Monday, January 4, 2010

Tolkien on Ireland, part two

So, since making my earlier post about Tolkien's odd comment about the land of Ireland being saturated with evil, I've been able to locate the original source cited in PERILOUS REALMS. The particular passage starts a new section of the three-way discussion between Kilby, Carpenter, and Sayer (which took place on September 29th, 1979), with its own header. Here's the whole passage:

"On the Influence of Tolkien's Love of Nature in General on his Use of Natural Images in his Writings"

Professor Sayer:

I've gone for one or two walks with Tolkien, and he did talk to me about natural scenes he visited. One of the things I noticed, which surprised me from the start, was the way in which he regarded certain natural scenes as evil. This came up most strongly after he'd been examining in order -- that is to say classifying students in an Irish University according to their achievements in the English language and literature. He described Ireland as a country naturally evil. He said he could feel evil coming 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. This was a very strange view, and was not one I could even have guessed.


I have nothing to add to that extremely illuminating reminiscence except that, to say that he was a very knowledgable [sic] observer of the details of scenery . . . [he then goes on to describe Tolkien's 'nature ramble' with the Lewis brothers, after wh. Kilby describes Tolkien as a gardener].

[source: MINAS TIRITH EVENING STAR, January 1980, Vol. 9 no. 2, pages 15 & 16]

--so, as per Jason's comment on my original post, it's now clear that Humphrey C. cd not have shed more light upon this; apparently it was a new anecdote to him. It's not that odd that Tolkien might have identified a particular area as evil -- many who experienced trench warfare on the Western Front came to feel that way about No Man's Land -- but that he wd apply this to Ireland. As David points out, Tolkien is on record saying that he liked both Ireland and the Irish (though not the Irish language, much preferring Welsh).

Quote #1

"I am very untravelled, though I know Wales, and have often been in Scotland (never north of the Tay), and know something of France, Belgium, and Ireland. I have spent a good deal of time in Ireland, and am since last July actually a D. Litt. of University College Dublin; but be it noted I first set foot in 'Eire' in 1949 after The Lord of the Rings was finished, and find both Gaelic and the air of Ireland wholly alien – though the latter (not the language) is attractive." [JRRT to HM Co., June 1955; LETTERS p. 219)]

In a second letter, Tolkien is even more explicit:

Quote #2

"I do not travel much. I love Wales (what is left of it, when mines, and the even more ghastly sea-side resorts, have done their worst), and especially the Welsh language. But I have not in fact been in W. for a long time (except for crossing it on the way to Ireland). I go frequently to Ireland (Eire: Southern Ireland) being fond of it and of (most of) its people; but the Irish language I find wholly unattractive. I hope that is enough to go on with." [JRRT to Rhona Beare, draft of October 1958; LETTERS p. 289]

So, on the one hand Sayer tells us Tolkien considered Ireland a land saturated with evil, and on the other Tolkien twice goes out of his way to say that he liked Ireland and its people. I don't think there's any way to reconcile these two positions, other than to assume that Sayer somewhat misunderstood Tolkien -- that Tolkien had been describing his experiences at a particular spot in Ireland (say, one of the peat-bogs, from which the Bog People are occasionally recovered), and Sayer mistakenly extrapolated it into a general remark about the whole island. That's my best guess, at any rate.

As for Extollager's comment: the idea of demon-haunted waste spaces was certainly familiar to Tolkien -- cf. Grendel's Mere -- and they feature memorably in some of his works. The classic example in English literature is Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came". Given Tolkien's sensitivity to landscapes, I see how he could feel this way about specific places he'd encountered, of which Sayer gives us one example (apparently not the only one). I know the most sinister-looking place I remember seeing, a woods of twisted trees you have to walk through for a mile or more to see a petrogylph-site, looked menacing but didn't feel that way at all. The only time I did get an odd feeling from a landscape was on the Isle of Wight when I climbed Tennyson Down. Walking around the top in the fog, I v. much got the sense that I was in Britain, not England. This is the only time I've felt anything like that in my five trips to the UK; what some might call a numinous feeling. It was v. striking, and memorable, but not at all sinister.* Luck, perhaps?

--John R.

*the frightening part came a little later. Since I'd climbed up one side, I assumed the other was pretty much the same. So later, after I'd sat down to rest and think a little, when the fog lifted saw I was less than five feet from the edge of a sheer cliff dropping what looked like hundreds of feet to The Needles, my acrophobia kicked in big-time.


Robert said...

Your account of your time on the Isle reminds me of Eustace's pre-transformation journey on Dragon Island.

David Bratman said...

Once while driving through western England, I got the distinct feeling that something was looking over my shoulder from behind.

I stopped the car and turned my head to see. It was Glastonbury Tor.

Extollager said...

Interesting anecdotes, but Tolkien doesn't seem to have been alluding exactly to a "spooky" experience, since he refers to an evil that is kept in check by the Christian devotion of the Irish, i.e., presumably, their prayers, their faithful attendance at Mass, etc. Tolkien claimed to "feel" the presence of an active or potentially active evil exuded by the land itself.

The report we have is all too brief and we don't want to read too much into it. Here, though, are several thoughts about it:

1.Whatever Tolkien meant, he was serious. He wasn't saying that some landscapes in Ireland reminded him of uncanny stories, or something like that.

2.Thus, the anecdote seems likely to have signified something Tolkien really believed about the world. With so little specifically on this "evil land" topic to go on, we may venture, with caution, to consider that things Tolkien believed as a Catholic Christian would help us to understand him. That's why I mentioned the Desert Fathers, St. Antony, etc. in my comment on Dec. 19. From St. Athanasius' Life of St. Antony (Paulist Press - Classics of Western Spirituality): In controversies with Greek pagans, St. Antony said "'we, calling on the name of Christ crucified, chase away all the demons you fear as gods. And where the sign of the cross occurs, magic is weakened and sorcery has no effect'" (Ch. 78).

3.I wonder if Tolkien thought that unwholesome spiritism had been particularly strongly enculturated into Ireland in its pre-Christian past.

4.Finally, I think the anecdote and related evidence hints that Tolkien would not share the enthusiasm of, say, National Geographic anthropologist Wade Davis, for the spiritism of various indigenous groups

Tolkien obviously rejected the prevalent materialism/reductionism/naturalism/consumerism of his day, which is still widespread. I suppose hundreds of thousands of people who see something of the unwholesomeness of that way of life have been awakened/encouraged by reading Tolkien; but he isn't really an ally on the side of those who would oppose the naturalistic/reductionistic way of life with one that embraces non-Christian beliefs and practices.

Zeta's Blog said...

Could it be that Tolkien actually sensed the presence of Tuatha Dé Danann?