Thursday, February 11, 2010

Would I Have Liked Them?

The Letters of JRR Tolkien was fascinating but a little disturbing. Because letters to intimates are by definition the revealing of a less-public face, some observations of Tolkien’s seem harsh, even a little rude. There are observations about Lewis that would be rude if he had published them in the Times, certainly. Tolkien’s estimations of Americans and Protestants seem hasty and poorly founded (though doubtless shared by others close to him).

We may suppose there were other letters which were more damning. Criticisms of one relative or close friend made to another are likely left out for good reason. I am glad to be spared them, whatever morbid curiosity I might have. One’s conversation with intimates is much nearer to one’s own personal thoughts, and there are statements I might make to commenters akafred or Michael, or even more my two oldest sons, which I would never enter here. (And though what I write here is technically accessible by every sentient being in the universe, I am a bit more open here because as a practical matter, the audience is small. Were I a public figure or planning to be one, I would likely be even more guarded.) Tolkien would never have said those things about Lewis or Americans or Protestants to me directly. I only listen in.

Yet the nature of the criticisms is revealing of some real observations of Tolkien's and of some real inner attitudes of his. I had the growing sense as I read along that I might not like a conversation with Lewis or Tolkien so much as I imagine. These are my heroes, two of the first people I would invite to my dinner party of historical figures. That they might not like me I accepted as a matter of course. That I could sit at the Bird and Baby with them and fifteen minutes in, decide one or both was irritating, had never occurred to me. Congeniality of thought is not automatically congeniality of manner.

I draw that disquiet out further. What if I didn't like Jesus? What if, even knowing that He is God incarnate, I were to travel among the disciples and find that his personality grates? It would be painful, knowing that the disjoint must be my own and not his, but that might not prevent irritation from growing. What would we do trapped in such a situation, with suppressed comments occasionally escaping in frustration, or real resentment burning?

We'd be pretty much like the actual disciples, I suppose, or likely worse. The ignorant, arrogant, or irritated comments they made are in fact our own thoughts. It is likely that each of them at some time or another intensely disliked Jesus and resented what he said. As would we. In meditative prayer we fly to the Heavenly Bosom (A JB Phillips reference); in the flesh we might have fled elsewhere.


Elizabeth L. Crain said...

Yes, Tolkien can seem quite cranky in the "Letters." I don't think he ever set foot in America, and he seemed to believe it was all one paved-over deforested Mordor. Nor did he care much for American English, saying it sounded like the English language being filtered through a dirty rag. He was rather dismissive of female students, also. (One of his Oxford students, Diana Wynne Jones, is an author I am currently reading my way through.)

It would be very hard to spend an evening with JRRT and Lewis, I think, much as their work has meant to me. The artist is not the art. The art comes from a higher mind. The artist is a flawed vessel with bunions, bad digestion, and family problems. Ursula LeGuin wrote (I should go look it up, but dinner's about ready) that she had given up trying to meet living authors because (paraphrased) "here's this man whose book changed your life, and he has shifty eyes and funny shoes and all he can talk about is taxes, etc. etc."

What we do get from the *Letters* is some wonderful insight about Frodo.

Anonymous said...

Enlightening and disturbing to me was the observation over several years of meeting authors that the authors whose work I didn't like were generally nice people and the authors whose work I did like generally weren't nice people. Faced with lying to others or myself, I stopped talking to authors.