Friday, 2 March 2007

Tolkien and a changing world

At church on Sunday, someone gave me a copy of a biography of Tolkien (Michael White, Tolkien: a Biography, Abacus) on the grounds that I might be interested. So far I'm about the third of the way through. It's a reasonable and readable stab at explaining the man and his background and several thoughts have emerged as I have read it.

What struck me most of all was perhaps the way in which White has to spend an awful lot of time explaining Tolkien and his world. So matters cultural and historical that I had assumed could be taken for granted are expanded upon. In fact White is right: speaking as a teacher, I now increasingly realise that we cannot take anything for granted. Indeed, let me state Walley’s Rule of Contemporary Education: ‘There is no piece of knowledge that we can safely assume that the modern British schoolchild actually knows.’ Two weeks ago, I had a an apparently well-educated student aged 18 for whom the concept of the water cycle (rain, rivers, sea and evaporation, and round again) was a total novelty. And then she wasn't even ashamed. Another student, albeit at a somewhat lower academic level, displayed a similar lack of embarrassment when when given a blank map of Europe. 'Which way is up?' she asked.

Anyway, White does all the explaining you could wish. And I found it a reminder that the world of Tolkien (and C. S Lewis who so far is coming out very well in the biography) has now all but gone.

Not of course in a physical sense. Much of ‘collegiate’ Oxford is very much as it was then. But culturally, the world has shifted a long way. So for instance, it is very hard to imagine the Inklings; a happy little gathering of vaguely boozy literary men apparently existing without the slightest hint of homosexuality. Or a world in which it was remotely possible for a child at school to be allowed to study Middle English. This sense of distance is heightened because both Tolkien and Lewis were very backward looking people, shunning modern technology and self-consciously aware that they were the dinosaurs that had overstayed their allotted time.

It is undeniable that in the last 30 years there had been changes so fundamental in Britain that one struggles to find parallels. The Norman invasion of 1066? But then, that simply replaced one the language of rule from Anglo-Saxon to French. I doubt many people really noticed; the clergy presumably kept on speaking Latin and the general Christian tone of the culture probably stayed much the same. What has happened here strikes me as much more like the days of the Old Testament when Israel was taken into exile under the Babylonians. It is a wholesale cultural shift, and one of which we have only so far perhaps seen the beginning.

The most significant change is, without doubt, the loss of the Christian consensus. Tolkien and Lewis lived in the twilight of the Christian West. Lewis of course recognised it and ‘railed against the dying of the light’. That loss has led to other losses and with it has come the dissolution of much that was achieved in the 1500 years or so of Christianity's dominance in Britain. Let me just list a few things that, although they may be subscribed to are now being trampled over: the sense of being accountable to God, the value of the individual, the objectivity of truth, the importance of doing right over pragmatism, the absolute nature of evil and the value of history. I could go on. Modernity or post modernity (or whatever we are to title post Post-Modernity) has ploughed under much that was vital.

It is easy to be pessimistic. Yet the curious thing is that the very popularity of Tolkien's work actually gives the lie to much of what modernity proclaims. In reading Lord of the Rings we sense the terrible peril that hangs over Middle Earth, because we do believe that if Sauron were to rule things would be very much worse. We all value and rejoice in episodes of heroism and nobility, and we are all disgusted by cowardice and treachery. Although we may subscribe to cultural relativism, when it comes to Middle Earth we believe in evil and good. The popularity of the virtues and values proclaimed in Lord of the Rings are a reminder that the relativism of the present is likely to be a temporary - if terrible - thing.