Creator and Subcreator

The ‘creation’ of the artist is by no means a parallel to the creation of God. It is its dullest reflection, and is completely overwhelmed by the light of the life of God. Whoever truly serves beauty, serves God. But whoever serves God does not yet therefore serve beauty. God can destroy for his servant all beautiful words and sounds. The deepest, even the ultimate religious art, cannot exist before the face of God. In its highest forms of expression we feel a longing for a different image, a different song; for something which would be no longer ‘art.’–van der Leeuw in Thiessen, Theological Aesthetics: A Reader, 312-313


The Discipline of Seeing

There is a discipline in seeing, just as there is a discipline in everything else that we do well, whether it is reading or writing or making something or listening to significant music, or even loving someone. A discipline of seeing does not come by being told how to see, though that might be helpful, even necessary; it comes primarily by seeing and seeing and seeing over and over again. In the realm of music we assume that it takes discipline and repeated hearing to find one’s way into the appreciation of a symphony. Such a discipline stands in marked contrast to the lure of a popular melody, which demands little of us. Frequently the same people appreciate both; yet in terms of stretching of our sensibilities, a symphony rates above a popular tune. With respect to the visual arts, people are not generally willing to grant a similar distinction, that is, between naïve and high art. –Dillenberger in Thiessen, Theological Aesthetics: A Reader, 238


The image of God, the beauty of Christ, the vision of the invisible divine still attracts in our frequently cynical postmodern age–Thiessen, Theological Aesthetics: A Reader, 5


Meaning is not projected on to an arrangement of paints or of masses of stone. It is already embodied and communicated there through its creator’s handling of the sensuous. We can recognize beauty therefore, without creating a theory of the beautiful. Indeed, there is no such theory to create. There is the stating of what aesthetic objects are, and to the degree that they are, they are beautiful–Aidan Nichols in Thiessen, Theological Aesthetics: A Reader, 230


Taste is not the inner organisation of aesthetic perception but merely something which sharpens or dulls it. We can acknowledge that a canvas is a work of art without appreciating it personally. We can, and perhaps more commonly do, appreciate an artwork without giving it properly aesthetic acknowledgement. For instance, you may be hugely appreciative of Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, but the appreciation may be directed to memories of childhood or religiosity which it awakens. Our special preferences in art may dictate the breath or narrowness of our vision, our errors and failures of appreciation. Their consequences may be enormous, as when neo-Classical observers failed to ‘see’ the English Gothic cathedrals. Hence the need to examine them and re-examine. It is in the moment that our aesthetic judgment cases to specify such preferences and simply registers in the presence of the beautiful that it is wholly, universally valid and not simply valid ‘for me.’  This is so because at such a moment, it lets the object speak and show itself for what it is. The historical conditioning of taste is no argument against aesthetic judgment of this kind. We need not fear that we are indulging in a piece of concealed solipsism when we describe an artwork, ‘really’ chatting away about ourselves. We are doing something mercifully more interesting than re-arranging our pleasurable sensations–Aidan Nichols in Thiessen, Theological Aesthetics; A Reader, 230.

Tolkien’s Use of “The Seafarer” in LOTR

Tolkien loved Old English poems, and much of The Wanderer, The Ruin, and The Seafarer made it into The Lord of the Rings. Let’s look, for example, at The Seafarer.

The tone of The Seafarer certainly permeates the trilogy. Here’s the description of Wilcox:

an elegiac tone persists through The Lord of the Rings and is reminiscent of the lyric-elegiac quality, a sadness of time and change deeper than melancholia, present in much Old English poetry.[i]

One clear example of resemblance of tone between The Seafarer and The Lord of the Rings appears in the desire of Legolas for the sea and sea voyaging, when he says:

To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying,
The wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying.
West, west away, the round sun is falling.
Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling,
The voices of my people that have gone before me?
I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me;
For our days are ending and our years failing:
I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing.
Long are the waves on the Last Shore falling,
Sweet are the voices in the Lost Isle calling,
In Eressëa, in Elvenhome that no man can discover,
Where the leaves fall not: land of my people for ever![ii]

The lines “do you hear them calling,/The voices of my people that have gone before me?” are reminiscent of the ubi sunt motif, which is “a poetic topos lamenting the disappearance of beloved persons or things.”[iii] Legolas bemoans that some of his people have already left Middle-earth, and he is sorrowful concerning the end of an age. The play on words in the gulls “crying,” the foam “flying,” the sun and the waves “falling,” seems to carry a sad tone. The repetition of the verb “leaving,” the “failing” years, “lonely sailing,” and the search for Elvenhome, a land without loss (“leaves fall not”), emphasize the elegiac tone. The ubi sunt motif, common in Old English elegiac poems, also seems to be implied in The Seafarer. A representative passage is found in lines 80b-90:

Days have departed,
all pride of earth’s kingdom;
now are no kings and no Kaisers
nor any gold-givers such as once were,
when they most glorious deeds did among them
and then most lordly lived out their doom.
Wanes all this noble host; joys have departed;
weaker remain and rule this world,
live here afflicted. Glory is humbled,
honor of earth grows old and withers,
as does now every man over this Middle-Earth. [iv]

The seafarer laments the loss of glorious kings and the joy that came with gold and honor. He repeats the verb “departing;” the loss of something that was there before (kings, kaisers, gold-givers); and the ideas of waning, aging, and withering. Like Legolas, the seafarer also mourns the end of the glory of a previous time.

It is noteworthy, however, that despite similarities in tone, The Seafarer seems less optimistic overall than the outlook of Legolas. In the passage from The Lord of the Rings quoted above, the sea does not seem harsh or the travel difficult: the sailing is just “lonely” and perhaps long (“wide waters”). In addition, the call for Legolas to make the journey comes from “sweet voices” residing in “Elvenhome,” where “the leaves fall not.”  All of these things are desirable, especially considering that the name “Legolas” means “green leaves.”[iv] Conversely, The Seafarer presents a harsher perspective on the sea and the voyage across it. The starting lines tell of the dangers and toils of seafaring:

About myself I can utter a truth-song,
tell journeys–how I in toil-days
torment-time often endured,
abode and still do bitter breast-care,
sought in my ship many a care-hall,
horrible waves’ rolling, where narrow night-watch
often has kept me at the ship’s stem
when it dashes by cliffs. Pinched by the cold
were my feet, bound by frost’s
frozen fetters, where those cares sighed
hot about heart; hunger within tore
the mind of the sea-weary one.[v]

Ida Gordon, who continued the work that her husband, E.V. Gordon, and J.R.R. Tolkien began, describes the outlook of the poem as negative:

The seafarer has made it abundantly clear that seafaring is a dangerous business; he has even implied in the foreboding of the cuckoo’s cry that death is imminent, but he chooses death (Dryhtnes dreamas) because nothing is to be gained by choosing the safe and easy, but less adventurous, course.[vi]

Ida Gordon further believes that this heroic, elegiac mood is distinct from that of the Christian peregrinus or sojourner, and that the hardships of the voyage of the Nordic seafarer serve as an illustration for the Christian lesson of endurance and hope found at the end of the poem.[vii]

If Gordon is right, her theory helps to make sense of the discrepancy between the perspectives on the sea coming from Legolas and from the seafarer. In other words, it is possible that Professor Tolkien borrowed from the Old English poem the elegiac mood of the seafarer, but that he modified it in Legolas by including more hope and less hardship so that it would be more congruous with a Christian worldview.

Along with tone, The Lord of the Rings incorporates themes from The Seafarer, such as sailing, exile, and the transitory nature of life. These are closely connected to the elegiac tone, as discussed above. For this topic, I recommend Miranda Wilcox, who provides a useful essay including similar thematic implications between the two works in Exilic Imagining in The Seafarer and The Lord of the Rings. Concerning the themes of sailing and exile, she says

the Seafarer and the Elves are prompted to leave their exilic state and sail in search of eternal existence in a Christian or mythological paradise, with the sea as the bridge between their mortal existence and eternal existence.[viii]

Both Legolas and the seafarer are dislocated and seek to journey across the sea to a place that is better than where they are and where they will end their exile. Their respective journeys will cause them to suffer the loss of leaving behind something. The elf longs to be rejoined with his kindred, but he will leave “the woods that bore [him].” The sailor seeks “foreigners’, pilgrims’, homeland” (38), but he leaves behind comfort and safety. Furthermore, both the elf and the seaman lament the transience of their age, which is another theme that contributes to the elegiac tone in each text.

So, as you can see, Tolkien borrowed from The Seafarer. What was borrowed, however, was not imported wholesale; it was adapted. It seems to me that Tolkien’s use Anglo-Saxon poems corresponds well with T. S. Eliot’s discussion in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”:

[often] not only the best, but the most individual parts of [a poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.[ix]

[i] Miranda Wilcox, “Exilic Imagining in the Seafarer and Lord of the Rings” in Tolkien the Medievalist. Ed. Jane Chance (London, England: Routledge, xiv, 2003), 133.

[ii] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 252.

[iii] David Mikics, A New Handbook of Literary Terms (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 304.

[iv] J. R. R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter, and Christopher Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 282.

[v] Jonathan Glenn translation found at

[vi] I. L. Gordon, “Traditional Themes in the Wanderer and the Seafarer,” The Review of English Studies 5.17 (1954): 8-9.

[vii] I. L. Gordon, The Seafarer (London: Methuen, 1960), 1-27.

[viii] Wilcox, 138.

[ix] T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1917-1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1932), 4.

Mythopoeia – J.R.R. Tolkien

To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though “breathed through silver” PHILOMYTHUS TO MISOMYTHUS

You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are `trees’, and growing is `to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, Inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.

At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;
and as on page o’erwritten without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
and endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,
each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.
God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.
The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain’s contortions with a separate dint.

Yet trees and not `trees’, until so named and seen –
and never were so named, till those had been
who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh,
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.
Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves,
and looking backward they beheld the Elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.

The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship one he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem ?
All wishes are not idle, not in vain
fulfilment we devise – for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is deadly certain: Evil is.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate,
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
through small and bare, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things nor found within record time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organised delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).

Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have turned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends –
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day-illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet may free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden not gardener, children not their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not been dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

Faith Seeking Understanding

Man was created to see God. Man by sin lost the blessedness for which he was made, and found the misery for which he was not made. He did not keep this good when he could keep it easily. Without God it is ill with us. Our labors and attempts are in vain without God. Man cannot seek God, unless God himself teaches him; nor find him, unless he reveals himself. God created man in his image, that he might be mindful of him, think of him, and love him. The believer does not seek to understand, that he may believe, but he believes that he may understand: for unless he believed he would not understand. –Anslem, Proslogium, Chapter I

Novel vs. Epic

I’ve been thinking recently about the difference between the novel and the epic, particularly since I have been doing much with the ancient Greeks and Virgil.

If you are inclined to participate in this discussion, what do you think are the differences between C. S. Lewis’ After Ten Years (not a full novel, but an excerpt of one) and Homer and Virgil? All these treat the same time period and characters, but how are they different?

Preserving the Veil

Barbarism and Philistinism cannot see that knowledge of material reality is a knowledge of death. The desire to get even closer to the source of physical sensation—this is the  downward pull which puts an end to ideational life. No education is worthy of the name which fails to make the point that the world is best understood from a certain distance or that the most elementary understanding requires a degree of abstraction. To insist on less is to merge ourselves with the exterior reality or to capitulate to the endless induction of empiricism. –Ideas Have Consequences, 27

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