Monday, April 8, 2013

Missing the Dead

"... all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another" -- John Donne, 'Meditation XVII', Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.
So says Donne. Yet, sometimes, it is hard not to feel that the death of a great man or woman is a tearing out of a page in a book. The death of Roger Ebert and yes, Margaret Thatcher, reinforced this for me, but not as much as reading a collection of the letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. I have to admit that I half-expected his letters to be slightly embarrassing, a bit like encountering the unreconstructed opinions of the elderly. (And I was also ready to forgive him for them, out of the love I have for his fiction.) But in fact, the letters speak to me, and move me greatly, with their intensely felt warmth (towards his children and friends) and in their painstakingly well-constructed and well-thought out opinions. I should have expected this, of course. I found myself longing for a time when people wrote considered letters to each other, and also for a time of conviction, not hasty, cowardly judgements: Tolkien comes across as resolute in his opinions, calm and yet struggling with matters entirely human. To just give a taste of how surprising his opinions can be, however, let me excerpt a letter he wrote to his son, Christopher, on 29 November 1943:
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to 'unconstitutional' Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to 'King George's council, Winston and his gang', it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy. 
Another surprising glimpse is of Tolkien as a young, career-minded don in Oxford: something which must have been a part of his life, but not really how one imagines Tolkien. There are also, for the Oxonian, lovely spine-tingling moments when he speaks of Oxford and its places -- which reassures me that one can still commune with the dead. This letter, again to this son Christopher, dated 30 Jan 1945, happily combines both, with a dose of comradeship with C. S. Lewis. Also proves that college administration never improves, through the ages:
 But I got to Magdalen, where after a brief shiver over 2 depressing elm-logs (elm won't burn) we decided to seek warmth and beer at the Mitre: we got both (pubs manage their business better than bursars: upon my word, I don't think the latter gentry would even hold down a Kiwi job in the R.A.F.!). A good many things happened then. My rest was rudely broken by a 'phone call on business from which quite incidentally I learned the startling news that Prof. H. C. Wyld died on Saturday. God rest his soul. But he leaves me a legacy of terrestrial trouble. For one thing I've got to make up mind what to do about the succession. Five years ago I'd have been thinking of how to get the Merton chair myself: my ambition was to get C.S.L. and myself into the 2 Merton Chairs. It would be marvellous to be both in the same college — and for me to be in a real college and shake off the dust of miserable Pembroke. But I think prob. not – even if there was a chance.
Which leads us back to Death. Reading Tolkien's letters made me miss him; it made me really wish he was still around. One realises what a huge, sucking vacuum the death of someone like him leaves. All the accumulated erudition, time-tested relationships, the meaning and significance of the deceased to each person who knew and interacted with him -- all of that is sunk when a person dies. And one is expected to just move on?


More excerpts from Tolkien's letters, because I absolutely cannot resist. Some glimpses of his reaction to Americans, who must have continually surprised him, first with their mannerisms and then their astonishing fervour for his work.  Quoting a fan's letter to Christopher, 25 October 1944:
'Dear Mr Tolkien, I have just finished reading your book The Hobbit for the 11th time and I want to tell you what I think of it. I think it is the most wonderful book I have ever read. It is beyond description ... Gee Whiz, I'm surprised that it's not more popular ... If you have written any other books, would you please send me their names?' 
John Barrow 12 yrs. West town School, West town, Pa.' 
 It's nice to find that little American boys do really still say 'Gee Whiz'.

On 5 June 1955, in the New York Times Book Review, there was an account of Tolkien and his writings:
What, we asked Dr [sic] Tolkien, makes you tick? Dr T., who teaches at Oxford when he isn't writing novels, has this brisk reply: "I don't tick. I am not a machine. (If I did tick, I should have no views on it, and you had better ask the winder.)"
And for the geeks, from a letter of 4 November 1954, an instance (among innumerable others) of Tolkien taking his world very seriously, approaching it not as an inventor but as a chronicler and expert, this time on the objection that Gandalf's resurrection was 'cheating', and clarifying the powers and nature of wizards or the Istari:
Gandalf may be enhanced in power (that is, under the forms of this fable, in sanctity), but if still embodied he must still suffer care and anxiety, and the needs of flesh. He has no more (if no less) certitudes, or freedoms, than say a living theologian. In any case none of my 'angelic' persons are represented as knowing the future completely, or indeed at all where other wills are concerned. Hence their constant temptation to do, or try to do, what is for them wrong (and disastrous): to force lesser wills by power: by awe if not by actual fear, or physical constraint.

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