14 July 2010

Disenchantment with Modernity: Tolkien, Lovecraft, & G.H. Dorr, Ph.D.



At the Mythopoeic Society conference I attended last weekend, the Inklings—and it seemed Tolkien especially—were naturally first and foremost in the attendees’ thoughts, writings, and conversation. But at least once or twice, perhaps largely at my instigation, the name of H.P. Lovecraft was also mentioned. In a paper I heard on the to me previously unknown works of our Author Guest of Honour, Tim Powers, a plot description at one point reminded me slightly of Lovecraft’s masterpiece, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’. When I ventured later to ask the author himself about this, receiving confirmation of the accuracy of my ‘Lovecraft antennae’, I also asked his opinion whether Powers thought that Charles Williams might have been able to convert the notorious atheist Lovecraft to Christianity. An affirmative reply led to more discussion later in the evening.

At any rate, all of this is merely to preface an extraordinary discovery I made just today. Amy Sturgis, whose name I thought I recalled coming across at MythCon and who edited the book Past Watchful Dragons: Fantasy & Faith in the World of C.S. Lewis, published by The Mythopoeic Press, has a fascinating article on her website entitled, ‘The New Shoggoth Chic: Why H.P. Lovecraft Now?’. [1] Although it does not mention him in the title, Tolkien is also a major subject of the article, which is essentially a comparison and contrasting of the two authors.

To get to the point, the most interesting point of comparison to me was the basically anti-modern posture they shared. Sturgis writes:


Modernity, that nebulous and abstract force of the dawning 20th century, meant various things to Lovecraft and Tolkien at different times in their lives. One thing remained constant: both were against it. To Lovecraft, modernity primarily meant entropy, the gradual decay of time-honored habits, traditions, and even people into confusion and decrepitude. . . . His racial and nationalistic assumptions fueled his disgust with the way in which industrialization and urbanization threw unlike people together in the most squalid conditions, ensuring (to his mind at least) that their most negative traits would come to the fore. He found an example of his worst fears realized when he lived, for a short time only, in New York City.

On this subject, Sturgis then quotes the semi-autobiographical story ‘He’:


But success and happiness were not to be. Garish daylight showed only squalor and alienage and the noxious elephantiasis of climbing, spreading stone where the moon had hinted of loveliness and elder magic; and the throngs of people that seethed through the flumelike streets were squat, swarthy strangers with hardened faces and narrow eyes, shrewd strangers without dreams and without kinship to the scenes around them, who could never mean aught to a blue-eyed man of the old folk, with the love of fair green lanes and white New England village steeples in his heart. [2]

Sturgis then comments:


Though charged with what we today would call racism and xenophobia, Lovecraft’s description implies more than simple fear or dislike of the Other: these others are overcrowded, literally ‘teeming’, unattached to their setting or community, isolated and atomistic, uncommunicative and ‘hardened’. Lovecraft contrasted such scenes with his native Providence, Rhode Island, where generations remained in the same place and were known by their family name and traits, and where the community as a whole tended to share what Augustine called ‘loved things held in common’. [3] Lovecraft feared a humanity cut adrift from such grounding tradition and identity, left vulnerable to outside forces of superior power and unwholesome design.

For Tolkien, modernity primarily meant technology—‘The Machine’, as he called it—and its triumph at the expense of nature. Where Lovecraft idealized his hometown of Providence, Tolkien revered the English countryside, and believed the growth of cities and factories to be a direct threat to its survival. By creating the fictional Shire and the Hobbits who populate it, Tolkien praised the rural values of decentralization, artisanship, stability, and familiarity over the urban qualities of centralization, mass production, disposability, and anonymity.

Sturgis then quotes ‘On Fairy-Stories’, calling it ‘as anti-modern’ as Lovecraft:


Not long ago—incredible though it may seem—I heard a clerk at Oxenford declare that he ‘welcomed’ the proximity of mass-production robot factories, and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic, because it brought his university into ‘contact with real life.’ He may have meant that the way men were living in the twentieth century was increasing in barbarity at an alarming rate, and that the loud demonstration of this in the streets of Oxford might serve as a warning that it is not possible to preserve for long an oasis of sanity in a desert of unreason by mere fences, without actual offensive action (practical and intellectual). I fear he did not. [4]

Sturgis continues:


Both authors’ anti-modernism, as well as other intellectual ideas and personal traits, led them to feel out of place in a world of tremendous change and upheaval, economic depression and world war. For his part, H.P. Lovecraft felt himself to be an old man in a young man’s body, and, to use his words from ‘The Outsider’, ‘a stranger in this century’. Tolkien’s similar certainty that he was not at home came as much from his religious perspective as his disgust with all things ‘progressive’. . . .

. . .

It would be a mistake to assume that the two men were similar only in their dislikes and disappointments. Although they looked to the future with no little trepidation, they looked to the past with real fascination and affection. Lovecraft and Tolkien shared a fervent kind of antiquarianism. Lovecraft’s self-confessed ‘love of the ancient and permanent’ can best be seen in his absorption with and knowledge of early American architecture, which he used to great effect in his precise and evocative descriptions. . . . Tolkien nurtured his own love of ancient texts and national epics from Beowulf and the Kalevala to the Icelandic Eddas and family sagas. He studied the original languages of the stories and incorporated ingredients of the tales into his own work. . . .

In short, both Lovecraft and Tolkien were on a quest for something permanent, meaningful, and binding in a changing modern world, fueled by a desire for identity and community in a time in which they felt displaced and marginalized, and a thirst for structure and civilization in the face of what they saw as entropy and barbarism. Paradoxically, these concerns, while isolating each author to a certain degree, also made Lovecraft and Tolkien exemplars of their age, men of remarkable insight and sensitivity who articulated the concerns of an entire era with unusual eloquence and urgency.

Reading these comments today, I am also curiously reminded of Tom Hanks’s charactre in the Coen Brothers remake of The Ladykillers: the Southern dandy, Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, Ph.D. One evening, Dorr’s black landlady, Mrs Munson, says to him, ‘You are a readin’ fool, aren’t you, Mr Dorr?’ Dorr responds:


Yes, I must confess I often find myself more at home in these ancient volumes than I do in the hustle-bustle of the modern world. To me, paradoxically, the literature of the so-called ‘dead tongues’ holds more currency than this morning’s newspaper. In these books, in these volumes, there is the accumulated wisdom of mankind which succours me when the day is hard and the night lonely and long.

Things take a closer turn toward the Lovecraftian when Mrs Munson remarks, ‘Wisdom of mankind, huh? What about the wisdom of the Lord?’, and Dorr replies:


Oh yes, the ‘Good Book’, hm? I have found reward in its pages. But to me there are other ‘good books’ as well: heavy volumes of antiquity, freighted with the insights of man’s glorious age. And then, of course, I just love love love the works of Mr Edgard Allan Poe.

Mrs Munson says, ‘Oh, I know who he was—kinda spooky!’ But Dorr laughs and ‘corrects’ her, in words reminiscent of Lovecraft’s ‘Randolph Carter’ stories: ‘No, my, no, no! Not of this world, it is true. He lived in a dream, an ancient dream.’ Dorr then quotes the first two stanzas of ‘To Helen’:


Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome. [5]

Somewhat alarmed at Dorr’s enraptured delivery of these lines, Mrs Munson asks, ‘Who was Helen? Some kind of whore of Babylon?’ To which, slightly angered, Dorr replies, ‘One does not know who Helen was! But I picture her as very very . . . extremely . . . pale.’


[1] Originally published in Apex Science Fiction & Horror Digest, 1.4 (December 2005).

[2] H.P. Lovecraft, ‘He’, The Tomb & Other Tales (NY: Del Rey, 1987), pp. 58-9. I was astonished how much this last line reminded me of Tolkien!

[3] St Augustine, de civ. Dei XIX, 24; cf. The City of God, tr. Marcus Dods (NY: Modern Library, 1950), p. 706: ‘But if we discard this definition of a people, and, assuming another, say that a people is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love, then, in order to discover the character of any people, we have only to observe what they love.’

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, The Tolkien Reader (NY: Ballantine, 1966), pp. 80-1.

[5] Edgar Allan Poe, ‘To Helen’, The Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (NY: Modern Library, 1965), p. 1017.

51 comments:

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for the link; I was a big Lovecraft kid; now I'm wondering what kind of remote preparation it all was for my conversion to Christianity.

Jason Fisher said...

By the way, Amy was the scholar guest of honor at Mythcon 37 (2006) at the University of Oklahoma. Since you live in OKC, it’s a pity you didn’t know about the Mythopoeic Society then. Amy and I talked all about Lovecraft during the Banquet dinner on Sunday night.

The Hermit said...

Aaron, you're talking about in detail here something that I intuited a long time ago (being a fan of all the authors listed--including Mr. Powers, whose Last Call is among my favorite works of fiction), and have thought about seriously time and again. In a sort of "Six Degrees of Separation" for writers of weird fiction, CSL and Tolkien were friends with Williams who (along with his friend W.H. Auden) was a member of the Golden Dawn, as was Aleister Crowley, who had some sort of relationship with Sonia Greene prior to her marriage to Mr. Lovecraft. All in all, the anti-modern sentiment from my years and years of reading CSL, Tolkien, Williams, and, yes, HPL probably created this man who views modernity with one eye of suspicion and the other of scorn.

Massively enjoyed reading this!

-justinian

Milton T. Burton said...

A rant against modernity posted on the Internet, the most modern and sophisticated means of communication that has yet existed. And anti-modernists Tolkien and Lovecraft, whose works were printed in modern factories and distributed by a variety of mechanical means, all burning either diesel or gasoline. Indeed, two men whose works and popularity was largely dependent upon means of dissemination that did not exist in those golden ages they so admire. Then we have Poe, whose vision of Helen likely came about in the throes of a morphine binge, a factory made drug.

Reminds me of a right wing friend of mine who likes to whoop it up for all things American. His favorite pastime is to go out to the skeet range where he uses his Japanese made Citori shotgun to bust Taiwanese clay pigeons with Italian shells.

As for the Norse sagas, I for one would prefer to live next door to a factory or a freeway than to a crew of Vikings.

aaronandbrighid said...

Br Charles> Glad you liked it. I wasn't certain how many readers of Lovecraft would be reading this.

Jason> Yes, too bad. And I couldn't remember after seeing the article whether Amy had been at MythCon last weekend or not.

Justinian> Thank you for your kind words. I wasn't aware of all of the 6 degrees you mentioned. Fascinating!

Mr Burton> You seem to insist on missing the point, and I'm beginning to wonder whether this is really the blog for you. This post was not intended as a 'rant against modernity', but simply a comparison of sentiments expressed in three very different sources I came across. I challenge you to find a single statement in this post wherein I attack modernity, rather than merely quoting as a point of curiosity someone else who does.

I do however, consider it remarkably self-justifying and shallow merely to point out that modernity's critics are to some extent hypocritical.

Milton T. Burton said...

A few things associated with modernity:

Insulin
Antibiotics
Affordable plumbing
Decent infant mortality rates
Cheap transportation
Relatively cheap travel
High literacy rates in the first world
Heart surgery
The greatest music in the world at one's fingertips for pennies
Economic mobility
The absence of serfdom and slavery
Deodorant
Frequent baths

As for this being the blog for me, if all you want is praise and agreement, then you are right: it is not for me.

As for your agreement with those who denigrate modernity, the fact that you posted this implies some measure of sympathy with their positions.

I like Tolkien, but I realize that he was an impractical man who idealized past ages. Lovecraft was hideously boring. Poe was, as Hemingway pointed out, all marvelous literary style and no substance. In essence, all meringue no pie.

Life in ancient ages was, as Hobbes said of life in the natural state, nasty, brutish and most often short.

aaronandbrighid said...

Mr Burton> I welcome reasoned disagreement and constructive criticism, but mere cantankerousness is highly annoying and I intend to start deleting future comments from you along these lines. If you love modernity so much and can find no sympathy for those who question it, then what are you doing here?

That said, I'm sure we're all quite grateful for the condescending reminder of how wonderful deodorant is.

Milton T. Burton said...

How does one "question" modernity? Does not one have to question certain aspects of modernity? Or, if one is going to reject modernity, then why not reject electricity and modern medicine as well.

Personally, I think we are living in as close to a "golden age" as humanity has ever experienced. It is not without problems, but as a reasonably well-read historian, I can't think of a single earlier age I would prefer to live in. Nor, I suspect, can you.

By the way---I was born in 1947 and grew up in a poor, rural area where many people bathed once a week and used no deodorant. Consequently, my comment on the subject was not meant to be condescending. Had you been there you would understand. Can you imagine how New York City must have smelled about 1830? Or Rome in the time of Christ? No thank you.

One thing I have always wondered about: could Gandalf cure clap? And if the High Elves sat around all day long composing poetry and strumming harps, where did their food come from and who cooked it?

Milton T. Burton said...

More of the same:

http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/9187/

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, thank you for again pointing out the obvious. No one here has suggested that modernity is something to be accepted or rejected in toto. But, you see, that is precisely my problem with your argument. You seem to think that because you can come up with a list of modern developments that we benefit from, no one must ever complain or find anything to prefer about the past. Perhaps you feel comfortable accepting everything around you with zero critical reflection, but I do not.


I always find C.S. Lewis's words sum it up pretty well: 'People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.'

Milton T. Burton said...

I think (hope) you have sense enough to know that I don't accept everything around me sans reflection. But I question that the problems that beset us are unique to or problems of modernity per in and of itself. I think they are but modern versions of old, old problems. Which is to say, human problems.

Milton T. Burton said...

Miniver Cheevy


Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,

Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;

He wept that he was ever born,

And he had reasons.


Miniver loved the days of old

When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;

The vision of a warrior bold

Would set him dancing.


Miniver sighed for what was not,

And dreamed, and rested from his labors;

He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,

And Priam's neighbors.


Minever mourned the ripe renown

That made so many a name so fragrant;

He mourned Romance, now on the town,

And Art, a vagrant.


Minever loved the Medici,

Albeit he had never seen one;

He would have sinned incessantly

Could he have been one.


Miniver cursed the commonplace

And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;

He missed the mediæval grace

Of iron clothing.


Miniver scorned the gold he sought,

But sore annoyed was he without it;

Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,

And thought about it.


Miniver Cheevy, born too late,

Scratched his head and kept on thinking;

Miniver coughed, and called it fate,

And kept on drinking.


E.A. Robinson

Ryan said...

I don't have much to contribute, but thanks Aaron for opening discussion on yet another subject close to my heart- Lovecraft. I find, beside all the bleak ugliness of Lovecraft's work, a melancholy, longing, weird beauty. I find this too in similar writers like Clark Ashton Smith (whose baroque style of prose I personally prefer).
Atheism is of course abhorrent, but I think there is a great qualitative leap, in terms of intellectual and artistic merit, between atheists like Lovecraft, Smith, or Shelley(or Omar Khayyam) and the more 2-dimensionally materialistic, empiricist atheism one more frequently encounters. There is, in these writers, a longing for truth, beauty, and transcendence, which is diminished in folks like Dawkins.

Milton T. Burton said...

Ryan, you are right. But even Dwkins does not actually ACT as though he lived in a Dwakins world of pure rationality. His atheism is more a matter of temperament and hostility toward spirituality as it is a rational conviction. Were it not, he would not be so vicious toward religion. This is especially true with Christopher Hitchens.

Extollager said...

I think, on account of his pleasant though affected style, his affection for his teeming correspondents, the impact that his fantasy makes when one discovers it at the right age, etc., that Lovecraft's apt to be overestimated as a philosopher.Guys such as S. T. Joshi seem quite impressed by his "cosmicism."

Lovecraft's "cosmicism," as expounded in his letters,largely depends on an aesthetic effect that is presented in the guise of looking facts in the eye. Namely: we now know that the universe is inconceivably vast and ancient; given this fact, we must ponder the insignificance of this planet and of ourselves, a relatively recent life-form that will not last; religion and, I think he also allows at times, art are nothing but comforting illusions.

(There's much of this in the opening pages of The War of the Worlds, by the way.)

Lovecraft doesn't realize that his cosmicism rests on a simple category error.His argument is based on the quantitative: big universe, little earth, little us.But of course what makes earth and us significant isn't our size, but certain qualities.

I'll say more about HPL in a moment.

Extollager said...

To continue: the bit about the age of the universe is also a qualitative matter presented as if it pertains to the qualitative matter of "significance."Of course quantity of years doesn't relate to that at all, else a billion-year-old pebble would be enormously more significant than a young Mozart.It is actually quite silly to argue that the age of the universe over against the relative recency of ourselves /in any way/ militates against our being significant.

And one wonders what HPL would make of the discussion that is showing up even in popular venues such as Discover magazine, about the implications of the correlative relationship of observer and universe.One could look up their profile of John Wheeler and their excerpt from Lanza's Biocentrism (which contends that life creates the universe).

As for the comment, What if someone introduced HPL to Charles Williams's writings?Interesting.But I would like HPL to have to engage with Owen Barfield's thought.

Milton T. Burton said...

Right you are. And it is not the vastness of the universe that gives it meaning. "Meaning" is a human thing. Or if you will, a divine thing that has been imparted to us. We live in a world of sensation and emotion, and the size of the backdrop in the theater is immaterial.

aaronandbrighid said...

I certainly agree that there is in Lovecraft a 'longing for truth, beauty, & transcendence' (I was thinking of posting sometime a passage from 'The Silver Key' that I found a respectable expression of his convictions), but I don't think I personally have been in danger of overestimating him as a 'philosopher'. Actually, the idea makes me smile a bit. While, having discovered his fantasy 'at the right age', it had an enormous influence on me years ago, more than anything else I approach him with my tongue firmly in my cheek these days. Nothing is more enjoyable and satisfying than parodying Lovecraft's 'pleasant though affected style'! (Although I did once see an interesting article on Lovecraft's 'apophatic' writing, penned by, I believe, Erik Davis. It didn't change my opinion of his philosophy, but it did give me a new respect for his techniques.) I'm also a big fan of the 'Cthulhu Circus' cartoons, of 'Cthulhu for President: Why Choose the Lesser of 2 Evils?' bumper stickers, and of a t-shirt I just saw last weekend parodying iPod ads with an image of Cthulhu and the legend 'cephaloPod'.

You're right, too, Extollager, about his cosmicism, a subject on which I always thought (again!) C.S. Lewis had the right approach.

aaronandbrighid said...

The HPL/Williams thing wasn't so much about HPL reading Williams's work as about him meeting the man himself in person, or at least corresponding with him. It struck me suddenly that Williams seems like the sort who might have been able to have helped HPL see things in a new light. Barfield's writings certainly might have been a good medicine for the poor fellow as well!

Milton T. Burton said...

From Lanza we may deduce, like Charles Fort before us, that "It steam engines when it is steam engine time."

Garrett said...

Wow! So many comments to read through before I can express my initial thought. As I scrolled down, the length of my post distended.

Justinian> Your six degrees of separation for writers has both fascinated me and impelled me to make further connections. Thank you for this! Just a minor correction, though: you mention that W.H. Auden was a member of OGD, but I believe you meant W.B. Yeats, or possibly T.S Eliot (Williams certainly doesn't make it any easier "double initial" writers, not to mention Lewis and Tolkien!). Although Auden was certainly a friend of Williams, their friendship came into being much later in Williams' life, after he had grown disenchanted with Golden Dawn. In fact, he actually talked Auden out of joining A.E. Waite's (there we go again with the two initials) Fellowship of the Rosy Cross (a branch of OGD) and into joining the Church of England, and Auden reread Williams' "history of the holy spirit in the church," Descent of the Dove, every year.

Milton> I find it difficult to believe you truly interpreted Aaron's post as an umbrella condemnation of electricity and plumbing. Technological developments, simply because they in the "modern age," are not necessarily modern. Neo-medievalists and their intellectual kin, do not so much critique Modernity (as a social and economic phenomena) as they are Modernism (as a philosophy).

Milton T. Burton said...

Garrett, I didn't know Modernism WAS a systematic philosophy. In truth, I doubt that it really is.

Milton T. Burton said...

And by the way: of course I don't see Tolkien and Lovecraft as rejecting electricity and plumbing. That was my whole point. They wanted to eat the chicken and throw away the bones, the bones in Tolkien's case bing (among other things) automobiles. This was because he did not need one, living as he did near his work in a country with good public transportation. Had he lived in Texas where everything is at least five miles from everything else he might have felt differently. Had he ever done much farm work (as I did in my youth) in a Texas August he would probably have developed a deep appreciation of tractors, hay bailers, and other mechanical devices.

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, Mr Burton, I'm sure Tolkien never considered the fact that cars might be a great convenience. Indeed, it seems likely that if only we all had your experience, we would share your opinions on everything.

Milton T. Burton said...

I don't think that Tolkien ever considered the extent to which the modern conveniences he deplored or the industrial civilization that had produced them had lightened the workload of the poorer classes. As I said, I like Tolkien, but as a tenured scholar at Oxford he was an upper middle class member of the chattering brigade. He could afford such silly ideas. Nor did he ever, in his whole life, show one ounce of sympathy for the working classes in England, which was the most rigidly stratified society in Europe. One quick read of the Ring trilogy tells one quickly that he was ignorant of both economics and economic history. In short, he was completely self-absorbed man who was fortunate enough to make a good living out of what, in any rational society, should have been a hobby.

By the way---I have attacked your ideas. You have attacked me personally twice. Naughty, naughty.

Milton T. Burton said...

From "The Devil's Dictionary" by Ambrose Bierce:

NIHILIST, n. A Russian who denies the existence of anything but Tolstoy. The leader of the school is Tolstoy.

Milton T. Burton said...

Tolkien reminds me of what H.L. Mencken said of Wagner: "He wrote a great deal of first class music despite his childish delight in imbecile fables."

Milton T. Burton said...

You seem like a very nice guy, and I dont want to be more argumentative than god made me, but...

You spoke of my experience. Here are some of them: on two occasions, one in 1972 and the second in 1991, I would have died had it not been for medical techniques developed in the previous few years, the second being bypass surgery that alleviated a bursting aneurysm in one of the major arteries of my heart.

It was also my experience to be born into a world where blacks were commonly called "niggers" and where they had to ride at the back of the bus and attend schools that were a disgrace to a nation calling itself a free country.

It was my experience to see a few courageous individuals like Reverend King literally force this country to at least give a lick and a promise to living up to its stated ideals.

And I could go on an on, but these are things most people consider to be progress. Yet we are told that "Tolkien’s similar certainty that he was not at home came as much from his religious perspective as his disgust with all things ‘progressive’. . . ." Would he have been disgusted by such things as equal rights for blacks? It is easy enough to say no here, but I have read a great deal about the man and I am yet to find where he uttered one word of criticism for the racial situation that prevailed during his whole life in the land of his Nativity, South Africa.

All of this disquiet he and Lovecraft suffered seems quite nebulous to me. Just what was there (apart from Tolkien's loathing of machines) that they objected to about the modern world?

aaronandbrighid said...

Wrong on both counts: you have not attacked my 'ideas', and I have not attacked you 'personally'.

You have been nothing but argumentative since you first commented on this blog, even to the point of apparently uncritically lumping me in with those I have tried to criticise, and it is becoming very irritating. You have also repeatedly insisted on using your experience as some sort of trump card to all counterargument.

Here is the only statement in this morning's flurry of comments that doesn't appear to assume we are all idiots: 'All of this disquiet he and Lovecraft suffered seems quite nebulous to me. Just what was there (apart from Tolkien's loathing of machines) that they objected to about the modern world?'

The answer is that while I'm sure we could come up with any number of things to point to--and if you reread her, Amy Sturgis herself has already pointed out a couple of possible avenues of discussion along these lines--that was not the point of this post. I only wanted to call attention to some convergent sentiments in three rather different sources. I had no intention of provoking a debate about what modernity is and what if anything is good or bad about it. Furthermore, while I am not in principle averse to such a debate, I have no desire of engaging in one with a cantankerous person who believes that his life story entitles him to an inherently more valuable position.

I'm sure, Mr Burton, that in person you are a 'nice guy' too, but you've consistently failed to provide us with any evidence in that regard on this blog.

Extollager said...

Aaron and Milton, you’ve had good and interesting things to say. It’s not for me to say how someone should run his blog, but I’ve tended to have the attitude that comboxes are places more for conversation than for strictly-monitored debate -- not that I mean to imply, Aaron, that you are a strict monitor. On the other hand, I think most, at least, of Milton’s comments have been appropriate as parts of a conversation.

One reason I think this has been a mostly good conversation is that it is leading us to consider more specifically what really is the available evidence in Tolkien and Lovecraft et al. Here are some observations and questions.

(1)Hermit or others--where’s documentation about Sonia Greene having a connection with Aleister Crowley sometime before she married Lovecraft? It is many years since I read de Camp’s biography of Lovecraft and things on HPL’s life by Derleth, Belknap Long, and others; but I don’t remember running across that item. I haven’t read Joshi’s enormous HPL biography.

(2)Garrett, can you provide a reference for that bit about Charles Williams talking W. H. Auden into joining the Rosy Cross? I know little about Auden. I’ve read Hadfield’s biography of CW (years ago) and don’t remember that.

(3)The “degrees of separation” thing is interesting, though, when it’s authentic. I once wrote a brief piece on the topic for Pierre Comtois’s ‘zine Fungi. In the article, I noted things like this: that William Morris once lived in the Hammersmith, London, house formerly the residence of George MacDonald (and these two are perhaps the greatest Victorian “imaginary world” fantasists); that when Rider Haggard went to Iceland, he took with him letters of introduction written by Morris. (Haggard wrote Eric Brighteyes, an Icelandic “saga” that Tolkien is on record as praising, as well, of course, as the better-known King Solomon’s Mines and She; I believe Haggard’s influence on Tolkien deserves more recognition.)

More in a moment.

Extollager said...

(continued)

(4)Didn’t Lovecraft, in fact, come around to espousing “progressive” politics in some areas, at least, later in his life? Whether one approves of his ideas at any of their stages or not, I think some of them did develop, although so far as I know he remained committed to atheism and materialism.

(5)Tolkien’s Middle-earth books are modern versions of epic and romance. One doesn’t fault Beowulf or the Morte d’Arthur for ignoring poverty, disease, etc. Tolkien’s also writing in the adventure vein of Haggard and Conan Doyle (The Lost World). There too one doesn’t find emphasis on such sorrows. He could have introduced them; there could have been gains and losses if he had. As for social stratification, Tolkien certainly shows more sympathy for ordinary people than the medieval romancers did. They composed their work for aristocrats, I assume, as JRRT composed his for a middle-class audience. Tolkien deals with suffering, loss, deprivation, death, but in romance terms. He writes “escape” fiction that deals, in fact, with hard things of life.

(6)I think Tolkien has more to offer to people who want to think about social ills than is sometimes realized. That book, Ents, Elves, and Eriador (perhaps not a very good title) by Dickerson and Evans, reveals an affinity with the thought of Wendell Berry and others. I think Tolkien might have said to us that, yes, we often do benefit from modern medicine and surgical techniques, etc., but what about the health of water, soil, and land?

Extollager said...

(continued)

(7)More on the “degrees of separation.” C. S. Lewis married Joy Davidman Gresham, an American. Before she moved to England, she had been connected with Fletcher Pratt’s circle. Pratt was a writer for American science fiction and fantasy magazines and an anthologist of same. He collaborated with L. Sprague de Camp in the “Harold Shea” fantasies. (De Camp, of course, was the principal figure in the revival and extending of the Robert E. Howard Conan stories, in the Sixties.) [My source about Joy and Pratt is de Camp’s book Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers.] I would have to check, but I think Pratt’s circle included other writers of sf and/or fantasy. When Joy came to England, she connected with some of the science fiction folk there, such as Arthur C. Clarke and Sam Youd -- who is better known as John Christopher, author of the grim novel No Blade of Grass and the well-known “Tripods” or “White Mountains” books for young readers, which some of us still remember. Christopher wrote an account of visiting Lewis and Joy in Oxford after their marriage, and being almost shaken by the sheer happiness radiating from the two. (The piece appeared in an issue of the much-missed London magazine Encounter.) Lewis met Clarke too, by the way; you can find in Clarke’s writings a remembrance of emerging from a pub where they’d been enjoying beer. There are letters from Lewis to Clarke in the Collected Letters of CSL.

De Camp visited Tolkien in Oxford, by the way, so there you have them together, Tolkien the exemplar of high fantasy and de Camp the promoter of swords-and-sorcery. Of course de Camp knew personally all sorts of the big names in sf such as Heinlein.

Back to Lewis himself--as a young man, he visited Yeats; there’s a good description of the visit in one of Lewis’s letters. Yeats knew…. (fill in the blank).

And so on!

Extollager said...

John Christopher's piece about Joy Lewis was in the April 1987 issue of Encounter.

Milton T. Burton said...

Ex. point 5. Agreed. But I did not claim that Tolkien showed not sympathy in his fiction writing. It is not within his fiction that his complaints against modernity were lodged save in a metaphorical fashion. It is in his letters and public utterances that modernity was assailed. I simply noted that he was relatively insensitive to the position of blacks both in this country and in South Africa. Nor should we forget that Chesterton, another writer I admire and quote often, frequently used the word "Nigger" in his writing and not in the way Mark Twain did, but in personally tagging Africans. I think too that with Lewis, Tolkien and Chesterton we have to admit that their much-vaunted "conservatism" was inherently indifferent to the position of those "lesser" (here read dark skinned) races within the British Empire. This is NOT to their credit.

I honestly believe that a larger portion of mankind now enjoys some measure of economic opportunity than at any other time in human history. For this we should thank God.

Milton T. Burton said...

Ex wrote: "He writes “escape” fiction that deals, in fact, with hard things of life."

Exactly. That is the greater part of his appeal.

Extollager said...

I hope others find these biographical things interesting, as I do. In connection with Milton's remark about Tolkien's scholarly preoccupations and self-absorption and the possible implication that JRRT would've been unaware of (we are all Marxists now) "the working classes" except in terms of stereotypes -- let's remember that his own brother, Hilary, opted out of the "higher education track" of his earlier years by around age 16. Worked briefly for his uncle and but decided, according to Scull and Hammond, that he would rather "work on the land." He enlisted as a private in the army during World War I. "After the war, he purchased a small orchard and market garden near Evesham." The J. R. R. Tolkien family would visit him there except when petrol rationing interfered, and JRRT's son Christopher "helped Hilary with fruit-picking during school and college vacations." Hilary's plum-trees provided fruit that he picked "for more than four decades." And so on. (See the J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader's Guide, p. 1017.)

Granted, Hilary didn't hire out his labor; he worked for himself, so he wasn't a member of the proletariat. Stalin would've thought him a kulak. But I think Hilary's experiences would have contributed to Tolkien's knowledge of a way of life different from his own in the "dreaming towers" of Oxford.

Where, incidentally, JRRT dug up his tennis court in order to put in a veggie garden:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/3325073/Burrowing-deep-into-the-birthplace-of-Bilbo-Baggins.html

I hope that rambling, conversationally, in these postings of mine has been agreeable to everyone.

Extollager said...

I'd like to post here a lengthy review of the book by Dickerson and Evans on environmental themes in Tolkien. I think there's a lot more to Tolkien than a dislike of noisy machines and factories.

The review appeared in the Tolkien 'zine Beyond Bree. Here is the first part:

“I’m a lonely female (aged 22 and a Leo) hoping to hear from concerned folks – male or female of any age – interested in old furniture, music of all kinds, and rural living, and who have a genuine love for people, cats (I have a gray one named Gandalf), astrology, Tolkien, elves, fairies, gnomes, etc.”

--from a classified ad posted in The Mother Earth News #32, March 1975.


We grin; but in fact, for a generation or more, readers have associated Tolkien’s fantasy with a serious concern for the earth. These readers are right. The explicit and implicit teaching of The Lord of the Rings and other Tolkienian works parallels the thought of writers such as Wendell Berry who advocate a sustainable agrarianism and the preservation of wilderness. Dickerson and Evans, like, I suspect, many other readers, came to “environmentalism” through reading Tolkien; they were not environmentalists trying to claim Tolkien for propaganda purposes.

Their epigraph is taken from Gandalf’s charge to the Captains of the West in The Return of the King: “…it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

Stewardship is thus the single word that best characterizes Tolkien’s understanding of man’s intended relationship to the earth. Stewardship, Dickerson and Evans believe, is a Christian principle: the universe is the Creator’s work, in which He delights; in Tolkien’s legendarium, the earth is entrusted to the care of “gods” (the Valar), Elves, and men, who should praise its Maker, enjoy its bounty, and pass it on to later generations in a wholesome condition, and who must not tyrannize over it or hoard its fruits. Humans (and the Valar and Elves) are ontologically superior to plants and animals. Elves and men, the Children of Ilúvatar, are “physical creatures who are a part of nature,” but also are “transcendent beings” who “can be assigned the moral calling of caring for nature.” Stewardship belongs to mankind and to Elves from their beginnings.

Extollager said...

Here's the second part of the review of Dickerson and Evans's book Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien:

Possessiveness is the opposite of stewardship. It disregards “the creator’s prior, and higher, claim.” The Fall of the Elves, as Tolkien wrote, “comes about through the possessive attitude of Fëanor and his seven sons” towards the Silmarils, which contain, Dickerson and Evans remind us, the “Paradisal light of the Two Trees.” Tolkien does not retell the biblical account of the Fall of man, but he shows a secondary “Fall” in the Númenorean story. At first these most noble of Men are thankful for their island home. One of its names, Andor, in fact, means “Land of Gift”; they receive Númenor as the gift of the Valar, theirs to enjoy but also to “keep” in the sense of protecting and caring for it. Eventually, however, fascinated by wealth and power, the Númenoreans defile their realm, even burning Nimloth, a tree descended from Telperion, one of the Two Trees made by the Vala Yavanna. In both the Elvish and the Númenorean narratives, catastrophe falls upon the land as an inevitable consequence of unrepented greed. Because of the implied warnings about disaster that comes when the land is misused, these two accounts may be read as myths aligned with much modern secular environmentalism, which argues on the basis of what Dickerson and Evans call a “survivalist” ethic, in which we must take care of the earth or it will no longer support our species. But Dickerson and Evans show that there’s more to the matter than that for Tolkien, since he believed in a Christian stewardship ethic based on man’s (and, in the fantasy, the Elves’) unique position as made in the image of God and as answerable to Him. This explication concludes the first part, about 75 pages, of the book.

Extollager said...

Here's the third part of the review of the Dickerson and Evans book. I hope it is becoming clear that there is more wisdom in Tolkien's fantasy than he is sometimes given credit for:

The second part moves beyond the creation-and-fall focus of the first, to consider the characteristic ways in which Hobbits, Elves, and Ents relate to nature: by agriculture; by horticulture; and by “feraculture,” i.e. the preservation and protection of wilderness. These three ways of relating to nature are all “necessary for a complete ecology.”

In Tolkien’s conception, it is specifically modern agribusiness that has estranged Hobbits from men; while Hobbits love good tilled earth, they cannot bear “industrial farming” and “the needless use of complex machinery when simpler tools will do”! Readers of Wendell Berry will recall his advocacy of farming based largely on draft animals, his prophetic warnings about fossil fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides, and machines, and even his perhaps more quirky resolution to forgo the purchase of a computer. Farmers Maggot and Cotton appear to practice good husbandry and are also notable in the defense of the Shire when Saruman seeks to subjugate it to industrialism. Given that Bombadil is a near-embodiment of land and water, his praise of Maggot may be considered to be praise from nature itself. Incidentally, I learned from this book that “maggot” means “grub worm” or “earthworm” rather than housefly larva, and so is a well-chosen name for an exemplary member of an agrarian people.

Dickerson and Evans note that the Elves are not shown working the land. The authors don’t argue that this should be regarded as a failure on Tolkien’s part. Rather, they help readers to see that Tolkien emphasizes the Elves’ delighted, reverent contemplation of nature, such regard being a wholesome aspect of our relationship to the earth, but one that might have complicated his presentation of the mostly prosaic Hobbits if Tolkien had attributed it to them. Summer seems to linger in Elrond’s gardens at Rivendell. When Gimli and Legolas discuss changes that they hope Aragorn will bring to Minas Tirith, Legolas says, “They need more gardens.” Lothlórien, Lórien of the Flower, is as it were a garden where the Elves live in and amongst elanor, niphredil, and mallorn. It is a realm of nature unobtrusively tended till it reaches a summit of aesthetic perfection.

Finally, the Ents’ relationship to nature is preservationist, protective. The authors give an entire chapter to them. Ents are made because of Yavanna’s plea that there should be trees that could speak on behalf of rooted things, which cannot flee or defend themselves. The Ents are shepherds “who not only lead their flocks, figuratively, but also defend them against harm.” In passing the authors point out the affinity of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s 1879 poem “Binsey Poplars Felled” with Tolkien’s verses, “O rowan mine,” spoken by Bregalad the Ent (one thinks too of Tolkien’s mournful words in the Tree and Leaf Introductory Note).

Extollager said...

Fourth part of the review of Dickerson and Evans on Tolkien:

Verlyn Flieger has wondered why Treebeard and the Ents are good, in avenging the Orcs’ spoliation of the Fangorn forest, while Old Man Willow and trees of the Old Forest who menace Hobbits (who as a people have also cut down trees) are clearly sinister. Dickerson and Evans suggest that “ultimately there is no discrepancy between the Old Forest and Fangorn.” Old Man Willow is evidently a tree who has, as Treebeard would put it, “gone bad,” but, the authors suggest, the willow’s animosity is connected not only with resentment of recent Hobbit actions, but with the long history of troubled relations between the trees and various races of Middle-earth, and with Sauron’s activity and that of his raiders in the Second Age. Not contenting themselves with exposition of environmental themes with reference to the late Third Age, Dickerson and Evans note the way the “denudation of the lands” by Númenóreans is associated with that kingdom’s downfall: those lordly men became, in fact, clear-cutters. Therefore resentful ill-will has become a settled thing in the Old Forest. Bombadil doesn’t condone Old Man Willow’s malice, but he doesn’t kill him; he just puts him to sleep again.

To return to the Ents: the two authors point out, late in the book, the interesting fact that the rift between the Ents and the Entwives was due to their disagreement about nature; the Ents are strict preservationists, but the Entwives were, like Elves and Hobbits, agriculturalists and horticulturists. Dickerson and Evans suggest that the tragedy here -- the estrangement of the Ent-folk and, indeed, the imminent extinction of the race of Ents – amounts to “a moving and troubling myth” that (presumably without Tolkien’s having intended it) warns readers today about a danger present among people who care about nature but yet have serious differences among themselves. Such tensions are sometimes addressed in Wendell Berry’s writings.

“Tolkien’s environmental vision… is both complex and comprehensive, and this is partly because the imaginary world he created is based on the pattern of our own.” Dickerson and Evans draw on Berry’s theory of “the necessity of margins” as they discuss “ecotones,” that is, places of transition from one ecosystem to another, e.g. from a wooded area to open grassland. They document Tolkien’s interest in such places and mention the importance of “liminality” – the discussion of literal and metaphorical thresholds – for criticism of authors as various as Chaucer and Arthur Conan Doyle as well as Tolkien.

The final chapter of Part Two discusses Farmer Giles of Ham, “Leaf by Niggle,” and Smith of Wootton Major. Although these stories are not focused on environmental issues, the theme of stewardship is crucial in each one: Giles as steward of his fields and, later, small, agrarian kingdom, defending them from giant, dragon, and rapacious government; Niggle and Parish and the theme of stewardship of time and talent; Smith as steward of a Fäerie gift that he cannot hold forever, but must pass on to the next generation.

Extollager said...

Fifth part:

Part Three views Tolkien’s most extended accounts of ravaged environments, in Mordor, Isengard, and the Shire; considers the Hobbits’ response to the threat of such devastation in their homeland; and, while maintaining that The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory, deduces applications by which readers may deal with such threats to our world.

As I read Dickerson and Evans’ discussion of Mordor’s seemingly permanent ecological desolation, I wondered if Tolkien thought of that land’s ruin as the result not only of a military-industrial effort – the mining of ore for metals and the construction of forges with which to make weapons for the arming of the Orcs, etc. – but also as the result of the Dark Lord’s harnessing the energies beneath the earth’s crust to forge the Ring. That is, was Orodruin indeed an active volcano before Sauron came to the mountain in the Second Age? If Sauron himself caused the mountain to erupt, has his action somehow left it, throughout the centuries, a “wound” in the earth that never truly heals, but continues intermittently to exude lava and noxious, sterilizing gases? I am not certain that Tolkien knew that cold volcanic flows can eventually weather into highly fertile soil. We may wonder, though: has the eruption of Mt. Doom at the climax of The Return of the King “spent” the volcano, such that with time this land may heal and become clothed with green?

Beholding Mordor, Frodo and Sam do not know how Sauron can feed his great armies. One might wonder for a moment who is the source of the information supplied by the narrator at this point, that Sauron has “slave-worked fields away south [beyond] the mines and forges.” Against the unsustainable economy thus implied, Dickerson and Evans cite Wendell Berry’s “Conservation and Local Economy,” which includes theses with which Hobbits would agree:

“II.Land cannot be properly cared for by people who do not know it intimately, who do not
know how to care for it, who are not strongly motivated to care for it, and who cannot afford to
to care for it.
“IV.People are motivated to care for land to the extent that their interest in it is direct,
dependable, and permanent.
“VII.A nation will destroy its land and therefore itself if it does not foster in every possible way the sort of thrifty, prosperous, permanent rural households and communities that have the desires, the skills, and the means to care properly for the land they are using.”

Extollager said...

Sixth part:

But Sauron “is a model of corporate [distant, impersonal, exploitative] landownership,” the authors observe. Presumably he has “no choice” but to wage wars for resources to feed his slaves, since land under his and their control is soon stripped of its “natural resources” and becomes incapable of supporting anything more than brambles. In a passage cited by the authors, Kathryn Crabbe noticed that Tolkien’s most powerful images of death are of ravaged lands (Isengard as well as Mordor); Tolkien rarely describes corpses.

Dickerson and Evans connect Saruman of Isengard’s crafty words (“Knowledge, Rule, Order”) with the rhetoric of advocates of a “global economy” that asserts the anachronism of (the remnants of) agrarian life. Saruman, like Sauron, has “acres tilled by … slaves.” And the Shire under his sway is an export economy in which the land is misused, and food is a cash crop, its value measured by quantity and profits, that enhances the wealth of a few (in this case, Lotho “Pimple,” with Saruman as “Sharkey” in the background) while the food producers may even go hungry and live in shacks. “‘Pimple’s idea was to grind more and faster,’” a Hobbit says. Sadly, many of the Hobbits are implicated in the thoroughgoing violation of the former agrarianism that occurs during this time.

In response to the apathy or complacency and, in some cases, addiction to comfort that allows, or wants, such violations to happen, people must be roused. Tolkien shows us several instances in which inertia must be overcome; several of his heroes are not ready-made and standing by, when the critical moment has arrived, but have to be prompted to act. The rousing of King Théoden is dramatic, but the threat specifically to the health of soil and water is not emphasized in his case. But this threat is emphasized in the rousing of Treebeard and the Ents, and of the Shire-Hobbits. “Costly as it may be to take action, it is far costlier to do nothing.” Food, water, one’s own life, are threatened. Nature possesses a goodness, though, that transcends usefulness to us, as important as that is. To that goodness a “selfless love” is the appropriate corollary. In Tolkien’s view, stewardship is more than a matter of protecting fertile soil and clean water for the use of present and future generations. A stewardly way of life unites people with one another as well as with nature, as, for example, when the Hobbits “naturally” organize their celebration of the aged Bilbo’s birthday around the Party Tree. Complacency doesn’t celebrate the good earth, but takes it for granted; so the complacent (or the intimidated) must be roused -- even if only, from time to time, to make preparations for a community event, such as a birthday party (and to clean up afterwards).

Extollager said...

Seventh and final part:

I approved of Dickerson and Evans’ decision to take a few final pages to step beyond the (very readable) scholarly mode of their book in order to suggest practical applications. Eating is a practical issue if there ever was one. I don’t know if they realize this, but in fact Tolkien seems to have been inspiring “natural food” and “health-food” enterprises for many years; I still have the wrapper for a home-made “Hob-Bit” treat from “Wilderland Kitchens” in southern Oregon, bought at a roadside farmers’ market. Anyway, the authors cite Wendell Berry’s “The Pleasures of Eating” for seven principles that, they suggest, only a tad whimsically, boil down to the counsel: “Eat like a Hobbit.” Here are those principles:

(1)Participate in food production to the extent that you can; (2) prepare your own food; (3) know where your food comes from and buy food produced close to where you live; (4) deal directly with local farmers, gardeners, or orchardists when possible; (5) learn as much as possible about how industrial food production really works [I recommend Matthew Scully’s Dominion]; (6) learn about the best farming and gardening practices; (7) learn about the life histories of food species.

Berry urges that we practice those seven principles not as a tiresome duty but as a way of extending our pleasure in our eating. He says, too: “Eating with the fullest pleasure – pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance – is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.” Berry, as quoted by Dickerson and Evans, has specified the “lack of a general culture of land stewardship” as a basic cause of our historical and contemporary misuse of the earth. However, especially when read in youth, Tolkien’s writings work on readers’ imaginations and feelings in such a way that those readers may be disposed to think carefully and soundly about our responsibilities -- and not simply in isolation, since Tolkien emphasizes a conciliar approach: for example, the discussions at Rivendell, before the Fellowship sets out; and the Entmoot. Tolkien’s wisest characters are not only authoritative speakers, but good listeners and good discussion moderators.

Do get your libraries to buy this book!

Extollager said...

I hope that, if you have managed to read that long review, you will agree that there's far more to Tolkien's attitude towards modernity than "escape." I believe, in fact, that you would find Tolkien in the imaginative experience of many "activists" of various kinds, who deal with our responsibilities to the earth.

Now I'm going to feel like I hogged the conversation if a there aren't a bunch of other comments yet on this Tolkien-Lovecraft-modernity thread, to reduce the proportion of the verbiage that I am responsible for! Thanks to all who bore with me patiently.

aaronandbrighid said...

Perhaps I will comment again once I have had a chance to read that review, and while I thank you for posting it, I can't promise how soon that will be!

Jason, if you're still paying attention, perhaps you have something to add?

Extollager said...

Coleridge monologued at length about "ommmmject" and "summmmject"... but... when he emerged from the swarm of his own words... found that the room had emptied....

Jason Fisher said...

Er, step away for five minutes, and see what happens! It will take me some time to catch up, at which point I may have something to add. :)

aaronandbrighid said...

Excellent, Jason. I enthusiastically anticipate your contribution!

aaronandbrighid said...

Recalling these words from an above comment of my now deceased gadfly, Mr Burton--'...I have read a great deal about the man [Tolkien] and I am yet to find where he uttered one word of criticism for the racial situation that prevailed during his whole life in the land of his Nativity, South Africa'--I thought I would post this sadly brief comment I just came across from a letter of Tolkien to his son, Christopher:

'As for what you say or hint of "local" conditions [in South Africa]: I knew of them. I don't think they have much changed (even for the worse). I used to hear them discussed by my mother; & have ever since taken a special interest in that part of the world. The treatment of colour nearly always horrifies anyone going out from Britain, & not only in South Africa.' (Letter 61)

So there you have it: 'one word of criticism'.

gordsellar said...

While I am a few years late to the -- um, party? (I almost wrote brawl:I am grateful not to have a commenter like Milton on my own blog, to be sure!) -- I do have one thought.

As you are a religious person, it appeals to you to imagine the influence of Williams or other members of The Inklings talking Lovecraft into some sort of theistic stance. The very thought horrifies me, of course, as Lovecraft was one of the first writers I encountered wherein my own budding awareness of my atheism kind of computed and made sense.

So, meanwhile, being that my views on religion happen to agree with Lovecraft's, I find it more amusing and compelling to imagine old HPL calling Lewis on the cheaper, dodgier of his apologist religious writing. While I have enjoyed and found some meaning in some of Lewis's work -- especially A Grief Observed and Screwtape Letters -- and that of Tolkien, I must note that a lot of Lewis's more directly theological writing (such as Mere Christianity, from the Radio Broadcasts) was pretty problematic. Like, as in, even a non-expert could shoot holes in it. (And indeed neither Tolkien nor Williams seemed much impressed by those radio lectures either.)

In all likelihood, HPL could neither have been converted by Williams or Lewis or Tolkien, nor could he have converted them, though maybe if he'd caught Lewis when he was still an atheist (ie. before Tolkien had helped convert him), things might have been different. I can't help but wonder just what Lewis might have achieved with all of his propagandistic skill if he'd remained atheist (or converted back to atheism).

I do feel a little sad not to be able to read those works by an atheist Lewis, which I suspect would be more interesting and readable than any Christian-convert Lovecraft's writing would have been (and, most probably, more interesting to me than most of what Lewis did actually write).

Aaron Taylor said...

gordsellar> Thank you for your comment. I don't think I've had any atheists posting here before, but you're quite welcome.

I sympathise with your reaction to us Christians sitting around and talking casually about converting your co-nonreligionists. You caught us talking as though we were in private and could perhaps be less than sensitive ('unfortunate fellow' and so on!). For all I know, you could be right about HPL/Inklings interactions. I don't have nearly as good a grasp on Lovecraft's personality or the contours of his thought as I do on the Inklings. This had more to do with an intuition based on the comparison between Williams's and Lovecraft's fiction.

I would point out though that I'm not of the party that worships Lewis as some sort of apologetics god (this was part of the reason I didn't specifically mention any idea of HIM converting HPL). I personally find some of his arguments compelling, others not so much. But then again apologetics isn't really my thing. I enjoy the very occasional debate in person with good friends, but typically I prefer to talk about points in common.

Milton, God rest his soul, did not seem to get this about me, or he did but didn't like it. For some reason, he was compelled to read my posts, and to loudly and vehemently attack me over them to the point of harassment. This blog is meant to be a basically irenic place, and I thank you, at least, for having maintained that tone.