to Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams is the lack of theological context for their ideas. It is difficult to understand the work of any of these three writers without considering their Christian beliefs, and in fact Hiley’s reading of the Inklings’ work is seriously distorted by the fact that she almost entirely avoids consideration of their Christianity. For instance, she correctly notes that war is a significant element in the work of both Lewis and Tolkien. However, she goes on to argue that

War is, besides structure, also the driving dynamic force behind the plots of the Silmarillion myths and The Lord of the Rings: without conflict, Middle-earth would be static, so that conflict must be introduced from the start. This is also the case in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia [...] fantasy texts fear (war’s) fragmentation and the modern acceleration of reality, retreating into a secondary world in order to preserve coherence, but they obviously also fear stagnation, and thus resort to the dynamics unleashed by war. (43)

There is nothing obvious at all about this claim, which Hiley would need to back up very carefully—but does not. Tolkien and Lewis’s understanding of sin and fallen human nature is worked into their stories at a deep level; to ignore their Christianity here is to miss the point at a fundamental level.

Similarly, in the “History” chapter, she makes the central claim that Tolkien works “with a cyclical model of history” (105) and that “The neverending nature of this struggle ensures that the cycle will be repeated over and over again. To think that it will ever be broken is a fallacy” (105). However, what Elrond warns against is the idea that one can be sure that it has been broken in one’s own day. The idea of an infinite cycle of history is contrary to Christian belief, and is not what Tolkien is presenting: he looks ahead to the Second Coming, when as Sam puts it in The Lord of the Rings, all the sad things will come untrue. Unfortunately, Hiley’s misreading of Tolkien’s Christian understanding of history is not a minor point, as it leads to the entire argument in that chapter being seriously flawed.

Other mis-readings occur throughout the book as Hiley disregards the Christian context. She says in passing that the ending of The Last Battle “is ambiguously happy at the most” (29); for a non-Christian reader, this may be a genuine response, but it is certainly not the way the ending is presented in the book. Likewise, Hiley argues that the restoration of the Shire at the end of The Lord of the Rings is “undermined by the fact that it can no longer satisfy the very ones who laboured to bring it about” (131-132), failing to recognize the Christian ideal of sacrifice displayed here. In the search for connections between the Inklings’ work and modernism, it seems possible that Hiley has begun to view the Inklings’ work through the pessimistic perspective of the modernists themselves, failing to recognize that Lewis and Tolkien in particular present a very different vision of the world.

The second main weakness in The Loss and the Silence is the lack of adequate literary context. For instance, she operates with a definition of “myth” that is entirely contrary to the way in which Tolkien and Lewis used the term. Drawing on Nietzsche, Lévi-Strauss, and then Barthes, Hiley discusses myth as something that “exclude[s] anything pointing beyond the myth itself from its picture of the world” (108); she follows Barthes in focusing on the absence of a literal sense as being essential to myth (108), and notes the modernist idea that both myth and history are “artificial constructs” (109). This is an excellent entry into her discussion of how Joyce and Yeats use myth, and she shows convincingly that modernism attempts to use mythic narrative structure to create meaning where they perceive meaning to be absent. However, by using only this definition of myth, her reading of Tolkien and Lewis’s use of myth is completely wrong on a basic level. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” which Hiley does reference elsewhere in The Loss and the Silence, Tolkien states clearly his claim that the Gospel is both a fairy-story (a myth) and also simultaneously historical fact. Lewis is similarly clear in his essay “Myth Became Fact.” The ways in which the Inklings and the modernists work with the idea of myth could be a very fruitful line of analysis, but only if these are seen as two different approaches, not the same.

Hiley also tends to use the terms “fantasy” and “the fantastic” interchangeably, using Tzvetan Todorov and Rosemary Jackson’s definitions of the fantastic as descriptive of what Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams are doing. However, “the fantastic” is not precisely the same as “fantasy;” most notably, Todorov’s definition is based on the creation of uncertainty in the text (see footnote, 67), which is not a defining element in fantasy over against “the fantastic,” and, more importantly, his basic assumption that the supernatural is not real. Hiley quotes an important passage from Todorov stating that “The supernatural is born of language, it is its consequence and its proof: not only do the devil and vampires exist only in words, but language alone enables us to conceive what is always absent: the supernatural” (qtd in Hiley 153). It is difficult to imagine a definition of fantasy less applicable to The Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia.

At some points in The Loss and the Silence, Hiley does make distinctions where they are needed, such as in noting a difference between magic realism and genre fantasy (222), but at many other points in her analysis, her use of “the fantastic” as a descriptor of the Inklings’ work leads to misreadings and overgeneralized claims that do not stand up to careful reading of the Inklings’ work.

Finally, there are also a number of small but noticeable errors regarding features of the Inklings’ work. For instance, she refers to Ransom in That Hideous Strength as “an incarnation of Arthur” (28), and “a reincarnation of Arthur” (30) when in fact he is neither, and that Mercury gives the people at St Anne’s “the gift of speaking in tongues” (202) when in fact the characters receive the gift of facility of expression in their own language. Errors such as these may not have a significant impact on Hiley’s analysis, but they do undermine the credibility of the close readings she presents here.

Taken as a whole, The Loss and the Silence is uneven; some of the analysis here is thoughtful, well-developed, and useful but other aspects of the argument are seriously flawed. The overall premise is sound, and Hiley is to be commended in opening up this interesting and important topic for further discussion.

[1] I am indebted to Malcolm Guite for this insight, in his series of lectures called “The Inklings: Fantasists or Prophets?”


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