Language of Beauty – part 1: Glory and Splendor

PETER KREEFT

One of the threads that I'd like to start talking about has a number of names: glory, splendor, hierarchy, height, formality.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Those words are not modern or familiar or informal, they're not popular in our culture, and yet they contribute not only to beauty, but to joy, to happiness, to a deep human fulfillment. If we're created for royal glory, then royal glory will fulfill us, however unfashionable it is ideologically.

Well, there's a lot of things in the Lord of the Rings that reflect that glory. They include exalted, Elvish things, but they also include humble, Hobbit-like things. But it takes words and language to reveal them. Without language, there's no light shining on that glory. Language doesn't just express the glory, language somehow incarnates the glory, so much so that it's not clear whether it's the glory of the things that justifies the glory of the words, or vice versa: the glory of the words that justifies the glory of the things. It can be shown but not demonstrated.

In one of Tolkien's letters he says

the meaning of fine words… [fine, especially for the English, I think, means not just precise, but great, perfect, glorious] the meaning of fine words cannot be made 'obvious', least of all to adults, who have stopped listening to the sound because they think they know the meaning. [That's a deadly separation, and that accounts for bad Bible translations all over the place.] They think the word argent 'means' silver. [The dictionary says so.] It does not. It and silver have a reference to x, or the chemical Ag, but in each case x is clothed in a totally different phonetic incarnation, x + y or x + z; and these do not have the same meaning, not only because they sound different and so arouse different emotional responses, but also because they are not in fact used … in the same way. We must learn to appreciate the intrinsic heraldic overtones that a word like argent has, in addition to its on peculiar sound, which the word 'silver' does not have. I think that this writing down, flattening, Bible-in-basic-English attitude is responsible for the fact that so many older children and younger people have little respect and no love for words, and very limited vocabularies. [1]

One of the most depressing things anybody ever said to me was after I assigned, I think it was G. K. Chesterton, and I expect, often, reactions on the part of students to Chesterton. People often don't like him. One said, "He makes me feel like an idiot." I didn't say anything... But this student said, "This man treats words as a juggler treats balls." I said, "That's exactly right." He said, "I hate it. I hate jugglers." I said, "Well, I understand … we all hate pantomimes, mimes, for some reason or other, and jugglers are close to that, so …" – I tried to sympathize – he said, "No, you don't understand." He said, "You live with words, with books. For many of us" (this was back in the sixties or seventies) "for many of us, words are the enemy." Words are the enemy? That's like saying air is your enemy. He was serious: Words are our enemies. Terrifying sentence.

C. S. Lewis saw the Lord of the Rings as a near miracle largely because of its style, its high, heraldic style. That review of volume one that I quoted last time, I'll just quote two sentences from it again to remind you: "This book is lightning from a clear sky. … The names alone are a feast. … They embody that piercing, high Elvish beauty which no other prose writer has captured so much. … Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart." [2] As I mentioned last time, and forgot the reference, here is Lewis's little quatrain that is a great principle of literary criticism – he judges books by their power to break hearts:

Have you not seen that in our days
Of any whose story, song or art
Delights us, our sincerest praise
Means, when all's said, 'You break my heart'? [3]

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis defined a great book as one that elicits great reading and defined great reading as conjuring up great literary experiences such as wonder and joy and glory.

And this is exactly why Tolkien says he wrote The Lord of the Rings. I quote from the forward to the second edition, p. xvi. "The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them." We're moved by The Lord of the Rings. That's a power that's very mysterious, has a lot to do with the style.

Going back to Lewis again, Lewis explains the power of this high style, especially in epic. In his book A Preface to Paradise Lost (which, most people who read it are embarrassed to confess, they think is better than Paradise Lost itself) Lewis is speaking of poetry, especially Milton's poetry, but what he says is also true of epic prose like Tolkien's, even more in the Silmarillion, of course. Lewis says epic is

the loftiest and gravest among the kinds of court poetry …, a poetry about nobles, made for nobles and performed … by nobles. We shall go endlessly astray if we do not get well fixed in our minds at the outset the picture of a venerable figure, a king, a great warrior, or a poet inspired by the Muse, seated and chanting to the harp a poem on high matters before an assembly of nobles in a court. … From its earliest association with the heroic court there comes into Epic Poetry a quality … which we moderns find difficult to understand. … This quality will be understood by any one who really understands the meaning of the Middle English word solempne. This means something different, but not totally different, from the Modern English solemn. Like solemn, solempne implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn, it does not suggest gloom, oppression or austerity. … A great mass by Mozart or Beethoven is as much a solemnity in its hilarious gloria as in its poignant crucifixus est. Feasts, in this sense, are more solemn than fasts. … The very fact that the word pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of 'solemnity'. … In an age in which everyone puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must reawaken the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connection with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar's head at a Christmas feast – all these wear unusual clothes, and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean they are vain; it means they are obedient. … The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; instead, it proves the offender's inability to forget himself in the rite. … We moderns may like dances that are hardly distinguishable from walking, and poetry which sounds as if it might be uttered ex tempore. Our ancestors did not. They liked a dance which was a dance, and fine clothes which no one could mistake for working clothes, and feasts that no one could mistake for ordinary dinners, and poetry that unblushingly proclaimed itself to be poetry. What is the point in having a poet inspired by the muse, if he tells the stories just as you or I would have told them?

I wonder what Lewis would have said if he had become a Roman Catholic and had lived long enough to witness our liturgical holocaust. He goes on,

The grandeur which the poet assumes in his poetic capacity should not arouse such a hostile reaction; it is for our benefit. He makes his epic a rite so that we may share it. The more ritual it becomes, the more we are elevated to the rank of participants. [4]

Well, Tolkien does this even in the rather familiar, rather hobbit-like, rather – I can't say 'ordinary'; I certainly can't say 'pedestrian' – simple and accessible language of The Lord of the Rings. There are countless stock phrases, calculated to produce stock responses, which our ideology frowns on, but our hearts don't. When he defines Glorfindel, for instance. Let's see if I can find the passage. I remember having an argument with students about this; some loved it and some hated it. Oh. Oh, could you read it for us?

Glorfindel was tall and straight. His hair was of shining gold, his face fair and young and fearless and full of joy. His eyes were bright and keen, and his voice like music. On his brow sat wisdom, and in his hand was strength. [5]

Yeah. Notice the reverse word order of the last sentence. Instead of "wisdom sat on his brow," "on his brow sat wisdom." Most people do not like at all one translation of the Bible which I like very much: Ronald Knox's, because he habitually uses reversed word order, especially in the Psalms, for heraldic and high things. I was appalled by the fact that that was a sentence a number of students picked out as one of the worst sentences in the book. Stereotype, they said. No, archetype. They don't believe in archetypes. It's so un-Plato. What do they teach them in the schools nowadays? Well, here's an aspect of beauty. It's not an aspect in The Lord of the Rings, but it's one of those aspects that's healing to our spirit because we don't get it from our culture, and we need it and we find it here.



Endnotes
:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), Letter 134, to Jane Neave, 22 November 1961.
  2. C. S. Lewis, in Time and Tide (August 1954), p. 1082. Reprinted in C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection.
  3. C. S. Lewis, Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1992), p. 133.
  4. C. S. Lewis, A Preface to "Paradise Lost" (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), pp. 17, 21.
  5. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982), p. 139.

Read part 1 of this talk here.
Read part 2 of this talk here.
Read part 3 of this talk here.
Read part 4 of this talk here.
Read part 5 of this talk here.

 

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Peter Kreeft. "Language of Beauty – part 1: Glory and Splendor." transcribed from a talk given at Trinity Forum Academy (June 6, 2005).

This talk based on ideas contained in Peter Kreeft's book The Philosophy of Tolkien.

This article is reprinted with permission from Peter Kreeft.

THE AUTHOR

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.

He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2011 Peter Kreeft




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