Sunday, February 19, 2017

Loren Eiseley on Dunsany — and Tolkien

Loren Eiseley on Dunsany — and Tolkien

So, back when I was working on my Dunsany dissertation I came across a reference to a piece that essayist and thinker Loren Eiseley, whom I knew only from his wonderful, wistful essay "The Brown Wasps", had written on Dunsany, but despite my best efforts I was never able to locate it.

Flash forward twenty-seven years, and while browsing a shelf at the local Barnes & Noble I see a two-volume set of Eiseley's collected essays, just out from Library of America. And so, checking the indexes, I find three references to Dunsany and one to Tolkien.

It turns out I was in pursuit of a bibliographic ghost, in that Eiseley seems not to have written a piece about Dunsany but instead to have referred to him occasionally to make a point. And checking those references, it immediately becomes apparent that Eiseley had a good deal of respect for Dunsany as a thinker — an aspect of Ld D's work that would have been familiar at the time of his early fame (roughly the first decade and a half of his career) but has dropped out of the collective consciousness, even among those who read Dunsany for his literary gifts. *

The first Dunsany reference comes in Chapter Eight: "The Inner Galaxy" in a 1969 book THE UNEXPECTED UNIVERSE. After describing the connection he felt with a wild bird he saw each day, and the sense of loss when one day it was gone, Eiseley notes that such feelings wd have been considered "meaningless, as the harsh Victorian Darwinists would have understood it or even, equally, those harsh modern materialists of whom Lord Dunsany once said: 'It is very seldom that the same man knows much of science, and about the things that were known before ever science came'." (Eiseley volume I page 373).

The second quote comes from THE LOST NOTEBOOKS, a posthumous 1987 collection, in notes for an unwritten essay: "[life] has to have some kind of unofficial assurance of nature's stability . . . wasps and migratory birds . . . had an old contract, an old promise, never broken** till man began to interfere with things, that nature, in degree, is steadfast and continuous . . . [Life] has nature's promise — a guarantee that has not been broken in four billion years that the universe has a queer kind of rationality and expectedness about it. Lord Dunsany says, 'If we change too much we may no longer fit into the scheme of things; but the glow-worm shows no signs of making any change.' (Patches of Sunlight, p. 25).   (Eiseley volume I page 446).

The third and final Dunsany reference occurs in context with the Tolkien reference, from a piece called "The Illusion of the Two Cultures" that had appeared in Eiseley's final book THE STAR THROWER (1978) and appears here as the last essay in this two-volume set. This was, of course, a topic of great interest to Barfield, who devoted one of his most accessible books, WORLDS APART (1963), to an exploration of the 'two cultures' debate.  Eiseley's piece focuses on fear of imagination, and frames the argument in terms I think Tolkien wd have been comfortable with (though JRRT uses the image of 'The Machine' rather than 'tool/ technic'):

". . . the human realm is denied in favor of the world of pure technics. Man, the tool user, grows convinced that he is himself only useful as a tool, that fertility except in the use of the scientific imagination is wasteful and without purpose, even, in some indefinable way, sinful. I was reading J. R. R. Tolkien's great symbolic trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, a few months ago, when a young scientist of my acquaintance paused and looked over my shoulder. After a little casual interchange the man departed leaving an accusing remark hovering in the air between us. 'I wouldn't waste my time with a man who writes fairy stories.' He might as well have added, 'or with a man who reads them.'
   As I went back to my book I wondered vaguely in what leafless landscape one grew up without Hans Christian Andersen, or Dunsany, or even Jules Verne. There lingered about the young man's words a puritanism which seemed the more remarkable because . . . it was unmotivated by any sectarian religiosity unless a total dedication to science brings to some minds a similar authoritarian desire to shackle the human imagination."

A little more poking revealed that Eiseley reviewed two of Tolkien's books: TREE & LEAF (cf. West's TOLKIEN CHECKLIST p. 45) and THE RETURN OF THE KING. The former clearly informed his comments on the latter (see below). I don't remember seeing Eiseley's LotR review, but the following excerpt from it appears as a blurb in some old paperback editions of THE HOBBIT:

"The great tale of wonder, like the great novel, is not a preoccupation of children . . . the adult mind has, if anything, greater need of fantasy than that of the child. . . . In The Lord of the Rings a whole Secondary World is created and successfully sustained through three large volumes. These are sure to remain Tolkien's life work, and are certainly destined to outlast our time" (New York Herald Tribune Book Week)

There's also an interesting passage re. C. S. Lewis in the essay immediately preceding this one, but I'll save that for another post.


—current reading and re-reading: the latest Rivers of London novel by Ban Aaronovitch; JRRT's A SECRET VICE (ed. Fimi & Higgins).

*which were extraordinary. As I've said often before, I rate Dunsany as the best writer of fantasy short stories in the language, the peer of Borges and Kafka — and his influence on fantasy is second only to Tolkien's.

**here I think Eiseley is right in the main but wd like to see him take into account Extinction Level Events, which have the tendency to abruptly change those rules.


Magister said...

Speaking of Dunsany -- this may be of some interest:

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Magister

That is indeed big news, and worthy of a post in itself.
I'll be ordering a copy for myself right away.
--John R.