Chestertonian Antinomies

by John Holbo on November 13, 2010

Somehow I ended up reading about Tolkien’s anarcho-monarchism in this First Things piece, by David B. Hart. (Yes, yes.)

There should be a rhetorical term for the sort of stock, boilerplate, conservative antinomian complex irony with which the piece concludes. (‘Antinomian’ from an + tinom, proto-Germanic for ‘on tin’. The earliest occurrence is in Wodehouse: “The drowsy stillness of the afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like G. K. Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin.” By metaphoric extension, ‘antinomianism’ was retroactively picked up by the likes of Martin Luther – who would have found Chesterton a trying personality – and applied, generally, to anyone who, like Chesterton, considers that, for some obscure reason, the law doesn’t apply to him. Antinomians can mint paradoxes, while indignantly fulminating against paradox. They can speak up for plain, English commonsense in terms that would make a Frenchman blush at the extravagance of the gesture. That sort of business.)

I suppose we could do worse than just calling it a Chestertonian antinomy. Hart’s goes like this:

We all have to make our way as best we can across the burning desert floor of history, and those who do so with the aid of “political philosophies” come in two varieties.

There are those whose political visions hover tantalizingly near on the horizon, like inviting mirages, and who are as likely as not to get the whole caravan killed by trying to lead it off to one or another of those nonexistent oases. And then there are those whose political dreams are only cooling clouds, easing the journey with the meager shade of a gently ironic critique, but always hanging high up in the air, forever out of reach.

I like to think my own political philosophy—derived entirely from my exactingly close readings of The Compleat Angler and The Wind in the Willows—is of the latter kind. Certainly Tolkien’s was. Whatever the case, the only purpose of such a philosophy is to avert disappointment and prevent idolatry.

Now how does Hart hope to evade the awkward consideration that trying to cross a desert with only a dog-eared copy of The Wind in the Willows as your guide is as likely to get the whole caravan killed as any other method that might be tried? Well, obviously he doesn’t mean it. But that’s the trick. Because this is the point in the discussion at which Hart is most obliged to mean something by something. Because this is the point at which the circular peg of anarcho-monarchism fits into the round hole of solid English conservatism – of plain common sense, disdaining all conceptual extravagance and idle concept-mongery! Well, how does it?

Imagine a world in which progressives penned pieces that ended like so: ‘I like to think there are two sorts of political philosophies. Utopian dreams, and down-to-earth, pragmatic proposals for things that just might work. My own ideas about politics – derived wholly from a bongwater-stained edition of the 1970 Whole Earth Catalogue and a close reading of the liner notes to Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma – are decidedly of the latter sort.’ Rhetorical life – if not mental life – would be greatly eased if this sort of gesture – superficially silly – seemed to promise a sort of slow, serious, mature attunement to First Things. Ah, that would be The Life.

In other news, my copy of Barry Deutsch’s Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword [amazon] just arrived. Oh, joy! I think I’ll read it. You can read just the first 15 pages here.



Bryan O'Sullivan 11.13.10 at 7:15 am

I feel faintly resentful at being gulled into following the link. Mr Hart’s sentences are as fond of themselves as an oily courtier in some third-rate knockoff of the Tolkien he loves.


John Holbo 11.13.10 at 7:23 am

Just listen to “Astronomy Dominie” and feel it all wash awaaaaay …


belle le triste 11.13.10 at 10:44 am

Did Chesterton really fulminate against paradox?


belle le triste 11.13.10 at 10:48 am

Handily, here is Chesterton on paradox: shockingly, he liked some of em and disliked others


chris y 11.13.10 at 10:58 am

Syd Barrett is a specific to a surprising number of ills; so sad that his own weren’t among them.

I was arguing on Making Light the other day that the Shire was an anachronism within Tolkein’s universe because it was a Chestertonian fantasy, whereas the rest of Middle Earth drew more on his scholarly engagement with Anglo-Saxon poetry. I had nothing more sophisticated in mind than an analogy with The Flying Inn and especially the songs therein, but other people pointed out that the Shire owed its survival to the external protection of Wizards and Rangers and that with its own internal dynamics it couldn’t possibly have lasted long in wider Middle Earth otherwise. Which observations would rather support the concept of “Chestertonian Antinomy”* in Tolkein’s ideas if one were inclined to pay them so much attention.

* Not to be confused with Chestertonian Antimony, which is what he turned out actually to have been falling on a sheet of in the Wodehouse story cited above.


belle le triste 11.13.10 at 11:23 am

In both cases — Tolkein and Chesterton — the use of clashing elements derives precisely from the valued technics of their respective crafts; storyteller and journalist-storyteller. You don’t eschew the device because of some “higher” principle — derived from what? — any more than an adequate carpenter would stop using dovetailed joints because they were “contradicted” by his religion, philosophy, politics or whatever. In “On Fairytales”, Tolkein explicitly discusses the ethics of storytelling in respect of the introduction of anti-realist elements: what would the rules be in a world with a green sun; and so on. The problem LotR is solving — or ought to be — is: what are the rules in a Middle Earth that contains the Shire? He wants hobbits; he wants elves; he wants Mordor. How do you square this circle? How does he? In both writers, contradictory or anachronistic elements are the feature, not the bug: they’re how the whole gets generated.


Brett Bellmore 11.13.10 at 11:36 am

“Now how does Hart hope to evade the awkward consideration that trying to cross a desert with only a dog-eared copy of The Wind in the Willows as your guide is as likely to get the whole caravan killed as any other method that might be tried? “

I think the idea is that you’re actually stuck in a trackless desert, NOBODY has a way out, so any map at all is just a distraction from paying attention to what’s in front of your face, and an inspiration to flog the camels until they drop. After which you’re hoofing it in worn boots. A map you don’t take seriously is just less likely to cause those harms…


Tom M 11.13.10 at 12:26 pm

It’s one thing to theorize “small government+fiscal conservatism+American exceptionalism” and quite another to construct a working model of the combination. Which, I suppose, is why it’s a far, far better thing to read a book aimed at middle school children than the vacuous baritones at First Things.
Not as succinct as the best of S, N! but very good nonetheless.


BlaiseP 11.13.10 at 1:07 pm

Politics, like religions, have their own articles of faith. From Aristotle’s Politics forward, a great many assertions are taken for axioms. Book 1 starts right in defending slavery and that priceless bit about “silence is a woman’s glory”. Sorting out men as metals in Book 2, he assigns this task to the gods. How convenient. Scoff at religion, if you insist, but parse out anyone’s politics far enough and there is always primum movens.

Tolkien despised allegory and wanly smiled while C.S. Lewis trolled that ancient carol at the meetings of the Inklings at the Eagle and Child. Tolkien trolled a far more ancient carol, of a world where wonder had not been completely dissected away from the world. Protean politics provides no map to the world, any more than Tolkien’s maps. Hic sunt dracones.


Ed 11.13.10 at 1:54 pm

In modern political terms, Tolkien is probably best described as a Green. His letters make no mention of contemporary party politics. I suppose he voted Conservative, because that is how Englishmen of his class at the time voted. And even that is not much of a guide towards how he would vote today, political alignments have changed.


Henri Vieuxtemps 11.13.10 at 2:26 pm

I suppose a rejection of the technocratic (vs organic) approach in politics can go too far, but are we really at the point where it’s under-appreciated?


Russell Arben Fox 11.13.10 at 2:51 pm

Whether Tolkien was a Green anarchist (which, sentimentally at least, he obviously was) or a Conservative monarchist (which, by class and expressed preferences, he presumably was as well), the common thread was a kind of contradictory (antinomian?) communitarianism, in which the local, traditional, organic community was prized above all, except where it was necessary to have some sort of distant, silly, but unchallengeable Leviathan-type authority to make it possible for the local, traditional, and organic can continue along its way. Such a confusion isn’t especially a knock on Tolkien, I think; in the world of modern capitalist liberal individualism, all communitarianisms are almost by definition filled with contradictions, my own included.


belle le triste 11.13.10 at 3:48 pm

The last words of The Return of the King are “Well, I’m back.” They’re spoken–not accidentally–by Sam. Aragorn-Elessar — the official titular king — is only considered worthy to be king because he pays mind to and acknowledges the wisdom and perspective of halflings. Tolkein was a paradoxical monarchist, if LotR is the roadmap: bloodline really isn’t enough; family ties made you the Decider, perhaps, but your worth derived from a friendship with and humility towards the smallest and least-noticed of your apparent charges. The continued existence of the Shire at its unspoiled best is what validates the distant Leviathan.


Bill Gardner 11.13.10 at 4:37 pm

I really loathe this kind of thing. Bryan O’Sullivan @1 gets it just right. Hart is so fond of his irresponsibility.

Sure, as an adolescent, I might have preened that my political philosophy was based on little more then a stoned reading of the 1844 Manuscripts and the continuous tantric recitation of Memphis Blues Again. This was something to be proud of?


nnyhav 11.13.10 at 5:07 pm

I would have thought the studio half of Ummagumma more relevant to Tolkien (despite the Cambridge provenance of the former).


Harold 11.13.10 at 6:01 pm

Anti-nomianism (anti, “against” + nomos ,”law”)
1: one who holds that under the gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation
: one who rejects a socially established morality
Um, antinomian means you are among the elect and therefore forgiven from your sins in advance and can therefore go and commit sins such as rape and murder without having to fear damnation after death. Catholic orthodoxy routinely accused various heretics of being antinomians, whether they belonged to the Brethren of the Free Spirit or believed in Calvinist Predestination. Historically, virtually one has ever really professed a belief in this kind of antinomianism.

However, often heretics were cult leaders like Jim Jones and the like and arguably behaved like antinomians, i.e., as though the concept of sin didn’t apply to them and they could do whatever they want, but so do most psychopaths religious or not.

Best example of an expose of antinomianism is James Hogg’s great novel 1824 Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Frankly, I don’t see where or how Chesterton or Tolkein, both orthodox Catholics, can be accused of antinomianism. They believed in feudalism and the caste system , maybe.


Harold 11.13.10 at 6:06 pm

Scratch all that — I see you are talking about antinomism not antinomianism.

I can’t stand Tolkein or Chesterton, anyway.


Another Roger 11.13.10 at 6:13 pm

I suspect that Wodehouse was alluding to GKCs great bulk and legendary clumsiness rather than making a very elaborate and obscure linguistic pun.

And I am pretty sure that Chesterton approvingly quotes Lewis Carroll’s line about believing six impossible things before breakfast in one of his many defences of paradox.

Also I really can’t get my poor literalist mind around how either JRRT or GKC can count as ‘antinomian’ – both were well aware of what antinomianism really meant in theological terms and as good Tridentine Catholics were agin it.


Another Roger 11.13.10 at 6:42 pm


Chesterton’s politics were muddled and not altogether pleasant (what with his anti-Semitism and all) but were broadly agrarian, populist and radical and not in any sense feudalist.

At its crudest he advocated distributism – the belief that if the great evil of capitalism is that property is unequally and unfairly divided then property must be not abolished but more fairly and equally divided.

The main purpose of the distributist state was therefore to ensure that this re-division was carried out and more importantly maintained through the breaking up of new concentrations of wealth and power (how this was to be achieved in practice was never adequately explained).

His utopia was thus not to0 far from those of Jefferson and Proudhon: a society of free and equal smallholders and craftsmen – and this led him to some rather bizarre historical positions – being simultaneously a devout catholic and an admirer of the French revolution for example.

And when GKC was at his most active as a political figure he was very much a member of the radical and anti-imperialist left wing of the Liberal party (his ideological partner Belloc was actually a Liberal MP).

I am not enough of a JRRT obsessive to discuss his politics in detail – but it would certainly be odd if he hadn’t read Chesterton and for all his love of quasi-medieval hierarchies his true utopia is clearly not Gondor but the Shire, which is pretty much a distributist state with most of the population being free peasants and craftsmen and the ‘aristocratic’ element being largely vestigial.

But that the Hobbits are not human does suggest that he was the more truly conservative of the two: Men are it seems always doomed to fall and thus need kings and states to protect them against themselves, Elves and Dwarfs and Hobbits are literally races apart that live by different laws.


Theophylact 11.13.10 at 7:45 pm

I’m more of an anti-Monist, myself.


BenSix 11.13.10 at 8:28 pm

Shorter David Hart –

“Political philosophies” come in two varieties,
Conservative realism and liberal pieties.


BlaiseP 11.13.10 at 8:40 pm

Another Roger:

I’ve studied the JRRT papers at Marquette University. Tolkien’s politics were mildly reactionary and were shaped long before WW1. JRRT despised what he saw of racism in South Africa. Farmer Giles of Ham showed he had something of a populist streak, taking a dim view of feudal titled lords. He put suspicion between the various races in LOTR, but there are no places of worship.

JRRT hated Communism, mostly because Stalin destroyed churches, but he sternly denied LOTR was to be read in that light. Unlike that fulminating old pedant Chesterton or David Hart, that stained-glass charlatan, JRRT will not be shoved into anyone’s political box or wear his hang tag. JRRT was first and foremost a linguist, a writer of saga, opening a window into which shaped the language we speak. The swords and sorcery genre that sprang up in his wake is an abomination and its authors are literary orcs.


James Wimberley 11.13.10 at 9:58 pm

Can anybody confirm the story that Tolkien became an anti-Nazi well before it was the standard thing for conservative English Catholics to be, on what must be the strangest grounds bar none: that the Nazis were lying about the values of the world of Norse and Teutonic myth? Since he really, really knew about this world, probably more than anybody else in Europe, he knew for certain the Nazis were lying on this one thing. So what they were saying about Versailles and Jews probably wasn’t true either.


Russell Arben Fox 11.13.10 at 11:38 pm

Can anybody confirm the story that Tolkien became an anti-Nazi well before it was the standard thing for conservative English Catholics to be, on what must be the strangest grounds bar none: that the Nazis were lying about the values of the world of Norse and Teutonic myth?

I haven’t heard that, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I am aware of a letter from Tolkien to his publisher, when he was a relaying to Tolkien a request from a German publishing house interested in putting out a translation of The Hobbit. They wanted to know if Tolkien was Jewish; what did he want to say to them? If I recall the story correctly, Tolkien smartly responded that, so far as he knew, there were no Jews in his genealogy, and he considered that a misfortune: he would have considered it an honor to have been a descendant of that “noble race.”

Tolkien was clearly a racialist, in the sense he took races seriously; it’s probably impossible to imagine a serious English traditionalist who wasn’t. But so far as I know he wasn’t racist, in the sense of having a sense of racial superiority, by any stretch of the imagination.


Jacob T. Levy 11.14.10 at 12:22 am

Wikipedia quotes this from a letter to his son Michael:

” that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler … Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light. Nowhere, incidentally, was it nobler than in England, nor more early sanctified and Christianized”

But that’s 1941, not an especially early moment, and later than the story Russell mentions, which includes this reply:

“But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject—which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.”


Wax Banks 11.14.10 at 1:14 am

The swords and sorcery genre that sprang up in [Tolkien’s] wake is an abomination and its authors are literary orcs.

Your slip is showing. Also S&S tales were turning up at least as far back as The Hobbit. What are you on about?

Also, why are we spending time on David Hart, contemptible hypocrite, sophist, and obscene overwriter? Isn’t it time for, say, a John Crowley symposium instead?


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 11.14.10 at 2:15 am

I’m a little surprised to see John Holbo using the 1970 Whole Earth Catalog as a stand-in for “crazy flaky hippie stuff we all laugh at.” There’s plenty that’s of-their-time about the Whole Earth Catalogs, but in retrospect what’s most striking about them is their empiricism and their persistent seriousness about science.

Moreover, Ummagumma didn’t have any liner notes, which means I WIN.


John Holbo 11.14.10 at 2:26 am

Hey Patrick, I think you will have to admit that there’s a lot of water under the bridge – bong and otherwise – since 1970. So anyone trying to derive all their information from it at this late date would be welcoming a perhaps unacceptable rate of error. But I am dismayed about the Ummagumma point. I have a very distinct memory of Ummagumma liner notes, although not of what they say. What does it say about me that I have a false memory of this fact?


John Holbo 11.14.10 at 2:32 am

Also, not only was the Whole Earth Catalog a noble thing, but Ummagumma was a damn fine album. The point isn’t that we laugh at these things as hippy-dippy but that it would be odd to idolatrize them in some very extreme way. (And hippy-dippy, if you want to put it that way.) All by way of hinting that Hart’s own attitude – billed as phrophylactic against idolatry – is the very opposite.


Another Roger 11.14.10 at 2:58 am

Blaise P

Chesterton ‘a fulminating pedant’ – you’ve not actually read any Chesterton have you?

This was after all the man who famously wrote a History of England containing just three dates – two of which were wrong.

And while his style may not be to modern taste it is almost always light, playful and amusing (his only real literary failures were books like the Everlasting Man when he tries too hard to explain Catholic doctrine).

For Christ’s sake he even makes St Thomas of Aquinas an attractive thinker – something no pedant could achieve.

And barring a few bitter articles written when he and his brother were publishing the Edwardian equivalent of Private Eye and were being faced with libel charges and attempted censorship for their exposure of corruption in their own party’s government his ‘fulminations’ (the term derives from fulminata – a thunderbolt) were generally the all too gentle poking of fun at targets who actually deserved a lot worse.

Even though clearly an antisemite such was his personality that he could genuinely claim that at least some of his best friends were Jews and given his instinctive hatred of Hitler’s Germany its quite impossible to imagine him maintaining it had he survived the War and seen its practical consequences.

Whatever you think of his politics (and in my case its not a lot) there is a reason why his short stories and novels get constantly reprinted and read long after contemporaries like Shaw and even Wells have become of purely academic interest.


John Holbo 11.14.10 at 3:12 am

For the record: in the last year I have become a Chesterton fan myself. (I posted about this a while back but might as well mention it.) I had sort of thought it was going to be like The Screwtape Letters, i.e. tiresome in a predictable way. But it turns out to be exciting and endlessly entertaining in a different, albeit equally predictable (once you catch the rhythm) way. The main problem with it is, I think, the one I mention in the post. There are certain points when it’s really inappropriate to offer a light paradox, i.e. to say something you obviously don’t mean – while vaguely hinting that it gets at some sort of deep truth. And Chesterton invariably offers a light paradox at just those moments. So the whole thing is not so much a fraud as an exercise in utter invisibility, means-of-support-wise. A great blimp of orthodoxy.


Another Roger 11.14.10 at 3:31 am

On JRRT one thing that is sometimes forgotten is that he was a survivor of the trenches and had as a result little faith in the perfectibility of mankind – and developed an instinctive distrust of the Germans (although not of course not all things German).

I’ve always thought his letter to the Nazi publisher regretting that he was not of the same race that produced his Saviour was the single most admirable thing he ever wrote – not least as it involved a financial sacrifice in that the Hobbit might well have sold extremely well in Germany.

And it was by no means unknown for right-wing Catholics to be Germanophobes – most of the French far right were obsessively so right up until 1940 – and even then a great many former cagoulards and camelots du roi became Gaullist resistants rather than Vichy collaborators (and even senior Petainistes like Darlan and Darnand kept up contact with the allies long into the occupation).

So like all history its always a lot more complex than you think.

Re the lack of places of worship in ME that is not strictly true – there was IIRC a great temple to Melkor built in Numenor.

However the LotR is indeed signally lacking in overt religiosity – although the Silmarillion more than makes up for it – much of it being essentially an elaborate re-imagining of Paradise Lost complete with its Lucifer-figure, the War in Heaven (which is presented as a symphony orchestra performance gone horribly wrong), the Corruption and Fall of the Eldar etc.

And the overall feel of that book is much grimmer than LotR – there are no cheerful little Hobbits providing comic relief, no abysmal poetry, very little of the evocations of nature that are JRRT’s one real strength as a writer, just an endless progression of battles and betrayals.

And in its rather ham-fisted way its a genuine tragedy in the classical sense – virtually every named character in it is doomed to die terrible deaths because of a single ill-advised oath.


Another Roger 11.14.10 at 4:00 am


I think its an issue of just how much Chesterton you read – the later novels (Manalive, the Flying Inn and The Return of Don Quixote) and Catholic apologetics (The Everlasting Man, Aquinas and St Francis of Assisi) are much more didactic and straightforward.

(Unfortunately it was clearly these that had the greatest influence on CS Lewis)

Which IMO is why they are not the books that are kept in print (to find a lot of them I had to spend a lot of time back in the 80s in the basement of the little Catholic library run by some charmingly camp American Franciscans that was attached to Westminster Cathedral – wonder if its still there?).

Though he’d never have been so pretentious himself I think a real follower might argue that the earlier paradox-heavy works are actually intended to be Zen-like in effect (albeit in a very minor key).

And its not as if you don’t already know what his position is on the really fundamental questions (plus he could rely on his readers having far more knowledge of the Christian Faith and its tenets than we have now).

Still having read most of what he published you really don’t need to go far beyond Orthodoxy, Dickens, The Man Who Was Thursday, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, the Collected Poems and the Father Brown Stories.


rm 11.14.10 at 4:11 am

Speaking of Tolkien and tragedy, the recently reconstructed “novel” The Children of Hurin (minus funny accents) is classically tragic, and also is a great portrait of clinical depression, low self-esteem, and the legacy of mental illness in a family — for the reader who isn’t bothered by having to look up an excessive amount of Middle Earth historical and genealogical detail in the appendix in order to keep track of who’s who (I am not so bothered, but a lot of readers would be). So try not to be bothered by the Mythic Detail, and you’ll get a great novel about dysfunction (and what could be more fun?).

In part because of this blog, and also because they are among the most popular free downloads for my ipod touch reading app, I’ve been reading Chesterton books too, and I second what Holbo said. (Holbo was the hobbit who sat in the back of the tavern telling long, long anecdotes, right?)


rm 11.14.10 at 4:14 am

Chesterton’s paradoxes are wonderful when they are correct, and when not not.


maidhc 11.14.10 at 7:39 am

I was intrigued by reading that “The Man Who Was Thursday” was a favourite book of Michael Collins. Obviously he followed the “hiding in the open” concept very successfully. But presumably he liked the book’s other qualities as well.

I hadn’t read it since my youth, but there was a BBC version a couple of years ago that I listened to. Despite not really agreeing with a lot of it, I found it very enjoyable, but I think the ending was a bit disappointing. I don’t remember feeling that way before, so I must be becoming more critical or something.

I used to enjoy the Father Brown stories too, but it’s been years since I read them.


Another Roger 11.14.10 at 3:19 pm


That is a general weakness of Chesterton’s novels – he never quite knows how to finish them so they all rather tail off having delivered less than they promise (which I think may be John’s point extended).

Or like the Napoleon of Notting Hill which can hardly be faulted on the grand cataclysmic climax level leave you thinking ‘WTF was that?’

I am also not sure if they survive re-reading well – at first read they drag you through the pages at a gallop – but if you already know the denouement you will probably linger more and like John start seeing that behind all the paradoxical fireworks the emperor is not fully clothed (and GKC is easily the literary figure I’d least want to see naked).

This is why IMO his short stories have survived so much better than the novels – and also why his earlier incidental journalism is still great fun to read even when it says either very little or what it does say is completely wrong (the later pieces he wrote for GKs Weekly again tend to be more didactic and propagandistic).

And historical context is all – The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill both mean a lot more if you are seriously immersed in Edwardian politics and literature – for example in the context of the great anarchist terror scare and spy mania TMWWT was the Four Lions of its day.


Another Roger 11.14.10 at 4:01 pm


I am only familiar with the Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales version but isn’t the Children of Hurin Sigurdssaga and the Nibelungenlied rewritten as a classical tragedy – – if so that is my fundamental problem.

The originals work at some primal visceral level precisely because they are so bloody and stupid and barbaric.

Reading them you are unwillingly dragged back into the Dark Ages where a man’s worth was measured by the pile of corpses he left behind him.

Tolkein was fundamentally just far too civilised and decent to recreate that world – after all he knew exactly what it was like to step on a decomposed corpse of a friend rotting in No Man’s Land – and it takes some semi-educated small-town mother’s boy like Robert E Howard full of pent up rage and frustration to really capture such a milieu.

So when he tries tragedy (and as I said the Silmarillion rapidly becomes nothing more than a classical litany of battles and betrayals) he adopts a lofty hieratic style which for many fans is just not Tolkein – and which doesn’t even succeed as pastiche being neither classical nor biblical nor dark age saga nor medieval romance but a unsuccessful mixture of them all.

I believe that he knew this himself which was why he never published any of these materials despite endless pleas from publishers and friends that he do so.

But I haven’t yet read The Children of Hurin so it would be interesting to see if it manages to break the disappointing pattern of the Unpublished Works (is it the third version of the story published by the Christopher Tolkein factory?)


Geoffrey 11.14.10 at 4:13 pm

I have to say, “Shame on you, John Holbo”, for linking to that horrid piece of nonsense at First Things. The comments here, as always, are far better.


IM 11.14.10 at 6:07 pm

But I haven’t yet read The Children of Hurin so it would be interesting to see if it manages to break the disappointing pattern of the Unpublished Works (is it the third version of the story published by the Christopher Tolkein factory?)

It is the third version and I think the best. But then I always liked the story of Turin. Perhaps the most filled out part of the Silmarillion. Other important parts, Beren-Luthien and especially Gondolin you have the impression that they were supposed very important and impressive but somehow the actual texts are boring and flat.

On topic: Tolkien is preferable to Lewis or Chesterton because he doesn’t give in to the temptation to preach. I mean, would it really have killed Chesterton to show us one Father Brown mystery with a catholic villain?


David 11.15.10 at 8:16 am

PNH@27 – you have to think twice before bigging up Stewart Brand in this neighbourhood, sadly.


belle le triste 11.15.10 at 9:03 am

Fr.Brown takes confession from several of the villains, who are presumably therefore at least vestigially Catholic; his giant Gascon ex-con pal Flambeau, the villain in two of the tales, is certainly Catholic. But yes, part of Chesterton’s argument is that the faith and its institutions are a good way to confront crime.


Adam Roberts 11.15.10 at 1:41 pm

Like IM, I pretty much liked Children of Húrin. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, not so much.


belle le triste 11.15.10 at 1:54 pm

Actually Flambeau is the villain in — from memory — three of the tales: The Blue Cross, The Twelve True Fishermen, and The Flying Stars. After that he’s Fr.B’s sidekick.


BlaiseP 11.15.10 at 7:31 pm

Chesterton ‘a fulminating pedant’ – you’ve not actually read any Chesterton have you?

I can safely gather you have not read Orthodoxy. I went to Wheaton College, (IL). Secreted among those Bible Thumpers is a strong cult of Chestertonian smells and bells. I observe a difference between pedantry and scholarship: pedantry answers questions nobody asked.


piglet 11.16.10 at 11:37 pm

Tolkien was clearly a racialist, in the sense he took races seriously; it’s probably impossible to imagine a serious English traditionalist who wasn’t. But so far as I know he wasn’t racist, in the sense of having a sense of racial superiority, by any stretch of the imagination.

I guess it doesn’t matter, then, which of his personalities are blond and tall and which are short and dark (yes the hobbits are the cute exception proving the rule), and which of his artificial languages resemble Germanic and which are designed to sound Slavic or South/Eastern or just barbaric to his readers. “he took races seriously” is quite an understatement I must say.


Josh 11.18.10 at 6:47 pm

BlaiseP, I’m glad to see someone alluding to the big wingnut following GKC has at present: my copy of Orthodoxy is blessed with an introduction by Chuck Colson; and I’ve read some of the “stop socialism” and “woman’s place is in the home” material in the American GKC Society’s fanzine. But the prose of Orthodoxy, I’d say, is not “pedantic” in the way DBH is. Indeed, it’s the beauty of the writing that kept me reading the awful “arguments” that he presents therein.


roac 11.18.10 at 10:14 pm

I have stayed away from this discussion, in a spirit of what’s-the-use and because it depresses me to contemplate First Things, but as a matter of factual correction to no. 46: Tolkien’s two principal invented languages are based on Finnish (Quenya) and Welsh (Sindarin), neither of which is a Germanic language.

He didn’t do more with Dwarvish than sketch its structure, but that is obviously Semitic. (Tolkien explicitly recognized the Dwarves/Jews parallel, and there is a passage in The Hobbit which has always struck me as anti-Semitic, making the anti-anti-Semitic outburst quoted by Jacob Levy all the more welcome.)

The people of Rohan speak Old English, which is indeed Germanic, but that is a real language not an invented one.

Speaking of Finnish, I don’t see it mentioned upthread, in the discussion of the origins of the First Age legends, that the most interesting of them to me, the story of Turin, is lifted from the Kalevala. (But then, I’m not much interested in that stuff.)

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