Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Evil Emanating (Tolkien on Ireland)

So, occasionally Tolkien gets quoted as saying something that strikes me as downright weird. Usually when I come across one of these, I back up and read the context, whereupon I see what he's getting at, and most of the apparent oddity goes away. But sometimes that's not an option.

Case in point: recently for a piece I've been working on, I went back to one of Tolkien's statements we don't know first hand, or even second hand, but only third hand. I first learned about it from a quote in Marjorie Burns' excellent book PERILOUS REALMS, in which she quotes George Sayer as saying the following about "[Tolkien's] reaction to the Irish landscape":

"In a 1979 transcription of a discussion
on J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis,
George Sayer tells a remarkable story
about Tolkien describing Ireland as
'naturally evil.' He could 'feel,' Sayer relates,
'evil coming up from the earth,
from the peat bogs, from the clumps of trees,
even from the cliffs, and this evil
was only held in check by the great
devotion of the southern Irish
to their religion.' "
--Burns, PERILOUS REALMS, page 19*

Unfortunately, as I said, we don't have any place where Tolkien himself wrote down anything like this, at least not that I know of. Nor did Sayer ever put this in his books or one of his memoirs, that I've been able to find. Our sole source for this seems to be a three-way discussion between Sayer, Humphrey Carpenter, and Clyde Kilby that took place at Wheaton in September 1979 -- and, just to complicate things a little further, no copy of the original audiotape of the event seems to survive, only a transcription published in a fanzine a few months later (the January 1980 issue of MINAS TIRITH EVENING STAR).

So there it is: a striking statement, entirely devoid of context, which we only have by a somewhat indirect route. No way to tell how serious Tolkien was when he said it, or how accurately our third-hand record of it represents his thought. But intriguing nonetheless.

--John R.


Jason Fisher said...

And three can keep a secret if, er, all three of them are dead. It’s too bad nobody tried to learn more about this before 2005, when Sayer and Carpenter passed.

David Bratman said...

How about this?

"[I] find both Gaelic and the air of Ireland wholly alien - though the latter (not the language) is attractive." - Letters, p. 219

I'm sure I've seen another source for this - not as strongly worded as Sayer put it, but much stronger than the above quote, and including the concept of there being something evil about the place.

Extollager said...

I would trust Sayer's accuracy, though, of course, the report lacks the documentation we would desire.

Let's suppose Tolkien did say that. What might he have meant?

Here is a speculation. If you go back to the "Desert Fathers," such as St. Antony of Egypt, you will see that they were understood as not going into the wilderness simply to escape the distractions of city life; they sought to engage in spiritual warfare with demons who infested waste places. See the hagiographical work by St. Athanasius and, if you have access to it, the entry on "Demons" in Everett Ferguson, ed. Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (Garland, 1990). An interesting treatment of the whole issue of spiritual warfare may be found in Gregory Boyd's God at War, where the author argues convincingly that it is present in the Old and New Testaments. Anyway, this concept may well have been part of Tolkien's understanding of the world and he may have meant what he is said to have said. From the point of view of secularism and secularized versions of Christianity it's a bizarre fancy, but Tolkien seems to have been alluding to a concept that is entirely orthodox. What would be at issue from that point of view is not the possibility of the presence of nonhuman evil, but Tolkien's personal sensitivity to it, etc.

bgc said...

I'm pretty sure I have read something of this kind said by, or attributed to, Warnie Lewis (who was, of course, himself Irish) - maybe in his journal or attributed in a letter to Jack - but I can't seem to locate it.

It is certainly more the sort of thing Warnie would have said, in one of his deporessive moods; and very unlike Tolkien.

Wurmbrand said...

There's this:


Wurmbrand said...

I should correct the misinformation passed along in my previous comment.


Wurmbrand said...

here is the passage that BGC was recalling:

"There is something wrong with this country -- some sullen brooding presence over it, a vague sense of something mean and cruel and sinister: I have felt the same feeling in the hills behind Sierra Leone, and once in 1919 at Doagh in Co. Antrim. A beastly feeling. On the merely physical side, it was most depressing country. I have never seen any place so enclosed before: wherever you go, the grey road is flanked by old stone walls, and banks on the top of which grow thick hedges, the whole overhung by heavy motionless foliage on old trees and lidded with a grey brown sky. After a time the longing for any sort of escape from these everlasting tunnels became acute, and one almost fancied it to be accompanied by a sensation of choking from trying to breathe air from which the oxygen was exhausted. The natives were as depressing as their landscape: during the whole morning I did not see anyone of any age or either sex who was not definitely ugly: even the children look more like goblins than earthborns....I wonder can it be possible that a country which has an eight hundred year record of cruelty and misery has the power of emanating a nervous disquiet? Certainly I felt something of the sort, and would much dislike to see this place again....[Later in the day, after leaving Waterford on our run down the Suir River, we passed Ballyhack, where there were some early Norman castles.] There was [also] a long succession of big houses, all very shut in and desolate, of which J remarked that Walter de la Mare could write detestable stories: and we talked for some time about horror and its treatment in fiction."

(from Brothers and Friends: The Diaries of Major Warren Hamilton Lewis, ed. Kilby and Mead, Harper and Row, 1982, pp. 111-112; "J" was Jack, i.e. C. S. Lewis)

Dale Nelson