“They have not got the wit to admire
A dragon’s song or colour,
Nor heart to kill him brave and quick –
The world is getting duller!”
“The world is getting duller!” (Anderson and Tolkien 311) So laments Tolkien, through the voice of the green dragon after reluctantly destroying the village of Bimble Town. Tales and Songs of Bimble Town is a series of six poems written by Tolkien in the 1920s and 1930s (Drout 546-547). The residents of this town are presented by Tolkien as being aggressively mundane. They are in desperate need of the escape, recovery, and consolation offered in his work On Fairy-Stories. The Bimble Town residents, or Bimble Townians, if I may coin a demonym, do not realize the situation they are in. They are prisoners of their banality. In a similar way that Lewis’s That Hideous Strength is a fictionalization of The Abolition of Man, I believe that Tales and Songs of Bimble Town presents the reader with a fictionalization of On Fairy-Stories.
Confession: I’m sure this is a fantastic album and that the musicians are doing fancy things with time signatures that I could only dream of, but their talent exceeds my ability to appreciate it. This is mostly experimental jazz recorded live in 1962 at the Newport Jazz Festival. The opening track is 10:45 long and titled “Undecided,” as in “I don’t know what we just played, so this title is kinda undecided. The album jacket says that the beat is kept by “an adaptable, swinging drummer who possesses a fine ear.” While I’m sure this is true, it sounded to me like he was playing his own song in another room. There was one point of the song where one of the trumpets thought his impromptu solo was over and blew a note but good ol’ Roy just kept drumming and you can hear one of the guys laugh. The whole album is like that. The bass player seems to be playing twice as fast as everyone else and the brass just does its own thing, baby. Like I said, I’m sure this is better than I’m giving it credit for. It needs a more sophisticated listener.
I’ll summarize with another quote from the album jacket. “The charge has sometime been leveled at jazz festivals – sometimes justifiably, too – that they’re nothing but a rehash of what every aware jazz fan has heard many times before. Certainly much of this record refutes that charge, insofar as Newport is concerned. Instead, it reveals quite clearly that some pretty fine, unrehearsed, spontaneous jazz does get blown there.”
Unrehearsed and spontaneous indeed.
“Are we going on a heist?”
That’s the first thing that popped in my mind when the needle dropped. The first few measures had me thinking this might be the soundtrack to Ocean’s 11-13. Thankfully it is not a full album of swingin’ 60’s Vegas music. Instead, it is a nicely balanced big band bossa nova album that focuses heavily on Zentner’s trombone. This is a stereo mix from an era where sound engineers liked to experiment with the sound stage and over separate the channels. The result is something that sounds fantastic on headphones, but the imaging through speakers is a little on the harsh side. The biggest surprise on the album for me was the song “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” which translates to “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps.” I’d first heard that song on Cake’s Fashion Nugget CD and I didn’t know it was a remake of a standard.
Overall, this was a pleasant album and makes for good evening background music.
The year is 1854. London is in the middle of yet another cholera outbreak. There had been one in 1832, and another five years earlier in 1849 that killed 14,137 Londoners. Mostly women and children. Cholera is a nasty thing. People suffering from cholera experience watery diarrhea that can lead to severe dehydration. This results in sunken in eyes, cold skin, and turning blue. In addition, it may also cause vomiting and muscle cramps and as seen above, death. The germ theory had not been established yet – Louis Pasteur would not propose it until seven years later in 1861 – and instead people held to the miasma theory, which held that somehow “bad air” was to blame. It certainly was not the slaughter houses and grease boiling dens lining the streets, or the overrunning cesspools underneath the cellars. Doing what governments do, the London authorities wisely dealt with the cesspool problem by pumping the sewage into the Thames. Problem solved. Miasma theory is, incidentally, the same theory that proposed one could become obese by smelling too much food. Thankfully, none of this sounded quite right to an epidemiologist named John Snow. Dr. Snow decided to do something quite radical for the time. Rather than fearing sinister “bad air”, Dr. Snow wanted to approach the problem with data. He decided that he needed to collect data, and then analyze that data. When Dr. Snow had gathered the information, he did something else that was revolutionary. He put his data onto a map, creating a visual chart of his data. Dr. Snow was an early data analyst. Was Dr. Snow, the budding data scientist successful in his efforts? We’ll come back to Dr. Snow and the dear old London at the end of this paper.
While Tolkien stated that he was not so diligent as to have read all the books written about Beowulf, he was nevertheless certainly among the most learned scholars on the poem. This was particularly clear in his treatment of the critics of Beowulf in his 1939 lecture to the British Academy One prominent idea Tolkien brought forward in his lecture was that the poet was writing at a time in history where Scandinavian paganism was being fused with medieval Christianity. Instead of rejecting the Northern pagan stories, the stories were, in a sense, baptized by Christianity without becoming explicitly gospel-oriented. In Beowulf, the monsters become the enemies of God. Beowulf himself becomes essentially a pre-Christian warrior battling against the forces of evil. Tolkien is interested in this fusion, and particularly about how the Northern will, of courage in the face of defeat, harmonizes with the Christian idea of “good” not always triumphing over evil in the mortal world. The idea of nobility in the face of temporal defeat frequently makes its way into the fiction of Tolkien and is an overarching theme in The Silmarillion. Considering that Middle-earth is ostensibly a pre-Christian legend of our earth, it seems to fit that Tolkien would gift his heroes with a baptized, yet not explicitly Christian ethos which stresses the importance of virtuous, brave behavior in the face of certain defeat.
The myth of human progress is one of the most resilient and pervasive beliefs of the modern time. Early versions of this myth could be seen hundreds of years ago. Herbert Spencer was a Victorian era sociologist who applied the principles of evolution to society. He taught that “the belief in human perfectibility merely amounts to a belief that, in virtue of this process, man will eventually become completely suited to his mode of life.” The process of evolution, according to Spencer, must end with humanity being ultimately evolved, progressing to a point where they are perfected. After bringing the United States into the First World War because “the world must be made safe for democracy” President Woodrow Wilson lobbied for the creation of the League of Nations believing that a peaceful community of nations could usher in a utopian society. History has shown the naiveté that the League of Nations represented, with disastrous results. Even pop culture believed that the general motion of humanity was upward. In the song, Right Here, Right Now by Jesus Jones, released in 1990, ironically on September 11, the British pop band expresses joy at the apparent revolutionary evolution of mankind. “I was alive and I waited for this/ Right here, right now/ There is no other place I want to be/ Watching the world wake up from history”. In the 2016 presidential cycle, President Trump won based largely on the sentiment that if elected he will “bring [America] back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again.” From progressive Social Darwinists, to British dance bands, to Presidents, the belief that things are destined to get better is deeply ingrained in society.
An unsuspecting hobbit is minding his own business, smoking his pipe while standing outside on a glorious morning when an unexpected wizard in a blue hat arrives and sets in motion a fantastic and perilous adventure. A curious little girl and her siblings are exploring a stately English country home when she stumbles through the coats in a wardrobe and finds herself in a magical world of talking animals and terrible dangers. In the first few pages of The Hobbit and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the reader is presented with both the familiar and the fantastic. Tolkien and Lewis both do a masterful job in these stories of weaving the mundane and the magnificent together in compelling ways.
A love of stories is knitted into the fabric of humanity. Storytelling transcends cultures and epochs. Bedtime stories are told to breathless children waiting to hear what comes next. Scary stories are told in hushed tones around camp fires in the woods. Love stories are told by poets to star crossed lovers. War stories are told by veterans to their grandchildren. With stories being ubiquitous, it seems odd that so few people stop to ask “what exactly is a story?” A similar thought troubled C. S. Lewis enough that he wrote an essay, “On Stories” which examines the definition of a story and ruminates on what makes a story good. Towards the end of the essay, Lewis distills his premise into the following two sentences. “To be stories at all they must be a series of events: but it must be understood that this series—the plot, as we call it—is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality. Giantship, otherness, the desolation of space, are examples that have crossed our path” (17). In Out of the Silent Planet, it is as if Lewis gives the reader an object lesson in how he believes one should approach the art of storytelling. For Lewis, there needs to be more than excitement for excitement’s sake. There needs to be a pleasure that comes from deep imagination, from experiencing a sense of “otherness.” While Lewis describes several examples of this in his essay that are also demonstrated in Out of the Silent Planet, I will focus on three that the book exemplifies particularly well.
One or two people have asked me what my blog title means. The simple answer is that it was taken from a traveling song in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” It is sung on various occasions, most notably by Bilbo when he leaves the Shire after his 111th birthday party and by Frodo as he begins his travels.
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
This song captures how I feel about my life right now. The imagery of being on a journey, knowing that the path I’m on is part of a bigger road, as well as the uncertainty about where exactly that road leads is all very powerful to me. I also like the way that it acknowledges that life isn’t compartmentalized into nice, neat little pockets. Many paths and errands meet on the one road. They are all an integral part of the journey and play a role in the larger story. There are no isolated incidents.
I should also say that Tolkien quotes will probably be fairly common if I take up writing for this blog again. LOTR is one of my favorite stories and I find myself referring to it quite often. I place this work alongside “The Brothers Karamazov” as one of the greatest novels ever written.
Question – For those of you who have blogs, how did you come up with the title? What does it say about you?