Language of Beauty – part 1: Glory and SplendorPETER KREEFT
One of the threads that I'd like to start talking about has a number of names: glory, splendor, hierarchy, height, formality.
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
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."  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:
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
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,
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?
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.
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.
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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