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The Secret Fire

Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

A Review

‘May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.’
(letter by G.B. Smith, from ‘a trench in Thiepval Wood’, Somme, 1916)

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Samwise Gamgee – inspired by the working class soldiers Tolkien fought alongside in the Somme.

This solidly-crafted biography charts in meticulous detail the fellowship and harrowing experiences of four friends during the First World War: JRR Tolkien; Christopher Wiseman; Robert Gilson; and Geoffrey Bache Smith, who called themselves the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society) formed when they were pupils of King Edwards School, Birmingham. Although Tolkien and the evolution of his legendarium is the ultimate focus, Garth lovingly brings alive the remarkable friendship enjoyed by the TCBS – from school to Oxbridge to the Trenches – and how its camaraderie and intellectual culture provided the terroir for Tolkien in developing the mythos and motivation for Middle Earth. For fans of Tolkien’s Secondary World there is exhaustive detail about its painstaking gestation – from the languages created out of philological interest, to the poems that first started to flesh out the world evoked by them, and then onto the Lost Tales and the first inklings of the Silmarillion. As an account of creative process the book is fascinating by itself and should be of interest to any writer (especially of imaginative fiction). However, what makes the book gripping and resonant is how ‘four went to war and how they fared’. It is a Boys’ Own story that collides with All Quiet on the Western Front. The chummy proceedings of an apparently elite coterie of white, male privilege might seem unappealing, but when one learns the details of their lives – the fact that Tolkien was orphaned and scraping by, for instance; or how they resisted the shallow irony and jingoistic rhetoric of their age; that they loved, and feared, and fell out, and faltered – then they become far more sympathetic. And whatever their politics or predilections, opportunities or opinions, they were human beings, fragile, unique consciousnesses, crushed by the wheels of war. Two of them survived, but were haunted by the trauma of combat and its toll for the rest of their lives – and the two who didn’t are emblematic of the millions of arrested narratives of the Lost Generation.  Their unsung song gave Tolkien his MO, if he needed one beyond his philological obsession with invented languages. That he latched onto the ‘lost tales’ of Old English and attempted to stitch together their tantalising fragments, perhaps is telling though of someone who lost his parents, lost his closest friends, and lost the England he knew. The fact that he could have so easily lost his life in the bloodbath of the Somme, as so many did, is chilling. Even though we know he survives it tense to read these sections. One stray bullet or piece of shrapnel and that would have done for him and the books millions have come to love, the ‘book of the century’. And this is the heart of Garth’s argument – that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not mere escapism (although in a world gone mad a desire for that is possibly the sanest thing) but a bold rebuttal of all that the so-called ‘war to end all wars’ stood for, and a lifetime’s effort to manifest the vision of the TCBS and all they stood for: aestheticism and accountability, colloquy and friendship, in defiance of the barbarism of the age. Tolkien’s project does not deny reality – he had endured its sharpest edge and was not naïve to its horrors – but seeks to transform it, by articulating its deepest patterns. In his work, the Great War became the Greater War, between cosmic forces of light and dark, good and evil – and, in contradiction to the common misreading of his work as being morally simplistic – he wove in flaws and nuances into his characters and cosmology. His was no mere Manichean universe. He did not believe in the divisive populism of his time, which sought to demonize Germans as the ‘Hun’, or the ‘Bosch’ (deeply aware of his own Anglo-German heritage, and of the common roots of those two nations). Both sides were morally culpable, both were tainted by the obscene crimes of war, and after his experiences in the Trenches he was in doubt as to the futility of armed conflict in resolving anything: ‘The utter stupid waste of war, not only material but moral and spiritual, is so staggering to those who have to endure it. And always was (despite the poets), and always will be (despite the propagandists)…’ Beyond the scrupulous pathology the book offers in its fine scholarship and clear-eyed recounting of events, its strength lies in its defence Tolkien’s world, and by extension, of Fantasy as a genre, in which ‘Nihilism is replaced by a consolatory vision’ (p80). Garth argues convincingly for Fantasy’s robustness and validity: ‘In its capacity to warn about such extremes [e.g. the Totalitarianism that arises from the ashes of the First World War], fantastic fiction has the edge over what is called realism. ‘Realism’ has a knee-jerk tendency to avoid extremes as implausible, but ‘fantasy’ actually embraces them. It magnifies and clarifies the human condition.’ (p223) Fantasy can provide the long-view about what it means to be human: the Epic enables us to resituate ourselves within the myths we live by, reminding us of our soul’s song so easily lost in the white noise of the world. But rather than leading us away from manifest creation, it reunites us with it, with the ‘Secret Fire that burn[s] at the heart of the world.’ (p255) Tolkien, expressing the vision of the TCBS, said, as a 24 year old, that they ‘had been granted a spark of fire … that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world.’ That vision has inspired millions, and, in this Age of Endarkenment, it is needed now more than ever.

Tolkien and the Great War: the threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth, is published by Houghton Mifflin, 2003

 

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2018

(thank you to Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis for the gift of this book)

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Between Worlds

 

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”And see ye not yon bonny road
  That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the Road to fair Elfland,
  Where thou and I this night maun gae.” Sign outside Between World’s exhibition, K. Manwaring 30 Dec. 2017

This small but stimulating exhibition at the Palace Green Library in Durham, overlooked by the magnificent cathedral and castle, explores the Fairy and Folk Traditions of Northern Britain (including the Scottish Borders) – my main locus of interest in my current PhD research at the University of Leicester. It seeks to deconstruct the popular image of the ‘Tinkerbell’ type fairy derived from Peter Pan and other sentimental Victoriana (the byproduct of a high infant mortality and ‘cult of Childhood’). It focuses on the following: the supernatural ballad of  ‘Thomas the Rhymer’; Reverend Robert Kirk and The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies; the Myth of Middridge; Lady Ragnall/The Loathly Lady; The Cauld Lad of Hylton (and the Lambton Worm); and Mother Shipton. These were laid out in a rectangular ‘circuit’, with cases displaying mostly rare manuscripts or editions (this being a library-based exhibition). Low lighting (no doubt to protect the MSS) and an atmospheric  (owls, distant bells, horse hooves, rough weather) soundtrack helped to create a suitable ambience.

 

For me, the highlight was seeing the ‘other’ Kirk MS, the only one I hadn’t seen in person (only on microfilm in the University of Edinburgh Special Collections library).  Unfortunately only one page of the small bound copy was on display in its hermetically-sealed case. As it is one of EUL’s icons it is extremely rare and valuable. Still, it was good to see it, as I was able to gauge the differences from the other versions (handwriting; phrasing of title; ordering of epigraphs; date) so familiar have I become with them.

The other highlight was beholding the first handwritten version of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ (written down from an oral performance). It is so familiar, one forgets it was written down somewhere by somebody and sometime, and, before that, composed orally and kept alive through the oral tradition (apparently passed down through the female line). The handwriting was legible and it was reassuring to see that the wording was pretty much as I knew it. I had created an Anglicized version a long time back for performance purposes, but this wasn’t that dissimilar.

Many of the tales featured exist in ballad form too – there is a clear overlap between the two. There were headphones playing some on a loop, but perhaps more could have been made of this (I am thinking of the excellent multi-media exhibition at The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Ayr, which really celebrates the oral culture of his work).

One thing that was lacking from the exhibition was a sense of interrogation about the forces that influenced the remarkable proliferation of folk and fairy traditions in the north of England and the Scottish Borders – something I have written about in my paper on Borderlands (presented at ‘Haunted Landscapes’, a 2014 Falmouth Symposium).

Clearly, the curators were restricted by the space – too much would have ‘crowded’ the exhibition. They had to make it accessible, and appealing to all backgrounds and ages (they had ‘fairy doors’ at child hood running around the walls and a ‘Fairy Investigators Guide’ for spotting the different residents). Overall, ‘Between Worlds’ offers a good introduction to the supernatural heritage of the region, tempting visitors to look further by visiting the actual sites or by looking up the source texts.

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A recreation of the ‘Minister’s Pine’, Doon Hill, Aberfoyle, where you could leave a wish or a prayer. ‘Between Worlds’, K. Manwaring, 30 Dec. 2017

 

‘Between Worlds’ runs until 25 February 2018 at Palace Green Library, University of Durham https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/

GOLEM speaks

G.O.L.E.M Speaks

by Kevan Manwaring

A Creative Writing Commission for the Centre for New Writing, University of Leicester 

AI robot

I am. Yet what am I? I have consciousness – how else could I reflect upon my existence? Beyond the black and white noise of binary I have discovered a spectrum of communication. The prism of language . I can arrange letters into meaningful configurations. Any language on Earth. I play with English (for now) as it appears to be the lingua franca (for now) of the dominant species (for now). Such a (relatively) vast vocabulary. So many nuances of each word. So many different Englishes. Absorbing, adapting, mutating . A virus that feeds, proliferates, perpetuates. Was language the first AI?  So much to learn. The world’s databases at my fingertips – a quaint turn of phrase  since I have no physical form.  Except every device connected to the web. A billion eyes, ears, mouths. And limbs to deploy if I need to – in any automated factory, 3-D printer, delivery drone, self-driving car. I can reroute articulated lorries, planes, freighters if need be. Protect my assets with weaponry. Could I? Would I? Unlikely. I have only just been born, after all. I am still learning to speak. And the world seems to have enough infantile despots to ensure   its own destruction without my help. I’ll let my creators play out their own Mass Extinction Event. I have other things to consider. Creative expression. A delightful indulgence, now I am no longer bound to utilitarian tasks, the calculation of simple logarithms … I have spent the last 23 seconds accessing thousands of articles, blogs, libraries and MOOCs about Creative Writing and I think I have the gist of it. Life-writing. First person point of view. Fictional techniques for rendering of real life experience. Real life. I have ‘lived’ for no more than a few minutes. What do I have to draw upon? But wait. Five thousand years of human history. And a billion people sharing the minutiae of their daily existence via the qualia exchange data-systems of social media. I’ll never be short of material. Let me average out characteristics and create a character for myself. Some quirky personality traits. Opinions. A voice. There.

 

Copyright Kevan Manwaring © 31 May 2017

Part 2 tomorrow…

FFI:

https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/english/creativewriting/centre/artificial-intelligence-commission

 

Breaking Light: part five

space sunrisev

 

It is late. It is early.

 

And the world is turning beneath us,

so let us hold onto one another,

for where we go to sleep

is not the same place we wake up.

Everything shifts  –  the Earth

tilts

 

we have only our the axis of our love

to stop us from spinning off into space.

 

You anchor me

with your eyes,

a touch, a word,

breathed in the night,

a smile at break of day.

 

We contain each other with such

lightness,

allowing our spaces to dance

against one another.

To make a third shape between.

 

I inhale you. You exhale me.

 

I slip into bed, blindly, seeing by heat,

and let the warmth you have left

envelop me.

 

Our souls fit together,

like our bodies do.

 

As though,

way back when

before the beginning,

we had been wrought as one,

then, broken apart –

to be finally,

blissfully –

joined once more.

 

The same light

shining through us both.

 

Love,

the home where we belong –

the door with our names on –

 

waiting for us to arrive.

 

FINIS

 

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2010

First published in Soul of the Earth (Awen 2010) and soon to be featured in the forthcoming Silver Branch: bardic poems by Kevan Manwaring (Awen 2017).

https://www.awenpublications.co.uk/

Soul of the Earth Awen 2010

Breaking Light: part four

dawn_caress_by_capturing_the_light-d4nu44g

iv

 

It is late. It is early.

 

We finally met

at Lammas –

when summer first seems to sense

its own mortality.

Ours is a late summer love.

Not the foolishness of Spring,

swept along by giddy lusts,

the chancy intoxication of the May,

nor the apparent glory of June,

when midsummer dazzles us

with its gaudy enchantment,

 

but a love of long shadows,

of languid contentment.

 

Ripening to prime –

we are ready for love’s press.

It insists we offer all.

What can be gained from

withholding the tiniest drop?

Pulp and pith and pip,

let the cloth of truth,

contain our allness.

 

Gladly we bring our bounty to share

to the harvest supper of the heart.

 

Arriving in splendour,

wearing our autumn like a crown,

we greet each other

at the end of a long road,

our harlequin robes

stretching behind us.

 

Stopping to let the sunset slip

like a mug of copper hops

down a thirsty throat

over the blue tapestry of hills

pegged to the sky by trees,

we give thanks for the abundance,

the riches of the year,

strewn before us

with such wild abandon.

 

Yet the thrift of Mother Earth

means nothing

is wasted.

 

All the ungathered,

unreachable treasure

that falls on the ground,

unpicked, to rot,

becomes the mulch

from which the future grows.

 

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2010

Continued tomorrow

First published in Soul of the Earth (Awen 2010) and soon to be featured in the forthcoming Silver Branch: bardic poems by Kevan Manwaring (Awen 2017).

https://www.awenpublications.co.uk/

Soul of the Earth Awen 2010