Skip to content

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (11) Medieval Literature as Transcendental (Auerbach, Tolkien, Lewis, & Medieval World-Building)

J.R.R. Tolkien, Merton Professor of English Language & Literature (3rd Academic Chair, 1945; picture of Oxfordshire, Oxford, New College, Garden Front)

J.R.R. Tolkien, Merton Professor of English Language & Literature (3rd Academic Chair, 1945; picture of Oxfordshire, Oxford, New College, Garden Front)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (11) Medieval Literature as Transcendental (Auerbach, Tolkien, Lewis, & Medieval World-Building)

Good Morning, Everyone!

On the way to see (what else?) The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with the family, but wanted to start tying together some of the philological strains that I’ve been observing between J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Erich Auerbach; all academics of the early 20th Century who truly believed in the capacity of literature for any given historical period to both (1) serve as a reader’s referent for that moment in time, and (2) infuse a sense of faux-medieval (or ancient) reality into “modern” thought and discourse.

Keeping in mind from my last blog of Auerbach’s belief that a historical period can be understood through it’s literature, I invite you to read an excerpt from Norman F. Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages, wherein he describes the historical and cultural milieus that informed the writings of Tolkien and Lewis:

Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages

Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages

From Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century (1991):

“… Lewis and Tolkien were products of an era of British decline that occupied most of their lifetimes. They fought as officers in the First World War. Both witnessed scenes of indescribable carnage. From this experience they derived an appreciation of physical courage, an imaginative taste for violence, and a sense of the instability and fragility of life.  The “Dark Power” is an ever-recurring threat. All these qualities are reflected in their fantasy novels. Lewis and Tolkien belonged to Britain’s posthegemonic generation.  The Empire was not lost until World War II, but in the late thirties and forties, between Munich in 1938 and the abandonment of the raj ten years later, in spite of dogged Christian heroism of the war, it was pretty clear that Britain’s day of wealth and power was over. It was the time of Britannia’s “sunset and evening star.”

Humphrey Carpenter, "The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, & their friends"

Humphrey Carpenter, “The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, & their friends”

The response to economic and imperial decline was in the Britain of the 1940s a literary ambience of despairing resignation, suspicion of and incapacity to sustain an advanced technological society, and an intense but short-lived Christian revival. The leading British writers of the period — T.S. Eliot in poetry and drama, F.R. Leavis in literary criticism and cultural commentary, J.B. Priestly in fiction, Arnold Toynbee in metahistorical speculation — shared this temperament. It even effects later writings, the satirical fantasies, of George Orwell. Translated into focus on the bureaucratic establishment, it is a theme also in C.P. Snow’s novels … this was the sad ambience, the bitter, depleted world in which Lewis and Tolkien wrote.  They had, however, a more positive response to these conditions and events than the postimperial stoicism, cultural despair, and resigned Christian pessimism that were the common response of their British contemporaries.  They were not prepared imaginatively and intellectually to withdraw and accept defeat. Out of the medieval Norse, Celtic, and Grail legends, they conjured fantasies of revenge and recovery, an ethos of return and triumph. As Chaucer said in Troilus and Criseyde, they aimed to “make dreams truth and fables histories.” A mythopoetic vision of medieval heroism was to be communicated to the masses through fantasy stories. “That something which the educated receive from poetry,” Lewis wrote in 1947, “can reach the masses in stories of adventure, and almost in no other way.” [End of Cantor excerpt, pp. 211-213]

Theology Lesson (Sorbonne) 15th c. , French School Ms 129 f. 32

Theology Lesson (Sorbonne) 15th c. , French School Ms 129 f. 32

For those readers who might doubt this interpretation of the abiding power and influence of faux-medieval fantasizing and myth-making, let’s peer at the men themselves, and observe how these matters were discussed between Tolkien and Lewis, and, most importantly, how they applied their learning and passion for matters medieval to philosophical and religious understandings of the world.  The following excerpts are from a more recent vintage than Cantor, but by another historian whose excellent biography on Tolkien I urge everyone to pick up!

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Tolkien & Lewis, Conversionary Power of Bible ("The Mission of St. Columba to the Picts, A.D. 563-597," William Hole, 1898)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Tolkien & Lewis, Conversionary Power of Bible (“The Mission of St. Columba to the Picts, A.D. 563-597,” William Hole, 1898)

Christopher Snyder, The Making of Middle Earth (2013)

Christopher Snyder, The Making of Middle Earth (2013)

From Christopher Snyder, The Making of Middle Earth: A New Look Inside the World of J.R.R. Tolkien (2013):

…[Tolkien in the 1920s & 1930s was more interested in myths as a “traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.” OED.] By studying ancient myths, [Tolkien] sought understanding about the people who produced them; by writing his own, he acted as a sub creator, carrying on the tradition for modern audiences. Like ancient myths but unlike most modern fantasy, Tolkien’s sub creation aimed for higher things than artistic novelty and creative ingenuity. “It was the only way that certain transcendent truths could be expressed in intelligible form,” writes English-born writer and professor of humanities Joseph Pearce.

Addison's Walk (Magdalen Deer Park, Oxford, England)

Addison’s Walk (Magdalen Deer Park, Oxford, England)

As Tolkien famously explained to C.S. Lewis in 1931 during an after-dinner walk … Christianity was “the truest myth,” the one played out in recorded history. Or, to put it another way, it was God’s myth told directly to man as opposed to men’s myths in which God used the mind of the individual poet to express Himself, “using such images as he found there.” (p. 21) … Lewis recalled in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1955), that this conversation led directly to his own conversion to Christianity.  Lewis attempted to repay his debt by constant encouragement of Tolkien in his Middle-Earth writing, resulting in the publication of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.” (pp. 29-30)  [End of Snyder excerpt]

 

Inspiration of Medieval Language and Literature: The Myths of Tolkien's Middle Earth: "Gandalf's Home, The Light of Valinor on the Western Sea," by Ted Nasmith)

Inspiration of Medieval Language and Literature: The Myths of Tolkien’s Middle Earth: “Gandalf’s Home, The Light of Valinor on the Western Sea,” by Ted Nasmith)

C.S. Lewis's Narnia (art by Pauline Baynes)

C.S. Lewis’s Narnia (art by Pauline Baynes)

So, a lot to think about my epic-fantasy friends and enthusiasts.  In philology, Tolkien and Auerbach truly believed that not only could the history of a period could be gleaned from a people’s literary remains, but that certain kinds of myth-making allowed for a transcendental, spiritual interaction of a kind that passed into religious beliefs of a people.

Lewis was so persuaded by this power of philology that he converted to Christianity, and spent the remainder of his life promoting medieval and Renaissance literature, Christianity, and his own take on fantasy world-building with Narnia.

For Tolkien, those literary remains of a medieval past were primarily approached through a study of the Anglo-Saxon period in Britain (5th-11th centuries), wherein he specialized academically in interpreting works such as Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and other literature for an early 20th century audience; on the literary side of things, Tolkien made his own contribution to literature by his works, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, which all cast back into a medieval era that never was, and revealed forevermore how the Middle Ages could have been.

For Auerbach, when writers such as Tolkien and Lewis use language to craft epic fantasy, they, too, can also be used as referents for their own time, and the excerpt from the Cantor and Snyder books reveal how even the Oxford fantasists might have been doing more in the context of the World Wars eras than telling adventure stories about the Middle Ages.

C.S. Lewis, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" ("Cair Paravel," Disney/20th C. Fox)

C.S. Lewis, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” (“Cair Paravel,” Disney/20th C. Fox)

Christ Church Meadow (near Tolkien's home in retirement, Oxford)

Christ Church Meadow (near Tolkien’s home in retirement, Oxford)

When 21st century epic fantasists of today craft their tales, do you think that themes and situations in our “modern times” will inform fantasy writing?  I think that any writer’s environment must shape his or her writing at the subconscious level, but what I’m hoping for from this generation of fantasists is a willingness to do the mental “legwork” necessary for great storytelling:  learn something about the literature and history of the time you’re writing about, not to make a dissertation of it, but to make a story more believable because, like Tolkien’s  demand of language and storytelling,  epic fantasy “…should be ‘high,’ purged of the gross, and fit for the adult mind of a land steeped in beauty.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, Rawlinson & Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and Creator of Middle-Earth: J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

J.R.R. Tolkien, Rawlinson & Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and Creator of Middle-Earth: J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

Unless current writers of epic fantasy strive for that kind of elevated literary storytelling Tolkien recommended, we’ll still have novels published by the hundreds across all “sub-genres” of the fantasy field — no stopping that in an age where everyone too-often believes that the mere possession of a thought merits the publishing of it — but I do wonder how many of those modern, so-called “epic fantasy” stories will linger in our memories, or become active parts of our lives such the “mythopoetic” achievements of Tolkien and Lewis?

Thanks for visiting!
A.J.

Next time: Epic Fantasy and the Literary Middle Ages continues with one of Tolkien’s students, the Pulitizer-Prize winning poet, W.H. Auden!

 

 

No comments yet

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: