Sunday, 27 March 2016

A possibly unnoticed instance of echoes of G. K. Chesterton in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien

Note: I am a part-time Tolkien scholar without the time to conduct extensive research in secondary literature, and must therefore rely on others to point out any duplications.

I. Preamble: Romance (1914)

Scull and Hammond’s Companion and Guide (p. 52) notes that on 16 May 1914 G.K. Chesterton gave a lecture, Romance, at 5.30 p.m. in the Examination Schools. It’s not clear whether there is evidence that Tolkien attended this. A summary is given in Dale Ahlquist, ed. 2011, The Universe according to G.K. Chesterton: a dictionary of the mad, mundane and metaphysical (Dover Publications Inc.) pp. vii–viii, quoting the Manchester Guardian of 18 May 1914:

In literature it [romance] was a mood that combined to the keenest extent the idea of danger and the idea of hope. The essence of romance was ‘adventure, and above all, unexpected success.’ It differed from tragedy in that it had from the very beginning the idea of hope; it differed from comedy in that it had from the very beginning the idea of danger. ‘There must be courage in it, but the courage must not be mere fortitude, like that of Hector looking forward to his doom. And the courage must not be mere confidence, like that of Achilles driving all the Trojans before him. It must be a fighting chance.’

This sounds like the kind of thing that could have resonated with Tolkien. It is a possibility that Tolkien was already at this time an enthusiast for Chesterton and might have been reading his works (and might possibly have attended the play Chesterton had had presented between November 1913 and early 1914).

II. Magic (1913)

As has been many times set forth, when Tolkien first began writing poetry seriously, he picked up the strain of fairy romanticism that was prevalent and fashionable in the Edwardian era. In his first few poems the fairies were the traditional small, dainty, shy beings not much dissimilar to the insects which often appear in the same contexts. Goblin Feet (1915) encapsulated this (Tolkien later looked back with a degree of revulsion at his early fairy poetry), but he had already begun to embrace a second imaginative strain under the influence of the Kalevala, involving heroic action, originally without non-human protagonists. After the notable √Čarendel revelation (leading to the first poem in September 1914), the early Legendarium narratives begin to feature ‘fairies’, who, though still remarkable for their evasiveness and love of piping and dancing, are greater than mortals, endowed with new qualities of power, wisdom, and heroism. 1914 is also the date of the first evidence for the ‘nonsense fairy language’.

Given that 1914 seems to be the turning point in Tolkien’s creative development, it is suggestive that G.K. Chesterton’s play Magic was presented and published at the end of 1913. Certain passages in this play are reminiscent of themes present in Tolkien’s creativity at exactly this time. Could Tolkien have seen it or read it? I’m not suggesting that Tolkien obtained his ideas from Chesterton, merely that if he did read or see Magic it could have helped to precipitate or crystallize some of them.

Magic, ‘A fantastic comedy by G. K. Chesterton’, was first published 7 November 1913. It was first presented at the Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, on 3 November 1913; subsequently at The Little Theatre, London, from 7 November 1913. From 21 November it was on a double bill with Thomas Hardy’s The Three Wayfarers and from 28 January 1914 with Bernard Shaw’s The Music Cure as curtain raiser.

An inadequate summary of the story is that the heroine, Patricia, encounters the Stranger, and is in awe of his ‘powers’ until he reveals that he is a professional conjurer. When her brother Morris, a religious sceptic, arrives, he and the Conjurer argue heatedly about the supernatural. A series of apparently supernatural occurrences caused by the Conjurer causes Morris to have a breakdown. Eventually the Conjurer admits that he did perform the third trick (turning the doctor’s red lamp blue) by ‘magic’, having previously been an occultist, but he renounces black magic and he and Patricia agree to get married.

It’s important to notice that while the main body of the play is down-to-earth indoor drawing-room drama, with plenty of rather Shavian disputation, the Prelude is very different in atmosphere: out-of-doors, misty, and mysterious. I am particularly struck by the figure of the Stranger / Conjurer, by his assertion that the elves are not (necessarily) small, by the mention of the ‘language of the elves’, and by the idea of the fairy tale ending only when it comes true. I give below the extracts that are most suggestive. 

[Act I.] The Prelude

Scene: A plantation of thin young trees, in a misty and rainy twilight; some woodland blossom showing the patches on the earth between the stems.

The Stranger is discovered, a cloaked figure with a pointed hood. His costume might belong to modern or any other time, and the conical hood is so drawn over the head that little can be seen of the face.

A distant voice, a woman’s, is heard, half-singing, half-chanting, unintelligible words. The cloaked figure raises its head and listens with interest. The song draws nearer and Patricia Carleon enters. She is dark and slight, and has a dreamy expression. Though she is artistically dressed, her hair is a little wild. She has a broken branch of some flowering tree in her hand. She does not notice the stranger, and though he has watched her with interest, makes no sign. Suddenly she perceives him and starts back.

Patricia. Oh! Who are you?

Stranger. Ah! Who am I? [Commences to mutter to himself, and maps out the ground with his staff.]

I have a hat, but not to wear;
I wear a sword, but not to slay,
And ever in my bag I bear
A pack of cards, but not to play.

Patricia. What are you? What are you saying?

Stranger. It is the language of the fairies, O daughter of Eve.

Patricia. But I never thought fairies were like you. Why, you are taller than I am.

Stranger. We are of such stature as we will. But the elves grow small, not large, when they would mix with mortals.

Patricia. You mean they are beings greater than we are.

Stranger. Daughter of men, if you would see a fairy as he truly is, look for his head above all the stars and his feet amid the floors of the sea. Old women have taught you that the fairies are too small to be seen. But I tell you the fairies are too mighty to be seen. For they are the elder gods before whom the giants were like pigmies. They are the Elemental Spirits, and any one of them is larger than the world. And you look for them in acorns and on toadstools and wonder that you never see them.

Patricia. But you come in the shape and size of a man?

Stranger. Because I would speak with a woman.

Patricia. [Drawing back in awe.] I think you are growing taller as you speak.

[The scene appears to fade away…]

Enter Patricia Carleon

Morris [Still agitated.] Patricia, where have you been?

Patricia. [Rather wearily.] Oh! in Fairyland.

Doctor. [Genially.] And whereabouts is that?

Patricia. It’s rather different from other places. It’s either nowhere or it’s wherever you are.

Morris. [Sharply.] Has it any inhabitants?

Patricia. Generally only two. Oneself and one’s shadow. But whether he is my shadow or I am his shadow is never found out.

Morris. He? Who?

Patricia. [Seeming to understand his annoyance for the first time, and smiling.] Oh, you needn’t get conventional about it, Morris. He is not a mortal.

Morris. What’s his name?

Patricia. We have no names there. You never really know anybody if you know his name.

Morris. What does he look like?

Patricia. I have only met him in the twilight. He seems robed in a long cloak, with a peaked cap or hood like the elves in my nursery stories. Sometimes when I look out of the window here, I see him passing round this house like a shadow; and see his pointed hood, dark against the sunset or the rising of the moon.

Smith. What does he talk about?

Patricia. He tells me the truth. Very many true things. He is a wizard.

Morris. How do you know he’s a wizard? I suppose he plays some tricks on you.

Patricia. I should know he was a wizard if he played no tricks. But once he stooped and picked up a stone and cast it into the air, and it flew up into God’s heaven like a bird.

Morris. Was that what first made you think he was a wizard?

Patricia. Oh, no. When I first saw him he was tracing circles and pentacles in the grass and talking the language of the elves.

Morris. [Sceptically.] Do you know the language of the elves?

Patricia. Not until I heard it.


Act II.

Smith [the Vicar]. I only ask because you scientific men are a little hard on us clergymen. You don’t believe in a priesthood; but you’ll admit I’m more really a priest than this Conjurer is really a magician. You’ve been talking a lot about the Bible and the Higher Criticism. But even by the Higher Criticism the Bible is older than the language of the elves—which was, as far as I can make out, invented this afternoon. But Miss Carleon believed in the wizard. Miss Carleon believed in the language of the elves. And you put her in charge of an invalid without a flicker of doubt: because you trust women.

Act III.

[Conjurer buttons up his cloak and advances to Patricia.]

Conjurer. Good-bye.

Patricia. I shall not say good-bye.

Conjurer. You are great as well as good. But a saint can be a temptress as well as a sinner. I put my honour in your hands ... oh, yes, I have a little left. We began with a fairy tale. Have I any right to take advantage of that fairy tale? Has not that fairy tale really and truly come to an end?

Patricia. Yes. That fairy tale has really and truly come to an end. [Looks at him a little in the old mystical manner.] It is very hard for a fairy tale to come to an end. If you leave it alone it lingers everlastingly. Our fairy tale has come to an end in the only way a fairy tale can come to an end. The only way a fairy tale can leave off being a fairy tale.

Conjurer. I don’t understand you.

Patricia. It has come true.  [CURTAIN]

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