Escape from Progress

“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.

Monsters do not Depart

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.[1]   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.

Fighting the Long 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.”[1]  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”[2] 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.[3]   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”.[4]  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.”[5]  From progressive Social Darwinists, to British dance bands, to Presidents, the belief that things are destined to get better is deeply ingrained in society.

Of Homely Houses and Dangerous Dwellings

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.

Concerning my blog title

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?